The C is for Crank

Seattle's Carmageddon: A Prediction

By Erica C. Barnett September 22, 2011

So remember how, when I-405 was set to shut down for one weekend through Los Angeles media predicted (to quote, for just one example, Reuters), a "traffic jam of Biblical proportions"? And how the opposite actually happened? (Whoops!)

As the NYT wrote: "People in Los Angeles woke up Saturday to something many had rarely, if ever, seen: empty streets."

Where did all the drivers go? They chose alternate routes, took the bus, chose alternatives like bicycling, combined trips, or stayed at home.

A similar scenario is currently playing out in Seattle. The state Department of Transportation (WSDOT) plans to close down the Alaskan Way Viaduct for nine days, starting one month from now. In response, the media, ever compliant with the everyone-must-drive narrative, has predicted chaos. To give a few examples:

The Seattle Times: "Oct. Viaduct Work to Hurt Westside Commuters Worst"

KING-5: "Viaduct Closure Next Month: Everyone Will Be Affected"

KIRO TV: "Officials: Even If You Don't Use Alaskan Way Viaduct, Prepare For Closure"

Puget Sound Business Journal: "October viaduct shutdown to slam Seattle commuters"

And from WSDOT itself: "Drivers across the Puget Sound region will see increased congestion as the nearly 110,000 vehicles that use the viaduct daily look for somewhere else to go."

Some perspective is in order. In 2001, before the Nisqually earthquake, the viaduct carried 110,000 vehicles per day. After the earthquake, it carried 80,000. Where did all those drivers go? They chose alternate routes, took the bus, chose alternatives like bicycling, combined trips, or stayed at home.

Which is why I'm not especially worried about Seattle Carmageddon 2011. Despite all the dire warnings, people consistently prove that they're smarter than the engineering models give them credit for---when faced with the prospect of a gridlocked highway, they choose alternatives. Would it be better if we had more alternatives, including more frequent bus service or west-side light rail ? Of course. But people are smart and adaptable enough to identify alternatives to sitting in rush-hour traffic while the viaduct is closed, and that's enough to convince me that Seattle, like even more car-dependent LA, won't suffer from a 2011 Carmageddon.
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