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Why Carmaggedon never comes – Seattle edition (cityobservatory.org)
86 points by erentz 29 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 75 comments



This article provides weak arguments and no data to back up its claims. The reason "total gridlock" hasn't happened is as simple as the city, businesses, and individuals enacting different timings/routes/operations to avoid issues. Both people and businesses are taking on those pains with the knowledge that these inconveniences are temporary, and that they can return to their normal way of life in a few weeks.

Just to provide one example, the Port of Seattle is opening freight activity at 5am instead of the usual 7am (https://www.king5.com/article/news/local/tunnel-effect/how-t...). Some terminals are opening 3 hours early (https://mynorthwest.com/1231341/port-of-seattle-viaduct-clos...).

Other things are in place temporarily as well - for example ferries that don't service commuter routes are temporarily operating as water taxis. There are extra temporary park and ride lots set up in some locations. And on a personal level, I have time-shifted and even cancelled some of my activities and trips to minimize the time I spend in otherwise worse traffic.

There is a cost to adapting to these circumstances - reduced quality of life, increased inconveniences, etc. Just because it is hard to measure doesn't mean it isn't happening. Frankly, assuming otherwise and boldly making claims that roads are unnecessary seems incompetent or purposefully biased.


> The reason "total gridlock" hasn't happened is as simple as the city, businesses, and individuals enacting different timings/routes/operations to avoid issues.

This is the claim of the article.


Yes, but as OP mentions, the article totally discounts any negative affects to QOL.


Explaining how changes to transportation patterns effect quality of life in general was way outside the scope of the article. It’s claim was limited and it argued it well: road closures don’t necessarily cause traffic congestion. It’s unclear if to me if less automobile throughput is a net positive or negative to quality of life, but that’s a separate discussion.


I don't think it is a separate discussion. King County's transportation district is extremely poorly run and cost overages are in the billions. The governing body is appointed and accountable to no one.

If people were given a realistic estimate of the costs, both financial and quality of life, I think there would have been a drastically different outcome.


Which “transportation district” do you mean?

All of them I know of are run by people who have to stand for election so they are accountable to the voters who put them there.


Are you talking about an outcome different than the replacement tunnel? What alternative do you have in mind?

Personally, I live in the South Sound and I would love alternatives that would allow me to visit the city without the hassle of bringing my car.


This article is a cousin to the other HN favorite, that building roads just creates more demand (which is suggested to make building roads seem futile). Both seem to miss the point that personal vehicular travel maximizes many individuals’ utility functions. It requires less time waiting for public options, it’s point-to-point, and generally more comfortable and private. Why is it assumed that less personal vehicle travel is objectively superior?


City Observatory is a publication that lobbies for urbanism. So you have to take that into context when considering their argument.

Their argument is not that removing roads doesn't reduce quality of life – their argument is that cities _adapt_ and that tearing away infrastructure for cars in favor of housing and "human-scale" neighborhoods won't necessarily result in doom and gloom.

Of course removing a highway will result in some temporary issues. But cities are living organisms and they can adapt. America is after all a free-market economy. If a road trip to a faraway store becomes inconvenient, a new store will open in due time. If it becomes impractical to drive around, neighborhoods will reconfigure to serve customers within walking distance. And if a hypothetical highway closing permanently were to cause single-car commutes to become impractical, companies will respond by moving offices, encouraging telework, and subsidizing public transit commutes.

We all think we need our cars, but somehow the majority of commuters in cities outside the United States manages to commute via public transit just fine.


This is basically the Invisible Hand, and I don't see it. Seattle (at least anywhere within 30 minutes of downtown) is being taken over by tech workers making huge salaries. They're building condos, not stores. The stores that are being built are high-revenue specialty stores, like cannabis.

When transportation becomes impractical, it first becomes impractical from the bottom (like artists and service workers) -- the rich will always find a way, whether it's paying hundreds of dollars a month (no exaggeration) for parking, or using delivery services for every meal.

This isn't causing grocery stores to be built and public transit to be improved. It's pushing everyone making less than $100K to pack up and move 30 miles away. High-paid tech workers often get subsidized transit, but most other jobs do not.

Seattle is turning into Manhattan, only without any of the services (everything shuts down at night!) that allow Manhattan to work. Even apart from the temporary 99 closure, this is not sustainable.


It's illegal to build multi-family housing in 95% of Seattle's residential area; that's not a very invisible hand.


Having lived American and carless in both a European and Asian city, it really is a trade off.

Public transportation is a nice to have, especially getting to the airport. Inner city transport is still a PITA, I prefered biking (Lausanne) or taxis (Beijing) to maintain my quality of life. “If I had to” it would work for sure, but it will still mean giving something up vs personal transportation.


The zoning reform that would legalize compact mixed-use neighborhoods could happen right now if people wanted it. One of the main objections is that car infrastructure is already oversaturated. After reducing road capacity, proposals to i.e. legalize shops and offices in currently residential zones would become even less politically viable.


Possibly, but I don't believe that the 99 closure is a good test of this.

- We know it's only temporary, and we knew about it ahead of time. It can be easy to put off many types of errands, or work from home (lots of tech workers here), for a little while. That doesn't mean it's sustainable.

- They've upped the water taxi routes for the closure (but not buses, AFAICT?), and they're taking hundreds more passengers per day. That's not going to last. Adding more public transit options permanently would be fantastic, but apparently that's not a sustainable option, either.

- A lot of commutes are being time-shifted. The rule of thumb I've been hearing is "Double your normal transportation time". That's a significant cost. I know of people leaving home early, and then sitting in the parking lot because their workplace isn't even open yet. There's a huge number of person-hours being wasted just to deal with this added constraint.

- I seem to recall hearing that the vehicle accident rate was up this week. Based on the wrecks I've seen and the sirens I've heard (I'm hearing some right now), I believe it.

- The Google traffic map only shows speeds down to "Slow" ("stop and go", claims this article), but that still covers a wide spectrum. There's 3-block section near me that Google says is orange-to-red on a typical weekday at 4-6pm, but I avoid it entirely because it literally takes 45 minutes to drive down those 3 blocks. (Personally, I'd call that "gridlock".) Google Traffic is probably designed to tell you what regions to avoid as a driver, not as a statistical analysis of traffic volume.

What other real-world costs are not visible on a simple color-coded traffic map?


> There's 3-block section near me that Google says is orange-to-red on a typical weekday at 4-6pm, but I avoid it entirely because it literally takes 45 minutes to drive down those 3 blocks.

Howell St towards I-5? Basically impossible. Everyone zips down Boren from Capitol Hill and jumps in front of the line.


Running more buses when 99 is closed is probably not a good idea since...they all have to go local with the cars and it will look like a Seahawks game getting out continuously. Going with water taxis is a good idea.


Yes, people can adapt to having less mobility. That doesn’t mean mobility is useless or that removing it is without harm.

People deciding to stay home because getting around is too much hassle isn’t a victory condition.


The real question is not about whether mobility is valuable or not, it is about how valuable it is. When it comes to infrastructure development, we throw tons of other people's money at the problem, but if drivers were paying their full costs via gas taxes and congestion charges, how much demand would there be? This article suggests that driving demand is a lot more elastic than we like to claim.


Can't you make this argument against any public service?

We throw a bunch of other people's money at K12. I suspect most families would buy fewer years of schooling if they paid the true cost.

We throw a bunch of other people's money at the military. If people had to pay the true cost of America's autonomy, they'd suck it up and learn Russian.

The compelling cost argument, IMO, is that a subway system could offer more mobility at the same price point.


Yes, you can make that argument against any public service. And it is worth discussing for any public service. All public services have benefits, and all of them are capable of being overprovisioned.

In the context of schools, literally everybody benefits from population wide literacy and education. The benefits are diffuse enough that it is worth subsidizing...although we're probably hitting diminishing returns on the amount that we do spend. And the idea that we need to learn russian if we don't have a military 10x bigger than the rest of the world is a cold war rhetorical relic. Of course we could do with less military funding.

Cars though, are mostly a benefit to the occupant, and either a detriment to everybody around them, or entirely capable of being priced into the benefit of the goods they buy. Yes, I can afford paying $0.0025 more for a pound of apples if it means the trucking company pays their true costs. And why should we subsidize your drive in a BMW to your office when you can easily pay for the whole cost yourself, or take transit? Why should we be subsidizing cars over the much more efficient alternatives?

Cars and transit are competing forms of transportation...a vehicle mile not traveled is very often a fare paid. Car costs scale linearly with the number of people-miles driven, until congestion and space constraints hit and then costs scale exponentially. Transit costs are step fixed costs, and therefore the more riders the less they cost per person. When we subsidize car travel, it forces us to subsidize transit travel even more, because taking away riders makes transit less efficient. It should be remembered that before we started price capping transit companies and subsidizing roads, transit was one of the most profitable industries in the world. That's the power of the cost efficiency of transit.

So yes, mobility is important and roads shouldn't just go away, but the amount of roads and car infrastructure that we fund through general taxes is absolutely obscene and should be scaled back dramatically. Mobility can be much more efficiently provisioned to the public with transit.


> In the context of schools, literally everybody benefits from population wide literacy and education.

Education is more of a private good than you seem to realize. It is definitely excludable and in traditional settings it is quickly becomes rival past small groups of similarly motivated people.

Self learning is not rival, i.e. my learning of something does not prevent you from being able to learn it, but then that cannot be used to justify government provision of education.

Once one learns something, it becomes part of one's human capital and one cannot be separated from it. Hence the difference between loans for college versus mortgages.

Now, in this case, people are finding out that roads are not very public goods either (even though government entities have take over provision). First, roads are excludable. Second, they tend to also be very rival when they are most needed. The reduction in capacity highlighted their nature of quickly becoming rival.

Finally, if it people actually benefited from all the time-shifting, taking ferries instead of driving, leaving home at 5 am and sleeping in the parking lot waiting for the office to open, they all had that option before the construction began. Ergo, people are made worse off by the change no matter how they are adapting.


In a society where most of the people are barely able to read, an advanced degree isn't worth that much compared to a highly industrialized society.


Why are most people barely able to read in such a society? Do you think if there is net return to being literate, people would not be able to learn without government?


And the pedestrians and cyclists who dont have to fight drivers downtown, the children not getting asthma all benefit. Do people visit car dominated spaces by choice?


>all of them are capable of being overprovisioned.

Do you think the voters of any major city would agree that it is too easy to get from place to place?

>Mobility can be much more efficiently provisioned to the public with transit.

I think this is at least sometimes true, depending on factors like geography, density, labor costs, etc. But it's orthogonal to whether there is too much or too little mobility. You could take the efficiencies of public transport and deliver better overall mobility with the same budget. That's an easier sell for the public than "that extra hour with your kids after work is unsustainable and you don't really need it" or "having your own house in the suburbs is wasteful, share an apartment with 3 other families in the center instead."


>We throw a bunch of other people's money at K12. I suspect most families would buy fewer years of schooling if they paid the true cost.

Education is fundamentally (mostly) a positional good - what it buys is the right to be considered for white-collar jobs ahead of competitors who haven't spent as much time getting educated. Families already spend as much as they can afford in education to win this tournament, the only thing that would reduce education spending is if everyone else stopped buying as much education.


You can. But roads (the public service) are a separate concern from people moving around (private decisions).

I want the roads to be built ahead of and shaping demand. But I also want emission costs to be fully internalized be the drivers. I expect this would cut down demand for excess commuting quite sharply.

I don't mind people traveling in general, as long as we can sustainably afford it. Right now, we can't sustainably afford current levels of fossil-fueled transport.


The theme of TFA is that they are not separate. The provision of roads influences how much people move around.

What's to say we can sustainably afford current levels of public transport? Should construction costs and associated disruptions to the city be fully internalized by riders?


> What's to say we can sustainably afford current levels of public transport?

Add a full carbon tax to price of fuels, and the answer should quickly become apparent.


Cars are also major contributors to climate change and air pollution in cities, unlike schools. More cars also lead to more sprawl which leads to higher demand for cars. It's a vicious circle.


>Can't you make this argument against any public service?

>The compelling cost argument, IMO, is that a subway system could offer more mobility at the same price point.

So, yes and yes?


If the principle is that we should not spend other people's money on transportation, or that transportation users should pay the full cost of their mileage, then we shouldn't build subways either. At least not at public expense.


>if drivers were paying their full costs via gas taxes and congestion charges

The entire economy benefits from roads. You can’t reduce your dependence on roads for your own personal travel needs and then claim some sort of moral high ground.


Moving about from place to place is not inherently valuable.


It clearly has value to the people who do it when they have the chance.


That doesn't mean the value of that travel is high. In fact it means the opposite: if the travel was so valuable, people would still do it when it's more difficult.


Sure, any rational person facing austerity cuts whatever they value least. And any rational person enjoying growth can only add whatever the value low enough to not have yet.

Imagine the price of groceries rises to 100% of your wages, so you stop running the furnace. "If being warm were so valuable, you would still do it even when it means skipping a few meals."

Welfare is still harmed by austerity and boosted by growth.

A better line of argument, IMO: a denser environment would offer more value for less travel. Or, driving to a faraway discount store is only profitable because you pay 100% for manufactured goods and X < 100% for highway mileage.


I think what happens is people make a decision of the effort and risk vs the reward, like every other activity.


There are plenty of good arguments against cars, this is not one of them, this is not even remotely intellectually honest.


> If Seattle can survive for a couple of weeks without a major chunk of its freeway system, that’s a powerful indication that more modest steps to alter road capacity don’t really mean the end of the world.

That leaves out the fact that this is a three-week window that people know is temporary and have time to plan for.

After the new year everyone goes to the gym and eats better. But nobody would think of saying "if this continues until February, that's a powerful indication that obesity will soon come to an end."


I thought you were being obtuse when you used the phrase "a couple of weeks" but you read the article correctly:

> In a few weeks, much of this capacity will be replaced by a new 3 billion dollar highway tunnel under downtown Seattle

It's worded wrong. That tunnel won't be functional for years.


What do you mean? The tunnel opens next month: https://www.wsdot.wa.gov/tolling/sr-99-tunnel-tolling


What I mean is... I’m an idiot and need more sleep. Thanks for the correction.


I believe this is just another example of a well-known rule of thumb, which is that people will adjust their commute until it's just barely tolerable. In a short term disruption like this, they probably put off any trip which can be postponed for a few weeks. I wonder whether visits to downtown locations like museums are down, for example.

In longer term situations, people move where they live, or change jobs, until their commute is just barely tolerable. Moving away from the core gets you more space for the same money, working near the core often is required to get your best salary, so the compromise results in a perpetual state of annoyance-but-not-catastrophe.


I am honestly puzzled by all the comments about reduced quality of life. It sounds completely alien to me, as if I live on a different planet. I literally don't understand what you guys are talking about. The place where I live everything - shops, kid's school, entertainment and recreation - is less than 10min cycling away. Work commute is less than 1hour by train in a comfortable seat with wi-fi or a book. I do own a car but I don't depend on it for my QOL.


Imagine your train goes away and the only way to get to work is by bus. Takes twice as long, less comfortable, and the buses are overflowing because everyone is in the same situation.

Would 4 hours of commute instead of 2 infringe upon your quality of life?


Easy: just imagine your life without a train. Replace it with "standing-room only bus (no wifi), and 2 transfers each way". Or "stuck in traffic". Still seem great?

Rail is expanding in Seattle but it's slow going. West Seattle is planned for 2030, and Ballard for 2035. You don't build a rail system overnight, especially when you've got hills and oceans and lakes and existing development to contend with.

We're the fastest growing large city in America -- population is up 20% this decade. (500K to 600K took 50 years. 600K to 700K took only 7.) That's a lot of extra bodies to transport. Any city would struggle a bit with that.


It doesn't help that public transport is okay by American standards, i.e. appalling. And that because of congestion, walking and cycling are so dangerous. Police have even stopped ticketing people blocking crossings because it happens too frequently (which is the wrong thing to do). Which means the alternatives are even less appealing, which means more people drive, etc.

Of course, nothing will change as the rich people still want to drive, no matter how much they pretend to support public/alternative transport in a bid to look progressive.


The situation is worse than that; public transport in Seattle is excellent by American standards. Which is still crap.


Most people are nowhere near as fortunate as you are, to have all of that. That might be why the complaints sound so "alien".

Even if I somehow perfectly engineered my life, so that my shops and housing and employment and recreation were all right nearby each other -- there would be no way to do the same for my spouse or child or the rest of my family. And that also assumes I never ever change jobs even once (which in this economy, is effectively like taking a 10% yearly paycut).

This is why cities depend on reliable public transportation infrastructure (including freeways). It's a critical component of quality of life, as well as a requirement to make financial ends meet.


> If Seattle can survive for a couple of weeks without a major chunk of its freeway system, that’s a powerful indication that more modest steps to alter road capacity don’t really mean the end of the world.

It's a little bit of a stretch. The problems people are facing due to road closures are not measured by images of Google maps. Just because complete gridlock doesn't happen doesn't mean that people aren't having significant problems because of it. People adapt but this article provides no real way to measure the cost.


The point of this article is that people say "complete gridlock will happen", and it doesn't. (Not even close)


The point of the article in its social context is that we don't really need so much transportation capacity, so it would be okay to remove permanently. This is a blog about urban planning, not construction logistics.


The only things I've seen that causes complete gridlock in Seattle were a freak snowstorm/ice at 3pm, a butane truck closing i5 and major arteries downtown and Obama. And Obama wasn't that bad most of the time. But those were literally no one can move anywhere nor can people reparj and stop. This is know and plannable.

Seattle has a remarkable amount of work hour flexibility in the short term. They closed 90 a few years back for a week, asked 50k to stay home and iirc got around 110k who did.


Obama made me late to work twice in a two month time period, I found this amusing at the time, and still do.


Seattle is a bad example because it's always had peak congestion since 1978. It's just been bumping along for forty years at peak congestion.


Yeah, a more accurate description would be "Seattle won't notice the freeway destruction, because they've been living in constant Carmaggedon for the past 20+ years anyway"

Seattle folks are so anti-infrastructure, the commutes people have to endure there insane. Especially given how short a distance they cover.


I wonder if the panic helps prevent the congestion. They said people avoid the closed areas, but they wouldn't avoid them if they didn't already know about them.

Panic would cause awareness to skyrocket, motivating people to prevent the thing they were panicking about.

Perhaps the system is working exactly as it should.


I don't think we should underestimate the lost value these transportation arteries normally provide, but we also shouldn't overestimate it.

I often wonder why new highways / lanes of highway don't get assessed in economic terms, but I suspect much of the day-to-day work would not be justifiable in such terms.


> I often wonder why new highways / lanes of highway don't get assessed in economic terms, but I suspect much of the day-to-day work would not be justifiable in such terms.

This is so frustrating. It feels like debate around a mile of bus lanes or rail can drag on forever, but spending billions of dollars on highways just happens.


People engage with roads at a purely emotional level. They don't want new highway lanes because the cost-benefit is strong and it will boost economic activity in their area. They want new lanes because they hate traffic with a fiery passion.


If you look at the only expected traffic problem area, i5 at 90, it's much worse the gridlock is a black and deep red and stretches red a good 3/4 of a mile north and south in the right hand picture. The evening one looks horiffic knowing those maps well like I expect a major pile up to cause a map like that. I was out of town this week but looking at that chart I'm figuring out how I want to time shift Monday given how bad it looks.


Came for news of a delayed version of a cherished classic game. Severely disappointed.


Traffic is induced demand. Traffic is induced demand. Traffic is induced demand.


This whole notion of "induced demand" seems like a suspicious artificial label used to position roads as a negative. The reality is that roads provide something people want - the ability to get around quickly, on one's own terms, without dealing with waiting times or trip planning, and without some of the unsavory experiences that can sour public transit (e.g. https://www.sfgate.com/crime/article/BART-takeover-robbery-5...).

Building roads doesn't "induce" demand. Rather, it _fulfills_ demand. There is a limit to that demand - it's not like supplying infinitely more of something would infinitely scale the associated behavior. There are only so many humans and only so many trips they are willing to make in a day. And an area that is 100% roads obviously would not have any destinations worth traveling to (leaving aside edge cases like race tracks).


Agreed, a lot of pieces that talk about "induced traffic" throw claims out like "look, we closed this road and ppl dealt with it... no problem, let's close more". Yes lets.. Reductio ad absurdum .. let's close 50% of the roads b/c apparently people will just "adapt" and we could save a ton of money :)

The reality is people get some marginal benefit from each extra trip the road system allows. People do tend to apparently undervalue their time though.. so there's some point where building more road capacity doesn't make real economic sense. But I don't think we are anywhere close to that point in Seattle...


It sounds like you're caught up on the terminology, do you disagree with the underlying concept?

https://www.ibtta.org/sites/default/files/Generated%20Traffi...

Coming from a chemistry background, the idea of traffic and travel choices being an equilibrium process is a very natural and easy concept to grok.


Equilibrium is traffic jams. What we want is for roads to be underutilized, because 100% utilization is a synonym for gridlock. A saturated solution, in chemical terms.

I like the term "latent demand" more, because "induced" sounds like demand was suddenly created, whereas "latent" implies it's already there, but can't be fulfilled just yet. A saturated solution with more soluble material waiting at the bottom of the flask. If you add a drop of solvent, a little bit of material from the bottom will dissolve - just like if you add another road, you'd only eat into the latent demand.

But the fix to this problem isn't "don't build new roads because induced demand". It's "build even more roads", up until you eat up all that demand, in the same way you could add more and more solvent until you dissolve all the remaining material, and then some more, to keep the solution unsaturated.


>The reality is that roads provide something people want - the ability to get around quickly, on one's own terms, without dealing with waiting times or trip planning, and without some of the unsavory experiences that can sour public transit (e.g. https://www.sfgate.com/crime/article/BART-takeover-robbery-5...).

Build public transit out enough, and you get that as well. And funny enough, cities in developed nations other than the United States don't have issues with crime on public transit. Is it a problem inherit to public transit or is it systematic underinvestment?

>Building roads doesn't "induce" demand. Rather, it _fulfills_ demand. There is a limit to that demand - it's not like supplying infinitely more of something would infinitely scale the associated behavior. There are only so many humans and only so many trips they are willing to make in a day. And an area that is 100% roads obviously would not have any destinations worth traveling to (leaving aside edge cases like race tracks).

First of all – building roads absolutely does induce demand. In fact, _any_ sort of transportation infrastructure, _including public transit_, induces demand. This is pretty well-known. Induced demand isn't about creating larger trips - it's about creating demand through trips that were once not possible. For example, a new train line or highway out in the suburbs will induce people to move close to that piece of infrastructure. This is a well-documented phenomenon, and it happens even for public transit.

The problem is that roads for one-person cars don't scale. Downtown Seattle, in particular, is constrained by Elliott Bay on one side and Lake Washington on the other. Amazon is building out tons of towers in the last bit of open land near downtown Seattle. If every Amazon worker were to commute by driving alone, it just wouldn't work because there's no place to put in new highways! Public transit (or living close to where you work, or not commuting at all and teleworking) simply scales better.


Can you explain what that means? Can you explain what that means? Can you explain what that means?


It's urban planning and infrastructure and social policy. The once common walkable and street car serviced urban areas were destroyed by "civil rights" and public education taxation. The deliberate decision to federally fund highway infrastructure at the expense of local solutions also played a big role.


Well, make people live not too far from their workplaces, schools, shopping, and recreational facilities.

That's this stupid simple. I'd guess 80% of American gridlock is due to that not being done.


Great. I work at point A, wife works at point B. Who gives up their job?


So, ah, who decides how to "make people live not too far from their workplaces, schools, shopping, and recreational facilities.", who enforces the law, and does anyone get grandfathered in?


Normally, urban development follows common sense without much aid from central planning.

What you see in US cities, is that central planning itself stands in way of common sense; that car centric lifestyle in USA was pretty much enforced from above.

Take a look on city plans from sixties, or watch some documentaries about that time




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