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Everyday Commuting in Seattle

Published on February 11, 2020

Lines of buses take up two lanes of traffic on 3rd Ave in downtown Seattle.
Buses occupying most of the street on 3rd Ave in downtown Seattle.

There are many different ways for Liz MacGahan to get to work.  Most mornings, she walks.“I feel like a farmer walking the fields, looking for what has changed … and what is different,” she said. The walk energizes here for work and takes around 40 minuets.

On another morning, the weather was bad, so she took the bus. When I joined her on her bus commute, it took 30 minutes, shaving a mere 10 minutes off her walking commute for a $2.75 bus fare. She said when the traffic’s bad, the bus takes as long or longer than walking.

One morning, she needed a reliable ride, so she called a Lyft. The Lyft ride took 21 minutes and cost her $16. MacGahan has her own car, however she doesn’t use it for commuting. This is in part because she doesn’t want to pay the high cost of parking downtown, and in part because she doesn’t like the environmental impact of driving.

This is what it means to commute in Seattle. Sometimes, the best choices for you cause problems for others. Taking your own car or hailing a car adds traffic that slows down buses, making them less attractive to commuters. It’s a vicious circle. Light rail helps a lot, but it doesn’t go everywhere, and so buses end up doing a lot of the heavy lifting.

David Blum teaches Urban Planning at the University of Washington. He spends a lot of time studying places that move people better. “Nobody does it better than the Dutch. They are incredibly efficient at moving large numbers of people in and through urban areas.” First – they make it really easy to get to public transportation by investing in sidewalks and bike lanes. And second – in big cities, the Dutch ban cars from their downtown streets during rush hour.

Seattle has just one major street downtown where cars (mostly) can’t go during the day: 3rd Avenue. That street’s buses carry 52,000 commuters every day. During peak hours, the street carries seven times more commuters than a similar street with cars like 4th Avenue, and almost as many commuters as Sound Transit does on Link Light Rail in the tunnel through downtown. So it works. But the need is too great for 3rd Avenue alone; it carries more buses than any other street in North America. As they leapfrog each other to reach crowded bus stops, they sometimes create their own bus traffic jams. A Dutch solution would be to just make more streets into bus only streets, or make the whole downtown into bus-only zone. Blum says that would make buses more attractive to commuters because there’d be fewer cars to slow them down. Then, when commuters like Liz MacGahan make their calculation about how to get to work on time, they’d know fastest, most reliable choice, is not a car — it’s a bus.

Continue Reading at KUOW.

Originally written by Joshua McNichols for KUOW.
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