Sunday, March 20, 2011

An Option We All Can Agree Upon

Downtown Seattle needs a congestion management strategy, regardless of what we do about the Viaduct.
By Alex Broner
(Originally published at
London. New York City. Stockholm. Singapore.
What do all of these cities have in common? They’re all great cities and they’ve all approved congestion pricing for their downtown areas. As Seattle comes to terms with replacing the Viaduct we should make sure our downtown is not overwhelmed by traffic and remains a vibrant place for people and for local businesses.

I watched the Publicola Tunnel debate in December with great interest in order to confirm a theory I had been developing. What the tunnel debate confirmed was that no one wants more automobile traffic on the streets of downtown. Indeed both sides tried to outdo each other in complaining about the traffic generated by their opponent’s alternative. The thing is both sides are right that both the Deep Bore Tunnel and the I5/Surface/Transit option in their present form are expected to push enormous numbers of cars onto surface streets. Fortunately for us, there are things we can do about it.
Why is more traffic a problem? More traffic means more delays for both drivers and transit users. More traffic means more long lines of idling vehicles at traffic lights and more noise and pollution. The pedestrian experience worsens and becomes more dangerous. As traffic increases street life disappears and businesses close. No one wants this.
In Thursday’s Debate the 2008 Gehl Architect’s study was mentioned, it’s worth quoting from page 10 of this study:
“Pursuing traffic capacity is an endless task. a rule of thumb: the more cars we invite, the more cars will come; therefore, the system will never be sufficient. trying to ‘solve’ the traffic problems encountered in the city today will only lead to larger streets and a more congested traffic network.”
The report goes on to talk about designing for people, what it calls the “3 mph” scale as opposed to the “40 mph” scale. They conclude that creating a vibrant pedestrian environment necessitates reducing the amount of traffic on city streets.
How do we do this?
Congestion Pricing
Congestion pricing works on the principle of charging drivers for use of motor vehicle travel lanes. In practice it means charging more to enter a set area when demand is high, and charging less (or nothing) during other times of the day. Modern toll collection technology means that cars need not stop at toll booths. This technology is already used throughout the world and is planned for use on the SR99 tunnel and the 520 bridge.
Tolling for the SR99 tunnel is part of a funding package that requires tolling to pay for part of the construction costs. As Cary Moon pointed out in Thursdays debate, the state draft environmental impact statement shows that tolling diverts a further 40,000 cars onto downtown streets for a total of 80,000 thousand cars under the tunnel + tolling scenario. She also pointed out that absent tolling we’d need to find another 300 million dollars from somewhere. The I5/surface/Transit option relies upon improved surface streets to handle traffic along with the I5 and Transit components. While this is better than the existing tunnel’s plan to handle surface diversion (there is none), traffic on improved surface streets is still traffic and therefore undesirable if we want a vibrant street life and economically successful downtown. The way out of this Hobson’s choice between traffic clogged downtown streets and a giant budget hole is to price access to downtown streets according to the level of traffic we’d like to see. Pricing our city streets according to demand will shift incentives the same way that tolling the tunnel does. Only in this case we’re pricing something we don’t want: excess traffic downtown. Congestion pricing will divert trips to the tunnel (if we build it) and to transit. People will also live closer to where they work and walk and bicycle more. As we reach the desired level of automobile traffic, increased street life will develop. In places where people used to hurry past on foot, (if at all) they will now stroll down.  New plazas and parks will be created and new space for outdoor seating for businesses will be possible. Street food vendors, plays, and performers will draw crowds and children will run and play without fear of being struck down. Seattle will enhance its status as a regional destination. Regardless of whether or not we build the tunnel, congestion pricing is the right policy for increasing the vitality of downtown Seattle.
If that weren’t enough, here are some additional reasons to do congestion pricing:
Congestion pricing will help drivers.
Automobiles will always be part of our transportation system because there will always be people who’s unique circumstances make transit impractical. It is these people who most need an uncongested roadway and are most ill-served by allowing traffic to slow to a crawl. Both emergency vehicles and delivery services will benefit from reduced congestion.*
Downtown is well served by transit (and it will only get better).
In the next 6 years Light rail will connect downtown Seattle to Capitol Hill and to the University district. Rapid Ride lines from Downtown to West Seattle, Ballard and Shoreline will be completed in the next two years.  By 2023 we will have light rail to Northgate and Redmond. We can use the money from congestion pricing either to buy more service on already planned transit lines or to fund construction of new projects. The mere fact of reduced congestion will help transit in mixed traffic flow more smoothly, allowing greater service quality and frequency before another dollar is spent. Increased frequency, quality, and funding will together drive up ridership, pushing our transit system towards the kind of high ridership/high quality equilibrium that residents of great cities have come to expect.
We are already moving towards congestion pricing.
We’re going to toll the Viaduct and also State Route 520. Tolls for the I-90 bridge and for Lake Washington Boulevard are under consideration. Meanwhile the city council has voted to support increased parking meter rates downtown and to move towards a performance driven parking system. Pricing use of through lanes appropriately follows the same principle as pricing parking appropriately. Additionally, we should not make driving through downtown without stopping cheaper than stopping to patronize downtown businesses. With these two policies in place, the efficient price of parking actually drops from what it would be without congestion pricing.
Other cities have successfully implemented congestion pricing.
London, Singapore, Stockholm and Milan have successfully implemented congestion pricing. New York City approved a congestion pricing system but it failed to gain approval at the state level. San Francisco congestion pricing is currently being planned.
Congestion pricing will accomplish state and city policy goals
In 2008 the State Legislature passed and governor Christine Gregoire signed into law HB2815 which makes reducing vehicle miles traveled part of the state’s greenhouse gas reduction strategy. The City of Seattle in early 2010 announced its intent to make Seattle Carbon Neutral by 2030. Congestion pricing not only allows us to reduce automobile emissions, it will allow us to generate much needed funding for pedestrian, transit, and bicycle improvements.
Where we go from here
The first step is for the City Council to direct the Seattle Department of Transportation to conduct a study of the issue. SDOT should look at how congestion pricing fits in with the existing legal framework and with various other transportation policies and programs. We will want to examine the relationship between currently planned highway tolling and congestion pricing. We’ll also want to examine ways to repurpose street real estate for people and local businesses, such as they did in New York City with the highly successful Broadway pedestrian plaza or in San Francisco with their new “parklets”. After SDOT completes its study, the council, the mayor, and Seattle’s delegation in Olympia will be able to craft the appropriate legislation at the city and state level. Ultimately I believe this project will unite otherwise divided political leadership and create a downtown that we all can enjoy.
The opinions above represent those of Alex Broner alone and not those of Great City or any other organization.
Alex Broner can be reached at


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