A recent study declared Seattle’s congestion the fourth worst in all of North America. While some traffic experts feel that ranking is a bit high, they agree that congestion is a big problem in a region where the roads are too small for the number of drivers trying to access them.
Emily Diehl knows that firsthand. She commutes from Seattle’s Leschi neighborhood to Edmonds each day. While her morning drive takes only half an hour, the evening commute can reach 90 minutes or more.
“Most of the days, it gets really, really frustrating,” Diehl said.
The ride tends to slow down on Interstate 5 near Northgate.
“You know it’s bad when you can basically not touch the gas pedal when you’re on the freeway,” she said while creeping along at ten to 15 miles an hour.
Making matters worse, Diehl suffers from a severely herniated disk, which radiates pain throughout her body and causes her foot to go numb.
Like so many Seattle drivers, the drive is a pain she has come to accept.
“There’s no point in stressing yourself out over stuff you can’t really do anything about,” she said.
A 2011 report by the Texas Transportation Institute, which used 2010 data, found the average Seattle commuter spends 44 hours a year stuck in traffic. That costs the average driver $942 a year in gas and lost time.
“We’re worse than most other cities our size,” said Mark Hallenbeck, director of the Washington State Transportation Center at the University of Washington. “But the reason we’re worse is not because the engineers are doing a bad job or even that we’re not spending enough money. The reason is topography.”
Hallenbeck pointed to his all-time favorite test question: How many lanes would be needed on I-5 for drivers to go at level service ‘B’ -- which basically means going as fast as they want without congestion?
The answer: 22 lanes in each direction, according to Hallenbeck.
“The reality is, it ain’t gonna happen,” he said. “So at that point you say, what’s next? Now what are we going to do?”
What state and local agencies do is focus on lower-cost options, including:
* Sending incident-response trucks to clear accidents and stalls as quickly as possible;
* Adding carpool and express lanes;
* Adding transit options;
* Using active traffic management signs that adjust the speed limits to accommodate traffic conditions; and,
* Turning on ramp meters.
“The ramp meters are day-in, day-out congestion fighters out there,” said Ted Trepanier, who used to oversee traffic operations for WSDOT and now works for the traffic-data company INRIX, based in Kirkland.
Ramp meters cut highway congestion and crashes by about 30 percent, he said.
“So you take away 30 percent of the crashes, you take away a bunch of congestion,” Trepanier said.
In other words, it could be worse.
That might be little consolation for Diehl, who needs 60 to 90 minutes to complete her 18-mile commute home each night.
“I don’t like being late, so if I’m inevitably going to be late and traffic is causing that, I get really frustrated,” she said.