Public Interest Transportation Forum -

Untying the Traffic Tangle:
What works, what doesn't, and the missing piece in the puzzle: Don't ban cars, shrink them

By Eric Scigliano, Senior Editor, Seattle Weekly

I came late to the anguish that defines urban life today: Traffic Trauma. I didn't know how bad it had gotten in Seattle until two years ago, when I became that unsung counterpart of the Soccer Moms, a Skating Dad. My daughter suddenly discovered a knack for figure skating, and the $400 skates and endless competition fees were the least of the problem. All the local rinks were planted out in what I'd always considered the lost, far north, in Shoreline, Lynnwood, and beyond. She landed, mercifully, at the least distant-but in lessons that coincided with the peak of the evening rush hour. What was a dad to do? Drive, she said.

All my life I'd avoided traffic jams and long-distance commuting the way Howard Hughes avoided germs. I lived in-city, came to work very early or late, rode bicycles, buses, trains, and the handiest of all urban commuter vehicles, a small motorbike.

But one way or another, the jam catches up with you. Swimming up I-5 and Aurora Avenue, I saw thousands of other fishes who'd made, or been forced to make, very different choices from mine. I would skeeter, skelter, and detour to beat the jams. To escape the Aurora crush, I'd cut over to Greenwood Avenue, to Westminster, to Dayton, to Fremont and then Linden. But the others just forged stoically on up the clogged mainlines-those fabled commuters I'd heard of: glassy-eyed, steering wheels clenched, a flood as slow and inexorable as extruding lava. People do this, day after day, year after year.

Nearly all drove alone, an extravagant display of waste. Think of it: 150 or so pounds of person, driving at a speed limited by law to 30 miles per hour on nearly all city streets, conveyed by a vehicle that may weigh more than 4,400 pounds (for a Cadillac Fleetwood or Suburban), that can carry somewhere between four and 10 passengers and cruise at 80, 100, even 120 miles an hour. "It's absurd," fumes Olaf Sundine, an electric-car builder and partner in Seattle's Electric Vehicles Northwest cooperative, "this mindset that you need the same vehicle that you could take comfortably to Los Angeles or the mountains, in order to drive to the store."

Stranger yet, these vehicles burn petroleum. The stuff's health and environmental effects are broadly familiar, from global climate change to local smog, carbon monoxide, and particulate pollution, with all the consequent cancer, asthma, and other disease. Extracting it ravages ecosystems from the Persian Gulf to Arctic tundra, Caspian steppe, and Ecuadorian jungle. It twists world politics, propping up despots from Nigeria to Saudi Arabia. Squandering it to propel cars is the chemical equivalent of using magnificent old-growth for firewood. Petroleum is the most versatile of raw materials, the source of unending plastics, fibers, solvents, dyes, medicines, and damn near anything else. It's the only safe and sufficient repository of enough energy to power jet planes. One year or another, when the jets are grounded and plastic is precious, our grandchildren will wonder how we could have been so improvident.

And the world doesn't keep using oil at the same rate. New wealth makes Chinese, Brazilians, and everyone else crave cars just as we do. Even in the heady years of fuel economization in the 1970s and 1980s, when average miles-per-gallon doubled, total fuel consumption never fell, since the average number of miles driven doubled.

Then, in the 1990s, fuel efficiency got KO'd-by the industry-fanned mania for Broncos, Suburbans, and other macho O.J.-mobiles (do preening urbanites know how ridiculous they look driving them?). "Sport-utility vehicles" (cars-in-truck-clothing), exempt from the fuel-economy averages that automakers must meet, seized over 40 percent of the US small-vehicle market. It's a loophole so big you could drive a truck through it. Millions do.

Gas city

When I first drove into glorious, uncrowded Seattle 19 years ago, a 45-minute commute was unthinkable-except for a few wild spirits who insisted on living in Cascade or island enclaves. Now, according to the last (and already outdated) US Census, one in eight Puget Sound-region workers travels at least that long to work. In 1984, the Texas Transportation Institute, a Texas A&M University project that evaluates urban traffic each year for the US Highway Administration, rated Seattle/Everett the 13th-most-congested metropolitan area in the United States. By 1993, we had climbed to sixth, in a tie with Detroit. Further, Seattle, the 18th-largest metropolitan area in this measure, incurred the 10th highest annual congestion costs: $1.2 billion in lost hours and $140 million in wasted fuel-or $720 per capita, the nation's fourth-highest "congestion tax."

The Road Information Program (TRIP) of Washington, DC, weighed different criteria-the percentage of rush-hour travel delayed by congestion-and again found Seattle the sixth-worst metro area, with 65 percent of its rush-hour travel congested. Seattle, the city that invented the gas station and the drive-and-park shopping mall, has come into its own.

The good news is that Seattle did not have especially fast-growing congestion, at least as of 1993. "Congestion and highway speeds have remained about constant," declares state traffic engineer Keith Bynum, "even though traffic increased at least 20 percent in the last 10 years." He and his comrades believe canny traffic management-especially ramp metering and HOV lanes-took up the slack.

Those out mixing it up at rush hour may differ. What I hear, from commuters, a delivery driver, a school bus rider, is that Seattle's traffic has gotten palpably worse in the past year. And the prospects are grim. With 1.1 million more Puget Sounders expected by 2020, the Puget Sound Regional Council projects that even with every proposed transit improvement-a rail system, heavy car tolls-the person-hours lost to congestion each afternoon will still climb from 159,000 to 185,000. With no improvements, more than a million hours a day will be lost sitting in traffic.

Of course, not everyone would call this a disaster. "Eliminating traffic congestion is not necessarily a good thing," Northwest Environment Watch director Alan Thein Durning declares in his new book This Place on Earth (Sasquatch Books). "Congestion slows traffic and slow-moving traffic is actually good for access, national defense, and the environment. It encourages pedestrian travel and decreases per-capita gasoline consumption."

Durning deserves credit for a cogent critique of automania, and a regimen of cures in another book, The Car and the City. But his notion of congestion as cure is wishful. Never underestimate the capacity of homo sapiens to endure greater gridlock for the illusion of personal mobility. As congestion grew in American cities in the '70s and '80s, per capita driving didn't decline; it doubled. Jams we can hardly imagine haven't slowed the rush to own cars in Bangkok, Mexico City, and a hundred other cities where individual prosperity has far outpaced public infrastructure. It would be nice if, say, Overlake's rush-hour gauntlet would make the typical Eastsider move to nice, green co-housing near her workplace, complete with a P-patch and cooperative daycare. But she's as likely to escape to the next ring of exurban sprawl.

As for congestion's supposed environmental benefits-forget it. Cars in jams pollute much more-three times as much, by one industry estimate-as they do on open roads. We've got to find less destructive, and more effective, ways to lift the internal-combustion monkey off our backs.

Pay as you go

"Congestion" or "peak-hour pricing" is one approach that's getting more attention-almost everywhere, it seems, but here. This is the strategy of charging motorists according to the congestion they create and the effective "mobility" they consume. In a crude sense, it means peak-hour tolls (like the small surcharges on Metro buses). Current technology-"smart tollbooths," which electronically register the identifying chip in each passing car-makes it possible to adjust charges to instant congestion conditions. This, presumably, will encourage drivers to use less-crowded tolls and times.

Electronic tolling has been used for years in Singapore; peak-hour pricing has been implemented in Norway's three largest cities and explored in Britain and Hong Kong. But it hasn't proven the panacea some hoped. The Norwegians have found it would take peak rates four times the off-peak to pull enough drivers from rush hour to matter. (Already, many merely quit the main toll roads for ill-prepared side roads.) Rush-hour highways would become the domain of the well-to-do and those with subsidized company cars. This offends egalitarian sentiments, though it's more fair than making everyone pay for new highways-if good public transit is available for those bumped from the roads by the new pricing.

The congestion-pricing debate points to a broader equity question: Why not charge for automobile use (and, hence, additions to congestion and pollution) rather than ownership? Right now, if you drive 4,000 miles a year, you pay as much in excise taxes and nearly as much for insurance as someone who drives 40,000. And who cares about gasoline? It's been so cheap in the '90s-cheaper in real dollars than at any time since the early 1950s-that millions of car owners pump the pricier varieties hyped as "high test" or "super," though these do absolutely nothing for their cars' performance and, because they demand much more refining, effectively waste lakes of oil. Trouble is, the simplest, fairest way to charge for actual driving impacts is a real gasoline tax. And that's political poison.

So is congestion pricing, since it's one incarnation of the hated hobgoblin tolls. Public resistance to paying tolls, and an assortment of other specters, killed what would have been this region's first trial of congestion pricing, and of tolls since the Hood Canal and SR-520 bridges were paid off. This was a private-sector scheme to add HOV, bike, and (if needed) rail lanes to the 520 Evergreen Point bridge, the huge faulty link in the region's transportation chain. The citizens rose up, and the bridge remains toll-free, HOV-free, and as another SeattleWeekly writer memorably put it, "a five-mile horizontal smokestack."

The wheels on the bus

And so disincentives to congestion languish, while all effort here (and most effort everywhere else) goes to the two traditional approaches: adding transit capacity and adding highway capacity. The big enchilada now-though it won't seem nearly so big once it's all built in 10 (or more) years-is the slimmed-down Regional Transit Authority plan that voters finally passed last November. Seattleites were the RTA's first and firmest supporters, but most of its measures, and all its speedier ones, will largely benefit those outside Seattle: commuter trains that won't stop in the city, except downtown; express buses between suburban hubs; dedicated HOV lanes and ramps. Only the last and most dubious component serves primarily Seattle: the light-rail line from the University District (and Northgate, by and by) to Sea-Tac, via the mother of all underground boondoggles, the Capitol Hill tunnel. And the political deal that finally got the RTA plan passed-tying local taxes to transit amenities-slants future development to the suburbs.

Nevertheless, the RTA reinforces a change in Metro's transit fleet for Seattle. The big problem with that fleet is its scale: two bus sizes to fit all uses, large ("standard" 40-foot buses) and extra large (599 articulated double buses, just over half the whole fleet). This means costly excess capacity, scanty service, or both on light routes; gruelling squeezes in narrow streets and heavy traffic; more buses helpless in snow like last month's; and a big unserved ridership that wants something other than arterial service to downtown-crosstown service, or a ride home from the local supermarket.

RTA's express-bus system will require local feeder lines, with smaller buses. And these smaller buses could also provide the in-city circulators that neighborhoods and city officials have long sought, and that Metro has by turns promised and deferred. This year, Metro plans to add about 70 20-foot, 20-seater "transit vans" and go to bid for 100 small 30-foot buses. Next year, adds spokesman Dan Williams, it will add 40 more vans. And the transit agency has negotiated differential salaries for drivers, depending on the size bus they drive-a boost for small-scale service.

Metro's critics find reason to suspect its commitment to more flexible neighborhood-scale service. They still await the downtown circulator promised when the first tunnel was dug, and mourn the Ballard LINC (Local Initiative for Neighborhood Circulation) route that was tried in 1995, with city funding. City officials thought the trial so successful they sponsored another, in West Seattle. Metro Transit general manager Rick Walsh was less impressed: LINC showed disappointing "low productivity" (ridership) in his view. Metro's current six-year plan still commits to considering flexible service on some low-volume routes. But already it's retreating from that plan's provision for reducing articulated buses to as little as 40 percent of the fleet; Walsh says they'll stay at close to 50 percent.

Some transportation mavens urge micro-transit taken down to the level where it verges on publicly provided personal transportation: jitneys and (a favorite of the editor of this paper) subsidized cabs (complete with London-style expert drivers). Walsh waxes even more skeptical of such notions; he says trials have shown consumers prefer predictable fixed routes to the hassle of reserving a ride. Taxis are terribly costly; each one needs a driver, just like a bus. They don't foster sociability, as transit does. And though they relieve parking, they can waste even more fuel than private cars (on the way out, on the run, on the way back).

LINC offers a happy medium: bus/vans that follow fixed routes but stop when waved down on the way to commercial or transit centers, but that deliver passengers (and their packages) to their doors on the way back. But Metro and the City Council (which pulled the plug on further LINCs) must be more patient about building ridership. "To make neighborhoods more friendly to transit use, we have to change the paradigm," says city transit planner Eric Chipps. And that takes time.

Highways with minds of their own

It is a fine irony that while local transit boosters look to ancient forms like trolleys, jitneys, and commuter trains for salvation from the automobile dinosaur, highway planners devise high-cyber technologies to extend that dinosaur's life. The broad term for the effort is "intelligent transportation systems," ITS to anyone who wants to sound intelligent on the subject. ITS embraces just about any contrivance for overcoming the inefficiencies that human ignorance, confusion, and fallibility introduce into highway use. At a rudimentary (and effective) level, that means the stop-and-go lights ("on-ramp metering") that the state began installing on some I-5 entrances in 1982. DOT assistant traffic systems manager Dave McCormick claims metering has boosted highway capacity by "10 to 15 percent," largely by reducing accidents. It will be extended to the other local freeways, and refined with automatic systems to speed or slow the signals depending on traffic conditions.

ITS's next phase is gathering real-time information on traffic conditions and disseminating it to traffic managers and drivers. Closed-circuit TV cameras-182 of them-monitor local ramps and intersections (but, DOT engineer Keith Bynum insists, are not used for traffic enforcement). Induction loops, less than a mile apart under the freeways, send a bleep as each vehicle passes. When the bleeps slow, monitors instantly know traffic has too. DOT maintains a traffic flow map on the Web, though its utility is limited by many blank areas where DOT doesn't yet gather data, including the 520 bridge. DOT plans to expand it and sponsor toll-free cellular phone calls for traffic data. An ITS variant-ATMS, Automated Traffic Management-may finally harmonize the vexing asynchronous stoplights that slow Highway 99 as it crawls through Seattle, Shoreline, Edmonds, Snohomish County, Lynnwood, the county again, and Everett. Within 18 months, McCormick promises, these jurisdictions' computers will actually start talking to each other, and timing their lights together. Then ATMS will tie together other traffic-management Balkans on the East and South sides. Automakers and electronics companies are jockeying to stake out an anticipated multi-billion-dollar market in onboard navigation and communications gear. But the big show-and a very big show-in ITS is the automated highway system. This would sound like Space Needle-era hype if it weren't about to get its first limited test, in San Diego this summer. The idea is to take the bumbling driver out of highway driving: to guide thick rivers of cars at high speed but almost bumper-to-bumper, in the manner of aircraft auto-pilot but by remote control. In one formulation, motorists on this auto-Autobahn would kick back and nap, read, or do whatever else people do in cars. In another, they'd have to stay alert to take over in emergencies-not a cheering prospect.

As planned by the federal Department of Transportation, model automated highways would be up and running within 10 years. Industry loves AHS; DOT's partners in the scheme read like a who's who of automotive, electronic, and defense-industry giants. That's not surprising; AHS promises contractors the biggest highway bonanza since Eisenhower launched the interstate system.

But will it be such a boon for the rest of us? The safety and liability issues are forbidding: automation would make accidents much more rare-but would it also raise them to the scale of jet crashes? And bold as its technology is, AHS is a conceptual anachronism, a heroic attempt to sustain the unsustainable-"a last gasp of something like the dinosaur," in the words of UW engineering and urban design professor Jerry Schneider. In the end, it will dump twice as many cars into non-automated city streets with no room for them. With no change in the cars themselves, it will be more of a bad thing.

Small can still be beautiful

There is, however, another recourse-in part an alternative to mass transit and mass automated highways, in part a complement to them, without the infrastructure investment of either. It embraces a range of automobile types, variously dubbed "minicars," "microcars," "narrow cars," "station cars," "neighborhood cars," "commuter cars," and, as Mercedes has christened its flashy essay in the form, "smart cars." Try aptmobile as a new rubric for them all: cars appropriately sized and powered for their site and function.

And concede first one simple point that transit evangelists too often ignore: After a century of growing habituation to the car, we're not going to relinquish it willingly. Public transit is something we want everyone else to take, and want to have available (and speedy and convenient) when it suits us. But as Tim Andersen, a Seattle architect and outspoken advocate for small cars, says, "We're so entrenched, so conditioned to our personal vehicles, that we can't go back. That's what we have to provide." If we can reform them to fit in the urban and global environments.

Minicars are nothing new; Europeans have long negotiated their streets built for horses in Austins and Innocenti that make a VW Bug look like a blimp. In dense areas of Tokyo, only minicars-four-wheeled bubbles with just room for two (cozy) riders and a shopping bag-are allowed street parking; owners of "regular" cars must also own parking for them.

In this country, however, minicars have had a spotty reception, largely as novelties and the playthings of aficionados. But contrary to our open-road fancies, they would suit the majority of American driving trips, which cover less than eight miles. And they offer the cheapest way to extract more capacity from existing streets: more lanes and parking spaces, perhaps nearly twice as many, as now accommodate 19-foot-long, six-and-a-half-foot-wide Cadillacs and Suburbans.

Downsizing cars would also abet another revolution in automobiles: their incipient conversion from fossil-fuel electric power. Electric motoring eliminates local pollution, and it eliminates greenhouse emissions provided it comes from hydro, nuclear, or renewable sources rather than from burning coal or gas someplace else. It's especially suited to hydro-rich regions like this, because batteries can be left to recharge at night when demand is low-in effect using surplus power.

Little electric cars can also fill a key link in the transit chain-between train or main bus lines and passengers' homes-as "station cars." These are rented-with a swipe of a smart card-from recharging automatic dispensers at transit stations, driven home, and returned in the morning. Station cars are no novelty: the science fiction writer Granville Hicks imagined them in 1940, Stanford researchers laid out a plan for them in 1968, and Switzerland (also hydro-rich) uses them extensively. San Francisco's Bay Area Rapid Transit launched this country's first station-car trial. The Oakland-based National Station Car Consortium (which includes-consider the sources-many electric utilities) is sponsoring five other trials from Boston to Florida. Seattle hasn't joined in, but consortium director Marty Bernard notes that station cars would "work well with the ferries, and may be the only way to make the proposed rail system work."

Station cars aside, the big guys insist on building electric cars with the range, capacity, and performance of gasmobiles. (The vanguard Detroit electric, GM's Impact, looks like a paunchy Corvette.) But this runs up against the Battery Problem. The current technology, lead acid batteries, is proven and fairly cheap; Electric Vehicles Northwest offers to electrify a Geo for $8,500. But lead batteries are heavy and afford just 40 to 80 miles between charges. Automakers insist they must perfect this or other technologies-fuel cells, nickel-metal hydride or sodium-sulfur batteries-to match ranges between gas fill-ups. But those other technologies are still fiercely costly or troublesome in other ways (such as, in one case, operating at a temperature of 600 degrees). That's crazy, says Electric Vehicles' Sundine: "Why do we worry about going 200 miles on a charge when we only go 10 miles at a time?" Indeed, most auto trips are less than eight miles long, and 80 percent of Americans' driving days cover less than 40 miles. Current electric cars could serve most needs amply-especially if they're recharged during the workday and not driven at freeway speeds (which drains batteries much faster).

But, the argument always goes, people can't switch to a car they can't take on a long road trip. Yes, but there's a much more economical alternative for occasional uses: rent. (Government should encourage renting and taxis, rather than saddling than with extra taxes as the county stadium levy will on grounds that they're for tourists, not residents.) Anyway, aptomobiles' first appeal will be as second cars. Since 60 percent of US households have two or more cars, that's a huge opportunity.

The other big objection to very small cars is safety. But auto safety anxiety turns so easily into a sort of arms race, with overtones of Mutually Assured Destruction. We arm our cars less for the road than for encounters with other cars. And so the escalation continues, on up to the O.J.-Mobiles. Who wants to tangle with a two-ton tank in a nine-foot, half-ton bubble?

The answer's plain: Separate them. Dedicate special, narrow lanes to the low-impact vehicles, which they could share with bicycles and motorbikes; you'll need to anyway to exploit their space-saving benefits. Why not an entire downtown avenue? First Avenue, with its relative dearth of cross-streets and abundance of pedestrian hubs (the Market, Seattle Art Museum, Harbor Steps, Pioneer Square), seems a good choice. It can't handle the full-size cars it now has. Perhaps someday the I-5 express lanes will be the light-vehicle lanes. In all such choices, the city or state should err on the side of ceding space to aptomobiles, to encourage more of them.

The city could even offer neighborhoods, or residents on individual streets, the option of voting out big, noisy, smelly cars. Consider the benefits, beginning with safety and silence (riding in an electric car seems first eerily, then exhilaratingly quiet). Reducing street widths would open wide swaths for gardens, garages, front porches, or the infill development cherished by Urban Villagers. Garbage collection and other services might also be scaled down, and quieter as a result; some cities already use electric Cushman runabouts, feeding large mother trucks, for garbage. With only minicars to absorb, increasing density would present fewer parking problems. Or the newly opened road space could go to planted center dividers and strip parks. Neighborhood streets would become shady boulevards.

Tiny electric cars wouldn't be for everyone all the time. For full-tilt urbanites, they could be primary personal transportation, and we might rent a sedan for road trips the way we rent a U-Haul for moving. For others, they would replace a current second car, for a net downsizing in total vehicle deployment. Some would merely rent them as needed, station car-style-making mass transit attractive where it would otherwise be forbidding. Many of us might find we could get all the (part-time) car we needed by joining car co-ops, which are becoming popular in Germany. But to preseve our mobility and our air, climate, and cities, we must first stop gunning overbuilt machines we don't even need.

For half a century, the car as we know it has trashed the cityscape and spread deadening sprawl. The car as we may come to know it could help shift the process into reverse.

This article was orginally published as the cover story in the Seattle Weekly, January 29, 1997. Eric Scigliano is a Senior Editor at the Weekly and this article is posted here with his permission. He can be reached at or by phone at 206.623.0500. Emphasis (bold words) and external links have been added by the Public Interest Transportation Forum Editors and are not part of the original text.

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Last modified: February 07, 2011