Seattle’s Viadoom: The ‘Carmageddon’ That Wasn’t

Photo: The Urbanist
Photo: The Urbanist

“Viadoom hasn’t been that doomy.”

Those were the words of Seattle Times writer David Gutman yesterday, midway through the closure of Highway 99 that many feared would paralyze the city in traffic gridlock. About 90,000 vehicles per day traveled the Alaskan Way Viaduct until it was closed on Jan. 11.

“The cars just disappeared,” he wrote. “Where did they all go?”

A spokesperson for the traffic data company Inrix told Gutman they “disappeared.”

Some people are walking and biking, preliminary city data shows. And some additional people took the bus and train. And a lot of people appear to be telecommuting.

As a result, traffic speeds haven’t been effected much by what everyone predicted would be gridlock.

Viadoom is looking more and more like another much-hyped “Carmageddon” that wasn’t. Time after time, cities anticipate crushing outcomes from the closures of key freeways — but the actual outcome is muted. We saw it with the closure of Los Angeles’s 405 freeway in 2011. And we saw it in more recently with the same highway in Seattle closed for two weeks of maintenance in 2016.

It doesn’t hurt that in this case and others, local leaders have gone to almost extreme lengths to warn people of a potential traffic problem. That surely helped encourage people to try greener alternatives, and/or adjust their schedules.

But in the case of Seattle though, this lesson is particularly ironic. Viadoom (Viadud?) happens in the context of the city preparing to open a $3-billion underground replacement for the viaduct, officially Highway 99.

Fifteen years ago, local activists led by Cary Moon championed a plan to just tear down the aging highway and convert it to a waterfront street with beefed-up transit alternatives. But they were dismissed by power brokers like former Mayor Greg Nickels, who insisted the city couldn’t live without this highway connection.

Now a real-time experiment confirms that the city can live without it once again.

22 thoughts on Seattle’s Viadoom: The ‘Carmageddon’ That Wasn’t

  1. Is it possible that people were able to make a temporary adjustment, knowing that a longer term alternative transportation route would be opening soon?

    How many of the “telecommuters” will need to return to some kind of physical presence once the tunnel is open?

  2. This traffic disappearance is similar to San Francisco’s Embarcadero Freeway demolition in 1991, after being damaged in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake it. Its traffic disappeared as well as people took alternative modes. The bonus is the much more pedestrian friendly cityscapge.

  3. What some people, including many traffic engineers, don’t realize is that traffic volumes are not static and can, in fact, go down. You get what you design for.

  4. If they do, it won’t help them. 60% of the cars traveling on the former viaduct were going to and from downtown. The new “deep bore tunnel” is too deep for downtown exits. It’s essentially a $3B bypass. Anyone telecommuting who’s office is downtown is pretty much screwed.

  5. I’m just one person, but I actually live in Seattle, in a neighborhood significantly impacted by this closure (West Seattle). And while I’ve been allowed to telecommute during the closure a few days a week, that’s very much temporary. The expectation is that I am in the office. This well-publicized closure is not a test because people have made temporary adjustments — I think the real test will come once the tunnel opens and people begin their “new normal” commute. I’m a bus commuter anyway and very supportive of alternative commuting, but I fully expect my bus commute will get much worse. I’m sure it all seems fine from Cleveland though.

  6. I think that is exactly what Moon and others were pushing for. Enhanced transit service so your bus ride wouldn’t be impacted and would actually improve. Bus priority lanes etc. Not to mention think of how many years we could have accelerated Sound Transit Light Rail service to West Seattle if we had an additional $3 billion! It would be a couple years away instead of a couple decades.

  7. Seattle has a great transit system, is cycle able and walkable. Where it’d be good to see a city government grow some balls would be to lean on employers to NOT penalize any employee for lack of punctuality during this interruption. I think it’s about damn time that government forcibly separate time from money in some situations.

  8. If you are indeed an SF native, you get in your bones probably without thinking of it that every city just plain runs out of room for cars and no engineering or wishful thinking will change that. SF just has less room than most–I have a close relative that has lived there since 1970 and whose car has spent long stretches growing cobwebs out of the general unpleasantness of driving in the City.

  9. Ugh. PLEASE STOP SPREADING THIS FAKE NEWS. It gets really tiring.

    Traffic did not go away when the Embarcadero Freeway was removed. The traffic just moved onto city streets which then became jammed. There was extra capacity on the city streets because the freeway went through mainly a warehouse area, so people just used those streets instead of the on-ramps. City transportation officials who lived through it can recall scrambling to “do something” about it, but it’s hard to replace the capacity of a freeway on city streets.

  10. It’s pretty much what happened too on other freeway closures. Traffic “disappeared” for a while, but eventually came back in one way or another.

    When the Central Freeway in San Francisco was closed, city data showed that traffic “disappeared” for a while. A couple months later, new traffic counts were made and it showed that traffic went onto other routes.

  11. @TheFacts – Ugh, please stop spreading the Trumpanzee lie that FAKE NEWS is a thing.

    The Real Facts: San Francisco media is pro-cars and pro-highways and has absolutely no grasp whatsoever of induced demand or traffic evaporation. Yammering broadcasters and screaming headlines promised traffic jams and Post-Apocalyptic Conditions for demolished freeways, and none of that actually panned out.

    City planners at the time did indeed scramble, they responded by removing transit-priority light timing to clear the way for cars. The cars didn’t actually come as expected, but transit suffered.

  12. @TheFacts – In reality, a circulation plan was developed to filter traffic through surface streets where he Central Freeway was. And it mostly worked. No “disappeared”-in-sneer-quotes, things went as predicted.

  13. As a traffic engineer myself, i’ve seen moments of other engineers “scrambling” during natural disasters or emergencies. It’s mostly us tweaking the signals and saying ‘really nothing we can do after that.’ Which is the truth. Not a bunch of adults running around on phones yelling at mayors with papers flying through the air and interns crying under desks.

    Real traffic emergencies (IMO) are found on plan sheets during design and planning: too many lanes on a street, slip lanes, wide blocks, little to no terrace space, poor bike facilities, too wide of lanes, straight/flat roads which encourage speeding, planners that say volumes will double if a starbucks goes in…..these are the real emergencies that a traffic engineer MUST point to during the design meetings and explain what the outcomes will be.

  14. fortunately downtown Seattle is the best place in the region by far for transit options, so anyone whose job doesn’t require a car at least has good odds of transit options. But it is quite true that anyone who took the Viaduct to get into downtown by car…won’t be using the tunnel, directly, to do the same thing once it opens.

  15. Seattle desperately needs mass transit but the ruling class will not allow it. The small scattered bus and train system it does have is inadequate. Low income working people spend much of their day and income getting back and forth to work from the distant places they have been exiled to by gentrification. These billions could have been much better spent.

  16. I am not the spreading the “Trumpanzee lie”. It’s you and others here and other ubanist websites that continue to spread the lie that traffic disappeared after closing the Embarcadero Freeway. The REAL fact is traffic did not disappear – it only shifted to city streets.

    The media…can be both ways, but I am not talking about the media and their job to create audience-attracting headlines. I am only writing about the facts.

    “City planners at the time did indeed scramble, they responded by removing transit-priority light timing to clear the way for cars. The cars didn’t actually come as expected, but transit suffered.”

    That last paragraph clearly shows you do NOT know what you are talking about! Remove transit-priority light timing? BS. Where in the SOMA/Embarcadero area was there transit-priority light timing?

    FACT: The cars DID come. Like I said, they shifted from the freeway to the city streets.

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