August 8/24 update: Seattle Times‘ blog on “the Clog” hasn’t been updated for a few days—another sign that it’s been relatively smooth sailing on I-5, thanks to Seattle-area commuters’ willingness to adapt. (See also our post from last week.)

It’s been on every Seattle resident’s lips for weeks:  the horrible, terrifying prospect of losing two lanes of I-5, just south of downtown, for 19 consecutive days of major maintenance.  The predictions were as uniform as they were dire:  Gridlock!  Pandemonium!! Traffic Armageddon!!!! 

I’m barely exaggerating.  Both major papers featured the lane closure in front page, above-the-fold articles.  It was a top story in local TV news.  And every single one of the stories carried the same storyline—reducing traffic capacity was bound to be a nightmare for commuters.  The Seattle Post-Intelligencer dubbed it “19 days of pain.”  The Olympian warned of a “worst-case scenario [with] idling traffic from Seattle to Tacoma.”  The Ballard News Tribune declared that the closure would “dramatically affect traffic and divert thousands of vehicles onto city streets.”  The Seattle Times even set up a separate blog—dubbed The Clog—to track the impending quagmire.

But as anyone who actually drove on that stretch of road would tell you, the predictions weren’t just overblown.  They were the exact opposite of what actually happened.  Peak commuting-time traffic wasn’t just lighter than expected, it was lighter than at any time in recent memory.

It was, in the words of one post on The [so-called] Clog, “Maybe the best commute ever.”

And I think that this non-event—a big dog that never barked—can teach us all a lesson about traffic.

  • I-5 closure map 150First of all, some visuals. The online traffic congestion maps for yesterday’s commute were the clearest I’d ever seen them—so clear that I assumed that the system was completely malfunctioning (adding insult to injury on the very day when traffic warnings were most necessary).

    But no, the online maps were working fine; traffic really was a breeze. And as the map to the left shows, today’s traffic was, again, about as smooth as I’ve ever seen it mid-week. Click here, or on the map, for a bigger version—and compare the pretty, free-flowing northbound I-5 lanes with the much more clogged traffic from last Tuesday. (Though, admittedly, traffic last Tuesday was pretty tame, compared with the snarl that’s so common in rainy wintertime.)

    Second, a confession: I wasn’t at all confident that traffic would be so breezy. Regarding the closure of Seattle’s Alaskan Way Viaduct, I’ve been cautiously optimistic that gridlock could be averted, provided that drivers are given time to adjust, and some alternate means of commuting. But while I thought the same thing was possible for temporary restriction of I-5, I was quite worried that it really would send Seattle traffic into a tailspin. I guess I should have had the courage of my convictions.

    Third, a guess: I think there were two key ingredients to preventing gridlock: massive publicity about the problem, plus ample time for commuters to adjust. The construction project hit the news well over a month ago, so everyone had time to plan. Some commuters figured out ways to avoid taking their morning trips by, say, working from home, or scheduling vacations. Others figured out other ways of commuting: driving on side streets, taking buses or the Sounder commuter train, or even piling into passenger ferries from West Seattle—all of which were reportedly packed. By making sure that everyone knew long enough to make alternate plans, transportation planners gave Seattle’s commuters a chance to prove how wily and flexible they really are.

    Fourth, an observation: apparently, the reason that commuting by car is so aggravating is that so many people do it! Give people a good reason—or, in this case, what seemed like an imperative—to get out of their cars, and commuting can be a lot more pleasant for everyone.

    Fifth, a lesson. The two lanes that were closed would otherwise have carried about 3,000 cars during the rush hour peak. Coincidentally, hat’s a just a bit more than the traffic volume that enters Viaduct every day from south of the West Seattle on-ramp.

    Now, I’m not saying that the two cases are parallel—that closing I-5 for a few slow summer weeks is exactly the same thing as closing the Viaduct for good. But if the traffic engineers’ dire predictions for gridlock on I-5 didn’t come true this time, isn’t it possible that commuters will be every bit as clever and flexible—and the transportation network every bit as resilient—once the Viaduct comes down?