Seattle traffic suuuuuuucks. Just about every year, a new study (or several) comes out confirming this, and following the new studies, new headlines. Like this one, from KUOW's website in June of last year: "Surprise? Seattle Traffic Has Only Gotten Worse." (If you're wondering, newcomer, this was definitely not a surprise.) How did it get this way?
This city is built on an isthmus: Before Seattle became Seattle, it was a narrow strip of hilly land between a large freshwater lake and a giant inland sea. Now it's the fastest-growing large city in America! But still: It's a narrow strip of land (an isthmus, if you're feeling fancy) flanked by what's now called Lake Washington and, on the other flank, Puget Sound. It's hard to move hundreds of thousands of people up and down a narrow isthmus every day! But not impossible! Take, for example, Manhattan, which is just as narrow as Seattle's narrowest parts and has somehow figured it out. This raises the question you'll be asking yourself a lot while moving nowhere in your car: Why hasn't Seattle figured it out? Well...
We've built a lot of freeways, but very little mass transit: Once upon a time, there were trolleys running around Seattle, and people rode on them. Early mass transit! Then those trolley lines got ripped out by car-crazed maniacs, freeways started popping up, and only recently have we begun to act on the idea that, oh, yeah, it might be nice to have a network of trolleys in this city again. (The South Lake Union Trolley—aka SLUT—does exist but goes basically nowhere, and it won't be until later this year that we'll have a trolley line connecting Capitol Hill and the International District, and then sometime after that—hopefully!—we'll get more trolley lines that will turn into a functioning network.) The trolley situation is symptomatic of the larger problem: Seattle is coming very late to the idea that MORE FREEWAYS! is not a plan. Sure, we have a (underfunded) public bus network called Metro. Yes, we have an (slowly) expanding light rail line known as Sound Transit. True, we have one (one) underground tunnel for light rail and buses downtown, with another light rail tunnel opening in 2016 to link Capitol Hill and the University District. But it's nowhere near enough.
Meanwhile, we're focusing our energy on a giant car-tunnel boondoggle: You can buy a lot of transit for more than $3 billion, but instead of buying transit, our political leaders—Seattle mayor Ed Murray included—decided, a few years back, to spend more than $3 billion building the world's largest deep-bore car tunnel beneath downtown Seattle. How's that working out? Well, the tunnel-boring machine, known as Bertha, broke down 1,000 feet into the project and has since been out of commission for more than a year. Fixing Bertha will be super expensive, and with soil around the nascent tunnel shifting and the dilapidated double-decker highway above the nascent tunnel sinking, there remains the possibility that, as Seattle City Council member Kshama Sawant put it, our entire sad tunnel story will come to an end when "Pioneer Square sinks into Elliott Bay like Atlantis." (With no car tunnel ever built.) Let us pause now to think about less expensive things that might run through much smaller, much more easily built tunnels. Hm... Oh! Oh! Subway cars! Seattle doesn't have a subway—who knows how to build a subway on a narrow strip of land, anyway?—but if you want to stare bitterly at the future we've failed to build for ourselves, it's over at seattlesubway.org. (And if you want to feel even more bitter, go to web.mta.info/maps/submap.html.)