Let me be clear: I love driving on the Alaskan Way Viaduct. Its narrow lanes and lack of any visible safety features give it the rickety, exhilarating feel of a vintage roller coaster. And if I'm willing to risk a high-speed glance out my side windows, the view of Puget Sound, the Olympics, and Washington's best mix of urban architecture is stunning. A friend once sneered at the viaduct view as "a poor man's penthouse," but if I'm picking up an out-of-town visitor from the airport, I'm sure to bring them north on State Route 99 to show off my adopted hometown.
But the viaduct I love is doomed.
As we all know by now, the two-tiered behemoth skirting the western edge of the city is aging, crumbling, and seismically unsound. It sustained millions of dollars' worth of damage in the Nisqually earthquake in 2001, and state transportation officials say that the odds are one in 20 that a stronger quake will shake it to pieces within 10 years. The mayor, the chamber of commerce, the port, and the state Department of Transportation all want it replaced. And with both the city establishment and Mother Nature gunning for it, it seems as if it's not a matter of whether the viaduct will go, but when.
The city's original ambition was to replace the entire length of the viaduct with a tunnel, at the comically high cost of $11 billion. (The viaduct originally cost about $8 million, or roughly $54 million in today's dollars.) The tunnel would have been a financial stretch in flush times and with a free-spending statewide electorate. Right now, Seattle can count on neither. Last November's defeat of R-51, which would have covered less than five percent of the cost of the tunnel option, forced transportation officials to pare back their plans and look for a new way to replace the viaduct.
But in the welter of studies and arguments over how to keep the traffic flowing--and the scramble to convince voters and state legislators to pay for a new highway--precious few voices are raising a more basic question: Is the viaduct really necessary? Would we have a better city if we didn't spend billions of dollars to funnel thousands of automobiles each day into, and through, the most vibrant economic and cultural zone in the state?
Might the best option of all be to tear down the viaduct, and build nothing in its place?
As with all urban highways, the biggest benefit of the viaduct is also its chief drawback: It makes the downtown more accessible to cars. For those who choose to live in sparsely populated suburbs, where the car is a necessity for virtually every trip, the idea that auto-fueled mobility is a drawback might seem absurd. But cars and cities don't mix well.
The reasons for this uneasy coexistence start with a simple fact: Cars take up space that would be better put to other purposes. Between streets, highways, interchanges, on-street parking, parking lots, and parking garages, as much as a quarter of the typical urban landscape is devoted to the automobile. If Seattle's downtown had fewer cars, some of that land could be used for housing, stores, commerce, and public spaces--the things that make a city worth living and doing business in.
Cars are also hard on walkers. Traffic engineers tend to design roads and highways to facilitate the smooth flow of traffic, giving short shrift to pedestrians. In fact, their standard text, the Highway Capacity Manual, refers to walkers as "traffic flow impediments."
Automobiles are also first-order environmental offenders, responsible for an inordinate share of urban air and water pollution, as well as climate-warming emissions. But of all the blights that accompany the car, it is the urban highway that has the most devastating impact. Noisy, ugly, impersonal, and dehumanizing, freeways are engineered as if the people who live and work near them don't matter. Seattle wisely decided to cap a part of Interstate-5 running through downtown, but the highway still bifurcates the city nearly as effectively as does the ship canal--and at least the canal is nice to look at. Similarly, downtown Seattle's waterfront real estate would be far more attractive and valuable if it weren't for the viaduct's gray concrete pall.
Some argue that Americans are so enamored of their automobiles that U.S. cities--Seattle included--simply can't thrive without highway access. The evidence suggests otherwise. Many downtowns with tremendous freeway access have atrophied over the past four decades. The hollowed-out, freeway-packed core of Detroit, the Motor City itself, is Exhibit A. At the same time, cities with poor freeway access to downtown are doing quite well. According to James Corless, California director of the Surface Transportation Policy Project (STPP), a nonprofit research and advocacy group, urban freeway plans were "fully completed in all but five major American cities: New York, Boston, San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and New Orleans. Now," he says, "you tell me if those aren't some of the most vibrant, sought-after downtowns in the country."
Vancouver, BC, offers another example. During the 1960s, city planners contemplated building an extensive freeway system, and had even hired some of the same engineers who worked on Los Angeles' highways to plan it. But a visit to Seattle by officials from Vancouver's Town Planning Commission helped cure city officials of the highway bug. Peter Oberlander, who chaired the commission at the time, recalls observing how I-5 "sliced the city in half, and devastated neighborhoods." The visit helped change minds: City councilors ultimately rejected the Vancouver freeway plan as too destructive to the fabric of the city. Instead, the city opted to force traffic onto city streets, even if it meant more congestion, and to give greater priority to transit than to cars. Former Vancouver City Councilor Gordon Price calls the failure to build urban highways "the best thing that never happened to the city."
Vancouver is congested, admits Price, but that hasn't scared away new residents. In fact, congestion seems to have channeled growth into the urban core, rather than out of it. Many residents decided that, rather than live in the suburbs and fight traffic, they'd beat traffic by moving downtown. Tens of thousands of new residents have flocked to downtown Vancouver over the past decade, fueling an urban revival unparalleled in other Northwest cities.
And as paradoxical as it may seem, traffic is actually getting better in Vancouver's downtown, not worse. Auto trips in the central city have declined at the same time that walking and biking have flourished. Attracting more residents into downtown actually relieved congestion, a result that no city planners expected. And even outside the city core, traffic is no worse than it is in Seattle--where, despite at least 18 highway lanes running through and into downtown, residents are stranded in some of the worst gridlock in North America.
It's worth putting Puget Sound's notorious congestion in perspective. Traffic is getting worse in virtually every major urban area in the country. Congestion is largely a function of population: Larger cities tend to be more congested than smaller ones, and congestion increases as population grows. Urban density doesn't seem to affect traffic much: Sprawling cities such as Atlanta are roughly as congested as New York. And increased road capacity doesn't help reduce congestion; some cities spent billions to fight congestion by increasing road capacity, but traffic expanded to fill whatever new space it was given. As long as our society remains affluent, our roads free, and parking abundant, congestion is simply going to remain a fact of urban living.
But if traffic simply grows to fill available road capacity, does that mean reducing road capacity will reduce traffic volumes? The answer is a qualified yes. Todd Litman, director of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute, a transportation think tank, points to a slew of studies showing that "when you reduce road capacity, a significant portion of vehicle traffic simply disappears." Drivers find other ways of getting around, move their trips to different times of the day, or choose destinations closer to home.
This is precisely what happened when San Francisco removed its Embarcadero Freeway. Like the viaduct, the Embarcadero was a double-decker aerial highway hugging the city's waterfront. When it was damaged in the 1989 Loma Prieta quake, city officials decided, after a controversial deliberation, to pull it down and turn it into a street-level boulevard, with traffic controlled by stoplights. "There were dire predictions that downtown San Francisco would turn into a chaotic tangle of gridlock after the freeway came down," says STPP's Corless, "but the traffic never materialized. People found other options."
Pulling down the highway turned out to be just what the San Francisco waterfront needed. The palm-lined boulevard now sports vintage trolleys, the old ferry terminal is being redeveloped into an indoor market, and real estate values along the old freeway are soaring as people and businesses move in. The Giants even chose the Embarcadero waterfront for their new baseball stadium. "We used to have just another highway," says STPP's Corless. "Now we have one of the nicer waterfronts in the country." So successful was the city's experiment with highway removal that San Francisco voters just voted to tear down the city's Central Freeway--also a double-decker--and replace it with a boulevard.
Closer to home, Portland removed its Harbor Drive freeway in 1974, and replaced it with a park stretching 22 blocks along the Willamette River. The park reconnected the downtown with the waterfront, and downtown Portland was much better off without the extra traffic capacity. "The trick with cities," says Charlie Hales, former chair of the transportation committee of Portland's city council, "is designing them as great places to live, not designing them to move people around and through them as fast as possible." In Hales' view, an effective urban transportation system provides a wide array of viable choices, including transit, walking, and biking, in addition to cars.
"If you build a great place and give people lots of choices," says Hales, "people figure it out."
So let's check the score: San Francisco has gotten rid of one freeway, with great success and no extra gridlock, and the city is beginning to pull down another. Portland ripped up a waterfront freeway in 1974. Vancouver took one look at the damage freeways did to Seattle, and decided not to build any. That leaves Seattle as the only major city in the Pacific Northwest, liberally defined, where city officials still revere the urban freeway.
Of course, part of the reason is geographic: Seattle is hemmed in on both sides by water, so north-south traffic has no option but to go through the city. Nobody wants through traffic pushed onto city streets, and city officials see the viaduct, which carries about a quarter of all north-south traffic in Seattle, as indispensable in part because there are so few alternative routes. While San Francisco's water-locked geography is similar to Seattle's, the Embarcadero didn't serve the same function as north-south conduit in that city's transportation system.
Given these problems, is it really possible for Seattle to pull off the same trick as San Francisco and Portland by pulling down its waterfront highway? Seattle City Council Member Richard Conlin, chair of the council's transportation committee, thinks so. Conlin is the lone voice on the city council calling for an in-depth look at replacing the viaduct with a grand boulevard similar to the one that now graces the San Francisco waterfront. He's confident that other council members will become more open to the boulevard option as they learn more about it, and he's making efforts to promote the idea among the city's big thinkers. This Friday, March 14, he and three other Seattle transportation illuminati will be headlining a public discussion of the boulevard option hosted by Allied Arts of Seattle.
Conlin's support for a surface highway isn't set in stone. He ticks off three questions that would have to be answered about the boulevard option: "First, can we provide a package of transit and other alternatives to get people from Ballard and West Seattle into and out of downtown? Second, can we create an attractive, desirable boulevard that's an asset to the city? And third, can we handle the freight issues, to make sure that businesses in the [viaduct] corridor can move their goods quickly?
"I have a high level of confidence that we can solve the problem of moving people," he continues, "and we can create an attractive waterfront. The big unanswered question is freight." Conlin thinks two new ideas should be on the table: creating a freight ferry between Pier 90 and Harbor Island, and constructing a single-decked tunnel (potentially cheaper than the budget-busting double-decker that had been planned) underneath the boulevard. The tunnel could be reserved for through traffic, with no exits downtown. The Seattle Times editorial board has no kind words for the boulevard proposal, and pooh-poohed Conlin's ferry idea in particular as "outrageous." But given the enormous cost of replacing the viaduct's capacity--and the obvious benefits to downtown of getting rid of the current structure--city planners have to start looking at creative ways to get the job done more cheaply. Isn't the real outrage a closed mind?
Nobody can know exactly what the city would be like if the viaduct were torn down. But picture, just for a moment, the best-case scenario, based on the experiences of San Francisco, Portland, and Vancouver. After tearing down the highway, views would improve, and more city residents, tourists, and workers would spend time (and money) in businesses along the former road corridor. Over a few years, developers would move in to create new housing, office buildings, and stores, initiating a virtuous cycle of reinvestment. New residents and tourists would be attracted to downtown, supporting existing businesses and helping to create new ones. Street life would flourish as formerly disconnected parts of the city were reunited, improving commerce and connections among neighborhoods.
Now, while you're in the imagining mood, try to imagine one thing more: replacing the words "the viaduct" with "I-5."
The same reasoning that suggests that getting rid of the viaduct would be good for Seattle's downtown can also be applied to the massive interstate that bisects the city. Despite the fact that I-5 is lidded by a park and the convention center for a few blocks through downtown, the interstate is ugly, loud, and imposing, and creates an unnatural barrier in a city already riddled with natural ones. "The engineering standards for freeways make sense for a rural area," says Portland's Hales. "But putting a facility like that smack through downtown does real damage to the fabric of a city."
And what damage it did. By the time I-5 was completed in 1965, it had torn apart the neighborhoods all along the western slope of Capitol Hill and the South Lake Union area. Former Seattle resident Terry Benish, who now lives in Kitsap, remembers the neighborhood his grandparents grew up in as "vibrant with homes, bakeries, grocery stores, churches, and small businesses." But their home was condemned to make way for the Mercer Street onramp. Benish's story isn't atypical; more than 5,000 households were displaced to make way for I-5. In the Eastlake neighborhood alone more than 100 homes were destroyed, along with many businesses and even a church. The area never fully recovered from the blow.
Though some residents hailed the new interstate as a sign of progress, not all did. In an early act of antifreeway fervor, dozens of Seattle residents staged a march along the prospective I-5 route through downtown Seattle, protesting the open trench that would soon divide their city. As well they should have. According to Chris Leman, secretary of the Eastlake Community Council, "Elderly residents of our neighborhood remember when they could stroll up to Capitol Hill to visit friends, parks, and stores. And now, I-5 is just a barrier--a noisy, poisonous wall."
The idea that highways could enliven downtown areas in major cities by making them accessible to people living in the suburbs was prevalent when I-5 was planned and constructed. Today the notion seems like a cruel joke. Freeways did far more to siphon the life out of cities--including Seattle's city core--than to enrich them. Locally, only in the last decade--as traffic congestion has made the commute from the suburbs more daunting--have downtown neighborhoods such as Belltown begun to attract new residents.
So it's easy to see that I-5 has been more of a bane than a blessing to the city. But it's harder to see, exactly, what to do about it. Like it or not, the highway has altered where and how we've chosen to live, fueling the growth of sprawling suburbs where cars seem to be the only viable transportation option. And while a handful of cities have been successful at removing highways, none has managed to uproot a highway as big and central as I-5. The public opposition from the people and businesses that have grown to depend on the highway would be enormous.
Short of removing I-5, there are ways of healing some of the wounds that I-5 has inflicted on the city. Bruce Agnew and Bruce Chapman of the Cascadia Project (part of the Discovery Institute, a quirky think tank in downtown Seattle) have some suggestions. In a recently released report, "How Do We Get There from Here?" the duo combined an old idea (putting a lid over I-5 all the way through downtown) with a novel financial scheme--selling or leasing the real estate on top of the lid to help pay for its construction. Such a lid, which they hope would extend all the way from Mercer Street to the I-90 interchange, would help reconnect downtown with the surrounding neighborhoods, protect residents from the noise and pollution of the highway, and provide more space for businesses and residences to expand.
The plan's clearest flaw--besides what is likely to be an exorbitant expense--is its call for increasing the car-carrying capacity of I-5. The report claims that the new capacity would be worth the cost, because it would ameliorate congestion and increase traffic safety. But if experience is any judge, new highway capacity will do little to relieve congestion; like a gas, traffic expands to fill whatever space it's given. And funneling more cars downtown would generate more noise, pollution, and congestion on city streets.
There are other, better ideas for squeezing more people-moving capacity out of the I-5 corridor without adding more cars downtown. Peter Hurley, executive director of Seattle's Transportation Choices Coalition, proposes turning the reversible express lanes leading north from downtown into permanent, two-way high-occupancy vehicle lanes. Currently, the lanes can be clogged with drive-alone commuters. Eliminating the single-occupancy cars would make the other transportation options more attractive, maintaining or even increasing mobility without increasing the flow of autos into the city.
But the real coup in transportation planning, Hurley suggests, would be to make car trips unnecessary. "Transportation planning shouldn't just be about moving as many cars as possible into and through the city," says Hurley.
Combining some of the best ideas from different quarters could slowly reduce I-5's impacts on the city, while preserving mobility and access for city residents. We could extend the downtown lid over I-5, reconnecting the central business district with the neighborhoods to the east, while providing more space for businesses, housing, or parks. To reduce car traffic into downtown we could convert the express lanes into bi-directional HOV and transit-only lanes. We could dedicate a couple of lanes of I-5 to through traffic, with no possibility of exit from Northgate to I-90. We could improve transit service by converting one lane in each direction for monorails, trains, or buses. And we could subject all road users to tolls collected automatically using wireless "phantom tollbooth" technologies. Instituting all of these changes could take years, even decades, to complete.
When I-5 was first on the drawing board, planners and businesses considered it imperative to bring the highway through the center of downtown. According to local historian Walt Crowley, director of Historylink.org, "There was nothing on the Eastside to justify a major highway." But as I-5 began to fill up, I-405 was constructed as an outlet valve, so that freight and throughtraffic would have a way to get around in Puget Sound without having to go through Seattle's congested downtown. Today, the existence of I-405 eliminates at least one rationale for saving I-5. No longer is I-5 the only option for long-distance trips north and south of the city. Trucks and cars that aren't traveling to central Seattle are already able to travel around it.
If Seattle can slowly wean itself from I-5, and rid itself of many of the freeway's ill effects, a time may come when we can contemplate removing it altogether. At that point, 405 could become the "new" I-5. It sounds radical now, but in 20 or 30 years we may look back at the first decade of this century and decide that, just as we tore down the wall that cut Seattle off from its waterfront, the time has come to tear down I-5.
Clark Williams-Derry is the research director for Northwest Environment Watch, a research and communications center in Seattle. Williams-Derry drives to work on I-5 three days a week.