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Originally published August 30, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified August 30, 2007 at 2:05 AM


Guest columnist

The great clog of '07: Seattle met the challenge

Remember the Y2K bug? If you listened to the hype — and many did — it was supposed to be an unavoidable calamity, an inevitable...

Special to The Times

Remember the Y2K bug? If you listened to the hype — and many did — it was supposed to be an unavoidable calamity, an inevitable and disastrous chain reaction of computer failures that would cascade throughout the globe, shutting down everything from power systems to hospitals. But then, Jan. 1, 2000 dawned, and ... nothing happened. The hype went up in smoke, all the dire predictions proven absolutely wrong.

Well, we've just experienced our own version of the Y2K bug: the partial closure of Interstate 5, the state's most trafficked highway, on a crowded stretch leading into the heart of the most concentrated employment district in the state.

Listening to the news stories beforehand, it was supposed to be an absolute nightmare, with predictions ranging from "19 days of pain" to bumper-to-bumper gridlock extending all the way south to Tacoma. The conversation that dominated the water cooler was people's strategies for dealing with the Big Clog.

Then, on the first Monday of the closures, Aug. 10, the commute came and ... nothing happened. Drivers heeded the warnings, and many stayed out of their cars, finding other ways to get to work, from the Sounder to water taxis to commuter buses to temporary work stations set up by far-sighted employers. In fact, not only was there no traffic disaster, it was, in the words of one commenter on The Seattle Times traffic blog, "The best commute ever."

Traffic got a little worse later in the first week — but remained far better than average, despite slowdowns through the construction zone. The sharpest complaints were about a lack of parking spaces near Sounder stations.

Now that we know how the story turned out, it's tempting to poke fun at all the dire predictions. Yet the hype itself deserves much of the credit for the averted disaster. Ample and frequent warnings gave commuters a chance to plan alternative ways to get to work. (And remember, little new transit service was added during the closure. For the most part, it was just the existing buses, trains and side roads that handled the overflow.)

The main lesson from The Clog That Wasn't is this: The conventional wisdom about traffic just isn't right. We tend to think that Seattle commuters are tied to their cars and can't — or won't — use alternative modes of transportation in large numbers. But that notion was just turned on its head. As it turns out, commuters are much more adaptable, flexible and wilier than we give them credit for.

If drivers have meaningful travel choices and the right kinds of information and incentives, they can, in fact, get out of their cars. And if everything goes right, they can handle even an allegedly calamitous disruption with ease and grace.

This lesson — that traffic is more flexible than we think — should teach us something about today's transportation debates. For example, the amount of northbound traffic diverted from I-5 was just about equal to the volumes that enter the Alaskan Way Viaduct every day from south of the West Seattle onramp. The two cases are not precisely parallel — closing I-5 for a few slow summer weeks is certainly not exactly the same thing as closing the viaduct for good.

Yet the fact that the existing transportation system sufficed to forestall a disaster should give us more confidence that, with modest improvements in transit and traffic flow, the region's commuters can find workable commuting solutions without the massive costs and neighborhood disruption of rebuilding the viaduct.

I don't know about you, but my money is on greater Seattle's commuters. We've proven ourselves to be a crafty bunch — if we can outwit an I-5 lane closure, with a little help I bet we can handle just about anything.

Clark Williams-Derry is research director for Sightline Institute, a Seattle-based research and communication center.

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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