City of Seattle practically forces you to break traffic laws

Apr 25, 2016, 12:30 PM | Updated: 2:26 pm

Mercer Street, Seattle traffic...

Traffic laws are often broken near Mercer Street. (Jason Rantz/KIRO Radio)

(Jason Rantz/KIRO Radio)

Last Friday, I had a rare night off, as I was filling in for Dori in mid-days. While I always love the chance to get new ears on the show, part of me dreads the commute home because whenever you go anywhere near Mercer Street on a weekday, you have to add 15-40 minutes to your commute. Traffic is so bad near Mercer that the Seattle Department of Transportation essentially forces you to break traffic laws if you want any hope of even crossing an intersection in a reasonable amount of time.

You’ll recall last year, and again early this year, SDOT was warning drivers not to “Block the Box.”

Block the box happens when you don’t fully clear the intersection by the time your traffic signal turns red – you end up blocking the crosswalk or intersection, making it unsafe for people crossing the street and cars trying to reach their destination. Even a person walking in the crosswalk against the light, when they don’t have the right of way, can also block the box.

They say the traffic will flow better if you avoid blocking the box. They’re mostly wrong: traffic won’t flow at all for a good portion of drivers.

There are a number of disastrous chokepoints due to a combination of too many cars and total incompetence by the SDOT traffic engineers, who don’t seem to understand the driving experience in Seattle. If we had a City Traffic Engineer who drives and understands the driver experience, we might have solutions.

Fairview Avenue N at Valley St is always congested southbound. The left turn signal to get on I-5 lasts just seconds, not allowing enough cars to get onto the freeway on-ramps. As a result, the one lane to get into the turning lanes is always congested to the box. Drivers realistically have two options, both illegal: get in the box so that you might slowly creep into the turning lane or get into the empty lane to drive past Mercer, and just camp out, waiting for an opening (this almost never works coming from Fairview because of drivers going southbound from Valley Street trying to jump in the turning lanes). If you don’t block the box, you’ll be stuck at the light at Fairview for most of your commute home.

The next chokepoint is where Valley Street and Broad Street meet, across Westlake Avenue N. Again, if you don’t block the box, you won’t ever get onto Westlake. The signal turns green when it’s a red light for drivers on Westlake at Mercer. So what ends up happening is you get a green signal and those who want to turn left can’t because the entire street is congested with cars. On my drive home in the 4pm hour on Friday, I waited three signal cycles just to stay on Valley because of the backup of cars (and a bus) wanting to make a left (a Metro bus and several cars ended up breaking traffic laws to get to where they needed to).

Related: Embarrassing, shocking implications in SDOT ethics complaint

The same exact chokepoint exists at Broad St and 9th Ave N, where a traffic light turns green but the light one block ahead is red and congested with cars. Again, if you don’t block the box, you’ll never make it across the intersection.

How is this all happening? It would be a lie to downplay the number of cars on the road causing problems, but it would be even more foolish to pretend a mix of incompetence and disinterest by SDOT doesn’t play a big role.

The City Traffic engineer, Dongho Chang, doesn’t drive in Seattle. He usually bikes, and sometimes takes the bus; he spends his day on Twitter posting photos of bike lanes and sidewalks, specifically acting as an evangelist for anything-but-driving.

How can we have a traffic engineer who doesn’t truly know what it’s like to drive in Seattle? It’s as silly as having a driver who never bikes dictate the future of bike lanes in Seattle. What informs these jobs if not, at least in part, understanding the experience?

SDOT, lead by bike activist Scott Kubly (currently under investigation), is filled with workers who don’t understand the driving experience. That’s mostly by design: drivers are not a priority for these people. Consequently, the only way to get around or onto Mercer during the afternoon commute is to break traffic laws. We shouldn’t be doing that; perhaps SDOT will stop forcing people into the choice of breaking a traffic law, or never getting home.

Jason Rantz on AM 770 KTTH
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City of Seattle practically forces you to break traffic laws