Where did all the cars go?
Seattle avoids “Viadoom” and inadvertently shows the country why Washington state shouldn’t have spent $3.1 billion on a new highway
“The cars just disappeared. Where did they all go?”
Up until a couple of weeks ago, Seattle’s Alaskan Way Viaduct carried 90,000 cars a day. The thoroughfare was a major highway that traveled through Washington’s biggest city but had long been on the chopping block as part of a massive $3.1 billion project to replace it with a new tunnel.
After years of delays (mostly caused by the tunnel boring machine, nicknamed Bertha, getting stuck underground for two years), the new passageway will finally open in early February. That said, the old highway closed on January 11, 2019.
This period between the Viaduct’s shutdown and the tunnel’s ribbon cutting was expected to be a traffic-induced nightmare billed as “Viadoom,” Seattle’s own version of Los Angeles’ “carmageddon.” The 90,000 cars usually on the highways were going to crowd roads all over the city. One Seattle radio traffic reporter predicted that Viadoom would lead to the “worst gridlock we’ve ever seen.”
But Seattle is now a couple of weeks in, and Viadoom hasn’t been all that bad. Rather than a transportation apocalypse, the closure has led to fewer cars on the road. David Gutman, a reporter for the Seattle Times, captured the city’s collective reaction when he wrote: “The cars just disappeared. Where did they all go?”
So where did they all go? Expecting clogged streets, people ditched their cars for walking biking, taking transit or some combination of all three. Alternatively, they opted to work from home or travel during traditional off hours. Simply put, people adjusted. They found new ways to get around. And, by and large, people seem to be enjoying their new commutes.
More than five years ago, U.S. PIRG called this project one of the nation’s most wasteful highway boondoggles (check it out in the very first edition of our Highway Boondoggles report). We argued that the less expensive transit-based alternative that was put in place as a stop-gap during construction could have been expanded. This less disruptive approach would have achieved nearly all the same goals as the tunnel project — but for far less money. It would have promoted cleaner and more sustainable travel through increased access to bus services, as well as walking and biking infrastructure. The old highway was crumbling and needed to come down, but the new tunnel wasn’t necessary.
The Viadoom’s lack of doom may seem surprising, but it really shouldn’t be. It’s just a reverse illustration of the “induced demand” concept of highway expansion. Induced demand basically states that highways are like baseball diamonds in cornfields: “If you build it, they will come.”
Expanding a highway sets off a chain reaction of societal decisions, which ultimately leads to an often very quick return to congestion. Businesses may choose to move or establish new locations on the outskirts of the city in order to take advantage of the enlarged highway. Anticipating a viable commute, people may decide to move farther away in pursuit of cheaper housing. Commuters who previously left early for work could begin traveling at rush hour again because they assume there will be less traffic. People who took transit might get back in their cars. This cycle, is so predictable that it has a name: the “Fundamental Law of Road Congestion.”
Seattle currently offers a model for the opposite. With just a temporary lack of highway capacity, locals are getting out of their cars and finding other ways to get around. It’s healthier, it’s more sustainable and it’s more efficient.
Unfortunately, it’s also fleeting. Perhaps Washington didn’t need to spend $3.1 billion on a new highway, but it did. This will undoubtedly bring more cars onto the road. So, Seattle, enjoy the respite while it lasts. As for the rest of the country, take note: Spending billions of dollars on new highway projects won’t lead to the consequences you desire.