Transportation Q&A: population growth, mass transit and the I-5 bottleneck
My answers to a gridlock Q&A by the Seattle Times:
Our region is experiencing dramatic population growth. How are we all going to get around in the Pacific Northwest 10 years from now?
There is no question that 10 years from now, the predominant mode of transportation in the Pacific Northwest and around the world will still be automobiles. This is by far the predominant mode of transportation today and is actually growing as a percentage of total trips.
With new innovations coming to the automotive industry, including autonomous vehicles, connected vehicles, electric vehicles and shared vehicles (these innovations combined we call the ACES), there is increased flexibility for drivers. These innovations are making it possible to reduce the total cost of vehicles to the consumer, while at the same time increasing safety and decreasing societal burdens, such as pollution and congestion.
What role will mass transit play in our future? Are we spending too little, too much, or just the right amount on building out our system?
INRIX is the leading provider of traffic data and analytics in the world. We are a private, commercial company and do not take policy positions. But INRIX is headquartered in Kirkland, so our employees care deeply about improving mobility in the Pacific Northwest.
Most data show that bus systems tend to be cost-effective, flexible and improve overall congestion. But what we have seen with the light-rail system in our region has been disappointing. INRIX studied traffic patterns before and after the light-rail line went in, and we observed no decrease in overall congestion either on I-5 or in the related corridors.
This is not a surprise since light rail only carries about 0.23 percent of the region’s trips today. For a system that cost billions, taxpayers could do better. Sixty percent of all public transportation tax dollars in King County is spent on transit, even though projections show less than 4 percent of daily trips will be taking transit even 20 years from now.
Given the current population growth of our region, scarce budget dollars would better be spent improving and expanding roads and freeways, as well as bus service, rather than rail.
I-5 is a constant bottleneck through downtown Seattle. What’s possible in terms of fixing this problem, and would the investment be worth it?
Traffic congestion is caused by economic activity — people going to work, businesses making deliveries and freight moving through our port city to other cities around the country.
During the 2008-2009 recession, we saw a more than 30 percent reduction in congestion, but we don’t think anyone would want to see that again! Therefore, the only real solution to the problem of a growing population and increased economic activity in our region is to add road capacity, use data to make better decisions and leverage technology.
There is no doubt that new capacity can reduce congestion, but most people don’t realize that there are typically half-a-dozen key bottlenecks (such as ramps and interchanges) that would create a dramatic reduction in overall traffic in most cities if they were fixed. The data now exist to identify these bottlenecks, model the impact different alternatives would have and make better investment decisions. T
his is the only way to achieve the biggest bang for the buck. Likewise, technology such as dynamic traffic-signal timing, encouraging shared vehicles such as Uber and Lyft and encouraging autonomous vehicles in our region could also have a positive impact on overall traffic.
Bryan Mistele is president, CEO and co-founder of INRIX, a Kirkland-based traffic intelligence company.