It’s the big news down south in Seattle: Chaos Avoided! Gridlock mysteriously doesn’t happen! How can this be!?

They’re doing some major roadwork on I-5, the freeway that runs through the heart of the city, and only a few lanes are open where traffic is normally congested during the daily commute. Naturally, a major foul-up was predicted on the first day after the closures.

Didn’t happen. Hasn’t happened.

So how come? There’s a column in the Seattle Times by Danny Westneat today that helps explain it all:

The short answer is that this is always what happens….

In 1998, British researchers studied what happened to traffic in more than 100 highway and bridge shutdowns in Europe and the U.S. They found that on average 25 percent of all car trips simply evaporated.

People still went to work. Some commuters drove, some found another way in. Some other trips were just not made.

“Drivers are not stupid,” (Oliver) Downs says. “They change schedules. They don’t take some trips, or they delay them. The net effect of all these little decisions can be dramatic.”

There’s that word again. Is it me, or does “little” keep rearing up when the subject is our big problem, transportation?

Seattle’s primary transit corridor, the downtown bus tunnel, is closed. Gridlock was predicted. We dodged that by doing a “thousand little things,” such as moving bus stops and banning cars from Third Avenue.

Now we have closed part of our largest freeway. Still no gridlock. You drivers made sure of that. You did “fifty thousand little things.”

Yet all the plans for what to do next are big. Build big rail lines. Bigger roads. Paid for by the biggest tax increase.

Maybe some answers to our traffic mess are little ….

Comments

  1. Here in Vancouver, Cambie Street and the Cambie Bridge are down to one lane in each direction (was three each way in peak hours). Where’s the gridlock? Sure, there are delays at the intersections, but that’s mostly for the east-west streets. Granville, Oak and Main all seem to be doing okay.

  2. I’ve read about this kind non-problem occurring after roads being shut down. It happened in San Fransisco recently after the freeway collapse.
    Two questions that I have:
    1) How much road closure would there have to be before we start seeing real gridlock, or will it never happen (obviously, if we shut down *all* roads, then there won’t be any gridlock because no one can drive)?
    2) Does significant road closure have any economic long-term effect? For example, Company A sees that I-5 is closed and decides to hold off shipping its new widgets across town until I-5 is open again for fear of getting bogged down in traffic. This might mean that Company A loses some business.
    One economic effect due to road closures are all the businesses going bust along Cambie St due to the construction. (You can argue that this is due to the *construction* and not the road closure, but my point is that transportation and road changes can always have unintended economic effects.)

  3. Trumpeting a reduction in traffic as glorious masks a very, very simple question:
    Have the costs to those commuters no longer using the route decreased as a result of the road closure? Or have they simply changed the structure of their costs of their journey (i.e. from one composed of a. [wait times + cost of owning a vehicle] to b. [cost of owning a vehicle + alternate commuting costs])??

  4. Trumpeting a reduction in traffic as glorious masks a very, very simple question:
    Have the costs to those commuters no longer using the route decreased as a result of the road closure? Or have they simply changed the structure of their costs of their journey (i.e. from one composed of a. [wait times + cost of owning a vehicle] to b. [cost of owning a vehicle + alternate commuting costs])??

  5. So why hasn’t the City of Vancouver factored this in when deciding what to do with the Burrard Street Bridge?
    The Canada Line project has shown that the street grid can support a redistribution of traffic.
    Meanwhile, heritage groups are readying their ammunition against the City’s planned widening of the Burrard Bridge.
    FYI – got this e-mail last week:
    The City of Vancouver will hold two open houses for the public to view and comment on the proposed plans for Sidewalk Widening and Lighting Upgrades on the Burrard Bridge. The open houses will be held on:
    Saturday, August 25, 2007, 11 AM – 2 PM
    H.R MacMillan Space Centre
    (Ray Whittick Lounge)
    1100 Chestnut street
    Wednesday, August 29, 2007, 4 PM – 7 PM
    Peretz Centre for Secular Jewish Culture
    (Seniors Lounge)
    6184 Ash St
    The proposed plans are to widen the existing sidewalks on the Burrard Bridge to approx. six metres wide in order to provide improved pedestrian and cycling facilities across False Creek. Staff and consultants involved in this project will be present to answer questions and receive comments and feedback.

  6. Just got this update:
    Due to the ongoing labour disruption, the open houses for Sidewalk Widening and Lighting Upgrades on the Burrard Bridge scheduled to be held on August 25 and August 29 will be postponed until further notice. The open houses will be held at later dates and I will inform you of the dates. Sorry for this late notice.

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