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June 20, 2007

520 Traffic Mess

Microsoft had a brown bag today where they invited the Washington DOT to come in and talk about the plans to replace the 520 bridge, which connects Redmond with Seattle.

When I moved to Seattle in 1990, I lived on the Seattle side of the lake, in Capitol Hill. My commute to work was 20 minutes, no matter what time; traffic wasn't an issue going from Seattle to Redmond. Coming home, there were occasionally some slowdowns between, say, 5 pm and 6 pm, but sometimes there weren't, and if you left a little early or a little late (I tended to leave a little late in those days) then the traffic on 520 wasn't an issue.

Today, if you drive westbound (Redmond to Seattle) over the bridge between about 3 pm and 8 pm you should expect heavy traffic, and between 5 and 7 expect it to take at least an hour to get downtown. That's on good days; it seems that lately every day has been bad, and each time I drive I say to myself, "This is the worst traffic I have ever seen on 520", only have it topped the next time. You can look at a Puget Sound Traffic map to see how things are going; during rush hour expect 520 westbound to be solid "black" (stop and go) from before 405 to the bridge.

Seattle, when I moved here, may have been the last great place in the country--beautiful scenery, nice weather, a software industry ready to explode, and little traffic congestion. Now the traffic is terrible, will likely never get better, and that may be it: there will never be another "great undiscovered city" in the United States. Oh well!

At the brown bag today people were getting a bit irate when it was pointed out that even if things go smoothly and voters approve a large "Roads & Transit" tax package this fall, it will probably take 10 years before a new bridge opens (the DOT has a project website if you want more info on it). A couple of people made the comment that this was going to start hurting Microsoft, because people will quit to avoid having such a nightmare commute (although Google has basically the same commute). I made this same point in an article I wrote about 4 1/2 years ago about the future of Microsoft: "There's an external issue, which is that Seattle might become a less desirable place to live than it has been. The highway system is terribly congested and the public transit system is inadequate, but the state is in an anti-tax mode so there is no money to fix those problems." Not much has changed there, except people might just be desperate enough to vote to fix it. It doesn't help that Microsoft, trying to get out from under the antitrust thumb in the late 1990s, started a right-wing advocacy group which supported Republican candidates (the FIN seems to have morphed a bit and is now mostly supporting generally good Internet safety kinds of issues, but who knows how many conservative crackpots it boosted into office back in the day).

One problem with the current 520 is that up until 405, there is a "2 person or more" carpool lane on the right side, then there is no carpool lane under 405, then after 405 there is a "3 person or more" carpool lane on the right side (it's restricted to 3 or more in that section because it's really just the shoulder of the road, repurposed into a carpool lane, so they don't want a lot of traffic in it). One of the things that the DOT people mentioned was that they were studying moving the carpool lane to the left side, because right now the lane gets hopelessly mingled with people getting off at 405 (to add to the problem, there is an entrance to 520 just before 405, and an exit just after, so there are two more "weaves" to deal with). Moving it to the left would allow carpools to bypass the 405 mess, but then they would need to weave to the right to get to the "3 or more" carpool lanes leading up to the bridge, since those have to stay on the right shoulder (the bridge itself has no carpool lanes, which is one of the reasons they want to replace it). The DOT people were pointing out that this would be a huge problem since the weave disrupts traffic, but I thought of a solution: put a traffic light on the highway at the point where you would need to go from "2 person carpool lane on the left" to "3 person carpool lane on the right". Have the light activated only by buses and only when traffic is moving below a certain speed; the light would stop the general purpose lanes and allow the bus to continue through. Since it would only stop traffic long enough for the bus to get through and it would only activate when traffic was crawling, it wouldn't really slow down the flow of traffic in the general purpose lanes (since in the time it took a bus to weave over the cars that had made the light before it changed wouldn't advance very far ahead of the stopped ones).

(The DOT has done a similar carpool switcheroo in the past; the carpool lanes on 405 used to be on the right. If you've ever wondered, "Gee why is the carpool flyover ramp from 405 south to 90 west on the right side of 405, when the carpool lanes are on the left"--that's why.)

My REAL solution to the 520 bridge mess is to make the entire bridge be HOT, that is, free to high-occupancy vehicles and charging a toll to single-occupancy ones. Because in the end, the solution is to put more people in the same number of vehicles. This would either cut traffic, raise a lot of money, or both. It's a good enough idea to guarantee that it will never happen.

Posted by AdamBa at June 20, 2007 08:58 PM

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>because people will quit to avoid having such a
>nightmare commute (although Google has basically
>the same commute)

Not for long: http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/businesstechnology/2003712850_webgoogle18.html

Posted by: Moishe Lettvin at June 21, 2007 08:23 AM

You're complaining about traffic? Try buying a small condo in Redmond, Kirkland, Bellevue, Issaquah, Sammamish or Seattle. Or try renting. On a new hire's salary.

This will be hurting Microsoft badly in the next few years.

Posted by: Some dude at June 21, 2007 09:21 AM

Some Dude - Your comment on purchasing a house is somewhat valid. However, Microsoft pays more than enough to afford renting in the Redmond area. I was a level 59 college hire in late 2001 and had no problems affording rent on my own. Just thank your lucky stars you don't live in California.

Adam - I respect that you are politically liberal. However, I do find your blanket assertion about conservatives' lack of intelligence somewhat insulting. There are completely valid and logical arguments for a conservative position. Personally, I am a conservative and support many of the ideas which you consider to be "crackpot" ones. Just something to consider.

Posted by: Phil Waligora at June 21, 2007 11:40 AM

Yeah, I agree with Phil. Nobody really cares about your politics and the assertion that conservatives don't care about the environment, traffic, public transit, is just wrong and a blatant generalization. Your political comments have the effect of trashing your credibility.

Posted by: What he said at June 21, 2007 11:59 AM

uh hot on 520 doesn't really "solve" the 520 problem. it will just shift the acute problem from 520 to i90. so the bug is still active, you've just moved it to a different node in your tree of responsibility

Posted by: at June 21, 2007 02:26 PM

What? People read this blog?

Moishe: That is interesting about Google. With their distributed dev environment, why not open an office on the Seattle side. There actually was a company founded by ex-MSFTers called "Westside", more or less on the basis of "All you cool froods who live in Seattle and don't want to cross 520, come work for us". I think they wound up considering opening an Eastside office to catch people like me who live in the suburbs, but they may have gotten bought out first.

Phil/What: In fact I was not attempting to call all conservatives "crackpots"; it's only the ones that are that I object to. Nonetheless I think it is true that conservatives generally are more anti-tax than liberals, and when they want to spend money on transportation it is for more SOV highway lanes, not more rapid ransit and HOV lanes. And I disagree with that position and don't think there is a defensible argument for it.

I also disagree on political comments trashing my credibility. Not writing what I honestly feel is what trashes my credibility. For example I accused Microsoft of doing something wrong in regards to FIN (nobody in HQ noticed so far). I think this helps my credibility, because when I say something good about Microsoft, it means more.

HOT on 520 will help if it pushes people into carpools or buses. The fact is that if you are driving in an SOV at rush hour, you will be stuck in traffic. What we can do is provide good alternatives so people have an option not to sit in an SOV. Right now the buses on 520 spend part of their time (at the 405 interchange) stuck behind the SOV traffic, so people figure why bother riding the bus. There is the slightly disagreeable aspect of the HOT lanes becoming "Lexus lanes" where people with more money can pay to avoid traffic, but I think this is better than the current situation.

I remember once I was talking to a state representative about allowing people to pay some money and be able to drive in the carpool lanes as an SOV. They were talking about $25 a year!! If I'm stuck and about to miss a baseball game, I'd pay $25 a DAY for the privilege.

- adam

Posted by: Adam Barr at June 21, 2007 04:45 PM

No, try again. Making political statements doesn't trash your cred. But making sweeping generalizations about one party ideology or another does. Especially when done at a high level and without any analysis. That type of comment is only half a step removed from sexist or racist comments.

Posted by: Read it again at June 21, 2007 11:45 PM

"That type of comment is only half a step removed from sexist or racist comments."

No it's not. A political ideology is a CHOICE, which you can change if you want, and also choose not to make, and simply state that don't follow any particular ideology. And if you say "I'm a conservative", you are saying you align yourself with the broad conservative philosophy--with sweeping generalizations, in other words. I don't see how someone who claims to be conservative can be insulted by being accused of favoring lower taxes (as an example) when that is one of the things that defines conservatism.

- adam

Posted by: Adam Barr at June 22, 2007 08:41 AM

OK OK. Let's just agree to disagree on this one. I certainly did not intend to start a holy war.

Adam - sorry for starting this. I really did not think it would balloon as it did.

Posted by: Phil at June 22, 2007 08:50 AM

Hey, a post that I actually care about :-).

Some interesting thoughts, although putting a traffic signal on what is basically an interstate highway is a tough one (and might have a negative impact on emissions, even if the congestion impact was minimal). There is a drawbridge on I-278 in NYC, but hopefully we'll be getting rid of that in the not too distance future.

It's been a while since I've driven SR-520, but is there a reason (like a physical constraint) why they can't move the entirety of the HOV lanes to the center (which is operationally a much better configuration), to connect with center HOV lanes on the new bridge (if/when it gets built)?

Congestion pricing/HOT lanes are an area where conservatives and liberals tend to have more agreement, since it satisfies the "free market" desires of conservatives and the "promote transit" desires of liberals (but then again, they also both have reasons not to like it). I will say that Washington State has had some pretty amazingly dumb transportation financing decision thurst upon it, mostly via citizen initiatives.

So, what takes longer: designing and building a major new bridge, or designing and programming a new OS?

Posted by: Joe at June 22, 2007 12:35 PM

Phil: Actually I thought that was a pretty calm exchange...anyway no need to feel bad about starting something.

Joe: I-105 in L.A., at its east end, has a metering traffic light on the ramp to northbound I-605. Only turned on as-needed during rush hour. Presumably 520 is part of the NHS but obviously I-105 is also, so I guess a light is allowed in some circumstances.

Right now they can't move the HOV lane west of 405 to the middle because then the shoulder would have to be the second general-purpose lane, and it's not wide enough. There are also some freeway bus stops on the side of 520. I think part of the 520 bridge plan includes widening the highway leading up to the bridge so that wherever they put the HOV lanes they will have decent shoulders. I don't know how wide the highway is now but I suspect each direction is roughly 30 feet wide (2-foot left-hand "shoulder", two 10-foot lanes, and an 8-foot right-hand shoulder/HOV lane) and they would want to make it at least 50 feet wide (10-foot left-hand shoulder, 3 10-foot lanes, 10-foot right-hand shoulder), or maybe even wider if they go with 12-foot lanes. Plus a 14-foot wide bike path. And that's an expensive neighborhood to plow 60+ extra feet of right-of-way through.

Here's a PDF of the bridge plans (not the highway leading up to it): http://www.wsdot.wa.gov/NR/rdonlyres/442CFB11-B3B0-47C5-A850-48DD326C1530/0/alternatives_options_intro.pdf. Just changing from 4 lanes to 4 lanes + 2 HOV, with proper shoulders and bike path, widens the bridge from 60 feet now to 133 feet in the new plan.

- adam

Posted by: Adam Barr at June 22, 2007 04:35 PM

Here's another PDF showing the Eastside:


Looks like for a 4-lane bridge (that is, just replace the existing one in the same configuration, but make it the right width etc) they would keep the transit stops (thus presumably the HOV lane) on the outside. For the 6-lane bridge (4 GP + 2 HOV), which is what they seem to have settled on, they would move the transit stops on the inside, so presumably the HOV lanes would be on the inside (where I agree they belong).

- adam

Posted by: Adam Barr at June 22, 2007 04:39 PM

People will still not carpool, they'd rather pay the toll and sit alone in their cars then carpool.

Light rail would work better. If we had a good mass transit system, like Toronto or San Francisco or Chicago, we'd be better off.

Also, we need a dictator for a few years who can override all the opposition to the 520 bridge options and just get it built dammit.

Posted by: Sid Singh at June 24, 2007 09:22 PM