Soundings

Ethan Epstein
Streetless in Seattle
The mayor imposes a diet on cars.
Autumn 2011

Mike McGinn, the mayor of Seattle, won office in 2009 after making transportation policy a centerpiece of his campaign. He catapulted himself over his establishment-friendly opponents, including the incumbent, by vigorously opposing the construction of a multibillion-dollar highway tunnel beneath the city’s waterfront. McGinn also gained fame for bicycling to and from campaign events. And he promised to put Seattle on a “road diet” in which car lanes on many busy multilane roads would be converted into bike lanes. The city’s paper of record, the Seattle Times, has called McGinn “philosophically anti-car.” A former Washington State Sierra Club chairman, McGinn likens autos to in-laws: “You want to have good relations with them, but you don’t want them to run your lives.”

Sure enough, when McGinn became mayor, he began pursuing anti-car policies. He’d like to levy an $80 fee for registering a car in Seattle, and he has raised taxes on parking in privately owned garages. He now plans to raise parking-meter rates downtown to $4 an hour from $2.50, which would make it costlier to park in Seattle than in any other American city except Chicago. He also supports maintaining the so-called head tax, which docks businesses $25 annually for every employee who drives alone to work.

But McGinn’s road diet, which went into effect in July, is probably his most audacious idea. As the centerpiece of the city’s $240 million “Bicycle Master Plan,” which mandates the construction of 118 miles of bike lanes and 19 miles of trails by 2017, the diet will convert 3 percent of Seattle’s car lanes into bike lanes. Even major freight routes, including one that leads to Boeing Field, will see car and truck lanes converted to bike-only use.

The plan has generated fierce resistance, with civic organizations springing up in opposition, posting signs and circulating petitions. McGinn, meanwhile, has courted controversy for his cozy relationship with local cycling groups. In May, he bestowed a $95,000-a-year city hall job on his friend David Hiller, who heads the Cascade Bicycle Club, an advocacy group. The perceived cronyism has spurred a campaign, led by Seattle activist and businessman Michael Cornell, to recall the mayor. It’s clear, however, that the recall campaign is about more than McGinn’s relationship with Hiller. McGinn’s policy, Cornell says, “is a war waged on people who drive cars.”

Factors both meteorological and topographical make Seattleites unlikely to forgo cars as their primary means of transportation. Rain falls more than 150 days a year in this famously gloomy city, rendering cycling both unpleasant and unsafe. And Seattle’s ubiquitous steep hills make San Francisco look like Des Moines. It’s hardly surprising that, according to the Seattle Department of Transportation, a mere 2,600 people—out of a total downtown workforce of 230,000—commuted downtown by bicycle in 2009.

McGinn is correct that Seattle’s transportation infrastructure needs an overhaul. The city’s traffic congestion is horrendous. The GPS manufacturer TomTom conducted a 2009 study that measured the speed with which automobiles navigated streets in cities nationwide; it found Seattle’s roads the most congested in the country, with Los Angeles taking second place. True, Seattle’s congestion has decreased slightly in real terms over the past decade—but the state’s DOT attributes this achievement to highway-widening projects and the advent of dedicated carpool lanes.

Seattle’s public-transit system is also lacking. The city is nearly twice the size of Boston in square mileage, yet it has no subway. Seattle’s bus service is infrequent and slow-moving, and it’s bound to get slower, since city buses will lose some lanes to the road diet.

McGinn hopes that his reforms will lead to fewer cars on the streets. But a devastating 2004 report from the Federal Highway Administration found that road diets did nothing to alleviate congestion; indeed, they made matters worse. “For road diets with ADTs [average daily traffic] above approximately 20,000 vehicles,” said the report, “there is a greater likelihood that traffic congestion will increase to the point of diverting traffic to alternate routes.” Then again, that may be the point. Road-diet advocates freely admit that one of their goals is to “slow traffic,” and congestion is certainly one way of doing that.

McGinn’s scheme comes as cyclist groups are becoming potent political forces in progressive cities. The Cascade Bicycle Club is credited with doing the lobbying that led to the Bicycle Master Plan. Chicago, New York, San Francisco, and others also have such groups, which organize in support of bicycle lanes and bicycle parking. Often, they adopt the language of ethnic interest groups, referring to themselves as “the cycling community” and attempting to frame their choice of transportation as a matter of personal identity. Their lobbying has proved markedly successful: Chicago, for example, is now undertaking its own bike-lane construction project, and New York City plans to have 1,800 miles of bike lanes in place by 2030.

Maybe it’s a sign of these politically polarized times that something as seemingly nonideological as commuting has become the latest manifestation of identity politics. In Seattle and elsewhere, citizens could pay a significant price for that development.

Ethan Epstein is a writer based in Portland, Oregon.

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