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September 6, 2009

News & Features

Let's get along: Tips for drivers dealing with Seattle's mass-transit boom

Special to NWautos

Streetcar parking

Drivers needs to park within the white lines in South Lake Union so the streetcar can pass. (Photo by Cody Ellerd)

Light rail, the streetcar and good old Joe Metro: Public transportation is hotter than this summer's heat wave, and Seattle is leading the country in ridership growth. This all looks great on paper, but the view from where many of us are sitting -- in our cars, stuck in traffic, yielding to everything not on four wheels -- is increasingly complicated. Here are some tips for sharing the road.

Link light rail
While it spares us from having to share our precious road space, thanks to its dedicated tracks, the new light rail has created some additional headaches along Martin Luther King Jr. Way. Turning left onto or off of the street is something we used to take for granted; now, those intersections are a luxury.

Eric Widstrand, a traffic engineer with the Seattle Department of Transportation, says it's true that the light-rail tracks make left turns impossible at many intersections where they were permitted before. He says, however, that SDOT has made sure to provide opportunities to make left-hand or U-turns at frequent intervals. And there should be no mystery as to where they're OK and where they're not. The signs are abundant and clear, he says.

Crashes are another concern. Two cars collided with light-rail trains during testing, and if other cities' light-rail statistics are any basis of comparison, those two won't be the last.

To make sure you're not next, Widstrand says, "Obey the law." Both of the previous collisions were blamed on motorists making illegal left turns with trains approaching. "We've got those traffic restrictions in place for a reason, and there are consequences for people who don't observe those restrictions," he says.

South Lake Union streetcar
Unlike light-rail trains, streetcars don't have dedicated lanes; the tracks are embedded in the roadway, commingling traffic and streetcars. The main problem, though, is parking. Drivers sometimes return to the perfectly legitimate parking spot they plugged the meter for only to find that a tow truck has been there first.

The most likely explanation, Widstrand says, is that they didn't park within the white lines. Streetcars cannot swerve to avoid an improperly parked car, so if you're hanging over the edge, they'll get you for it.

Metro bus
We've followed our granddaddy of public transportation around the block plenty of times, but it's still the mass-transit method that gets our goat the most.

Third Avenue

Drivers should be aware of the restrictions on Third Avenue. (Cody Ellerd)

It's true that cars and buses have equal right of way most of the time, but it's state law that cars must yield to buses re-entering traffic from a bus stop. Know it, accept it and practice that Zen driving.

Ted Day, a service planner for King County Metro, offers this advice: "Be mindful to watch out for buses at stops that are signaling to re-enter traffic, and then slow or stop in order to allow the bus back into traffic." And even though you don't have to, he says, "It's always good form to allow the bus the right-of-way, since it will benefit many people."

As for Third Avenue downtown, if you pull onto the street during the transit-only restricted hours (6-9 a.m. and 3-6:30 p.m. weekdays), whatever you do, don't back up or make a U-turn. Proceed on Third Avenue and make the first right turn you can. Day says you will get a ticket only if you turn left or go straight through an intersection where a right turn is available.

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