Bellingham traffic won’t get better anytime soon, and that’s the plan

Traffic was busy on Meridian Street, north from Interstate 5, in April 2005. About 20 years ago, transportation planners in Bellingham and elsewhere began to shift their focus from a car-oriented level of service to a mixed plan that makes roads accessible for a range of uses.
Traffic was busy on Meridian Street, north from Interstate 5, in April 2005. About 20 years ago, transportation planners in Bellingham and elsewhere began to shift their focus from a car-oriented level of service to a mixed plan that makes roads accessible for a range of uses. The Bellingham Herald file

If you’re stuck in traffic, cursing the line of cars ahead of you and wondering why they can’t widen the intersection — you’re living in the past.

That’s because road-system planning doesn’t revolve around the automobile anymore.

Now, transportation planners take into account commuters who drive to work, those who walk or ride bikes, people who take the bus — and traffic is part of a larger discussion of economic development, quality of life and growth issues such as jobs and the cost of housing, said Chris Comeau, a transportation planner for the city of Bellingham.

“You should expect it to be congested at rush hour. Traffic congestion is a normal urban condition that we cannot solve,” Comeau said.

“There is no simple explanation as to why traffic is taking longer. Is your commute longer? Yes, it is. But it’s really a microcosm of what’s going on in society,” he said. “We’re paying the price of urban growth.”

According to U.S. Census Bureau data, Bellingham grew 10 percent in seven years, from 80,885 residents in 2010 to an estimated population of 89,045 in 2017.

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A Whatcom Transportation Authority bus uses a queue-jump lane to bypass traffic on Lakeway Drive in March 2018. Evan Abell eabell@bhamherald.com

Mean travel time to work for Bellingham commuters was 17.4 minutes in 2010, and it was 17.9 minutes in 2016, according to census data.

Most Bellingham workers, 69.8 percent, reported a total morning commute of 19 minutes or less.

That’s below the average Washington resident’s commute of 26.1 minutes, according to VisualCapitalist.com. That 26.1 minutes is also the average one-way commute for all Americans, according to the Census Bureau’s 2012-2016 five-year estimate.

“It’s a whole new way of thinking,” Comeau said. “The automobile is clearly the dominant mode of transportation. But you cannot build your way out of traffic congestion. If you could build your way out of traffic congestion, then LA would be a driver’s dream.”

Christina Miller of Bellingham said her morning commute is a breeze compared to her drive at the end of the workday.

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Level of service for vehicular traffic on a typical urban arterial street vary by time of day. Chris Behee, Kate Newell, Chris Comeau / City of Bellingham Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

“Getting to work isn’t necessarily as much of a problem as getting home is,” Miller said. “I work off of Meridian, and it doesn’t matter what route I take home, it’s a nightmare. It has gotten worse over the last few years. And if there is an accident on the freeway, all the surface streets are packed too.”

Miller is one of about 17,000 Bellingham residents who work within the city limits, according to figures from the city’s 2016 Comprehensive Plan.

Another 15,000 residents travel to jobs outside Bellingham and 28,000 people commute to jobs in Bellingham from outside the city.

Comeau said commuters like Miller are focused on two times of the day — morning and evening — and a road that’s jammed with cars at 8 a.m. or 5:30 p.m. is most likely a breeze to travel at other times.

“Should we spend the money to widen the intersection when a half-hour after they’ve gone by the road is wide open?” Comeau asked.

In many cases, widening a road would mean demolishing houses and businesses and further separating neighborhoods, he said.

To illustrate, he said imagine adding lanes to Lakeway Drive or Alabama Street, and what that would do to people who live along those streets.

So, beginning about 20 years ago, Comeau said transportation planners in Bellingham and elsewhere began to shift their focus from a car-oriented level of service to a mixed plan that makes roads accessible for a range of uses.

That means giving buses priority at some intersections and building bike lanes, signal-controlled crosswalks, sidewalks, and sloping curbs — but not widening roads just to make it easier for cars to move faster at the busiest times of the day.

Heather Stevenson of Sudden Valley said she stays off the roads at peak times.

“I avoid driving during the 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. (rush hours),” she said. “It never used to be so bad around here. I moved from Kirkland where it would take 25 minutes to go five miles. Although it’s not that bad here yet, it’s starting to catch up.”

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Southbound Interstate 5 traffic comes to a halt in Bellingham while Washington State Patrol troopers investigate a crash near the Lakeway Drive exit in June 2016. Staff The Bellingham Herald file

Even the head of the state Department of Transportation agrees that congestion is inevitable.

That’s what WSDOT chief Roger Millar told a meeting of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials on July 18 in Spokane, according to the AASHIO Journal.

“We like to talk about traffic congestion as an issue, but it is actually a symptom of a larger problem — and the problem is we don’t provide affordable housing and transportation solutions,” Millar said. “We have a rich list of transportation options for the rich that can afford to live in our cities — the rest are forced to drive.”

That doesn’t convince some Bellingham drivers, however.

Jeremy Mase, a lifelong Whatcom County resident, said he sees traffic just getting worse.

“Bellingham is getting really bad,” said Mase, who was raised in the Ferndale area and now lives in Van Zandt.

“In the last 10-15 years it’s just as bad as Seattle during certain times,” Mase said. “I-5 through Bellingham was not designed for the amount of traffic due to the rapid growth Bellingham has had. Even Ferndale is a disaster during rush hour. Hence why I avoid certain roads and highways during those peak times if all possible.”

What Mase and Stevenson and Miller have seen, and how they adjusted their lives, is exactly what city officials expect — that drivers will change to routes or travel times that are less congested.

In the past, cities have added lanes and changed intersections so that drivers could get where they want to go with fewer delays. But not now.

“Should we spend the money to widen the intersection when a half-hour after they’ve gone by the road is wide open? Comeau asked.

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Cars stop for a pedestrian crossing Alabama Street in June 2016. Staff The Bellingham Herald file

Recent construction on the Alabama Street corridor — a main arterial, especially for commuters — takes this philosophy into account.

In 2011, a 1.75-mile section of Alabama was carrying 19,000 cars and trucks a day and had the second-highest collision rate of any city street.

Starting in 2015, the city narrowed part of Alabama Street from two lanes to one lane in each direction, reducing speeds, adding signal-controlled pedestrian crossings, bike lanes and making other changes — including adding a left-turn lane on one portion of the street and limiting turns other parts.

By 2016, an analysis showed there were 17.3 percent fewer car crashes with 28.2 percent fewer injuries and traffic volume was down by up to 8.5 percent.

In addition, Comeau said that Sunnyland residents are saying the changes to Alabama Street are allowing them to enjoy walking their neighborhoods more.

Erin Boyd, who owns a Sunnyland business and lives in the Roosevelt neighborhood, has mixed feelings about the project.

“It makes Alabama less of a thoroughfare and more of a neighborhood, and I would like to see that extended through Roosevelt,” said Boyd, who serves as business liaison to the Sunnyland Neighborhood Association.

“The stretch (of Alabama) that they did I guess is good for the neighborhood. But now there’s more traffic, especially at rush hour,” she said.

Boyd said she sees drivers speeding along James Street’s growing commercial corridor as they seek to dodge heavy traffic on Alabama Street.

“I think that bikeability and walkability is important,” Boyd said. “But there needs to be a police presence.”

Sumas-area resident Monty Seidel isn’t convinced.

“Bellingham is a nightmare from west to east during afternoon rush hour,” he said. “The city of Bellingham really screwed up on the ‘improvements’ of Alabama between Cornwall and James. Since the ‘upgrade’ and lane reduction I have seen four bicycles total use it, and let’s not get started with light timing, and the buses being able to change lights like emergency vehicles.”

Bellingham city officials, however, embrace the modern transit-system philosophy, saying that it dovetails with the city’s “urban village” concept.

“People have to change their expectations about traffic associated with urban growth,” Comeau said. “It doesn’t mean the system is broken. It means it’s just overtaxed at the moment.”

Comeau said he views traffic as a compliment — that people love to visit the city for a variety of reasons.

“It’s the same with a bar or a restaurant,” he said. “If you go out on a Saturday night, it’s going to be crowded. But people seem to think there’s an entitlement to the free flow of traffic. Most people get it. Most people understand what we’re trying to do. It’s one reason they choose to live here.”

Robert Mittendorf: 360-756-2805, @BhamMitty