Before there was I-5, there was Highway 99.
Stitched together from existing roads in the early days of car travel, the roadway ran from Canada to San Diego and tightened the connection between Seattle and its neighbors north and south. Leonard Garfield, executive director of Seattle's Museum of History and Industry, calls it the birthplace of automotive travel in the Northwest, the mother of all our modern highways.
In the 1930s, engineers straightened out the part of 99 that ran through north Seattle, punched it through Woodland Park, sent it sailing high over the Ship Canal and renamed it the “Aurora Speedway.”
During the Depression, the route represented escape.
“This was the very first road that was going to get us in our cars and take us away from where we found ourselves, and that’s a completely American thought and a notion. Our legacy of that is Aurora Avenue,” said Garfield.
Nobody calls it the speedway anymore, what with all the traffic. It’s just Aurora now. It carries 43,000 cars every weekday, almost enough drivers to fill Safeco Field.
Ben Silverman is one of them. He takes Aurora every morning from Richmond Beach in Shoreline to his office in Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood. He beats traffic by leaving early in the morning … at 4:30 A.M. “It’s a nice time of day to drive on Aurora because you can gobble up blocks very quickly,” he said.
There’s a good bus route, on Aurora: The Rapid Ride E Line. Silverman doesn’t take it. “You know, I’m 43 with two children. I’m not giving up my car anytime soon,” he said.
Silverman is worried about Aurora. It seems like every day there are more cars and people trying to share the same space. “There’s a width issue. I mean I think they’re going to need more lanes eventually,” he said.
For people like Silverman, Aurora is a river, carrying a great volume of people and commerce between Seattle and its suburbs. To others, Aurora is a wall in need of crossing. Those people wouldn’t mind if the traffic slowed a little.
"Along the Mother Road," a new series from KUOW's Region of Boom team, explores the region's growth along State Route 99, a highway sometimes trapped in the past but leaning aggressively toward the future.
Angel Hackman walks her daughter Ruby Oswell and friends to school in the morning. As they stood on the corner, waiting for the new crosswalk light at 92nd and Aurora to change, one of the girls in party pressed the button over and over again.
“Wait. Wait. Wait,” an electronic voice insisted in response.
“Crossing Aurora is like – at first, when we did it, it was scary because it was just a bunch of vehicles zooming by, and it’s like, ‘Okay, how do I cross?’” said Oswell. “And then, we were so happy when we figured out they put a cross thing because we’re like, ‘Okay, we’re not going to get run over by cars.’ But sometimes it’s kind of still scary.”
The new crosswalk installed by the city helps, but it doesn’t solve everything, according to Hackman.
“I’ve seen quite a few people going through the red light. So for the kids – I tell them, you need to wait before you cross through the intersection. Because you’re always going to have those people who are just flying through at the last minute.”
Hackman is part of a movement. She and her neighbors are trying to change how we think about Aurora. It needs to do more than move cars, they say. It needs to be safe for pedestrians, too.
The city plans to add almost 3,000 residents to neighborhoods on Aurora over the next 20 years. That’s a lot of pedestrians.
It’s going to take time to change how we think about Aurora, said historian Leonard Garfield.
“If we look at the history as an indication of the future," he said, "we would say that in its bones, it’s a highway.”
And history has momentum, like a car zooming down Aurora. You can put in a stoplight, but cars won’t always stop.