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'A free-for-all in the streets': can this guy fix Uber-induced traffic chaos?

caption: Sara Zora, of Seattle Department of Transportation, and Rob Johnson, VP of Transportation at NHL Seattle, have been working together on ideas to clean up traffic after big events when the Seattle Center's arena reopens in 2021.
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Sara Zora, of Seattle Department of Transportation, and Rob Johnson, VP of Transportation at NHL Seattle, have been working together on ideas to clean up traffic after big events when the Seattle Center's arena reopens in 2021.
KUOW Photo/Joshua McNichols

Rob Johnson used to be on the Seattle City Council. Now he works for the unnamed hockey team that will play at Seattle Center's arena, currently being rebuilt.

One of his jobs is working with the city to tame the traffic gridlock that follows big events there, complicated in recent years by ride hailing services.

The arena at Seattle Center holds 17,000 to 18,000 people. It’s being rebuilt right now. But when it reopens, it’ll host hockey games and big concerts several nights a week.

Each time a concert or a game ends, a small city's worth of people stream through the exits. Thousands pile onto buses and the monorail or walk home. Others climb in personal cars and get stuck in a line of traffic snaking through the parking garage.

Another crowd of people order an Uber or a Lyft. They flood onto places like Republican Street, a narrow road just north of the arena. And they wait. And things get a little rowdy.

It's mostly screaming, said Allison Bay, an assistant apartment manager at a building called the Expo on that little street, but also "laughing, drinking, hugging. All this nonsense out here," she said, laughing and shaking her head at the memory.

People bang on her office window, try to get inside, get sick on the sidewalk.

Meanwhile, from all over this part of the city, Uber and Lyft drivers descend on this spot. They inch through the crowd of drunk pedestrians, trying to connect with the specific person who contacted them.

It’s a recipe for gridlock. Or as Bay put it: “It’s a free-for-all in the streets!”

People get in the wrong car, get confused, get out. Cars block traffic while waiting for people who are taking too long, or still stuck in the Arena.

“So then people are honking," Bay said. "It's just loud and chaotic after an event."

It’s not just Republican Street that experiences trouble from Ubers and Lyfts. All over the city, ride hailing cars block bike lanes, bus lanes and general purpose lanes. The problem got so bad on the Pike and Pine stretches of Capitol Hill, emergency responders worried about not being able to get through after the bars close.

There are similar problems downtown Seattle during rush hour. Office buildings dump several arena concerts’ worth of people onto the street at 5 p.m.

“If you don’t do a good job in that moment, particularly with ride hailing, it can result in a very very bad experience for everybody,” said former Seattle City Councilmember Rob Johnson.

Today, Johnson works for the unnamed NHL hockey team that will play at the Seattle Center's arena starting in 2021. One of his main jobs is to rethink the traffic mess that occurs after concerts and games let out. He’s been working closely with people at the city of Seattle.

They’ve come up with some ideas.

Number one: Destination-based pickup and drop off zones.

After the concert or game, people who hail a vehicle are told by their app to walk to a designated pickup zone. People headed to Shoreline walk to one corner of Seattle Center’s campus. People headed to Mercer Island head to another corner.

And once they're there, they encounter idea number two: The pickup zone is run like a taxi stand. Rather than matching you with random drivers fighting to reach you from who-knows-where, the first rider in line gets matched with the first car in line.

And because the people on that corner are headed in the same direction – more people would carpool.

“I need a great marketing intern on the ground saying 'These guys are going to Kirkland, does anybody else want to get in a car and go to Kirkland?' So that we can get four or five people in a car, as opposed to pairs of two or three.”

In some ways, Johnson’s pushing Uber and Lyft to behave a tiny bit more like a bus. Making people walk to a stop, organizing them by destination, and trying to maximize the number of people riding while minimizing the number of vehicles - these are reasons why buses and trains are considered the best way to move lots of people in the same direction. But if people wanted to squeeze together with strangers going to the same place, they could just take a bus.

Kriti Bharti takes Lyft a lot, but isn’t that excited about sharing her car.

"Usually I prefer not to, and the reason is: my own safety," she said. "Especially if it's late at night, and I've had a couple of drinks, I just prefer to be in the car by myself."

But Uber and Lyft are willing to try these strategies, and they’re running pilot projects to test them. In the Pike/Pine area on Capitol Hill, a pilot project directed riders leaving the bars late at night to designated pick-up and drop-off locations (known by the acronym PUDOs). Seattle's Department of Transportation called the pilot a success.

Similar experiments have improved traffic in the South Lake Union neighborhood.

Shin-pei Tsay is Director of Policy, Cities and Transportation at Uber. She emphasized that we’re all in this traffic mess together.

“At it’s core, a ride share business is not going to do very well when streets are congested,” Tsay said.

And Seattle is an important place to watch, she said, because transit ridership is rising here even as Uber and Lyft also grow, suggesting that ride hailing companies and public transit are not necessarily enemies.

Ride hailing companies know if people don't see them as helping cities solve their congestion problems, cities may choose to do what San Francisco just did -- banning Uber and Lyft vehicles from a major thoroughfare, Market Street, and forcing them and their PUDOs onto side streets.

It's evidence of how seriously the company takes this concern that it supported the San Francisco restriction, writing in a blog post that "high quality transit is a better option than Uber in the dense core of cities."

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