I'M PINNED LIKE a corn kernel in a clogged grain chute on westbound 520, but I'm not blaming the beleaguered little bridge over Lake Washington for my predicament. Up ahead, taillights wink amber as cars that passed me on the right now shove into my stalled lane. I'll just have to sit here until every last one of them cuts in.
I always play fair when confronted with a traffic jam. So I was immediately apprehensive when I came rolling off the ramp from southbound I-405 and began flying past two lanes of 520 traffic on my left. Clearly, I was doing something wrong and inequitable. Was I in the HOV lane? I couldn't see the telltale diamonds on the pavement—wait, there's one, barely visible, like it's been sanded out. Has the lane been converted back to general purpose, and no one noticed? I'm confused. I slow down, traffic bearing down on me from behind. No, this can't be right. I spot a gap just big enough on the left and squeeze into the slow-moving procession.
Other cars rush past—hey, there's only one occupant in a lot of those vehicles. And sure enough, after we creep forward, I see brightly painted diamonds in that lane. Some drivers, like the family man in the Jetta wagon, immediately duck into the slow lanes. Others, like the clueless techie with the top down in his Miata, just keep going. That is, until they run up against the stream of cars entering 520 on the right from 108th N.E. Yeah, then my lane looks real good. A Cherokee that just can't wait for an opening rams its way halfway in, causing the Metro bus behind to brake to a stop until the half-wit manages to get over.
It took about 15 minutes for me to push through this half-mile mess. That's about one-fourth of the total time my otherwise pleasant round trip from central Seattle to Kirkland took total. I found it easy to cross the 520 bridge going east. (Do we really need scientific research to tell us that it's the traffic returning to the city in the afternoon that's the big problem?) I even found the 405/520 interchange perfectly agreeable. Had I been a big cheater, like those folks in the HOV lane, I probably wouldn't have been delayed much at all today. Granted, I was a little early for the main parade, hitting the corridor just after 5. But it reminds me that this road is plenty big for us for all but three hours of the day. And how are those billions proposed for new construction going to fix the driving habits—those erratic, inadvisable lane changes—that traffic engineers tell us are largely responsible for the frustrating stop-and-start pace of heavy traffic?
The fact is, I like 520 and its slender bridge. It has the intimate feel of a parkway, where 55 mph seems perfectly efficacious, rather than the racetrack layout of a freeway. I like the way the trees on the hilly banks of the lake lean comfortably in across the lanes. I like the spray on my windshield on days when the breakers get rowdy. It's not that this road gives too little, it's that we're demanding too much. No matter what we do on Lake Washington, we're still going to be confounded with congested roadways. So why not be stuck on this one?