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Originally published Saturday, February 12, 2011 at 10:01 PM

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Hell on Wheels: Is there no end to the stream of traffic insults?

Even though traffic levels are generally down because of the recession, our streets feel meaner. Faster-paced lifestyles, angst about the economy, more distractions, less civility, a glut of downtown paving projects — it all adds up to more bile for many of us.

EVERYONE'S GIVING me the finger.

Driving or walking, doesn't seem to matter. Men and women, they're both putting the "ass" back in passive-aggressive.

The collective rise in blood pressure plays out in all kinds of ways: A neurosurgeon clubs another driver with a metal thermos; the head of the Cascade Bicycle Club gets fired, in part, for not leashing his bulldog lobbyist; one of my editors stalks a guy who cut her off and hectors him in a grocery store.

Even though traffic levels are generally down because of the recession, our streets feel meaner. Faster-paced lifestyles, angst about the economy, more distractions, less civility, a glut of downtown paving projects — it all adds up to more bile for many of us.

Seattle police have written 7,000 more tickets than five years ago for speeding and inattention. They've also cited more drivers for recklessness, failing to signal and not yielding to pedestrians in crosswalks.

And it doesn't help to have the civic peace kept by a bicycling mayor who some accuse of hating cars.

I don't have to tell you our sense of community is frayed by conflicts between drivers, cyclists and pedestrians, the least powerful of the lot — many of them children and senior citizens left to wander more than a quarter of the city's streets without the safety of sidewalks.

And we call ourselves progressive.

I've tried to dial down my own road rage by studying the enemy, traffic. I've learned about its inevitability (Caesar banned chariots during certain hours in ancient Rome); its root causes (drivers are more willing to tell you their kid is an honor student, says author Tom Vanderbilt, than signal their next move); its modern complexities (late-merging drivers actually improve traffic flow). I've even grilled the mayor and come to see his view on the mess. (Hint: It's from the wheel of a minivan on weekends.)

I'm relieved to know it's not just me. Studies show that commuting really is a different kind of torture every day. SUV drivers do talk on phones more. And navigation-system designer TomTom concluded that Seattle drivers spend more time (43 percent) crawling along below the speed limit than folks in L.A. or New York.

But my problems seem minor compared to someone like Richard Dyksterhuis, an octogenarian who's been fighting for years to increase mobility, civility and community in his little corner of Northwest Seattle. On one artificial knee, Dyksterhuis keeps trekking to City Hall to advocate for the building blocks of democracy, sidewalks. He has lost out to Paul Allen in the competition for city funds. But he vows to keep battling. Quoting a Dutch ancestor, William of Orange, he says, "You don't have to have hope to continue fighting."

I'M DRIVING up Aurora Avenue North, near the Evergreen Washelli Cemetery, when a guy in the right lane makes an abrupt move left — without signaling — into the small space in front of me. I throw my hands up in frustration. The guy gives me the finger. And he keeps giving it, sticking his whole arm out the window, celebrating the First Commandment of Seattle Driving: You make a mistake, you give the finger.

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Before we blame the mayor, illegal immigrants or smug cyclists for our coagulating streets, we should look in the mirror. It's pretty obvious drivers are the chief problem.

The recession aside, the steady trend in Seattle, and nationally, has been more drivers on the roads, making more trips. Urban Americans lost enough time in traffic last year, according to the Texas Transportation Institute, to listen to "War and Peace" on their car stereos 160 million times.

Driving this trend is increased population and affluence, but especially the long-suffering, multitasking working woman. According to Vanderbilt's 2008 book "Traffic," not only are more women going to work, they're also doing most of the "trip-chaining" — that is, taking the kids to school, dropping off dry-cleaning, picking up groceries.

In Seattle, one study of grocery stores found that between 1940 and 1990 the average distance from a person's house to a store increased from .46 miles to .79 miles. That's just enough distance, city traffic engineer Eric Widstrand notes, to turn walkers to drivers.

I've lived in Boston, Portland and Washington, D.C., and would bet a paycheck that drivers in Seattle (our motto: never signal if it would be helpful) are the worst. Dawdling in the left lane, passing dangerously on the right, slowing at green lights. I could go on and on. My latest peeve: There's no parking on Aurora Avenue from 3 to 7 on weeknights, which allows three lanes to lurch along northward. But one Saab parked in front of a Green Lake bar means a gnarly merge into two lanes at rush hour.

To be fair, experts say driver behavior is getting worse all over the country. We're paying less attention, spending more time speeding, eating and talking on cellphones.

Throw in the anonymity of big-city driving and you've got something similar to the coarser way we act on the Internet, Vanderbilt says. "We can lurk behind screen names (our cars), say nasty things (or give the finger), and then sign off and never be heard from again (drive away)."

And we do all of this in an hourglass-shaped city hemmed in by water. Just wait until the economy comes back and the Alaskan Way Viaduct comes down. (As the Texas institute says about the recession: "It only means things get worse slower.")

INTO THIS muddle pedals Mayor Mike McGinn, the former Sierra Club leader. There's a nagging sense his policies are contributing to congestion. Why wouldn't they? He must hate cars. Look at his signature issue: No new tunnel. Ergo no waterfront freeway, no concession to cars.

Other new urbanists despise cars for destroying front-porch communities.

"That's too dystopian for me," McGinn says. He doesn't hate cars. He drives a Honda Odyssey on weekends, ferrying kids to sports events that build another kind of community. His wife drives during the week.

But what about the evidence? He pushed to raise hourly meter rates from $2.50 to $4. In a recession.

McGinn swears there's a method to his 60 percent increase. It would reduce congestion — and not by turning downtown to a ghost town.

Cheap street parking is a "gateway drug" to traffic-addled streets, Vanderbilt confirms. It invites people to circle and circle, looking for that bargain. And if they stop because they think they spot a spot, that cripples a whole lane. It's stunning, according to a Los Angeles study, how much "parking foreplay" can clog streets. In a 15-block area near UCLA, on an average day, cars drove 3,600 miles searching for a spot.

But, if you bring parking rates closer to garage rates, more vacancies occur. Less circling ensues. The vacancy rate on downtown city spots is now 3 percent, McGinn says. With the higher rates it should go to 8 percent, creating turnover that's good for merchants. McGinn doesn't agree with those who say the extra six quarters an hour will keep shoppers away.

He also reminds us he made it easier to park in other parts of the city. He went against the green orthodoxy and got rid of the city's ban on parking lots near new light-rail stations.

The most "serious misconceptions" arise, McGinn says, around "road diets" — the city's controversial policy of slowing some major streets by adding middle-turn and bike lanes.

It's safety first, McGinn insists. It's not about hating cars or loving bikes. The road diets — which the city actually started in 1972 on North 45th Street in Wallingford — are designed to make streets safer for pedestrians, easier to cross.

"The two-lane-each-way geography is extraordinarily dangerous for pedestrians," the mayor says.

To paraphrase Jane Jacobs, urban-planning activist and author, he says, "in the great urban street, nobody gets everything they want . . . everybody gets some of what they want and everybody is safe."

I WAS TRYING to walk across the intersection at Boren Avenue and Virginia Street. A car stopped at the light stuck so far into the crosswalk I had to stray into the street to get around it. I definitely shot the driver, a young woman, my best stink-eye. She responded with the finger.

If you think driving is tough, try walking around parts of Seattle without sidewalks.

It's not hard to find them. Fully 27 percent of city blocks are sidewalk-less. That's about 12,000 "block faces" (one side of a block) in all. Guess where they tend to be? In far-flung neighborhoods, those last annexed into the city, those on the more affordable edges.

Look at Linden Avenue North, a block west of Aurora, near 130th. In a 17-block stretch, Linden is home to about 1,000 senior citizens concentrated in apartments and condos, most of whom have no city sidewalks. It's not uncommon to see a senior on a motorized cart riding the shoulder of Linden trying to make his way to Rite-Aid.

Believe it or not, city officials have designated this part of the Bitter Lake neighborhood an urban village. This means high-density housing (check), transit (it's close to a few bus lines), and a pedestrian environment.

That last point has kept Richard Dyksterhuis chuckling for years. It's also kept Dyskterhuis, 83, agitating for change. The retired schoolteacher has lobbied City Hall with his maps, statistics and walking tours since 2006. Enough so that he has a prominent role in a globe-trotting documentary called "A Different Path."

As Dyksterhuis says in the film, his quest is simple. He's looking for help, someone to get him back to a "world with sidewalks and neighbors who smile at you, who know you by name, who like you."

It's not easy. Sidewalks cost about a million bucks per mile.

To some, it's the best money you could spend. Enrique Penalosa, former mayor of Bogotá, Colombia, which is regarded as a leader in planning that puts people first, has said when you build sidewalks, "you are constructing democracy."

Sounding a little defensive, McGinn points out that his transportation initiative is called "Walk, Bike, Ride." He reminds us he was "Mister Sidewalk" in his own Greenwood neighborhood before he became Mayor McSchwinn.

His kids had to walk between cars parked along the street and moving ones to get to Safeway. So he rallied neighbors to kick in some of their own cash and grabbed a city grant to build sidewalks on eight block faces. Along the way, he met Dyksterhuis and became a big supporter of his cause.

Linden Avenue is scheduled to finally get $12 million for sidewalks, with construction completed in 2013. Ever-persistent Dyksterhuis wants improvements for other streets in his neighborhood. But with the city laying off workers, there's mostly crumbs for other projects. At the current rate of about 10 blocks a year citywide, it would take lifetimes for Seattle to become a democracy on par with Bogotá.

I'VE BROKEN my elbow biking in Seattle, but I haven't been given the finger, a sure sign I'm not biking enough.

To hear some tell it, it's practically war out there. Cyclists claim drivers have tossed tacks in front of them and even pointed shotguns at them. Drivers grouse about cyclists darting in and out of traffic, others seemingly oblivious to the rules of the road.

I lived in Portland in the 1990s and don't recall anywhere near the same level of animosity.

But that's a faulty memory, says Mia Birk, Portland's bike coordinator in the '90s. Birk, who rides in skirts and boots, says she was called "road lice" and worse.

The difference between Portland and Seattle, she says, is that Seattle is further behind in its evolutionary journey, so it's no surprise feelings seem more raw here. Until Seattle adopted a bike master plan in 2007, Birk notes, the city emphasized off-road paths like the Burke-Gilman Trail. But now as Seattle has started installing on-road bikeways and "sharrows," the initial shock is strong. Drivers think they're losing something. She also thinks they're genuinely scared of hitting cyclists.

Los Angeles is experiencing similar friction, she says. And it's only inflamed by blogging and social media.

LET'S TAKE a deep breath.

Things could be much worse. We could be in Delhi, where streets are congealed by 48 modes of transport, according to "Traffic." Or in Finland, where traffic fines are based on after-tax income and an Internet entrepreneur got a speeding ticket for $71,400. ("That's awesome," says McGinn.)

It turns out driving is one of the most studied things in our world. Vanderbilt concludes there's one viable solution to congestion — and it's not building your way out of it. Our free roads basically suffer the age-old Tragedy of the Commons (if you let cows graze freely on the town square they'll keep coming until all the grass is devoured).

To thin the crowds you have to start charging drivers during the busiest times. It's called congestion pricing, and it got a sophisticated test here several years ago by the Puget Sound Regional Council, a four-county planning agency. That study, involving 275 drivers and "virtual" tolls tracked by computer, showed overall trips down 13 percent.

But there's never been the political will to address the questions of equity that come with so-called Lexus lanes. So we putter along, every driver with a right to be stupid.

There's no sense in trying to play citizen phone-cop, and not enough cops to ticket all those people passing in the right lane. Though, Vanderbilt stresses, honking is good for the species. There's value in sending feedback to drivers. And you don't have to be all nasty about it.

Heading home from work one recent day, I pulled out onto Dexter Avenue, well ahead, I thought, of a black SUV. Whoops. Honk!

We pulled up to the light at Mercer, side-by-side.

I rolled down my window. He did the same. I thought about what Vanderbilt says: In traffic, we struggle to stay human.

"I'm sorry," I said. "I thought you were in the other lane. I'm kinda under the weather."

"No problem," he replied. "I was being a jerk."

"I am really sorry," I said again. He smiled. The light changed.

Bob Young is a Pacific Northwest magazine writer. Erika Schultz is a Seattle Times staff photographer.

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