Driving in Seattle

Traffic on a inner city highway in the heart of Seattle downtown district

Didier Marti/Getty Images

Driving in Seattle can be challenging—rain, rush-hour traffic, temporary HOV lanes, one-way downtown streets, hard-to-navigate hills, and unexpected toll roads add to the confusion. Seattle, Washington has managed to land itself on a few lists—at the very least, it regularly appears on the list of cities with the ​worst traffic in the country.

While drivers may, in general, be considerate during rush hours, impatience may give way to frustration and merging on and off the freeway can be difficult.

Rules of the Road

Seattle's geography—having hills, lakes, and bordering the Puget Sound—create unique challenges for driving. Add in rush hour traffic which tends to get worse as the week wears on and special issues related to buses, pedestrians, and bike riders, and you have some real navigation problems.

Rush Hour: Seattle's rush hour starts around 6:30 a.m. and often extends until 8:30 –9 a.m. Evening rush hour is worst from 5–6 p.m. Traffic tends to get worse as the work week goes on (Friday is the worst), but it’s not uncommon to get stuck any day of the week. If you drive any route regularly, you'll figure out where those slowing spots will be.

Travelers passing through Seattle plan their trips to avoid these expected rush hours and often avoid the hour (or more) before and after for good measure—that means driving through Seattle from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. is preferred by travelers.

Merging on and off the Freeway: In Seattle, there are quite a few people who wait until the last minute to merge—getting onto freeways, on the single/double-lane roads, or anywhere else where two lanes become one. Frustrated drivers often will force their way in front of you and appear to believe they’re merging correctly. 

Even if you’re merging correctly (taking your turn every other car, is ideal) and you turn on your directional signal, it’s not uncommon for people to refuse to let you over—or even speed up when they see your blinker on. Be patient. There's always someone kind enough to let you in a few cars down the line.

Avoiding Cyclists: Seattle has a ton of bicyclists, many of whom are responsible and obey the biking rules of the road which may be confusing to motorists. For example, bicycles are not required to use a bike lane or shoulder in Seattle and bicycles can ride on the left (with the traffic flow) on one-way streets.

One-Way Streets: Parts of Seattle are filled with one-way streets. Seattle natives are used to the one ways and know where to go, but if you’re new to the city or just visiting, it’s worth using a GPS or studying the maps ahead of time. If you miss your turn, correcting the issue may be as simple as looping back around and making a second go. In some spots, especially downtown, you’ll pass no-left-turn signs galore and may end up discovering new parts of the city.

HOV Lanes: The HOV (High Occupancy Vehicle) lane requirement in Seattle is either 2+ or 3+ persons per vehicle, depending on the highway and/or time of day. Carpools, vanpools, and buses use the HOV lane and motorcycles are allowed to use all standard HOV lanes.

As you're driving along, you may be confused by ramps in the middle of the freeway. Direct access ramps allow buses, carpools, vanpools, and motorcycles to directly access the HOV lanes in the center of the freeway—they come down from above the roadway, or up from below, and merge into the HOV lane from inside the median.

Toll Lanes: The I-405 express toll lanes and SR 167 HOT (High Occupancy Toll) lanes are a form of HOV lane that can also be used by non-HOV drivers who choose to pay a toll. Toll rates adjust every few minutes based on real-time traffic conditions to keep the traffic flowing.

Buses and Bus Lanes: Don’t be the car right behind the bus. That bus will stop to pick up passengers and if you’re the car right behind it, you’ll be stuck while everyone behind you whips into the other lane.

When you are driving on the freeway don't think you can drive on the shoulder because you see a bus there—bus shoulder lanes are authorized bus-only lanes that run along selected freeways. 

Unexpected Lane Changes: City and residential-area streets alike often go from one to two lanes. Sometimes streets have room for parking and a single lane of driving but might look suspiciously like a two-lane road. If you don’t see a stripe down the middle, don’t assume the traffic is two-cars wide. Keep an eye out for drivers who miss this and suddenly merge into the single-lane flow when they realize the error of their ways.

Narrow Streets: Many quaint and historic neighborhood streets in Seattle will have cars parked on both sides of the road which turns a two-way street into a single-lane street with room for one car at a time. Look ahead. Whoever has room to pull over and let the other car ​by should do so. Most drivers are courteous in these situations because there aren't a lot of options.

Distracted Driving Law: Washington law makes it illegal to hold a phone while driving (taking with a hands-free device is allowed). The law also prohibits doing things like eating, applying make-up, or shaving while driving.

In Case of Emergency: In case of emergency, call 9-1-1. While driving, if an emergency vehicle is approaching, drivers going both ways need to pull over and stop on an undivided highway regardless of the number of lanes. In Washington state, if you see a law enforcement car pulled over on the side of the road (or fire or tow truck) ahead of you, state law requires you to get out of the lane closest to the stationary emergency vehicles if you are traveling in the same direction and it is safe to do so.

If not, drivers are required to slow down.

Driving in the Pacific Northwest Rain

You might think wet-weather driving would be a piece of cake in a city that has consistent rain through about nine months of the year. Don’t expect that—about half of Seattle slows way down on rainy days, causing traffic and delays. The other half speeds up, and gets aggressive, and may skid on the roadway.

Although Seattle and the rest of the Puget Sound don’t get a lot of snow when snow does hit, it often melts and refreezes into treacherous ice and the entire city can be affected. If you don't know how to drive in snow and ice, it's best to take public transportation.

Driving on Seattle Hills

When driving on a steep hill, maintain an even speed. When stopping on a hill, such as at a stop light at the top of the hill, hold the brake using the same pressure as you normally would. As you shift your foot away from the brake pedal to accelerate, do so gradually shifted into drive so the car does not roll back.

Park downhill with your wheels turned right into the curb. When you park uphill, park with your wheels backed into the curb.

Finding Parking in Seattle

Almost all parking in Seattle is pay parking, from street parking to pay lots. If you head downtown on Sundays, parking is free on the street. After 6 p.m. on weekdays, many lots offer discounted rates. It's a good idea to carry cash in small bills for parking lots without staff or credit card machines.

Game Days

Century Link Field (Seahawks and Sounders) and T-Mobile Park (Seattle Mariners) are located just southeast of downtown Seattle between I-5 and Hwy 99 close to the docks and industrial area. While there's plenty of public transportation options to choose from when trying to make it to the game, on game days you'll encounter traffic back-ups on I-5 and Hwy 99.

Century Link and T-Mobile Park are both a few minutes walk from the Sound Transit Light Rail and a number of bus options stop at Stadium Station Tunnel—the Sounder train runs up from Tacoma on weekdays and stops at the stadium as well.

SR 502 Toll Bridge

The SR 520 Floating Bridge goes across Lake Washington in Seattle. Toll rates vary according to day, time and whether you have a Good to Go pass or will be paying by mail. There are no toll booths—just drive the bridge and then look for a bill in the mail a few weeks later (be sure and pay the bill!).

Diving to the Ferry

There is no bridge from Seattle across the Puget Sound. The closest bridge is the Tacoma Narrows Bridge from Tacoma to the Kitsap Peninsula. Washington State Ferries to Bainbridge Island and Bremerton, leave from the Coleman Ferry Dock and Terminal on Alaskan Way. Currently (2019) there is construction on the dock, reducing the size of the passenger terminal and the entrance for drive-on customers is located south of the main dock.

When Ferries load or arrive and unload, there may be an influx of cars on Alaskan Way. If you are taking a ferry, it is wise to have a reservation and arrive early to get in line. Only 10 percent of ferry capacity is reserved for stand-by drivers so, depending on the season and time of sailing, you may not get on the ferry.

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