They Are Highways But

Yet another way to confuse off-islanders: tell them to follow the highway. There are only two state highways on Whidbey Island: SR 20, SR 525. They connect up to form the spine of the island from the Deception Pass Bridge to the ferry at Clinton, with a spur to the ferry that services Port Townsend. Yes, they are highways, but, don’t be surprised if folks from other places drive around looking for something bigger.

Highways on the mainland can easily be several lanes wide, feeding the Interstates, starring in commute-time traffic reports, and trundling through concrete canyons or industrial zones. On Whidbey, even roads are simpler.

Except for Oak Harbor and around a few key intersections, both SR 20 and SR 525 are two lanes. Traffic lights can be miles apart. Shoulders might be narrow. A slow farm tractor, or a struggling RV, or even an under-powered and over-loaded truck can bring things back to an island pace. (Living The Two Lane Life)

Instead of an Interstate’s roar that can be heard miles away as acres of parking lots reflect the hum of tires, the island’s natural buffers of tall trees in thick forests block much of the sound. Major mainland highways can let legal speeds reach 70 mph. The island’s highways’ speed limit is 55 mph, and that’s only for parts of the road. Slower traffic, quieter traffic.

Even with only two lanes, some mainland highways get busy and clogged as commutes snake from Interstates to suburban neighborhoods. Whidbey has built-in throttles. Deception Pass Bridge is busy, but it is only two lanes. The ferries can be seem large, but their size and schedules limit how many vehicles can travel via them.

Despite their more moderate capabilities, the ‘highways’ are appealing to locals and visitors. The National Scenic Byway designation proves that. The island’s main roads are more than byways, and less than stereotypical highways. Calling them arterials sounds clinical. They are throughways, if you work with the definition that they pass through the areas. They are freeways, because they aren’t toll roads. (Though that changes at the border of the ferry terminals.)

The term ‘main road’ may fit best. Some neighborhoods can consider other roads as main roads, especially when there’s a scenic neighborhood far from the backbone of the island. But picking the wrong main road only means being lost for a few miles. Besides, an exploration can be fun – as long as there’s no schedule to meet. (Getting Lost On An Island)

With more people wanting to or having to more to the island, maybe the roads will widen. Of course, with autonomous vehicles and the already pervasive mass transit, maybe that trend will be contained. In the meantime, confusing a few visitors may be a small price to pay for the use of our highways, or at least the use of the word.

One thought on “They Are Highways But

  1. Don’t forget to mention that our free island spanning bus system has strategically placed stops along our highways and that, dyed-in-the-wool locals know that at any sufficiently wide bulge in the shoulder, you can flag down a bus and they will stop to pickup/drop off riders.


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