Oh Bottlenecks

It’s summer. Yay! It’s summer traffic. Boo. It’s Whidbey, where the bottlenecks islanders are familiar with are now showing up earlier and later in the year. It’s almost as if the place was popular – as is getting on it and off it. Aside from building a new bridge, launching a new ferry, or chartering your own boat or airplane there are a few strategies for getting by.

There are three main gateways to the island: Deception Pass Bridge, the ferry from Port Townsend at Coupeville, and the ferry from the mainland at Mukilteo to Clinton. They aren’t interchangeable, because they head off in different directions but there so overlaps, which is handy but only on those days where travelers will end up with stories to tell.

Deception Pass

The Deception Pass Bridge is iconic. The park on either side is one of the most photographed and visited parks in Washington State, which is impressive considering how impressive Washington State is. The bridge is also old, so the two lanes are narrow and haven’t changed as cars and trucks got bigger. The good news is that the bridge is in a major maintenance project, which is great for the bridge, but a bit distracting for traffic. Couple that with one sidewalk being necessarily closed and that puts a lot of tourists onto a crowded sidewalk, sometimes even stepping into traffic to get around a group enjoying the view. Sigh.

So, what to do about it? It would seem an obvious place to mount a traffic camera. Maybe someday. One solution is to check the Alert Whidbey page or other pages on Facebook as people vent about traffic backups. Get to know landmarks like “traffic is backed up to the Shrimp Shack”, or “traffic is backed up to the Park entrance.” The more important landmarks can the rare opportunities for rest rooms. At least if you’re stuck on the bridge you can enjoy the view, too.

Port Townsend / Coupeville Ferry

Enjoy the ferry ride across open water with views of the Olympics, ships and boats, and maybe even whales or dolphins as escorts. The ride is nice enough that it can be a treat to hop on board, ride across, disembark to re-embark, and ride back. Maybe take some time to wander through Port Townsend, maybe catch the next ferry. Or, find that the tides or currents or equipment mean the next ferry may be the next day. The ride is across wide water, but because of the harbor on the Whidbey side the boat is smaller, shallower, and more prone being bounced around that the other ferries. And stormy weather is storm weather; good luck with weather forecasting where the open ocean meets inland waterways on the leeside of one set of mountains and due west of another set of mountains.

So, what to do about it? Fortunately, Washington State Ferries sends out alerts in a variety of ways. There’s an app for that. There’s also the various social media channels. Fortunately, the tide and current interruptions are usually predictable. Breakdowns aren’t, of course. Either shore has a lot going for it. Either get out of line and drive to Coupeville, or enjoy a meal (if the restaurant is open), or wander Fort Casey. Just make sure you get back to your vehicle or back in line in time. They have a reservation system for the ferry. Some rely on it. In any case, it’s good to have snacks, water, a book or three, maybe a blanket and a pillow in the car. The ferry doesn’t run as often as many would like, so it might be a while, even if you have a reservation. Delays happen.

Mukilteo / Clinton Ferry

Want to see one of the busiest routes in the WA State Ferry system? Thanks to commuters throughout the year, and tourists in touristy seasons, about every half hour for most of the day there’s a ferry ready to take the next batch across the water. Welcome to Whidbey, or Welcome to the mainland. Fifteen minutes for the ride, about seven minutes to load and unload, with about a minute to spare. Be impressed with how tightly the crews can maneuver yet another car onto the boat. Don’t be surprised to see tourists run upstairs for those selfie opportunities, or mimicking Titanic scenes. (Available on the other run, too, of course.) Don’t be surprised to find a several hour wait on either side depending on the the day and the season. No reservations, for good or not.

So, what to do about it? Be patient. If both boats are operating, eventually the line will move along and you’ll get your spot. It’s another opportunity for knowing landmarks: the school and Taco Bell on the mainland, DQ and Dalton’s Realty (where I work as a broker) on the Whidbey side. Stock up the car just like on the other ferry. Be patient. And then there’s being patient. Also, a little patience is handy.

Going Around

Going around is a fall-back that can sound silly until you have to do it. There may only be three gateways and they may point off in different directions, but the mainland means there’s always a way around. Port Townsend to Clinton or the reverse is an opportunity to use some of the other ferries in the system, or drive all the way around the Sound crossing via the bridge in Tacoma. The more common is the switch from trading the Clinton ferry for the Deception Pass Bridge or the reverse. Those landmarks come in handy. Which route gets to Marysville or Seattle or Mount Vernon quicker, the top or the bottom? Google Maps may do the same thing, but it can be quicker to see the sign and make the decision. Another option is to check the ferry cameras. Delays described aren’t always as useful as seeing the line.

Two Wheels or Two Feet

At least with the ferries there are a couple of options that can get you to the front of the line: walking on or cycling on; and cycling on can be motorcycle or bicycle. Just make sure you won’t get stranded on the other side. It’s a long walk from Port Townsend to Tacoma to Clinton.


The bottlenecks can be frustrating, annoying, and sometimes important and non-trivial. Missed meetings and flights happen, too. The bottlenecks are also one reason the rest of the island can be quieter, with fewer people, and more space. Silver linings.

Oh yeah, and remember to be patient (or close all the car windows, crank the music, and shout as loud as you want – for a moment or two.)

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