At some point during Fred Young’s presentation on Dutch cycling infrastructure and safe street designs, the mood of the crowd packed into Wallingford’s Mosaic Coffee shifted from wonder to depression: Seattle has such a long way to go, it can be overwhelming.
But, having already gone through that depression phase some time ago, I got different lesson from the presentation: Cultural values guide infrastructure investments, not the other way around. Seattle may not be as far behind as it sometimes feels.
Young showed the video below at the start of his presentation, but I wonder if it would have been better at the end. After all, looking at Dutch streets almost feels like looking into the future. By looking into the Dutch past, we can see some streets that look a whole lot more familiar. And as the video explains, it wasn’t some transportation levy or bicycle master plan that changed Dutch streets. It was the people demanding that their government prioritize safety above all else.
Seattle has stated that safety is its top transportation priority, but policy investments have not yet followed suit. The Dutch, obviously, spend an enormous amount of money on road safety projects. But they did not start doing so until public pressure forced a dramatic change in the way the nation builds public spaces.
But what makes this journey to safe streets even harder is that while Seattle is ahead of the curve for US cities in this regard, we do not have the support of the state and the Federal governments. What struck me about the Dutch video is how their national government took a direct role in shifting transportation priorities and funding in its cities. Here, so much of the work is Seattle and others in the region swimming against the tide to fund bits and pieces of our hopefully someday sustainable and safe infrastructure.
Imagine if just a chunk of the many billions spent on highways in the nation went to constructing safe bikeways and sidewalks. What if the state government matched municipal investments in building complete streets?
Much of the the new energy behind the call for safe streets started in small neighborhood meeting spaces. It quickly grew from Beacon Hill and Wallingford to all corners of the city and the city’s transportation department. It has crossed the Seattle border and is starting to grow around the region (hello, Kirkland Greenways!).
But Seattle is not the only place in the state where families have been shattered and lives ended or altered due to senseless road violence. Every small town and city in our state has experienced tragedy due to unnecessarily dangerous streets that our state continues to blindly fund.
Seattle Neighborhood Greenways grew so quickly because it is an idea that empowers residents to actually do something about a problem that seems so much larger than themselves. And it grew quickly because, unfortunately, dangerous roads have caused so much pain that there are people on every block in the city who want an end to road deaths and injuries. Such people live on every block on the state, as well.
Will the calls for real investments in safe streets get loud enough to bring Washington State on board? It must.