Sidewalks should never be ‘closed’ for construction projects

A familiar scene on Seattle Streets. Image from Google Street View.

A familiar scene on Seattle Streets. Image from Google Street View.

Everyone who spends any time walking around Seattle knows what it’s like. You’re walking down the sidewalk when you see the familiar dreaded sign in front of one of the many construction projects around town: Sidewalk Closed.

You look for the closest crosswalk. Then you peer around the fence. Hmm, do I waste several minutes backtracking, then waiting for the light, then walking a block or two before waiting for another light so I can cross back? Or do I just dash across the street here even though there’s no crosswalk? Or maybe I can just squeeze along this fence in the traffic lane and hope no cars hit me…

You should never have to make this choice. Instead, any construction project that requires the sidewalk space in order to work should be required to provide a temporary walking route, even if that means closing a parking lane, extra travel lane or — if all other options have been exhausted — bike lane.

The reasoning is obvious: Basic safety trumps all other road needs. You can put up all the “Sidewalk Closed” signs you want, but it won’t change the fact that many people will try to squeeze by anyway. It’s just a fact of the urban environment.

City officials seem to agree, yet sidewalks continue to be closed all across the city. Enough is enough. This should never happen. Instead, construction companies should need to temporarily redesign the remaining road space to maintain basic safe access and mobility for all users. The diagram below shows what should be the order of operations for closing lanes in order to accommodate construction on a sample street:

sample-street-under-constructionParking goes first, as it is the lowest priority use of street space. Nothing annoys me more than seeing a sidewalk get closed while a lane of parking remains open (see photo at top). The safety of people on foot is so much more important than parking a car that it boggles my mind this would ever happen. Closing parking lanes probably gives enough space for temporary bike lanes and walking space for most construction projects.

However, if more space is still needed or if the parking lane provides a vital function (for example, it is the only loading zone for a business), all travel lanes beyond one (or one in each direction for a two-way street) should be next in line. Basic safety and basic mobility should be the top priorities in that order.

Then if still more is needed and all other options have been exhausted, the bike lane could be closed and the remaining single traffic lane slowed to a safe speed.

But the walkway should never be closed. If your project absolutely needs more space, then you should probably just close the whole street or go to a flagger-controlled work area. Because basic safety for people on foot is not an option.

To recap: Here’s what happens too often around construction projects:

sample-street-under-construction-badBut here’s what should happen instead:

sample-street-under-construction-good

Or:

sample-street-under-construction-good2

Construction crews in Seattle are building extraordinary and high-budget buildings. Redrawing some lines on the street and putting up some temporary barricades can’t be too hard, right? Then why isn’t it happening?

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33 Responses to Sidewalks should never be ‘closed’ for construction projects

  1. GlenBikes says:

    I agree wholeheartedly except for you last point.

    If there is a bike lane, this means that the city believes that the road is not safe enough for bikes and cars to share the same space. So if there is no other option than closing either the last auto lane or the bike lane, preference should still be given to the bike lane. Or alternately, close the bike lane but provide flaggers so that bikes can safely get through or make the temporary walkway wide enough and signed for bikes and pedestrians to both use it.

    For many people who ride bicycles, forcing them to take the lane with cars means the road is effectively closed to them.

    I agree with you that safety of people walking should be the top priority. But safety of people on bikes should be above convenience of people driving cars.

    • Josh E says:

      I know its not a popular opinion on this site, but I would favor closing the bike lane before main travel lanes. First, the chaos surrounding a construction zone means that bicyclists in a main travel lane would be more visible They can take the entire lane, putting them further away from the concrete barriers that might block them from being seen. Bikes in the main travel lane would force the slowing of motor vehicle traffic. Second, construction zones tend to have rocky terrain and debris that falls into the street. Motor vehicles help clear this debris — compare the road condition of a shoulder lane to a main travel lane.

      If certain cyclists feel unsafe in the main vehicle lane, they completely have the option of either riding slowly in the pedestrian path/sidewalk, or dismounting and walking. Construction zones are not more than a block, and this is a reasonable ask.

  2. Andres Salomon says:

    Here’s another great example. Roosevelt Way NE:
    https://twitter.com/UGreenways/status/532706567133491200
    https://twitter.com/UGreenways/status/532707982853697536

    The Roosevelt Way NE where someone was hit and transported to the hospital while crossing in a crosswalk on Thursday. Reported via FindItFixIt, issue #14-00142151. The response from SDOT?

    “Thank you for contacting the Seattle Department of Transportation regarding the sidewalk closure at 4740 Roosevelt Way Northeast.

    SDOT Street Use will work with the contractor to open the pedestrian access in off hours in the parking lane on Roosevelt Way Northeast. During the contractors work hours the pedestrian detour is to cross at Northeast 50th Street to the west side then back across to the east side at Northeast 47th Street and Roosevelt Way Northeast.”

    • Andres Salomon says:

      My response to that was this:

      “Dear Ms. Heiller,

      Thank you for your response.

      If the pedestrian detour is to cross at NE 47th St and NE 50th, then
      you need to put signage at both intersections warning pedestrians about
      the closed sidewalk. As of Tuesday morning, there was not signage on
      the south side of that block.

      Furthermore, as you can see from Forrest’s picture, the contractor is
      not accessing the construction site from Roosevelt Way NE:
      https://twitter.com/UGreenways/status/532706567133491200
      There is plenty of room on Roosevelt to build a temporary sidewalk,
      which would not impede contractor access to the site (restricting
      Roosevelt to 1 general purpose travel lane would be perfectly
      acceptable, given the low traffic volumes on Roosevelt – only 10k/day at
      that location). There’s even parking on the other side of the street
      that could be used.

      This location is 100ft away from the University Public Library. That
      block and adjacent blocks include multiple book stores, a cinema,
      restaurants, grocery stores, a video store, a park, and a school. It is
      a dense neighborhood, where pedestrians are to be anticipated. There is
      absolutely no reason why pedestrians safety infrastructure like
      sidewalks should be closed when two lanes of general purpose traffic
      remain. Elderly people, disabled people, and families with young
      children will be walking on that block, and need that sidewalk.
      Instead, we’re putting them at risk by forcing them to cross a
      dangerous arterial. Just yesterday, someone was struck in a crosswalk
      on Roosevelt Way NE at NE 42nd:
      https://twitter.com/KIRO7Seattle/status/533015582623662080

      Please consider making a temporary sidewalk here. Please also consider
      changing the culture and policy within Seattle’s Department of
      Transportation that allows sidewalk closures without looking at all
      available options for temporary sidewalks. This has been happening
      throughout the city, often in the middle of business districts with
      many people walking.

      Thank you,”

      I have not gotten a response back. That was on Friday.

  3. Augsburg says:

    I agree. I wish someone would do something about the closing of the sidewalk for Starbuck’s new “coffee lab” on the north side of Pike St. just east of Boren Ave. What a mess! Some days the north side of Pike St. is open to pedestrians, some days it is closed to foot traffic. Signing for pedestrians to know what to expect is beyond terrible. When the sidewalk is closed, Starbuck’s contractor stations flaggers to help pedestrians get across Pike St, but the flaggers have obviously had little training and drivers on Pike St. routinely flat out ignore the flagger’s stop signs. Cross at your own peril.

    One thing that should be understood. Property owners and contractors must get a permit from the city to close the sidewalk or lanes of traffic. Unfortunately, I don’t think they always get a permit and go ahead and throw out barricades away. It would be nice if the city required the contractors to prominantly post a copy of their permit so we pedestrians could notify the city of problems. Today, know one knows if a closure is legit or not. Even if the contractors get a permit, I doubt that they are actually abiding by the permit requirements. The city needs to do a better job of “policing” these permits and make sure pedestrians (and cyclists) have a safe path.

  4. Cheif says:

    Are illegally closed sidewalks something that can be reported via Find It Fix It?

    • Andres Salomon says:

      I have had little success in reporting them using FindItFixIt (but I still keep trying, if nothing else than to have an official complaint on record). I have had better success in bringing them to the attention of the Mayor’s office & public. For example, here’s one I reported on Brooklyn Ave NE.

      https://twitter.com/NEGreenways/status/519539292599615488

      I reported it via FindItFixIt and on Twitter. On Twitter, I was told that it would get a temp sidewalk. Over email, I was told that everything was fine as-is. The temp sidewalk was quickly added, despite the FindItFixIt email response. I’m not sure if the people answering FindItFixIt stuff regarding sidewalk closures just don’t care, but I’m finding that to be a huge flaw regarding FindItFixIt: nothing is made public, so we have no idea whether the city is actually taking these issues seriously.

      • Andy says:

        At the SBAB meeting in October some folks from SDOT’s Access Seattle Initiative / Construction Hub program said that they might be a better place to direct site-specific complaints.
        If it’s within Center City, Alaskan Way Viaduct, Noth Westlake, or SLU, contact Ken Ewalt at (206) 684-4995.
        In West Seattle, Capitol Hill, or Ballard, contact Wayne Gallup at (206) 681-6099.
        Not sure who to call for other areas, maybe just their general email at SDOTConstructionHub@seattle.gov.

      • Andres Salomon says:

        Thanks! I will give that a try.

      • Sean says:

        Seems like everything reported to FindItFixIt and the responses are public records. You could make a public records request to find out what other people are reporting and what kind of responses they are receiving. Could be interesting to look at what percentage of reports are taken seriously

  5. Matthew Snyder says:

    Not too long ago, there was a stretch of Woodland Park Ave N (just 2-3 blocks up from Fremont Brewing) where the sidewalks on both sides of the street were closed simultaneously, for weeks and weeks, and with no temporary pedestrian walkways created.

    After several complaints, I finally got ahold of someone at SDOT who made one of the two contractors install a protected walkway. My sense is that you really need to be persistent when contacting with SDOT about this kind of thing. Just filing a report with “Find it fix it” isn’t enough.

    Strangely, though, there is no rule that prevents this kind of thing from happening. SDOT is willing to issue sidewalk closure permits for both sides of the street without requiring the provision of pedestrian access. There’s no excuse for allowing that to happen.

    • Doug says:

      I remember this! Sooooo stupid.

      I also recall the “protected walkway” being blocked rather frequently at the contractor’s convenience.

  6. Bob Hall says:

    “City officials seem to agree, yet sidewalks continue to be closed all across the city.”

    This reminds me of a discussion I had recently with some other bike advocacy folks. You talk to city officials like the Mayor or folks on the Council, or engineers at SDOT and you mention things like “Hey, maybe bike funds should be distributed equitably”, or “Hey, maybe we shouldn’t close off sidewalks for construction”, or “Hey, maybe we should spend as much time and money making sure kids can walk to school as we spend making sure cars can flow through streets quickly.”

    … And they always say the same thing: “I agree! Yes, let’s do that!” But when budget time rolls around and when projects get pitted up against each other all this agreement seems to fly out the window. We get tons of verbal support, but our agenda is moving along painfully slowly.

    How do we in the advocacy community get people who agree with us to put it in writing and pledge to commit to this stuff? How do we distinguish between people who are genuine and folks who are just telling us what we want to hear without delivering on anything?

    • Andrew Squirrel says:

      I completely agree with this Bob, seems like so many people in positions of power play lip service to advocates just to shake them off their backs.
      I’ve always wanted to become a cycling/pedestrian advocate but seeing this happen so frequently and realizing how much personal time and effort it takes just to be an advocate really makes me reconsider the benefits of even attempting to become involved.

      I appreciate that I live in a community that has so many advocates and I applaud your dedication to enacting change, I’m just not sure I have the endurance and time to get involved.
      Give me a pick-axe, shovel and some concrete and I will fix that sidewalk….. but put me in a 2 hour meeting with city officials at 4pm on a Wednesday or hand me a phone with SDOT manager on the other line and I am a fish out of water.

  7. Marge Evans says:

    This a pet peeve of mine. I have never understood why this is tolerated in Seattle. Do you think they close swatches of mid-town Manhattan for construction? Obviously not. This
    should be part of the construction to provide access.

  8. Tom V. says:

    Sidewalks are part of the public right of way, as I understand it. Does anyone know if the city has to be compensated for the private use of the public right of way? Shouldn’t developers have to pay for the temporary privatization of a public space?

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  10. asdf2 says:

    Of course, one of the biggest ironies about closing the sidewalk and leaving the parking lane is that it leaves no safe way for the people parking there to walk to or from their cars.

  11. Jerome says:

    It seems obvious that sidewalk closure fees need to be increased, likely by an order of magnitude. Contractors close sidewalks for months at a time sometimes.

    I agree with Tom’s overall idea, but I would also be happy with a step in the right direction. We should increase fees to the point that developers have a strong incentive to only close sidewalks when absolutely necessary, and re-open them as soon as possible.

  12. Mike says:

    Scaffolding. Covered sidewalk. Materials above. Source: Manhattan.

    • Augsburg says:

      “Manhattan” — it’s been brought up by a couple commenters.

      I have to smile. I’ve travelled to Manhattan for work many times over the past 20 years. Seattle is not Manhattan. Seattleites are not New Yorkers. I say that as a native Seattleite. The good citizens of New York City and especially Manhattan would not put up with the nonsense we in Seattle find complacency in. Going back at least to the early 1990’s, New Yorkers turned over a new leaf and have required their politicians to provide for police and public safety – or be voted out of office. I do not see that level of accountability in Seattle.

  13. Scott says:

    24th Ave E by the old MOHAI was reduced to one very narrow 2-way bike lane with a huge area left for construction traffic. On top of that they used spray paint to put down road markings, had terrible sight lines, left up a curb divider that stuck out into the road.

    After multiple emails with SDOT & WSDOT the finally “fixed” things yesterday by putting asphalt ramps onto the sidewalk & spray painting single headed arrows to designate traffic flow.

    At least they listened.

  14. Ryann says:

    There’s currently a sidewalk closure at Pine and 9th on the north side of the street that you can’t see until you’ve walked halfway up the block (and away from your opportunity to cross at the crosswalk). Heading east toward Capitol Hill last night, several other pedestrians and I took our chances jumping around the blockage and into the road since we didn’t expect we wouldn’t able to continue down that side of the block. While we could have walked back a block to cross at the cross walk, it’s annoying that traffic detours get signage and alternative routes but pedestrians (and often people on bikes, though recently the city has been better, such as with the Broadway construction) are just left to fend for themselves.

  15. Jen says:

    Thanks to trying to walk through South Lake Union recently, I have come to the conclusion that the real “war” is on pedestrians (not cars).

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  17. Bill says:

    Interesting Blog post, although the A or B plan above, keeping pedestrians walking along side a “buffer” zone, created for a construction site, looks to have one little flaw. The buffer zone is essential space, especially in the CBD, for the contractor to receive deliveries and move materials in and out of the building under construction. At VERY regular intervals, trucks are pulling into and out this buffer zone at each end – right in front of the cross walks. That unavoidable condition has truck traffic and proposed pedestrian traffic needing to cross paths – trucks from drive lanes crossing into buffer zones, and pedestrians on crosswalks walking out to this proposed added sidewalk. Potentially quite a traffic and public safety mess, not one that can easily be managed by any amount of traffic control measures such as uniformed police officers, signage, etc. Seems to me if public safety is really the overriding concern here (and not inconvenience…), that moving the public away from these sorts of confluence areas, and across the street, would make the most sense.

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  19. Dan says:

    The length of time that the sidewalk shall be closed should play a primary role in whether a temporary walkway should be mandated. It makes sense for big jobs to erect walkways, but there are countless jobs that require a closed sidewalk for a very short period of time and requiring a walkway for these jobs would create a seriously wasteful situation. Just my two cents.

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