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‘Sidewalk Closed’ must be a last resort for construction, proposed city rule says

A familiar scene on Seattle Streets. Image from Google Street View.
A familiar scene on Seattle Streets. Image from Google Street View.
Parking for one truck preserved at the expense of these people’s safety. Nike Store, downtown Seattle in June

They are two of the worst words you encounter every day in the city: “Sidewalk Closed.”

You face a conundrum. Do I wait for the walk signal, cross the street, walk a block, wait for another walk signal, then cross back? Or do I just try to squeeze along the construction barrier?

A lot of people choose the latter. And they probably regret the choice halfway down the block when people in cars start whizzing by, but then it’s too late.

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The most frustrating part of this extremely common problem is that it is entirely avoidable. Temporary and protected walking spaces are easy to create.

So often on Seattle streets, multiple vehicle lanes remain open, often including on-street car parking. Yet so many construction mitigation plans can’t possibly find any space for basic accommodations for people walking (and definitely not for people biking). That’s not acceptable.

The good news is that SDOT agrees. That’s why they released a new rule proposal today that would require temporary walkways for most construction projects. The rules also specify the use of stronger barriers, providing better lighting and adhering to basic accessibility standards.

The new rules do not specifically outline how to manage bike lane closures, but they are one big step in the right direction. The rules do give SDOT the right to evaluate bike traffic impacts, but they don’t go as far as mandating and specifying temporary bike lanes in construction zones.

In a previous story, we suggested this order of lane removal to meet the needs of construction work:


On-street parking goes first. Then extra general purpose travel lanes. Then the bike lane if — and only if — there is only room for one shared lane on the street. There should be almost no case where either walkway is removed.

In cities with well-developed protected bike lane networks, those bike lanes are consistently maintained during construction. They are important transportation facilities, and the protected nature of them are vital for people to know they can depend on a safe route to wherever they are going. Bike lanes can’t simply disappear if we want people to put their faith in them as a way to get around.

More details on the new rule from SDOT (you can also check out the rules in this PDF):

Requests for construction-related closures of Seattle sidewalks will soon come under more stringent city review in an effort to make it easier and safer for people to walk here. The Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) is proposing a revised Director’s Rule for Pedestrian Mobility in and Around Work Zones (SDOT DR 10-2015). The expanded rule emphasizes sidewalk closures as a last resort, when there is no other reasonable solution to keep a public walkway open.

The newly updated rule establishes standards for meeting Seattle Municipal Code requirements, including materials, their placement, and steps to ensure American Disability Act (ADA) compliance. These include calling for water-filled barriers to protect pedestrians around construction sites, and eliminating the orange tube delineators known as candlesticks as an option on arterials.  This change alone could be life-saving, as the barriers were September 8, 2015 when a car crashed into them near a very busy bike lane along 2nd Avenue, near Pike Street. The driver was arrested for speeding but no one was hurt; the barriers worked as designed.

In the past, if contractors kept pedestrian access on the same side of the street as construction they could get a mobility credit; now that pedestrian routing approach is the proposed standard.  The updated rule is supported by a new progressive enforcement procedure that focuses on providing clear direction to reduce infractions, and heightened attention on those with cumulative violations.

The complete DR 10-2015 is posted online at www.seattle.gov/transportation/drules.htm. Comment is being accepted now through October 29, 2015. To provide comment, contact LeAnne Nelson in the SDOT Street Use Division at [email protected] or 206-684-3897.  You may also drop off a written comment to the Street Use offices located on the 23rd floor of the Seattle Municipal Tower, at 700 5th Avenue downtown

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24 responses to “‘Sidewalk Closed’ must be a last resort for construction, proposed city rule says”

  1. Marge Evans

    I can handle bicycle lane closure. To barricade the streets for people with mobility issues is ridiculous!

  2. Andres Salomon

    The city should probably hear positive comments for this change! Make sure you send them your support.

    Also, maybe suggest doing the same for bike lanes. :)

    The other side of this coin is getting more inspectors.
    We have 12. NYC has 134. If we compared by the number of annual permits, we have 1/3rd of the inspectors that NYC has for the same number of permits. So we need to encourage City Council and the Mayor to add to the budget for more inspectors.

  3. DB

    Why can’t there be a rule where the construction staging area has to be within the property line of the new development and not on public property? Notch out a corner of the job site where you store materials/equipment/the job trailer then when building construction is done you’re left with a semi public plaza.

    1. Peri Hartman

      Essentially, that is already a rule. If there’s space on the site for storage and operation, then they allow only very short term usages of public space. Some sites are “zero lot line” construction meaning that the entire property is under construction. Thus, there is little choice but to put some staging and operations outside the property – usually in the street right-of-way.

      1. JRD

        Seems like of this is a rule, it isn’t being enforced. I routinely see sites where public ROW is being used to park personal vehicles of site workers, and other highly questionable uses.

      2. Peri Hartman

        Well, if they are making it difficult for you to get through on foot or bike, report them to DPD (or whatever they just renamed it to). On the other hand, realize that life in the city is a tangle of balances.

  4. It’s really good to see a rule put in place giving sidewalks high priority.

    With bike facilities, understandably, given somewhat lower priority, we’ll have to rely on understanding and care of cycling routes in each case. If general-purpose lanes are open in both directions cyclists willing to use those can; if sidewalks are available on both sides cyclists willing to go slow or dismount can use those for a short stretch. In the closure of eastbound Broad Street between 9th and Westlake that went on for over half of 2015, neither were available, on a bike route recently created with the intention of being the primary route through the area. Though drivers and cyclists were restricted equally, cyclists were really the ones affected, because drivers had an obvious alternate route, Mercer, with more advantageous signal timings to boot. Cyclists didn’t even get a marked detour. I don’t know what kind of rule could have prevented us getting screwed. It was up to the people in charge of the closure to understand the importance of the bike route and take site-specific action to preserve it. They did not, so we got what we got.

  5. Skylar

    It would be nice if SDOT or P&D could coordinate sidewalk closures too. A couple years ago in Fremont, both sides of Woodland Park had closed sidewalks in the same spot. If you wanted to be legal as a pedestrian, you would have to walk all the way around the block just to get to the next building. Presumably these projects were permitted, so couldn’t the city have required staggered constructions schedules?

    Maybe this rule will mean that we might have the Roosevelt bike lane finally open in its entirety sometime soon?

    1. Matthew Snyder

      It’s not actually illegal to walk in the roadway when there are no sidewalks provided. It might not be safe, but it’s not illegal. You’re supposed to walk on the left “where practicable” but I would imagine that test would fail in the situation on Woodland Park.

      Yes, both of those projects were permitted, but no, there’s no rule or policy preventing both sidewalks from being closed at once (or at least there was not at that time). SDOT told me they “try to avoid” that situation, which of course they don’t.

  6. Jon

    For the hundreds of daily riders on Dexter, there is now a very dangerous set of two closures that mix cars, bikes, construction equipment and pedestrians, on the downhill portion of Dexter heading into downtown (north to south). The second closure happens right where the bulk of the traffic congestion begins as well.

    On Monday, October 12th there was an accident where apparently a woman riding a bike was injured at that spot (I don’t know all the details). Today I witnessed bikes waiting in line with traffic, which is incredibly dangerous as drivers are immediately distracted by their phones in stop-and-go traffic. There is absolutely no shoulder to rid on at all.

    This is completely unacceptable from an access perspective, especially when Dexter was has been made the key bike corridor going north and south. The only options seems to be to use the improvised sidewalk, which is super risky to both bikers and pedestrians, and as usual, the improved sidewalk has been setup with concrete footings perpendicular to the fence line, which creates yet another hazard for anyone using that path.

    I have contacted SDOT with no luck. Previous construction on Dexter has NOT impacted the bike lane.

    1. Andres Salomon

      Can you tell me the location of the collision (nearest cross streets)? Who did you try contacting at SDOT?

      Also, if you can send me pictures ([email protected]), I can try applying pressure on SDOT and Council.

      1. ballard_biker_too

        The southerly (newest) blockage is in the southbound bike lane on Dexter Ave N between Lee St and Comstock. The northerly blockage is also in southbound lanes north of Garfield St and across from Hayes St.

        Amazingly you can see the northerly blockage quite well on google streetview and the construction fences for the southerly blockage are also visible.

    2. It’s “incredibly dangerous” to wait in line with traffic? I’m pretty sure, by the numbers, it’s safer to wait right in the middle of the lane than to try to filter (because of right hooks) or to wait at the right edge (because of in-lane passes). The level of danger involved once you’ve finished merging into the lane properly (something that’s actually dangerous, but that you have some control over) is fairly small!

  7. […] the Seattle Bike Blog notes, the new rules do not specifically outline how to manage bike lane closures. The rules do give SDOT the right to evaluate bike traffic impacts, but they don’t go as far as […]

  8. […] on the Network today: Seattle Bike Blog reports on a new city policy intended to protect pedestrians from sidewalk closures caused by […]

  9. Amy

    I too use Dexter as my bike commute route and the new (southern) lane closure comes at a very congested section of Dexter. You have to sit in traffic with car since there is no shoulder.

  10. SGG

    They should limit it by making the daily street vacation permit expensive enough that there is an economic incentive to keep the sidewalk open. It’s as simple as that. In the example with the picture in this article, if the daily permit fee for the sidewalk vacation (if it’s called that) were high enough, they would only pay it if they truly needed that space for the job at hand. Some jobs simply will need the space, others its just a way to give the contractor a parking space. At minimum, the daily permit price should be the equivalent market price for the street parking vacated for each parking space worth displaced. I think you would see a lot less wholesale closures if something like this were in place.

    1. Peri Hartman

      That might be a good idea but also bear in mind that if it’s too expensive, contractors will simply park on the sidewalk or in the bike lane, etc., instead of doing proper traffic rerouting. For example, when a cement truck comes, it can’t just go find a parking place somewhere. It needs to be at the site.

      So, we’re best of to allow rerouting and some use of the public right of way. What we need to do is ensure that peds & bikes aren’t left out of that rerouting.

    2. JRD

      Agreed. The current fee schedule makes it far cheaper to close the street than to have site workers pay for legal parking. Contractors are really only motivated by money, and will push to get as much leeway on projects as they can. Many operations can be done in less space by spending more money (use solo dumps instead of doubles), but contractors have no incentive not to close as much space as our city will allow.

      We’re currently allowing contractors to waste our public space by allowing them to rent it for a fraction of it’s utility to the public.

  11. […] of Transportation is looking at a rule change for construction. If approved, projects would then be required to keep sidewalks open in almost all […]

  12. AT

    One topic that never comes up in discussions about construction impacts on our city, are the spotty road patches that come with new construction projects.

    In many cases a new or recently paved road is torn open for a new building to connect to the city’s main sewer line. The hole or trench that is dug is temporarily covered with a steel plate. When the trench is then filled the result is usually a shoddy patch. Improper compaction and substandard leveling often creates dips, holes, and bumps in an otherwise perfectly good road.

    With the pace of new buildings this is happening all over the city. The pavement change, dips and bumps create unsafe conditions for bicyclists and are hard on car tires as well.

    Shouldn’t SDOT have some sort of standard for these kind of patches? Seattle Department of Development has requirements for new developments to improve the sidewalk (and now avoid sidewalk closures while under construction)
    But the responsibilities of the developer seem to stop at the curb line and our streets (i.e. bicyclists) are suffering because of it.

    Developers should have a responsibility to improve the sidewalk and the street/bike lanes in front of their projects.

    1. Andres Salomon

      I agree 150% that developers should be required to improve the sidewalk and street/bike lanes in front of their projects. I don’t know why we don’t hold them to that. Just look at this shitty sidewalk in front of a brand new development (finished back in the summer, with no sidewalk widening) on NE 65th:

      Regarding ripping up a recently fixed/repaved road, the Move Seattle levy (which funds a bunch of repaving projects) has a clause that lengthens and strengthens the requirement for ripping up the road:

      “Lengthen the moratorium for cutting into newly-installed pavement (from 3 years to 5) and increase requirements for restoring pavement that has been disturbed”, from pg 23 of http://www.seattle.gov/transportation/docs/MoveSeatte-FinalDraft-2-25-Online.pdf

      I haven’t done any follow up research to dig into the details of that, but I was pretty happy to see it.

  13. […] according to new rules outlined by SDOT (PDF), which we wrote about previously. During public comment, the city received “overwhelmingly positive” feedback on the […]

  14. […] passed a similar law last year, writes Andersen, but without provisions protecting […]

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