SDOT uses bike racks to displace people camping under Viaduct

Photo from Dongho Chang, via Twitter.

When a long row of bike racks popped up under the Viaduct at Western and Bell, people immediately questioned whether the racks were there to create parking spaces for people to lock bikes or to displace people experiencing homelessness who had been camping in the rare dry Belltown spot.

Jeff Few, a neighbor, filed a request with the city for records about the bike racks and found that displacing campers was, indeed, the reason the city installed the racks, according to the Stranger:

The city installed the racks in September after officials conducted a homeless encampment sweep in the area. SDOT considered the racks “part of the Homelessness Emergency Response effort” and they were meant to discourage camping, emails show. Few obtained the emails through a public records request.

In a statement to The Stranger, SDOT spokesperson Karen Westing confirmed that the bike racks were part of a “strategy for lessening the hazards of unsheltered living by creating space for a different active public use.” She said SDOT has not made any other similar installments to deter camping.

The racks and installation cost about $6,700, according to Westing. The 18 racks and six mounting rails cost $3,998 and the labor of three crew members for five hours cost $2,718. SDOT used bike racks purchased through the voter-approved Move Seattle levy. However, the department reimbursed the total cost of the project through an SDOT fund specifically for homelessness, according to Westing.

As someone who has been a big advocate of expanding the city’s bike parking, it is disturbing to see hard-won bike racks used in such a way. Bike racks are for improving bike access to businesses and other destinations, not for forming a physical impediment to our neighbors who are just looking for a dry place to sleep. The idea that something this blog and many other advocates for bike access have worked so hard to get into the levy and city budget was used in such an inhumane way makes me feel ill.

If it were a coincidence that the new bike parking displaced some people camping, that might be one thing. But the department admits displacement was the reason. There is no destination near this area warranting that many bike parking spaces. The bike racks were purchased using Move Seattle levy money, but SDOT was reimbursed from a fund for addressing homelessness.

These aren’t bike racks, they are bike-washed “anti-homeless spikes.”

Homelessness is a complicated and difficult issue, and SDOT so far has not been front and center in the debate. Perhaps that has been a mistake. Whether we’re talking about bike racks under the Viaduct or fences under the Ballard Bridge, SDOT needs to do some serious soul-searching and policy revision about what its role should or should not be in creating purposefully-inhospitable spaces for people experiencing homelessness. While there are certainly situations where encampment locations are genuinely hazardous (like, perhaps, skinny ledges above I-5), people experiencing homelessness in our city need a place to sleep.

Sweeping people out from a covered area just forces them to find somewhere else. The city does not have homes for people on our streets, which is the real crime in this situation. But knowing that, what role and under what conditions (if any) should SDOT be playing in further displacement?

About Tom Fucoloro

Founder and Editor of Seattle Bike Blog.
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46 Responses to SDOT uses bike racks to displace people camping under Viaduct

  1. Ryan Packer says:

    We are baking sweeps policy into every department of city government, it seems like.

    • SeattleDOTr says:

      Other than doing a detailed review of every city budget, how can we determine what other departments have “screw the homeless” money pots? I suspect a FOIA request for “a list of all budget items across all departments related to homelessness” would not be successful. Not to mention some of the pots being used are likely not as blatantly anti-homelessly named as the SDOT $$ is.

      • James Ragsdale says:

        The city of Seattle spends 100 million on permanent housing for the homeless. This is part of the quarter billion dollar homeless levy imposed on our home-owning taxpayers. I wouldn’t call that anti-homeless at all. There are laws in civilized society barring people from camping wherever they want and it’s the city’s purpose to enforce that order for the tax payers. Seattle as a city is absolutely NOT blatantly anti homeless. Enforcing order is part of the contract between the tax payers and civil society we have constructed, just like signaling every turn and obeying traffic lights while on a bike.

  2. MikeG says:

    Thanks for writing this and informing the community. It is very disturbing to see something many bike riders advocate for (parking) used in a wasteful manner for the primary purpose of displacing homeless people.

  3. Peri Hartman says:

    I’ll “third” these opinions. What a waste when we need bike racks in so many other places. This will simply give more fuel to the bike infrastructure pundits.

  4. John says:

    Is a Ghost Shopping cart (shopping cart painted all white) a thing?

  5. Dave says:

    God, that’s awful. If the powers that be in Seattle dislike homelessness so much you’d think they’d look at ways to force the price of housing down.

    • StopEnabling says:

      Or you know crazy idea people could move somewhere they can afford

      • RealityCheck says:

        Moving takes resources. What are you suggesting should happen when someone is putting all they have, every day, toward food, necessities, safety, and finding shelter?

  6. Scott A says:

    It’s fair to criticize the approach taken but also good to include some Streetview images (captured Sep 2017) that seem to show tents blocking the sidewalk in this spot. It’s not just a biking thing but also really basic pedestrian access.

  7. db79647 says:

    “The racks and installation cost about $6,700, according to Westing. The 18 racks and six mounting rails cost $3,998 and the labor of three crew members for five hours cost $2,718.”

    SDOT pays almost $200/hour? $4k for those racks? I’m in the wrong business.

    • be9ace says:

      I think that’s likely a “fully loaded” (i.e. including an overhead percentage) labor rate, and not those crew members actual hourly wage. And might also include vehicles (like the truck to take the stuff to the site) which is typically a separate category but which doesn’t seem to be included.

    • overhead says:

      This definitely includes an overhead rate. Those workers probably only make in the range of $15-$20 per hour.

      Also, $4,000 for the racks is a steal. I work for a private developer. We just installed a bike rack. The *retail* rate for JUST ONE was almost $1,000. SDOT must be getting them for a bargain somewhere.

    • Conrad says:

      Haha, me too!

  8. Jonathan says:

    There are 5 council members who voted against the head tax to fund homelessness services. In order to activate their spots in Council chambers for a different public use, can SDOT please install bike racks to replace their chairs? They can work just fine standing up.

    That would be Councilmembers Bagshaw, González, Harrell, Johnson, and Juarez.

  9. Simon Said says:

    Good place for the houseless to park our stolen bikes.

  10. metalac says:

    Maybe we should camp out on road shoulders for a few nights and wake up to find the shoulders taken over by bike lanes. This way we could get full city coverage before summer.

  11. Apu says:

    Adding my voice to those of other cyclists who are disgusted that these bike racks are being installed not in good faith but rather as a weapon to bludgeon the homeless with.

  12. DJ says:

    I fully support this and I’m not trying to be ironic or inflammatory. I read this blog and support cycling in the city because I ride several thousand miles per year on a bicycle around the city and surrounding area.

    Thanks to whomever in our city government made this happen. The fact that the city has to do this via bike racks rather than just saying out loud that this type of disorder is not acceptable says much about the state of politics in the city.

    Allowing so much litter, poor sanitation, and public disorder does not in any way solve homelessness and makes the city unsafe and unpleasant to navigate. I don’t suppose readers of this site would be cool with tents taking over cycle lanes but somehow making a sidewalk impassable represents “compassion” to drug addicts.

    • Observant says:

      Yeah, instead of providing them the shelter, mental help and/or drug treatment they need, lets keep forcibly shuffling them around. That will take care of the problem for sure!

      It’s not compassion that lets the homeless set up unsanitary encampments, it’s a lack of caring about the issue by the general public until the problem reaches critical mass. These people need serious help and are unable to obtain it. Compassion would be providing them the help they need.

      Other countries and even a few other American cities have figured out that homelessness doesn’t go away by ignoring or use of force. Why haven’t we?

    • HeyNonnyMouse says:

      I’m not trying to be ironic or inflammatory, but I know this guy who drives a huge SUV thousands of miles in and around Seattle every year.

      He would love to say “thanks” to all of those in local and state government who have recognized the huge tax contribution that big SUV drivers make to the bottom line of the city and the state and, accordingly, have limited the number and location of bike lanes.

      He’s always saying that encouraging people to ride a bicycle in a city where it rains most of the year is surely a sign of disorder.

      According to him, cyclists make the roads unsafe and unpleasant to navigate.

      He’s always saying, “Do we really need to show “compassion” for these people who don’t pay the taxes for the roadways they’re using and confusing with their weird green lanes, who cannot afford a car because obviously they’re too lazy to get a real job, or who don’t have a driver’s license because they’re drunks and drug addicts?”

      You seem like the kind of person who would really get this SUV driver.

      It really must be a challenge to look down upon others while sitting on your butt barely three feet off the ground, but bless your tiny little heart for trying.

      • DJ says:

        Are you talking about me or your “friend”? Seriously what are the chances you have a friend who drives an SUV?

        My butt is about 41 inches off the ground. 765mm saddle height plus a 275mm bb height. You seem like the kind of person who would really get mixed measurement units seeing as how you mix metaphors so well.

    • Conrad says:

      I traverse the city (Wedgwood to West seattle) on my daily bike commute. I don’t like the litter and poor sanitation either. And the constant flat tires from broken glass really pisses me off sometimes. But these people have to sleep somewhere. I don’t see the point of fencing off or otherwise making bridge underpasses uninhabitable. Seems that we should address the massive income inequality that is making homelessness inevitable instead.

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  14. BallardBiker says:

    Maybe this could be used to take back the Ballard Commons…

  15. 98122 says:

    So I guess I understand why everyone is angry. I felt a similar sentiment when Spokane dumped sharp rocks under the freeway to deter homelessness ( But, honestly, the more I think about it, I’m not THAT outraged. We use tactile urbanism everyday as a way of directing use of the built environment. Parks are designed this way, the streetscape is designed this way. Orientation of benches, seats, structures, paths, crosswalks all “suggest” the way that we should use the city. Think about why there is a painted crosswalk at one intersection and not the next one over? Perhaps it should be taken as a suggestion that if you need to cross that street, use the painted interaction rather than the unmarked. In this regard, perhaps using this form of tactile urbanism is a mere suggestion for the homeless to camp elsewhere. But of course this is tough because there are not enough services, not enough “elsewhere” to go at the moment. :(

    • HeyNonnyMouse says:

      While the apparently “all-knowing” are managing what people they want and where they want them in our city, let’s try a fair distribution of pain. Why should the homeless be the recipients of an unfair share while self-important a$$holes go without.

      For example, we could raise the property tax for the general fund levy to $25 per $1,000 of assessed value and raise the limit to 10% of a property’s fair value. Do you think the property owners would get “the message” in the design?

      With that spike in revenue we could fund a significant increase in affordable housing, and with the subsequent exit of pretentious wannabes who qualified for more debt than their cheaply built domiciles are worth, even more affordable housing would become available on the market.

      Feel free to follow the signs and painted roadways out of town.

      Woo-hoo! Playing god with other people’s lives sure is fun, huh?

      Before advocating that government or fellow residents play god with those you deem undesirable in location or existence, you might want to consider who with more resources and power might want to do the same to you. ;)

  16. Van Wolf says:

    Last time I checked there was a long wait list for the places that actually WANTED bike racks placed there. I could list places north to south, east to west, that actually NEED bike racks.
    There’s lots of other things that could’ve been placed there if that’s what the city was aiming for; art sculptures, flower planters, needless directional signs if you’re desperate for ideas. but the list could go on.
    This isn’t going to put people off the street, they’ll just end up in another area, and we just keep associating cycling with gentrification instead of the wide range of economic classes that need and love traveling by wheel.
    Instead the city choose this. Stay classy, Seattle.

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  18. Payne says:

    Love the blog and I think I see where you’re coming from, but this really seems like misdirected anger to me. It’s fighting over scraps and ignoring the meat and potatoes. The outrage isn’t that we are kicking people off of the sidewalks. People should not be sleeping on the sidewalks. The outrage is that they have no better place to go. The solution is not to make our city’s miserable corners, niches and ledges more accommodating — That hardly seems compassionate to me. The solution is to provide real housing and recovery options. The real question is where to get the money money money.

    This place is awash in money. It’s embarrassing that we can’t figure this out. I’m a homeowner kind of hanging on by my fingernails, but I’d be willing to pay more taxes to make things right.

    • HeyNonnyMouse says:

      The real question is how to recognize and change the failures of a culture and society that would create and perpetuate such injustice and such extremes of unearned wealth and unjust poverty…knowingly.

      The solution is simple; unfortunately, the means are still stubborn, selfish simpletons.

      Money is not the solution.

      We are.

      • veganbiker says:

        Unfortunately it appears that the people that want to camp in the places like the one that the bike racks were installed, do not want to take advantage of any of the services offered to them! So, what should we do for these people? IF you have an answer for that then you may be able to solve the problem that is now plaguing most of the cities and towns in the USA .

      • HeyNonnyMouse says:

        @veganbiker, if you’ve made it to vegan and biker in a nation coerced to conformity of a passive identity that is quite the opposite of both of your chosen identities, it is puzzling that you lack the required capacity or flexibility to understand my words. So, when you’re ready to get out of your own way, re-read them; they are simple and clear to those who have the will to understand them.

        A culture that embraces an economic system based on exploitation by its core nature yields a system wherein some people are valued more than others, wherein a few are valued more than all, and wherein some are not valued at all.

        …and you have consented to be so enumerated, valued, and traded – a price on all your heads – simply by mindlessly copying and pasting the failed culture and beliefs you inherited without a moment’s hesitation or reflection.

        So long as you see those living in abject poverty and without the essential health care that they quite clearly and desperately need as separately and dismissively “other,” you are part of the problem, and as such cannot be the solution.

        Let go of the worship of money for one moment and the false belief in its infinite, divine power. Consider why you came to accept that we value the investor over the worker and the worker over the idle, aged, and disabled. Consider how we transformed the idle, weak, aged, and disabled into an exploitable problem that could be made profitable by stripping them of their humanity and making them into a financialized property and commodity.

        If you accept the world as it is presented to you and attempt to solve the problems it creates in the context it controls, your life is made vanity and you a fool.

        We are the solution we seek.

        We can change ourselves.

        When you change, the world will change.

        See your true self in the world around you.

        Be change. Underneath the shallows of pithy familiarity in those simple words is a profound depth of knowledge, wisdom, and understanding. Become open to change. Become change.

      • Kirk says:

        @HeyNonnyMouse “So long as you see those living in abject poverty and without the essential health care that they quite clearly and desperately need as separately and dismissively “other,” you are part of the problem, and as such cannot be the solution.”
        Vegan Biker is pointing out that we all would love to get these people the health care they need. The shelter that they need. But they refuse it and wish to keep camping wherever they please. I suspect because they may be mentally ill or substance abusers; they may not be rational. There are plenty of compassionate and caring people trying to help. Money is not the problem. The economic system is not the problem. The problem is mental health.

  19. Ben P says:

    As irksome I find Seattle’s sweep policy, it is heartening to me to see the cycling community cares.

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