Since we last wrote about the potential for open streets to reduce crowding on Seattle sidewalks and paths, the city has opened a couple streets within parks to people walking and biking in Seward Park and Volunteer Park. And Settle Neighborhood Greenways has created a guide for the city that makes the case for opening more space for walking and biking and suggests some ideas for how Seattle can make streets work better for everyone during this difficult time. UPDATE: Major Seattle Parks will close entirely this weekend, the Seattle Times reports.
SNG is also collecting your ideas for open streets opportunities through an online form. So if there’s a street near you that you think would help you and your neighbors walk and bike safely if only it were car-free, let SNG know.
The in-park street closures like Volunteer and Seward Parks make a ton of sense and were easy to do. The parking lots and destinations in each park were already closed to limit crowding, so closing the roads to cars and opening them to people walking and biking just required putting up some barricades and signs. There are likely other streets through parks that could (and should) be closed to cars just as easily.
There may also be streets where it would be simple and cheap to cone off a general traffic lane to create more sidewalk or biking space. This would have the added benefit of reducing speeding, which has gone way up in many places as some people driving take advantage of wide open roads.
And being easy to implement is important, since it’s unlikely the city can or is willing to dedicate a lot of staff and resources to open streets events. So as great as a citywide network of major car-free streets would be, it makes more sense to look for opportunities that would not require any (or very little) active staff. And a spokesperson for Mayor Jenny Durkan said as much to Eli Sanders at the Stranger:
Kamaria Hightower, a spokesperson for Mayor Durkan, said that right now “the health and safety of the public and our workers are the top priority,” and that closing Seattle streets to create more space for outdoor recreation is under ongoing consideration.
But, Hightower added, “While we’ve seen some cities close streets in recent weeks, we know they have also witnessed some challenges due to crowds and staffing capacity constraints. That’s something she’s trying to balance before making any decisions.”
Hightower may be referring to New York City, where Mayor Bill DeBlasio has backed off on a short-lived open streets effort abruptly, citing costs. Those events were heavily staffed by NYPD officers. There is debate in that city about whether there were more officers and staff than necessary, but opening busy streets with lots of intersections in dense areas is a significant undertaking.
But there are a lot of opportunities that would not require such staffing. Many might not require anything more than some barricades, cones and signs. And as the peak of the local crisis seems to be trending in the right direction (Keep going, everyone! It’s working. Don’t stop now!), we will hopefully soon start to talk about what this summer looks like. If we need to maintain social distancing, the need for open streets will only get bigger. This is especially true of neighborhoods without access to parks with adequate space. And it may make sense to have more significantly staffed open streets then, though that’s (hopefully) a conversation for another day.
An early opportunity to rethink open streets is coming up next month: Seattle Parks has announced the planned dates for Bicycle Sundays on Lake Washington Boulevard: May 10, 17 and 24, June 14 and 21, July 5 and 12, August 9, 16, 23 and 30, and September 6. However there are justified concerns that these events might not be feasible because they can be so popular. But rather than cancel them, perhaps they should consider how to expand them. They are busy because every visitor has to pack into just a few hours on a couple days of the month. What if they were all day? Or all day every day? Or what if the route were longer? Then visitors would be more spread out. And sure, some of the usual programming that is part of Bicycle Sundays might not work, but that doesn’t mean the open streets part wouldn’t. How much open time and space can Parks staff create with their existing (or a modestly expanded) budget? With Seward Park closed to cars at the south end of the event, it might be even easier to manage traffic than usual.
Another possibly easy fix would be to make it legal to walk on non-arterial neighborhood streets. SNG even outlined how city code could be changed to expand the existing rule allowing walking on neighborhood streets that don’t have sidewalks to also include any non-arterial street. The tricky part here would be informing the public about the change and getting people to respect the law while driving.
SNG laid out a three-pronged way of thinking that could help guide the city’s decisions:
- Harm Reduction: We should focus now on reducing dangerous crowding on our sidewalks, trails, and in our parks.
- Adaptation: We need to be proactive in adapting our streets to prepare for the summer, when people will be eager to get outside and enjoy our sidewalks, trails, and parks.
- A Green and Just Rebound: In the long term, just as Seattle is leading the way in the United States for social distancing, we can lead the way out of the impending economic recession and towards a greener, more equitable, and thriving city.
The extent to which the city is focused on sticks (depriving people of parks access during unseasonably beautiful weather) versus a combination of both (substituting open streets for parks) is both disappointing and unsurprising.
I sent the below email to Mayor Durkan and the Council members. Although I naturally don’t expect any leadership.
Hi Mayor Durkan and councilmembers,
I live in downtown Seattle. As someone who is over 45, I’ve carefully followed the guidance to stay at home for nearly 5 weeks now.
Being the urban core, it’s almost impossible to socially distance on our existing sidewalks — there are still too many people, and one cannot rely on other people engaging in safe social distancing practices (esp. those with overt mental health or substance abuse issues). Many of us in Seattle’s urban core also don’t own cars these days.
I appreciate the good intention in closing the parks where people congregate — but if you want people like me to continue respecting the shelter-in-place guidance after a month of being stuck at home — you need to start giving us better options.
I’m sure you’ve already heard of the leadership of Libby Schaaf (in Oakland, CA) in opening 74 miles of Oakland streets to people. In downtown Seattle, our streets are virtually empty. There’s no reason Seattle can’t follow Oakland’s leadership.
The weather is obviously gorgeous. At some point, there are many people like myself who’ve been stuck at home — in a 500 square foot apartment for 24 hours a day — for weeks now.
My friends and peers are already showing signs of just saying “forget this” and just going outside. Your leadership opportunity is to create the spaces for people to do safely. You have the levers freely available to you — just as Oakland did. Please choose to prioritize opening our streets and giving us safer options to be outside.
Also, it’s noteworthy that the US city doing open streets at the largest scale (Oakland CA) is considerably less wealthy than Seattle.
If they can figure it out on their staffing and budget, it suggests Seattle’s lack of action is strictly about political leadership rather than complexity.
Great letter. I hope the mayor takes this recommendation.
Very well said. Thank you. I would add that despite the low auto traffic, dangerous driver behavior abounds. I had two unpleasant encounters on Boat street yesterday because I had the audacity to ride like a normal human being on my way home from work. The Burke Gilman being naturally jam packed on a sunny spring day.
My theory is that a lot of what’s going on is simply an effort to avoid blame and lawsuits. I can imagine lawyers arguing that anything encouraging people to get out – even something as simple as making Lake Washington Blvd. a pedestrian street – opens the city to liability when people go there and don’t properly social-distance themselves. But, if they tell everybody to just stay in their homes, this way, when people do venture out (which they most certainly will do anyway), it will be (legally) their own fault, not the city’s fault if they get sick.
It’s kind of like why people bother to put up “no trespassing signs” protecting an empty lot of nothing but dirt. Not because somebody walking on their dirt really matters to them, but because the sign makes anybody who slips and falls on their property the trespasser’s fault, rather than the owners fault, thereby avoiding unnecessarily liability.