EDITOR’S NOTE: Caroline Carr is a student in UW’s News Lab program.
Seattle Neighborhood Greenways, celebrated 10 years of working towards a more walking and biking friendly Seattle last month.
Three groups from Beacon Hill, Wallingford and the Central District realized they were working towards the same goal in 2011, so they formed a nonprofit and began collaborating on larger citywide projects. The organization has since grown to encompass 15 smaller neighborhood committees that span from Lake City to Rainier Valley.
When it first began, the group focused around its namesake: neighborhood greenways. Greenways are streets with a low volume of vehicles where pedestrians and cyclists can feel more comfortable. Before they were introduced in Seattle, greenways were incorporated into cities like Vancouver and Portland. During its early days, the nonprofit was successful in their efforts to implement greenways in a few neighborhoods. From there, the organization expanded their goals to larger projects.
The organization contributed much to the 2014 Seattle Bicycle Master Plan, a large plan of how the city can better accommodate cyclists and allow bicycles to be a more safe and functional form of transportation. Safe bike lanes are integral to this plan, and over the years the goalposts have shifted from the mere existence of bike lanes to bike lanes that will tangibly make riders safer. Previously, the city painted skinny bike lanes and sharrows, or shared lane markings, that only demarcated the biking space but did not protect riders from the traffic beside them. The 2014 Bike Plan pushed for protected bike lanes. The city has since created plastic flex posts that provide the illusion of protection in some areas, along with adding more durable and protective concrete planter boxes alongside bike lanes.
The goal of these lanes and protective barriers is to protect riders while also serving to encourage more apprehensive riders. Executive Director Gordon Padelford explained that previously, the infrastructure was designed for a very narrow group of people that was thought to be mostly white, able-bodied, middle-aged men who were willing to bike in traffic. With a new, more inclusive vision, biking can be a more viable option for more demographics.
“The vast majority of people are not comfortable biking traffic,” He said. “If you want to make cycling more accessible and more useful to everyone, then you’ve got to implement things like trails, neighborhood greenways and protected bike lanes.”
One of the group’s newer initiatives is turning Seattle into a 15-minute city, where residents can reach all of their daily activities within 15 minutes by foot, bicycle or public transit. Robert Getch, co-chair of Beacon Hill Safe Streets, spoke about the recent expansion of public transit in Seattle, emphasizing the importance of transit for all aspects of life.
“I think the one mistake we have in a lot of people’s heads is that transit is for commuting and we really need it to be for everything.” Getch said. “I think high quality frequent trains really make that a possibility.”
Another goal that Seattle Neighborhood Greenways has been working towards is equity in traffic enforcement. Along with other organizations who are pushing to defund the Seattle Police Department, the organization hopes to shift the job of traffic enforcement from SPD to the Seattle Department of Transportation. Whose Streets? Our Streets! is a majority-BIPOC fronted group within Seattle Neighborhood Greenways that aims to review current laws regarding the use of public space and seek to make the streets safer for residents, specifically BIPOC who have been historically excluded from these conversations. With disparities in law enforcement in Seattle that disproportionately target people of color, residents have been supportive of policies that aim to remedy the issue. Staff at Seattle Neighborhood Greenways stated that the public has been supportive of shifting traffic enforcement responsibilities to SDOT.
“How can we make our streets safer for everyone and in a way that doesn’t involve the police and doesn’t criminalize poverty and rely on archaic, punitive measures?” Said Community Organizer Clara Cantor. “How can we make this supportive of our communities instead of detrimental?”
Looking out into the next 10 years, the organization is focusing on several different initiatives. Along with the 15-Minute City initiative and the traffic enforcement equity work, the organization hopes to advocate for a pedestrian-only street, a project the city has not carried out since the 1970s. Padelford described the pedestrian-only outdoor dining setups that popped up due to COVID-19 restrictions as a “successful experiment showing the way towards a better future.”
Regarding all of Seattle Neighborhood Greenways’ current and prior initiatives, Getch encourages his fellow Seattle residents to remember that none of our current infrastructure was done by accident.
“Everything is designed, everything was planned. We did this; we built giant roads, we put in parks,” He said. “It’s important to think about it because we designed it to be this way and it can be anything we really want it to be.”