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This is the right time for CM Morales’ proposed sidewalk ordinance

Pie chart of sidewalk conditions identified in the 2018 assessment. 60% are noted as height differences.
A 2018 sidewalk assessment report found a lot of deficiencies with the city’s existing sidewalks.

When Seattle invests in a major road repair project, the city does not always repair the adjacent sidewalks or build new sidewalks if they are missing. Councilmember Tammy Morales has proposed an ordinance that would fix this glaring omission, requiring that “the construction project shall include an evaluation of existing sidewalk conditions and correct any deficiencies identified in the evaluation that are within the major paving project,” according to the proposed ordinance text.

Obviously, this added work would not be free. But there’s no ethical argument for making improvements for people driving while leaving the sidewalks in disrepair. Adding sidewalk assessment, repair and construction work to major paving projects will increase the per-mile cost of the projects, but it’s the right thing to do. Seattle should simply price it into the next transportation funding measure that will replace the expiring Move Seattle levy at the end of 2024.

“Just like we can expect our city to build and maintain roads, the same should be true for our sidewalk network,” wrote Disability Right Washington in a letter of support.


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Additionally, repairing sidewalks will be an extremely popular sales pitch to voters, who all have personal experience navigating chunks of Seattle sidewalk heaved comically out of place thanks to a nearby tree root. A 2018 sidewalk assessment study (PDF) found 11,000 blocks that are missing sidewalks and 154,000 instances of sidewalk “deficiencies.” The most common deficiency is the familiar “height difference” issue. The worst deficiency, however, is a sidewalk that’s missing entirely. At our current rate of about 27 blocks of sidewalk per year, it will take 407 years before every street in Seattle has a sidewalk. Voters will certainly agree 407 is too many years.

In addition to requiring sidewalk work as part of major road projects, the ordinance would also direct SDOT to assess nearby sidewalk conditions when conducting smaller projects and prioritize sidewalk repair and construction if the location meets certain conditions. For example, if the location is along a school, park or transit access route or if “the absence of a sidewalk substantially impairs pedestrian movement” within the project boundary. This section does not outright mandate such work, but perhaps it could insert sidewalk work into the department’s regular workflow when it goes out to make patch jobs and other smaller fixes to the streets.

An interesting side effect of such an ordinance is that it would likely force the city to invest more money per mile when repairing industrial streets or streets closer to the north and south city limits because that is where the majority of missing sidewalks are located. So it would be important to make sure SDOT does not choose future projects based solely on cost-effectiveness, because it could end up being much cheaper to repave a mile of street in well-sidewalked Wallingford than in Georgetown or Bitter Lake. These are the kinds of details the city needs to work out now and bake into the next transportation plan and funding measure.

Ultimately, the proposed ordinance still gives the SDOT Director leeway in making decisions about these sidewalk investments, but they will be required to provide the City Council with an explanation in an annual report.

You can watch the Transportation Committee’s discussion of the bill starting at the 1:14 mark:

Disability Rights Washington penned a letter of support for the bill:

We Need a Safe, Accessible and Complete Sidewalk Network

PROBLEM

Seattle has a sidewalk problem. Twenty four percent (11,000 blocks) of our city’s streets are missing sidewalks, and according to a 2017 sidewalk assessment, more than half our existing sidewalks are inaccessible because of unrepaired cracks and bumps. At our current rate of sidewalk construction, it will take us 1,800 years before all of Seattle has sidewalks. And who knows when our sidewalks will get repaired: under current practice, adjacent property owners are responsible for maintaining the sidewalk, but few take action, or even realize it’s their responsibility to do so.

IMPACT

Sidewalks for Transportation 

Without usable sidewalks, some disabled people who would prefer to take the bus end up having to pre-schedule rides with paratransit. More often than not, those of us who can’t drive end up being stuck at home much more than we’d like, giving up activities that would keep us healthy and connected to our communities. Adults with disabilities who work walk for a greater share of trips than workers without disabilities and deficiencies in safe sidewalks impact economic mobility, access to opportunity, and participation in our communities.

Sidewalks for Safety

Transportation research has shown increased crashes on blocks that are missing sidewalks. In Seattle, missing sidewalks north of 85th Street, parts of South Seattle, and in some industrial areas, mean that people living and traveling in these neighborhoods experience increased risk. Having safe places for people to walk and roll is an important step in addressing our current epidemic of traffic violence. 

Sidewalks for Climate

In Seattle, transportation emissions are by far the largest contributor of greenhouse gas emissions for the City of Seattle. It’s critical we create safe and accessible connections to get where we need to go, whether that’s around the corner to the store or to the nearest bus or light rail stop. 

SOLUTION

Just like we can expect our city to build and maintain roads, the same should be true for our sidewalk network. We believe that any time our city repaves a road, the Seattle Department of Transportation should also take action to repair broken and inaccessible sidewalks and install any missing sidewalks along the corridor. 

Signed: 

350 Seattle

America Walks

Be:Seattle

Cascade Bicycle Club 

Commute Seattle

David Miller, Certified Orientation and Mobility Specialist, The Lighthouse for the Blind

Disability Rights Washington

Empower Movement

Feet First

HopeLink Mobility 

Seattle Neighborhood Greenways

Transit Riders Union

Transportation Choices Coalition

The Urbanist


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Comments

7 responses to “This is the right time for CM Morales’ proposed sidewalk ordinance”

  1. asdf2

    Sounds good, so long as “repairing sidewalk deficiencies caused by tree roots” doesn’t mean chopping down the tree. I like smooth sidewalks as much as anyone, but if push comes to shove, I would rather have bumps in the sidewalk and trees than a smooth sidewalk and no trees.

    With climate change heating up the city more and more, it is important not to lose our existing tree canopy.

    1. Matthew Snyder

      Relatedly, I wonder if the proposed ordinance could allow for creative “sidewalk” placement — for example, the types of pedestrian sidepaths that are created by effectively taking part of the paved roadway and segregating it using pre-cast curbs or other barriers. This was done on a portion of the Rainier Valley greenway, which lacks sidewalks in several places. In situations where building a “traditional” sidewalk would be challenging, we could just convert some of the pavement to a walking path. It’s not perfect, but it would help.

      For example, I live on a street with no sidewalks. Many of the lots on the block have gardens or large trees in the planting strip (or “parking strip”), which is where the sidewalk would presumably go, if we added one. I can’t imagine there’d be much support from neighbors if we removed trees and gardens to add a sidewalk, even if technically it’s on city ROW. But the street is unnecessarily wide, and we could easily take space from the roadway to create a walking path — and frankly, this would be a lot cheaper than building a traditional sidewalk (although to be fair, from the pedestrian experience, it probably wouldn’t be as nice).

      1. asdf2

        I agree, narrowing the roadway is a much better way to create a sidewalk than sacrificing green space.

    2. eddiew

      those sidewalk bumps can mean they are rendered inaccessible for those in chairs or tripping hazards to blind walkers. Some repairs can retain trees; see black foamy material.
      see: https://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/transportation/why-you-should-ditch-your-car-for-a-week-in-october/

  2. Peri Hartman

    I have mixed feelings on sidewalks. I’d like to hear other peoples’ experiences.

    Certainly all arterials and other streets with significant traffic should have sidewalks. But there are many residential streets that have little to almost no traffic. Instead of sidewalks, could we focus on traffic calming, like adding curves, bulbs, and other diversions which make it difficult to go much over 10-15mph ?

    1. asdf2

      That might be good enough for daytime hours, but at night, it could still leave walking in the neighborhood very unsafe. If you’re going to use traffic calming as a substitute for sidewalks, the area has better be very well lit, in addition to very well traffic-calmed.

    2. eddiew

      the first priority should be funding curb and sidewalk on transit arterials; sometimes there is a significant drainage cost as well; that brings in SPU.

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