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Pike Market Preschool family calls for a car-free (or at least tourist-driver-free) Pike Place

My child attended the truly amazing Pike Market Child Care and Preschool for three years before graduating in summer 2023. We biked there every day together. Navigating the market is second nature to her. She knows all the shortcuts and how to find every store (well, every store with candy, magic, or toys). Her allowance played a major role in propping up the market’s fortune teller machine industry during those tough early pandemic years.

She cried the day that the on-street picnic tables disappeared at the end of summer because that is where we would sit to eat an after school snack every day, whether it was a brownie from Three Girls or those sugar donuts or something from Rotary Grocery. She didn’t understand why they would take away a place where we could eat just so a couple people could park cars. I don’t understand, either.

Screenshot of a tweet with a photo of cars parked near the entrance of the market with text: My kid cried when she saw the Pike Place Market tables were gone.

But then she was so happy when they returned the next spring.


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Photo of a child with her mouth open and tongue sticking out with text: My kiddo is so happy the tables are back! She wanted to show everyone the snack she ate.

She also loved the rare days that the street was closed to cars because she didn’t need to hold my hand to walk in the street. The lack of cars gave her freedom to move around the market she loves so much without fear. This was a powerful experience for her.

Screenshot of a tweet with text: My 3-year-old attends the Pike Market Preschool, and the other day she said that she wished there were no cars so she didn’t need to hold my hand when walking through the market. She’s right. She should be able to just walk around on her own without fear she might get run over.

Most car drop-offs and pick-ups for the preschool happen on Western Ave, not Pike Place. These parents aren’t fools. I was surprised to read in Publicola that Heather Pihl of Friends of the Market cited the preschool and child care as a reason to keep cars on Pike Place and example of why the street is “not a place to hang out.” Why are people playing music if this is not a place to hang out? Are we not supposed to stop and listen? People buy prepared food from vendors and want to start eating it as they step away from the counter. Why not make it easy and comfortable for them to do so? The picnic table area at the Marketfront is cool (if you can find it), but it’s a very different vibe. People love to hang out on Pike Place. It’s good for business, it’s good for patrons, and it’s good for the city. Why fight it?

I was surprised to see Councilmember Bob Kettle step in it recently by proposing an amendment (PDF) to the Seattle Transportation Plan that would all but block funding for a Pike Place “event street” capital project (#65 in this PDF) that “prioritizes people walking and rolling around Pike Place while enabling efficient and reliable delivery of goods and access to Pike Place Market. This could include redesigning the street to make it more enjoyable for pedestrians and restricting access for people driving at certain times.” The response from the public was swift and overwhelming. As of press time, over 14,000 people have signed letters have been sent through an online petition asking Seattle leaders to protect the Pike Place project, which is about double the total number of comments received through SDOT’s online engagement portal for the entire Seattle Transportation Plan back in phase 1 of outreach in 2022. (CORRECTION: We initially reported that 14,000 people had sent letters when in fact about 14,000 letters had been sent by about 1,555 people. We regret the error.)

The Market has a long history of making bold changes to this street. Perhaps they have done such a good job of rebuilding the historic look that many people are not aware this was once a multi-lane asphalt through-street:

Screenshot of a tweet with two historic photos showing a two-lane asphalt Pike Place with text: Throwback to when Seattle traffic engineers made Pike Place a two-lane road.

Reversing the flow of traffic was initially done in 1975 as “a year-long experiment,” and it went well enough that we have stuck with it ever since. News reports at the time note that they only did this to direct people to Western Ave parking garages and get them to stop circling the market looking for parking. People are still circling the market looking for parking, and we have better ways to get people to the parking garages than through the middle of the now much busier market. This road is not in some historic condition that we can’t touch without ruining the careful balance of the market. We tried something in the 1970s, it worked a little better, so we kept it. We can and should keep trying new things to keep improving the experience in the market generation by generation.

News clip from the November 2, 1975 issue of the Seattle P-I with a map of the market streets and headline Pike Place Traffic Patterns to Change.
From the November 2, 1975, issue of the Seattle P-I.

Back in the 1960s and 70s, the so-called “urban renewal” plan for Pike Place called for replacing a bunch of buildings with a 900-stall parking garage and turning Pike Place into a car-free promenade along with redevelopment of many of the market buildings into something more akin to an suburban mall of that era. A half century ago, fighting to maintain traffic on Pike Place was part of the fight against the mallification of the market. The market should be part of the fabric of the city, not an island of commerce within it. Compare the bustle of Pike Place to the ghost town inside Pacific Place a few blocks away, and its clear that the market philosophy got it right. I get the sense that people may still be fighting that same battle today, but this is completely different. Our city has changed a lot since the 1970s. Today, most people get to downtown destinations by walking, biking and taking transit, not by car. A car-free (or at least tourist-driver-free) market is a response to people’s desire for the market to fit even better into our city’s current urban fabric, which has moved on from a mid-century overreliance on cars and has aspirations to continue doing so.

Perhaps decisionmakers and market leaders can do a little experiment for themselves. Instead of prioritizing the view of the market through the windshield of an adult in a car, try seeing Pike Place from the perspective of a preschooler who loves this place more than any other place on earth. Sit on a curb so your eyes are level with a child’s and look at how much more menacing those cars are. Watch parents keep an iron grip on their kids’ hands to stop them from gleefully running ahead through traffic to climb on Rachel the pig or stare at the rainbow cookies in the Three Girls Bakery window. It doesn’t need to be this way.

Allowing confused tourists to drive their rental SUVs down Pike Place does nobody any good. We are capable of finding solutions for deliveries and loading and accessible parking without also allowing confused tourists. Of all the actually difficult challenges facing our city, this isn’t one of them.


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6 responses to “Pike Market Preschool family calls for a car-free (or at least tourist-driver-free) Pike Place”

  1. Al Dimond

    I’ll never forget the one time I was in a car on Pike Place… I was in the back seat with some out-of-towners as we crawled down the street, surrounded by people walking, and one of the out-of-towners said, “Now I know what it feels like to be a dictator in a parade.”

    I don’t know about that, exactly, but going about my daily business and leisure in the open air, on foot or on my bike, surrounded by others doing the same, makes me feel like a free person in a free society. When it’s a place where families with kids have space to be free I feel connected to the future in a way I don’t when it’s all adults, as it so often is in Seattle. Pike Place can be that and more. It’s a place where people from all over the world come… and a place where locals with wildly different circumstances and lifestyles meet.

    To feel like little dictators or to feel woven into something bigger than ourselves — how do we act when we feel those ways? Those are the stakes in our public spaces.

  2. dave

    Whenever I’m walking along Pike Place and see some poor confused tourist inching along in their car, I ask myself the same question that I ask myself when I walk on the beach at Long Beach on the Washington coast: “why are cars still allowed here?”

    1. NickS

      This! A lot of people forget that this isn’t just a waste of a public space that could be used for people rather than vehicles, it’s also a horrible experience for the tourist drivers (or suburban Seattle tour guide to out of town visitors) who didn’t realize the gridlock they were in for the moment they entered the market. Instead of enjoying the market, they’re now stuck behind 6,000 ambling tourists and double-parked cars for 15-30 minutes before they can finally get to the nearest cross street and escape.

  3. Peri Hartman

    I sent email to my CM Kettle asking why he wants to block spending money to restrict traffic on Pike Pl. That was a week ago, so far no response.

    More specifically, what I don’t understand is what aspects he is opposed to. Surely he doesn’t think tourists need to drive through Pike pl. Perhaps he’s concerned that stall operators wouldn’t be able to bring their trucks or vans in, in the morning and late evening. Or perhaps he wants to be sure people who live there can access their parking garages. I don’t know. Regardless, it seems that certain provisions could be made without throwing out the whole plan.

    1. Daigoro Toyama

      They need to look no further than the hundreds of the shopping arcades in Japan, where cars are prohibted during business hours (normally 8/9 AM thru 6/7 PM). Merchants can drive in and out outside those hours. Problem solved.

  4. NickS

    The city already restricts traffic along 3rd Ave to transit vehicles only. It seems easy enough to allow access to Pike Place by permitted vehicles only (vendors, business owners, etc.) and potentially only at certain hours (pre-market opening, post-market close). This is frequently done in Europe and elsewhere with bollards that will lower for transit and emergency vehicles, etc. but we don’t need a high tech solution. Stick an officer there giving out warnings for the first year, and then start fining people. Officer Friendly can pose with tourists and tell people where the bathroom is in between issuing citations.

    My guess is it’s a “slippery slope” concern promulgated by the vendors. “If they stop allowing tourists to drive into the market, the next thing we know, they won’t allow ANY motorized vehicles, human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together, MASS HYSTERIA, etc. etc.”

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