These Streets Were Made for Walking

by Josh Feit

Due to the popularity of closing Lake Washington Boulevard to cars—and opening it for walking, biking, and rolling only, as SDOT did during the recent Thanksgiving weekend and over the summer: one mile of the northern portion of Lake Washington Blvd from Mt. Baker Park to Stan Sayres Memorial Park will be a no-car zone this Friday, December 18 through January 3.

Apparently, the popularity of these closures is causing some angst. People who oppose closing Lake Washington Boulevard to cars took their case to the joint Board of Parks Commissioners and Park District Oversight Committee meeting last Thursday night.  At the online meeting, SDOT floated the concept of making some of 2020’s COVID-19-era pedestrian-and-bike-only streets permanent. Lake Washington Boulevard isn’t currently under consideration for permanent closure, but SDOT’s anxious critics, intent on nipping the idea in the bud, pointed out that the vaunted Olmsted Brothers originally designed Lake Washington Boulevard for cars. Specifically, they said, for “recreational…pleasure drives.”

I love it when city officials are able to turn original intent arguments back against NIMBYs, and Parks Commissioner Tom Byers did just that. Byers, former deputy mayor under Mayor Paul Schell, pointed out that the typical car speed when the Olmsteds designed the boulevard was 12 mph. Today, it’s 25 mph. (Seems more like 30 or 40 if you’ve ever been biking there and had a car up in your business, but still.) For the past decade, the city has traditionally closed Lake Washington Boulevard to cars on Sundays during summer months. 

This past summer, responding to people’s need for daily recreational opportunities in their neighborhoods during the pandemic, SDOT restricted car access on 26 miles of neighborhood streets, creating bike-and pedestrian-friendly zones known as “Stay Healthy Streets” to create more room for people to walk, bike, and roll while maintaining at least six feet of distance from others. SDOT also teamed up with the Seattle Parks and Recreation Department for four additional miles of closed streets (I consider all these open streets), near Alki Point, near Green Lake, in Goldens Gardens Park, and along Lake Washington Boulevard, to expand park footprints. SDOT called these park-adjacent no-car zones “Keep Moving Streets.”

SDOT is now surveying the public to decide where to make 20 miles of these car-free streets permanent. It’s all part of the department’s pedestrian-centric response to the pandemic, which also now includes 150 sidewalk, converted parking spot, and street permits that neighborhood coffee shops and restaurants have used to set up outdoor seating. That popular program, known as “Safe Starts,” has been extended through October 2021.

In the first installment of this column a couple of months ago, I wrote about all these programs combined, arguing that the ad hoc emergency response was energizing Seattle’s neighborhoods and providing a surprise opportunity to rethink how our city should be planned and zoned.

The notion of re-upping the Lake Washington Boulevard car-free pilot as a pedestrian and bike thoroughfare (thanks for bringing it up, guys!) is a prequel to the overdue debate over reallocating public right-of-way. It’s time to retrofit our growing city to human scale.

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SDOT’s idea isn’t about tradition. It’s about change. And ultimately, that’s what Byers’ “12 mph” quip was getting at.

“I’m really excited about the future potential of these streets,” Seattle Parks District Oversight Committee member Deepa Sivarajan seconded.

Sivarajan, a policy manager at Climate Solutions by day, went even further. “Let’s not prioritize historical intent and historical preservation when thinking about these streets,” she said. “A lot of historical preservation in Seattle tends to preserve an era that was de facto segregationist. Thinking about the historical intent of a ‘driving street’ is not the biggest factor we should be considering.” Sivarajan argued that the city should consider equity above original intent, and her own priorities seemed to also include health and safety; she cited collisions and pollution as something the Olmsteds didn’t consider when designing boulevards for “pleasure drives.”

Sivarajan’s social justice angle served notice on the opponents of SDOT’s potential plan. In addition to the goofy original intent talking points, the preservationists had also been arguing that closing Lake Washington Boulevard to cars would be unfair to communities of color who, they claimed without presenting data, rely on the boulevard to access the city and parks from the Rainier Valley and beyond.

Opponents of a car-free Lake Washington Boulevard also got an earful from Parks Commissioner Dennis Cook, who’s African American. “I’ve walked the lake [for] many, many, many years,” he said. “During the pandemic, I’ve seen more people of color walking Seward Park than I have in the last five to ten years. It’s amazing. It’s wonderful to see because people are out there greeting people and their neighbors, and it’s building community.” Cook noted that the area in question is in the 98118 ZIP code, where the population is 25 percent African American. Seattle is 7 percent Black overall.

Cook’s observation is only anecdotal, but that’s why SDOT plans to spend the first quarter of 2021 doing community outreach to determine where it makes the most sense to permanently exclude cars; serving BIPOC, low-income, and historically underserved communities were among SDOT’s metrics when choosing the pilots in the first place.

As with the recent pilot, the majority of car-free miles are likely to be streets that are already designated as greenways—45 miles of neighborhood streets that have traffic-calming infrastructure like signage and speed bumps that create traffic friction, slowing down cars for the benefit of everybody else.

It makes sense to convert those streets—drivers likely already avoid those routes and, over the past several months, neighborhoods with “Stay Healthy Streets” have grown accustomed to the new uses. (SDOT is making the signage on these streets more permanent to prevent people from knocking the signs down or moving them out of the road, as some of the program’s opponents have done).

But, now that opponents have rushed to keep Lake Washington Boulevard closed to pedestrians, it occurs to me that turning a citywide destination, like a three-mile expanse there, is the perfect place for a bikes-and-pedestrians-only zone. The logic is straightforward: a seismically disproportionate amount of Seattle’s land—about 27 percent—is right-of-way where cars are prioritized. To start re-balancing our city around human beings, we need some marquee destinations that are designed for people, not for cars. (New York City did this with Times Square back in 2009.)

Judging from last week’s meeting, the idea of a car-free Lake Washington Boulevard will likely be perceived as another front in SDOT’s War on Cars, that radical assault on four-lane arterials, free parking, and mandatory parking requirements. If the idea for a park-adjacent pedestrian-zone along Lake Washington Boulevard flops, perhaps car rights enthusiasts will swoon over my modest proposal: set aside the expanse for a 3-mile parking lot.

Josh@Publicola.com

One thought on “These Streets Were Made for Walking”

  1. Looks great! Also, is this a good time to finally get rid of cars in Pike Place Market (except for vendors and suppliers)? Maybe for disabled individuals, but man – we could really make things better down there if there were fewer vehicles obstructing pedestrians.

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