SDOT Decries Tactical Urbanism While Allowing Eco-Blocks All Over the City

By Erica C. Barnett

The Seattle Department of Transportation forgot the first rule of holes when its social media rep posted a testy defense of SDOT’s decision to swiftly eliminate an unauthorized crosswalk at a dangerous Capitol Hill intersection.

Responding to a person who posted a photo of an SDOT crew power-washing the guerrilla crosswalk away, SDOT wrote, “We are always interested in working with residents and businesses on ways to make walking safer and more comfortable and will evaluate the intersection to see how we might replace the unauthorized crosswalk. In the meantime, it will have to be removed. Improperly painted crosswalks give a false sense of safety which puts pedestrians in danger. There are better ways for people to work w/ us to indicate crossing improvement needs & to make sure changes achieve what is intended—get people to their destinations safely.”

In response, hundreds of Seattle residents piled on with stories about their own often-futile attempts to get SDOT to improve pedestrian safety in their neighborhoods, mocked (and interrogated) the idea that “unofficial” paint makes crosswalks less safe, and questioned why the department leaped into action to remove the guerrilla crosswalk while telling Seattle residents that their requests for safety improvements would need to go through the years-long Seattle Process.

Then, amid the furor, Mayor Bruce Harrell’s new SDOT director jumped in the thread, lashing out at one poster (among many) who suggested that SDOT’s primary mission is to make the city safe for cars (a pretty common charge against city transportation departments nationwide.) “There is not a single person at SDOT who comes to work hoping fewer people cross the street. This is a propagandistic comment that is pure disinformation,” Spotts wrote.

“Political participation is not the same as altering the public right of way yourself. Folks are invited to participate in all sorts of ways and we are listening.”—SDOT director Greg Spotts, responding to tweets supporting a guerrilla crosswalk on Capitol Hill

Down that thread, Spotts responded to a tweet about SDOT’s utter indifference to the illegal placement of “eco blocks” to prevent homeless people from parking in public rights-of-way around the city. “Placing of ecoblocks is not acceptable And “I’m unwilling to pull SDOT crews off important safety projects to remove ecoblocks,” Spotts wrote. (In other words—as SDOT has told this publication before—it is actually acceptable, in the sense that SDOT will continue to accept it.) Even further downthread, Spotts mentioned another issue with unauthorized crosswalks, one not directly related to safety: “Liability.”

In all, Spotts responded to dozens of tweets, defending SDOT’s decision and suggesting that people go through official participation channels rather than engaging in tactical urbanism. “Political participation is not the same as altering the public right of way yourself. Folks are invited to participate in all sorts of ways and we are listening,” Spotts wrote.

In the past, when citizens have altered crosswalks to represent their neighborhood—including a Pride flag on Broadway and a Pan-African black, red, and green crosswalk in the Central District—previous SDOT directors responded much differently, working with communities to paint the crosswalks in ways that make them more durable and visible to drivers. (Until 2017, there was even an official Department of Neighborhoods website for neighbors to apply for non-traditional crosswalks.) This administration, in contrast, seems intent on digging in its heels.

In response to the backlash, SDOT issued a statement that continued in the same chiding tone. “We have heard the message loudly and clearly that the public wants more crossing and safety improvements.  We appreciate the passion which has driven someone to paint their own crosswalk, however this is not the right way to voice your desire for change,” the statement reads. “There are standards which we are legally required to follow when painting a crosswalk. The unauthorized markings at E Olive Way and Harvard Ave E have been removed because they do not comply with city standards.”

Eco-blocks, which also do not comply with city law (and which residents use explicitly to deprive people of places to live), apparently do not rise to the level of urgency created by unauthorized lines on the ground.

31 thoughts on “SDOT Decries Tactical Urbanism While Allowing Eco-Blocks All Over the City”

  1. @Clint Yes, there are crosswalks nearby, but both are highly inconvenient for a mobility-impaired person. Broadway is a full block away, and the other crosswalk is down an incline, which means climbing back up an incline to continue on Harvard. That is not an insignificant hardship if, say, you’re pushing your own wheelchair.

    Also, if you look at the photo you’ll see curb cuts with yellow textured ramps on either side of the “unauthorized” crosswalk. I wonder: Are those also guerrilla installations? Or did the city at some point fully intend to put a crosswalk there? It kinda has to be one or the other.

    1. You asked about the formal curb cuts. SDOT used federal and state funded transportation projects to put in wide curb cuts for bicycle ease and “safety.” They were so wide in fact Seattle ended up in hot water because they were ADA violations. I was at the City when they needed to give the feds a reason for the violations on E&W Mercer. The first response led with the information about cyclists. I started working with disability in transportation in DC at USDOT and I now am disabled. I stopped the response and explained to a bunch of angry, mostly white, all male engineers about how we couldn’t send the response in. Their white male boss then backed me up, telling me, his team had the gal to write it without his review, or that he didn’t care and the internal control officer was made the whipping boy once again. SDOT literally is a CYA organization. It makes perfect sense they want as few sanctioned, marked cross-walks as possible.

  2. R.C.W 46.61.235
    1) The operator of an approaching vehicle shall stop and remain stopped to allow a pedestrian, bicycle, or personal delivery device to cross the roadway within an unmarked or marked crosswalk when the pedestrian, bicycle, or personal delivery device is upon or within one lane of the half of the roadway upon which the vehicle is traveling or onto which it is turning. For purposes of this section “half of the roadway” means all traffic lanes carrying traffic in one direction of travel, and includes the entire width of a one-way roadway.

  3. I didn’t realize there’s people who think driveway paint is unsanctioned. The rules are right here:

    The thing to understand that owners/occupants painting driveway curbs themselves is legislated by Seattle Municipal Code 11.72.120. The city trusts property owners to put paint out there in public right of way. The idea that DIY traffic paint is totally unheard of and unacceptable and intolerable and unsafe is simply false. It’s normal.

    SDOT claims they don’t have the resources to paint all the crosswalks, yet they do have the resources to prioritize removing DIY crosswalks painted by citizens because god forbid if mere mortals attempted such precision work! Paint is strictly the domain of professionals! But no, we know that’s not true at all.

    The norm is to accept citizen traffic markings unless there really is an exceptional reason to do anything about it, like a guy painting the entire curb in front of his house yellow, and actual complaints about that guy are rolling in. If not, it’s fine.

    Removing DIY crosswalks deviates from the norm because a handful of drivers whined and the current administration privileges drivers above everyone else. There’s no evidence of a real liability issue, only FUD, and plenty of precedent for tolerating “guerrilla” traffic paint. Citizens painting traffic markings is established by statue: nothing guerrilla about it.

    1. Thank you for this explanation. Our elected in Olympia look like bigger disappointments the more and more I learn what’s in the Revised Code of Washington. Whether the legislator is elected from a red or blue district doesn’t seem to matter. The law makers are really corrupt and the cronyism is toxic and destruction to citizens. Traffic safety and enforcement related provisions are linked – not to mention the public bonds paying for the failed transportation legislation like Vision Zero.

  4. Don’t discount just how much this has to do with liability. A court-ordered multi-million dollar settlement is what led SDOT to remove scores of crosswalks all across the city several years back.

    1. This is the entire issue. Someone should consider whether it could be solved with a “cross at your own risk” stencil

    2. I like your point here. Vision Zero, and the immense cost of the Move Seattle Levy, indicate the the City of Seattle is liable. There are a lot of public funds dedicated to what has been an increase in serious injury and death, while also removing crosswalks and ignoring community outcry for solid requests for localized pedestrian safety improvements.

      Are the watchdogs and journalists going to reward SDOT and the City of Seattle Officials for cheating the public of untold dollars to decrease urban livability in the midst of ever-worsening public safety (and public health) outcomes? We can just stick to Vision Zero in this context. There’s money. There’s a scorecard. And how many Vision Zero Resets have we allowed since the launch of all the public funds? (s)Potts decided to learn about Seattle and solely take public transit for a long time when moving here. Time to show he really relied on his own hands, feet, and public transit.

      1. Is the liability real or hypothetical? I can’t find examples of cities sued because of BLM or Pride crosswalk accidents. What exactly would anyone sue the city for?

        The crosswalks are all real. Crosswalks exist, by state law, at every intersection in the state of Washington except on freeways and certain arterials. The paint, official or guerrilla, is only there to remind drivers that they’re required to stop for pedestrians or cyclists (look it up) waiting at the curb.

        Pedestrians or cyclists (look it up) who enter the intersection too quickly for a normal driver to react can be cited, though drivers are supposed to try to not hit people regardless.

        So what if the paint is janky?

        The yellow paint marking the 5ft parking limit around driveways is comparable. Property owners paint curbs yellow, hopefully but not necessarily, according to SDOT specs. The paint helps warn drivers they could get a ticket parking within 5ft of a driveway. But the 5ft is measured by Parking Enforcement, whether the yellow paint is there or not, correct or not. Maybe a judge would let you talk your way out of a parking ticket if the yellow paint misled you, but judges be judging. It’s their job.

        But how exactly is white paint in a crosswalk going to mislead anyone? Even of the paint’s in the wrong place, drivers are supposed to know they should stop for pedestrians.

        Drivers are required to try to not run over jaywalkers, if it’s possible. There’s no license to kill people outside crosswalks, beyond the fact that drivers are rarely prosecuted for anyone they run over, under any circumstances, unless they’re also drunk or fleeing police in pursuit or something.

        So… what exactly is the safety or liability issue? Has any such crosswalk ever created a real, not hypothetical, problem? Citation needed.

        (And no, cyclists don’t have to dismount. LOOK IT UP, will you? Look it up.)

    1. Ecoblocks are no more illegal than shooting heroin in Seattle. I wouldn’t hold my breath for either of these two things to go away for years to come. The old saying is, “Rome wasn’t built in a day”…. and Seattle won’t be cleaned up any time soon.

      1. Bad behavior does not justify bad behavior, Tacomee. And ecoblocks do nothing to stop someone from shooting up heroin.

      2. I generally wouldn’t use “criminals are breaking the law” as an argument for allowing the city to break the law, but I guess some people feel differently about that huh.

    2. Great point. Potts (great nickname for SDOT’s Spotts), helped show a preference for illegal business activity in using eco-blocks with no removal or fining response, and a City of Seattle disdain for the everyday “Jo” (no gender implied) that interacts daily with unsafe traffic violations by a removal of a pleaded for sidewalk while claiming, falsely, that there’s a “democratic” invitation to engage with a safe crossing request that the community did not participate in. Vision Zero failure is City Public Safety Failure and that I hope will drive loud and proud shaming against the City for the harm and deaths it has contributed to by removing safety features, focusing on making parking hard rather than focusing on traffic enforcement to curb drivers. There is almost zero traffic enforcement in our neighborhoods and stats show cops were fleeing SPD since at least 2014. Let’s stop falling for false arguments about what’s legal, what’s enforced, and flip the script to demand a modicum of public accountability out of our local and state public officials accountable for local and state public ped safety in Seattle.

  5. I think an NPO should rent a semi and the appropriate piece of construction equipment to collect all the illegal ecoblocks in the city and use them to build walls for a homeless shelter. After all, as abandoned property, an obstruction, and litter, they can be removed by anybody. Sure, the structure wouldn’t be up to code and the city would tear it down. But they’d be out of the way and it would be more evidence of just how cruel the city government really is.

    1. People and businesses are threatened by crime and unsanitary conditions spilling over from encampments. If the city can’t provide safety for businesses to operate and homeowners to live in safety – then they should have a right to put up ecoblocks until a level of safety can be provided.

      1. Fun fact, not getting run over is also safety, and pedestrians are threatened by cars at this intersection (I actively avoid it despite it being a legal crossing) so I think your argument is to allow guerilla crosswalks.

        Or is safety from cars a less important form of safety?

      2. If a company needs to break the law in order to operate it is a criminal enterprise and needs to be shut down. I have lived in the region all my life and I would rather have the homeless as my neighbors than the businesses putting up the ecoblocks.

    2. No non-profit will ever mess with those ecoblocks because non-profits feed off of two tits…. City money and donations from rich people. So if Harrell (the mayor) and Nelson (rich business owner) want the blocks to stay, the blocks stay.

  6. Spotts is definitely a Harrells-era department head, and Sara Nelson, proud illegal-ecoblock flaunter, is definitely a Harrells-era Councilmember. Ironically, Nelson, with fellow Councilmember Alex Pedersen, wrote a law-and-order op-ed in the Seattle Times.

    1. If we painted the eco blocks with something like “We Hate Poor People” or something, is that vandalism since no one wants to admit that they own them?

      1. Keep it simple. Paint dicks on them. Lots and lots of dicks.

        Words are complicated and confusing. People reappropriate meanings. People interpret them to mean the opposite, if that serves them. That never happens with the classic drawing of a dick. Everybody knows what that is, and everybody knows what it means. Classic.

      2. Some of them have been stenciled with “Without Shelter People Die” and “Someone used to live here”…. Would love to see more of that!

    2. The ecoblocks we’re installed only after years of inaction allowing illegal encampments to proliferate. We all saw that increases in crime, vandalism, trash and unsanitary conditions occurred surrounding these encampments. People and businesses pay taxes for city services – the largest of which is public safety. If the services aren’t being provided citizens/businesses should be allowed this temporary solution until the safety function can again be provided.

      1. Understandable position… Do you feel the same about renegade crosswalk paint? (Not a trick question – just curious how people are reacting to this situation!) I’m inclined to want to let an unauthorized crosswalk stick around until a better solution is found…

      2. How has no one mentioned that there are crosswalks just to the east and west of this intersection.

        Basically people are too lazy to use the crosswalks that are already there and they don’t know how to cross a street safely. Be curious to know if the people who have had “close calls” we’re staring at their phone wondering into the intersection

      3. “How has no one mentioned that there are crosswalks just to the east and west of this intersection.”

        It’s not mentioned because that spot is in fact a legal place to cross, and just because drivers assume they have the right to run people over because they aren’t crossing in a marked crosswalk doesn’t make it so.

        I hope whomever added the crosswalk puts it back sometime soon.

      4. I guess Clint is not in on a best kept secret in most US Cities. Pedestrian’s have the right of way at all intersections unless marked otherwise. SDOT doubling down and gaslighting the public with an invitation to engage in the democratic process [to request a signalized crosswalk over and over again] (which they have for years) ignores responding to Vision Zero failures around failure to educate the public that pedestrians have the right of way, why that is, and how best for a pedestrian to proceed in walking through an unmarked crosswalk. Drivers are putting out yellow curb paint every where on three feet of either side of their driveway curb cut in Seattle. Some are even painting in parking spaces. These unsanctioned paint marking in the ROW are not being removed. The chiding and heavy handed response from Potts and the City of Seattle’s reign in ignoring pedestrians outside of select, very wealthy concentrated areas needs to be responded to with a flurry of executed investments in PSA’s, safety signs that are permanent, and more.

      5. “We all saw that increases in crime, vandalism, trash and unsanitary conditions occurred surrounding these encampments.”

        No, “we” didn’t. This same issue has been going since the 90’s. This is nothing new. The only thing that has really seen increases is the pearl clutching.

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