Tag: pedestrians

COVID-19 Has Sparked Interest In Car-Free Streets. Will It Last?

This excerpt originally appeared at Huffington Post, where you can read the full version of this story.

Gordon Padelford, the founder and director of Seattle Neighborhood Greenways, can barely finish a thought without pointing out a toddler on a balance bike or a couple walking their dog in the middle of the road.

“I’ve never seen that before!” he exclaims as we take a walking tour of one of Seattle’s new “Stay Healthy Streets,” which the city has closed to most vehicle traffic so people can be outside while maintaining a safe social distance. One of the streets just happens to run right by his house.

“Three hours after it went in,” Padelford said, “two kids and a dad biked by, and I had never seen kids that young biking in the street. As soon as people were invited to use the street, they did.”

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All over the country, cities are closing down streets to car traffic and opening them up to people. It started with Oakland, where Mayor Libby Schaaf announced the city would close 74 miles to through traffic on April 10, and has spread across the country— to Portland, Oregon, Boston, San Francisco, Baltimore, Minneapolis, New York and beyond.

While the details vary slightly, the basic idea is the same: Block off a street to everything other than local traffic with removable barriers, and hope that people walking, biking or rolling will show up.

In Seattle, where more than one-quarter of city streets lack sidewalks, roadways can double as battlegrounds. Mayor Jenny Durkan got off on the wrong foot with bike and pedestrian activists when she dramatically scaled back the city’s ambitious bike plan in 2019, leaving Seattle’s traditionally underserved south end without any direct bike connections to downtown. Durkan initially seemed tentative about the idea of street closures, starting off by temporarily closing just 2.5 miles of streets in April and adding a few miles over the next few weeks.

But by early May, Durkan announced that the city would restrict 20 miles permanently, winning praise from groups like the Cascade Bicycle Club.

As soon as people were invited to use the street, they did.”—Gordon Padelford, founder and director of Seattle Neighborhood Greenways

Car traffic on major streets in Seattle declined 60% after Washington state Gov. Jay Inslee (D) issued his stay-at-home order in mid-March. But the gradual end of pandemic restrictions, combined with new anti-crowding measures on buses and trains, could bring that number skyrocketing back. King County’s public transit agency, for example, recently limited its bus capacity to a maximum of 12 to 18 riders.

At the same time, the city is facing massive budget cuts exacerbated by the April discovery that the West Seattle Bridge connecting West Seattle to the rest of the city had suffered major damage and would be shut down. A replacement will likely cost hundreds of millions of dollars. Finding other ways to get people around cheaply could soften the blow.

“Making aggressive investments in active transportation and walking and biking— that is going to be part of the city’s overall recovery strategy,” Seattle Department of Transportation Director Sam Zimbabwe said in an interview. “The type of investments we need to make are going to look different as people start to travel more. We need to look at every possible way to keep the city moving, and that doesn’t mean that everyone is going to jump in a car.”

Morning Crank: The Dizzying Array of Potential Pedestrian Treatments

1. I’ll be on KUOW today at noon talking about sexual harassment, tolling I-405, and more with Civic Cocktail host (and ex-Seattle Times editorial board member) Joni Balter and former state attorney general Rob McKenna. Who won’t be on KUOW tomorrow? Tavis Smiley, who was suspended by PBS this week after an investigation found “multiple, credible allegations” of sexual misconduct by the host. The allegations include having multiple sexual relationships with subordinates, some of whom believed their “employment status was linked to the status of a sexual relationship with Smiley,” and creating a “verbally abusive and threatening environment.” Smiley has responded by denying that he “groped, coerced, or exposed myself inappropriately” to any of his coworkers, which, it should be noted, are not the acts he is accused of committing.

KUOW pulled Smiley’s radio show (which is separate from his public TV show) voluntarily, and will run the second hour of “Here and Now” in its place.

2. George Scarola, former mayor Ed Murray’s director of homelessness, made an odd comment the other day about his current status at the city. “Up until the new mayor took office—Mayor Durkan—I was the director of homelessness. I promptly submitted my resignation,” Scarola said, adding that he did so “just to give her a clean shot at exactly what she wants to do, and that hasn’t had any effect yet.” Scarola is still at the city—in fact, he attended a Ballard District Council meeting where neighbors complained about the ongoing presence of homeless people at the Ballard Commons park just last night—but his position is now at the Department of Finance and Administrative Services, not the mayor’s office.

3. Jessyn Farrell, the state-legislator-turned-mayoral candidate who came in fourth in the August primary election, is going to work for Civic Ventures, the progressive think tank founded by Seattle venture capitalist and billionaire do-gooder Nick Hanauer. Earlier this year, Hanauer said he would bankroll the campaign for a homelessness levy proposed by then-mayor Ed Murray; although the city later abandoned that proposal in favor of a joint city-county proposal that kicked the conversation about a homelessness tax into 2018, Hanauer will likely be involved in that campaign as well. Farrell, who also headed up the Transportation Choices Coalition before she was elected to represent the 46th legislative district in the state house, did not say what her title will be, but did say that she’ll be working on “rebuilding the middle class” and “making cities work for people.”

4. If you want to get an idea of of how complicated traffic planners’ jobs are, and how hard it can be to balance road users’ needs and rights without creating ridiculously out-of-whack hierarchies (where drivers can move freely and pedestrians are constantly at risk) or unintended consequences (long periods where pedestrians are just stuck waiting at corners, unable to move in any direction), check out this presentation that Seattle Department of Transportation transportation operations manager Ahmed Darrat presented to the Pedestrian Advisory Board on walk signal timing last night.  Twenty minutes went by as Darrat explained eleven ways SDOT can shift the balance of mobility between cars and pedestrians—assuming slower walking speeds near hospitals and retirement homes, giving pedestrians the option of pushing a button for several seconds to extend the walk time, “passive detection” of pedestrians using thermal sensors—and then Darrat switched to the next slide, which listed another dozen options. (More details on the dizzying array of potential pedestrian treatments here).

The biggest point of contention right now in conversations about how quickly pedestrians should be able to cross the street is the existence of so-called “beg buttons”—buttons a pedestrian (or, in many cases, cyclist) must push to alert the traffic system that cars need to stop to allow people to cross the road. The problem with beg buttons isn’t just that they feel insulting—cars don’t have to ask permission to drive, because we’ve built a system that either assumes they will be there or that senses them when they roll up to an intersection—but that they contribute to a culture in which people walking and cycling are an anomaly on the road. Beg buttons give drivers who hit pedestrians a built-in excuse—he didn’t have the walk sign, officer!—empower cities to crack down on “jaywalking,” and contribute to the overall sense that cars rule the road. And if a pedestrian isn’t aware that they won’t get permission to cross the street unless they push the button, they may get stuck waiting through several light cycles while cars move through unimpeded. Blind people, people with limited English reading skills, people who can’t read, and other people with sensory impairments are particularly impacted by beg button requirements.

Darrat said federal standards require accessible pedestrian signals at every intersection; push buttons just happen to be the only option currently available to SDOT; however, he said, “we’re committed to looking at how we treat pedestrian signals from a more global perspective and coming up with some ideas as to how we’re going to take steps toward standardizing it” so pedestrians don’t have to figure out dozens of potential signal situations—different walk cycles by time of day; half cycles for cars; “pedestrian recall”; leading pedestrian intervals”—to cross the street. Imagine if instead of figuring out whether to push the button and if it’s safe to run and whether the signal will change when you push it if the light’s already green and how long you’ll have to wait if you don’t make this cycle, you could just go out into the street at regular intervals. You know, like cars do.

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Morning Crank: It’s Not Clear What Lessons We’ve Learned

field-protest-mayors-office

1. Four city council members—Rob Johnson, Mike O’Brien, Debora Juarez, and Kshama Sawant—signed a letter Monday urging Mayor Ed Murray to delay for one week the city’s plans to clear the homeless encampment on state Department of Transportation -owned Airport Way South and S. Royal Brougham, known to residents as “the Field” or “the Field of Dreams.” Camp residents have proposed a three-part plan to clean up the encampment and make it safe for human habitation, but it’s unclear how many of their proposals are feasible, given current conditions at the camp.

The city initially sanctioned the encampment as a temporary holding place for people relocated from the Jungle, the three-mile-long encampment under and surrounding I-5 near Beacon Hill. The city cited unsafe and unsanitary conditions as its reasons for clearing the Jungle, and is now making the same claims about the Field. Last month, a camp resident was arrested for rape and sex trafficking, and drug dealers have reportedly also moved in; meanwhile, the field itself is muddy and rat-infested, and garbage is heaped up in piles.

“The conditions down there are really quite appalling,” council human services committee chair Sally Bagshaw said Monday morning. “People who are living there say it looks like the ground is moving, there are so many rats, and that rats are running over people’s feet. … I think as a city we have got to be able to stand up and say that when something is so rat infested and there is mud literally up to our ankles … this is not something we’re willing to say is okay.” Besides, Bagshaw added, “There are options now. It’s not like people are being swept and told ‘Go find another place to be.'”

jesus-h-christResidents of the Field said they have asked for fire extinguishers, wood chips, trash pickup, and additional generators to keep the encampment clean, safe, and free from rats and garbage, but the city hasn’t delivered. Instead, encampment residents and supporters said, they’ve been offered the same shelter beds and long-term treatment slots that they were rejecting by moving to encampments in the first place. “When I see the Field, I am reminded of the two years Nickelsville spent at the Glass Yard” in Delridge, a resident of the Ballard Nickelsville encampment named Matt told the council. “When I see the Field, I am reminded of the times when Union Gospel Mission was sent in by the city to offer false choices of housing that wouldn’t work,” including shelters that don’t allow partners, pets or possessions, mats on the floor in facilities many encampment residents view as inadequate and unsafe, or beds that were only available to those who committed themselves to sobriety or agreed to submit to religious instruction.

The city has consistently said that it now offers real housing options to encampment residents. But in an interview before the council meeting yesterday afternoon, O’Brien told me that claim relies on sleight of hand. “We don’t have 50 good housing options for folks,” O’Brien said. “If you have one housing option, you can offer that one housing option to 50 people, but as soon as one person takes that housing option they’re going to stop offering it.” The rest, he said, will be forced to accept inadequate shelter or move on to the next encampment site.

This morning, the city plans to move in to the Field and remove any remaining tents, belongings, and people starting at 9am. Several groups opposed to encampment sweeps, who sat outside Murray’s office yesterday afternoon and eventually spoke briefly to his homelessness director, George Scarola, have vowed to show up to physically resist city staffers when they try to evict the remaining residents. O’Brien says that even if the protesters manage to stop this morning’s sweep, “My expectation is that the police will be persistent.”

“When they swept the Jungle, from the beginning, it was like, ‘This is chaos, this is unacceptable,'” O’Brien says. “The problem is it’s not clear what lessons we’ve learned as a city if we just keep doing this over and over again.”

little-saigon-nav-center

2. The council’s discussion of the Field encampment was interrupted briefly yesterday morning when members of the organization Friends of Little Saigon burst into council chambers, waving signs with slogans like “Stop Ignoring Us” and chanting, “Talk with us! Not at us!”

The impromptu protest was a response to the way the city announced the location of the first Navigation Center, a low-barrier, 24-hour shelter for people, like the Field residents, who can’t or won’t sleep at regular overnight shelters. The Friends of Little Saigon and other organizations and businesses in the neighborhood sent a letter to the council and mayor in February asking the city to delay opening the center at the Pearl Warren Building at 12th Avenue and Weller St., arguing that they weren’t consulted on the location until a few days before the announcement, and that by then it was a fait accompli.

Quynh Pham, a representative of Friends of Little Saigon, told me the Navigation Center announcement was the final straw after the city failed to consult the neighborhood on a series of major events, including First Hill streetcar construction and the Womxn’s March, that negatively impacted neighborhood residents and businesses. “We were speechless” when the city’s Human Services Department told them about the decision,” Pham says. “We felt like, why even tell us without a plan to really address the impacts or understand where we’re coming from? They just came to us with the proposal at the last minute.”

Yesterday morning, council member Lisa Herbold blamed the lack of communication on the mayor’s office, which she said “needs to figure out a way to approach public process and engage with communities very differently.” Noting that the Navigation Center has not only been in the works since last year, but will now open months behind schedule, Herbold said “there has been no lack of opportunity to engage with that community.”

3. The mayor’s office plans to bypass the city council to get its $55 million homelessness levy on the August ballot by collecting signatures instead of sending it to the council for approval. Historically, the council tinkers with ballot measures that originate in the mayor’s office or in city departments, adding and subtracting funding for specific programs. In this case, the levy measure is likely to lean heavily on rapid rehousing—short-term vouchers to house homeless people in apartments that will revert to market rate after a few months—and eliminate some funding for agencies that have received city funding for decades, such as those that provide transitional housing. Groups that will likely lose out from a shift toward rapid rehousing include the Low-Income Housing Institute, which runs a number of transitional housing programs—and has heavily lobbied the council against proposed cuts to its programs. Expect an announcement on the levy from the mayor’s office on Wednesday morning.

4. In this afternoon’s transportation committee meeting, council members will get a briefing on the city’s progress on Vision Zero, the city’s plan to end traffic deaths and serious injuries by 2030. One thing that briefing won’t include is a report on traffic deaths and injuries in Seattle over the past two years; the Seattle Department of Transportation’s most recent report covers 2014, before most Vision Zero changes were implemented. I’ve requested a copy of the latest available information, but the lag, O’Brien notes, makes it difficult to draw conclusions about whether the city’s efforts are working; “it’ll be two years,” O’Brien notes, before recent pedestrian fatalities on NE 65th Street and in Wallingford show up in official city records.

If you enjoy the work I do here at The C Is for Crank, please consider becoming a sustaining supporter of the site! For just $5, $10, or $20 a month (or whatever you can give), you can help keep this site going, and help me continue to dedicate the many hours it takes to bring you stories like this one every week. This site is funded entirely by contributions from readers, which pay for the substantial time I put into reporting and writing for this blog and on social media, as well as costs like transportation, equipment, travel costs, website maintenance, and other expenses associated with my reporting. Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support.