You're hurrying north along a crowded Seattle sidewalk, dodging pedestrians, trying to get someplace on time, when you come to a corner, look across the street, and see no sidewalk on the other side – just sagging chain link, parked construction equipment, and a sign telling you that the crosswalk is closed.
If you want to continue on your current path, you have to detour west across the avenue, then detour back east, wait for two more lights, and make a mockery of your effort to actually walk someplace in a predictable length of time.
This is commonplace in downtown Seattle. Construction projects routinely appropriate sidewalks without creating alternate pedestrian walkways. To create new pedestrian rights of way would require taking traffic lanes and restricting the flow of vehicular traffic. Exactly. Given a choice between drivers' convenience and pedestrians' convenience, Seattle chooses drivers'. Rhetoric aside, this does not seem to be a city that truly wants to encourage walking.
And yet, the Brookings Institution has just decided that Seattle is the sixth-most-walkable large metropolitan area [616KB PDF] in the U.S. Brookings was documenting a new urbanism, the creation and nascent popularity of neighborhoods in which one doesn't need a car to buy groceries or get to work.
Brookings looked not only at downtown cores but also at outlying urban areas (in Seattle, they included Belltown and Pioneer Square) and surrounding communities (Redmond and Kirkland). Its criteria included density, compactness, and the prevalence of mixed residential and other uses. All of its leading cities except Seattle had rail transit systems, although not all had old heavy rail: Portland ranked fifth on the Brookings list, and Washington, D.C., ranked first. (The rankings were based on a ratio of walkable areas to population, so that although New York had the most walkable areas, its high population kept it down in 10th place. Largely on the strength of surrounding communities that actually had sidewalks, L.A. ranked 12th.)
I'm skeptical. If Seattle is a top-10 city, walking in this country has fallen on hard times. There's a difference between a city in which one can get someplace by walking and a city in which one can get someplace fairly efficiently.
What would a really pedestrian-friendly Seattle look like? For one thing, no developer could block pedestrian passage with a building project. A pedestrian would not come to a crosswalk and find the sidewalk on the other side gone. Any construction project that did block a sidewalk would have to provide a pedestrian passage beside it, and automotive traffic would just have to get by with fewer lanes. Yes, yes, that might snarl traffic. But you can't have it both ways: A pedestrian-friendly city - or a bicycle-friendly city - must on occasion treat drivers like it now treats walkers and cyclists.
The pedestrian-friendly city would also get rid of those annoying traffic signals that force a person on foot to push a special button to get a green light. Now, a pedestrian who reaches an intersection when the light is green may have to wait through another full light cycle to get a walk signal. And the walk signal won't make the crossing any safer: Cars won't get red lights, and most drivers won't even notice that the pedestrian light has turned green. The main effect of those signals is to make urban walking an even slower way to get around.
Lights should provide fewer obstacles, but more protection. In a city that was serious about protecting pedestrians and cyclists, drivers would not routinely ignore red lights or crosswalks, because both the chance of getting caught and the penalty for getting caught would be forbidding. As it is, cameras at selected intersections or not, drivers still run lights and ignore crosswalks with impunity. Big speed bumps would make them slow down at crosswalks. Cops visible at intersections might induce them to stop at red lights.
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