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Seattle's pedestrian attitude toward pedestrians

What keeps us planted on the corner, waiting for that little light to tell us to "walk"? Frankly, we're a bunch of walking wussies, and if the city's going to call itself foot-friendly, it's time step up to the challenge.
Westlake Avenue in downtown Seattle. (Chuck Taylor)

Westlake Avenue in downtown Seattle. (Chuck Taylor) None

Fifth Avenue and Pine Street in downtown Seattle. (Chuck Taylor)

Fifth Avenue and Pine Street in downtown Seattle. (Chuck Taylor) None

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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Posted Fri, Jan 4, 8:28 a.m. Inappropriate

right on: You're absolutely right about most of that!

Jaywalking is truly a sign of a healthy city, one where the priorities and ethics are right. To me, the walk light is about right of way only. I jaywalk incessantly, always keeping an eye out for cars as well as cops (actually, having to look for cops makes it a little more dangerous).

Pushbuttons I don't honor. Denny and Boren are two good (horrible) examples of pushbuttons in locations that have decent pedestrian volumes. The buttons are there to reduce the number of lights and to reduce the duration of each light (if nobody pushes the button the light can be shorter). But they make Denny and Boren inconvenient to cross and are a disincentive to walking.

Regarding construction projects I'm torn. On one hand I agree that we should avoid sidewalk closures to the extent possible. On the other hand I work for a general contractor (who I'm not speaking for here!). Lane closures are an alternative but I don't see that being popular. Even with the extra lane, building a project without an "open" side would be a much bigger logistical challenge, meaning a longer schedule and much more cost...in fact a big part of why certain cities have more expensive real estate.

Cars that stop mid-crosswalk during lights are a big pet peeve. I touch every single one of them.

Another key issue is connecting neighborhoods where freeways or railroads have separated them. I'd like to take Harrison or Thomas from Elliott Bay to Capitol Hill someday. A skybridge has long been planned to Myrtle Edwards there. We also need at least one crossing over Aurora between Denny and Mercer (and another around Roy or Valley), plus at least one skybridge over I-5 (plus a sidewalk on the north side of Denny...and Pine while we're at it). Other potential skybridge locations include Marion over I-5, 43rd and 47th (give or take) over I-5 (letting us avoid 45th), and Northgate Transit Center over I-5.

Will stop there rather than go on forever. Thanks for writing!

Posted Fri, Jan 4, 8:56 a.m. Inappropriate

We talk the walk, but don't walk: The thing that strikes me is that even in some very walkable neighborhoods, few people walk. I think for all the talk of development styles and density and new urbanism, we forget that people make a lot of personal choices not to behave as social planners would like. I live in a very safe, walkable neighborhood. I walk alot and I can go out and do a one-mile loop at almost any time of day and not pass any other walkers until I get to the local business district. Yes, hundreds of closely packed bungalows, apartment buildings and multi-unit condos, and no people on foot, except a few folks walking their dogs. Why is that?

I agree the city isn't very pedestrian friendly, and those that are touted as being great (like Kirkland) only are in selected areas, like along the waterfront. Ever try and walk Totem Lake? Many Kirkland streets have no sidewalks and cars are still king. On Central Way, the crosswalks were so dangerous the city set up a system where pedestrians had to carry bright flags and wave them so as not to be run down, even in a crosswalk with flashing lights. Even so, making it across never felt like a sure thing.

Oddly, I think traffic circles are a mixed blessing. They slow traffic, but some actually steer cars too far into the adjacent crosswalks--I've had cars brush way too close behind me. Some circles are over-planted and block pedestrian visibility.

As to jaywalking, I'm mostly old-school Seattle on that--especially downtown. I agree that many jaywalkers here are clueless. I think the main problem is consensus--are we a jaywalking city or not? Get drivers and walkers to agree either way and we'll be okay. I think you are right on about local jaywalkers' lack of a survival instinct, what's up with that?

Posted Fri, Jan 4, 9:06 a.m. Inappropriate

The virtues of jaywalking: Well said, Dan.
Any beat cop in New York who issued a jaywalking ticket would be laughed out of the precinct.
It's one thing to wait for a green light on Aurora Ave. at rush hour -- undoubtedly prudent behavior -- and quite another to stand paralyzed before a red light at a downtown crosswalk with not a car in sight. What's next from City Hall after installing more cameras to nab cars running red lights? Cameras on street corners to catch jaywalkers in the wee small hours? Let's loosen up.

Posted Fri, Jan 4, 9:33 a.m. Inappropriate

RE: The virtues of jaywalking: The red light cameras are very positive news for pedestrians. I wish we were adding 190 of them.


Posted Fri, Jan 4, 9:56 a.m. Inappropriate

The problem is rather broad: And revealed by these very sad remarks from our Governor which I read in this morning's P-I:

"What international city do we know of that would have two-way traffic in downtown? What international city do we know of that would have street parking in the middle of downtown?"

Governor Gregoire reveals a totally SUB-urban understanding of cities, cars and pedestrian dynamics.

Oh well, she has bought off far more than we are able to chew much less digest by her naive claim that the way to solve the Viaduct mess is to "...stop thinking about replacement of the Alaska Way Viaduct and start thinking about how do we do transportation in all of Seattle from I-5 to the waterfront..." Brave wholistic words but by expanding the problem to encompass every street in the city she had it all the more diffiocult to come up with a solution to the Viaduct.

My bet? We'll end up repairing the Viaduct because we don't have the money and will to do anything else, which is a fine solution and what we should have done in the first place. I've been saying this for 3-4 years now and the political comedy is still going on with no end in sight, no matter what the Governor may hope.

Posted Fri, Jan 4, 10:58 a.m. Inappropriate

No traffic circles.: As a cyclist and pedestrian, I think traffic circles are a horrible idea! Aside from the dangers of swinging cars into the crosswalk, and creating uncertainty as to which direction a car will take around the circle, traffic engineers in Shoreline are using them to replace stop signs. This results in a FAR more dangerous situation. On the street where I walk my son to school, they've done this, and so now the cars heading down the hill on the side street don't feel they have to stop, or even slow very much, they just blow on through, secure in the high-performance steering of their suvs. I've come very close to being hit a couple of times on my bicycle at this particular intersection.
Perhaps in a Paris Boulevard they might serve a purpose, but jamming them into residential streets too small to fit them because they're the current traffic engineering fad is bad for everyone.

Posted Fri, Jan 4, 11:27 a.m. Inappropriate

RE: The problem is rather broad: Wow, those really are missing the mark on her part. It sounds like she's preparing to turn Downtown into a series of expressways.


Posted Fri, Jan 4, 12:36 p.m. Inappropriate

RE: No traffic circles.: About the time the town of Gig Harbor started throwing up circle-jerks... uh... roundabouts everywhere, there was an article in the Wall Street Journal that said that most jurisdictions experience a 600% increase in traffic accidents in intersections where a roundabout replaces a traffic light or 4-way stop. One of the principle reasons is obvious: suddenly, the car on the *left* has the right of way.


Posted Fri, Jan 4, 2:35 p.m. Inappropriate

SDOT still gives lip service to pedestrians...: So far as I can tell, Seattle is the only city I've seen in my travels that allows developers to close off sidewalks completely during construction. (Well, maybe Atlanta does). Despite Grace's enlightened attitude at the top, the middle managers at SDOT continue to operate much as they always have -- issuing permits like this for "street use" with little regard for the general public who gets around on foot. Its unconscionable, but I have no doubt that someone in SDOT has crafted a "rational" explanation.

In other cities, the first thing that goes up is a solid shelter of steel and heavy wood that protects pedestrians. Yes, the contractor has to stage materials on top or behind it, and manage deliveries, but hey, what's more congested than mid-town Manahattan?

The cool thing, is that knowing they have to do this, developers almost one-up each other with well-designed graphic identity programs that celebrate the development...and market it too. Design firms have come up with whimsical, clever colors and images that add a temporary, artful element during the construction process.

And yes, the fact that Seattle still would be ranked #6 suggests that the rest of the country is miserable for people on foot. I've seen it! Disgusting.

Mark Hinshaw

Posted Sat, Jan 5, 8:03 a.m. Inappropriate

Noise and visual interest affect walkability too: Efficient routes for walking are indeed a crucial ingredient for a pedestrian-friendly city. The observations about blocked sidewalks and our car-oriented culture are all right on.

A couple of other factors really make a difference in people's willingness to walk. One is noise. Urban streets where cars travel fast and volume is high assult the pedestrian's senses. Routes that may initially seem like the shortest distance between two points turn out to be too unnpleasant to tolerate walking along them. Keeping traffic slow and steady really helps.

There are also many blocks of dowtown that remain visually unappealing and essentially lifeless. Either they still present a parking lot at the street front (really boring) or the design of the store fronts is lifeless and bland. These streets are no fun to walk along. For example, even though walking through the Pike Place Market might slow you down a bit, it sure is a lot more interesting than, say, Seventh Avenue between Denny and Weslake.

These factors may not be as essential as, literally, clearing a path for pedestrians. But they do make a difference in encouraging people to forego their cars and walk.

Posted Mon, Jan 7, 11:03 a.m. Inappropriate

Walkable Streets are Safe Streets: Good comments by all; they certainly jibe with my experience. One thing I'd add is that people who feel secure are more likely to walk than those who are frightened by the surroundings. While for some the environment will never be welcoming enough, it's still good to see the recent improvements in the Pike-Pine corridor which have been generally attributed to the increased visibility of the police in that area. It would be even better if this could be expanded to other areas as well.


Posted Sun, Jan 13, 10:47 p.m. Inappropriate

Does Mayor Gridlock condone discrimination?: One of Seattle's most pedestrian unfriendly intersections is Montlake Boulevard and Lake Washington ("76" station, SR-520 off-on ramps). While cars never have to wait more than three cycles before green, it takes EIGHT such cycles for a pedestrian to cross from east to west. Talk about discrimination! It gets worse; Montlake is a major transfer point (twenty-eight bus routes pass through east-west or north-south). All too often, the pedestrian/bus rider is stuck at red while her/his bus in full view on the other side of the street, pulls away on green. (Enjoy the wait, your next bus [might] arrive in 30 minutes). But suppose that "traffic engineering" were to delay a car thirty minutes at one intersection? Can you say "political uproar"?


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