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.
Crosscut archive image.

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

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.

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.

Not long ago, I actually pushed one of those annoying pedestrian buttons that gave drivers a red light so that I could safely cross South Spokane Street. (I had a bicycle with me, but I was crossing on foot.) My walk light turned green. The Spokane Street light turned red. I almost stepped off the curb, but looked left before I did. Good thing, too: A semi tractor, speeding trailerless down from the low Spokane Street bridge, didn't even try to stop. Three more steps and I'd have been squashed flatter than a thin-crust pizza.

Finally, a pedestrian-friendly city would be full of jaywalkers. Yes, jaywalkers. I believe in jaywalking. Getting around town on your own two feet isn't practical if you have to stop at every red light. You can do it, but you can't do it very fast. Of course, jaywalking can be dangerous. Many Seattle jaywalkers seem to lack that feral alertness that one associates with pedestrians back East; in fact, many of the pedestrians one sees ambling across Seattle streets have a clueless quality - run them down, and they'd never know the difference – that raises reasonable fears for their safety. Ideally, they'd be more aware of their surroundings.

Just as ideally, cops would have better things to do than track them down. (My wife and I lived in Manhattan during a golden age of jaywalking. She assumed that New York cops would take jaywalking as seriously as their counterparts in Seattle did. We lived on the Upper West Side. One day, she was about to cross Columbus Avenue against the light, when she spotted a cop on the opposite side of the street, and stopped dead in her tracks. The cop saw her, understood why she had stopped – and impatiently waved her across.)

Seattle has always had a horror of jaywalking, seeing it perhaps as the first symbolic step toward a total loss of civic control. (Why do I think it's OK for a pedestrian to run a red light but not a driver? Because the driver is piloting a ton or two of steel, powered by a large internal combustion engine, and the pedestrian is not.) I once saw a motorcycle cop ride his Kawasaki right up onto a crowded sidewalk to hunt down some scofflaw who had crossed against the light. This is insane.

It is also part of a long-standing local culture. Does the local horror of jaywalking stem from a Talmudic reverence for written law? A Scandinavian sense of order? An ovine reluctance to stray from the flock? When I first moved to Seattle, many years ago, I lived at the base of Queen Anne Hill and sometimes went to movies at long-since-departed all-night theaters downtown. One, the Green Parrot, stood on First Avenue just south of Pike Street, where the Pike Place Market's southern building now stands. This was the old First Avenue, a steady procession of taverns, pawn shops, and SRO hotels. The Green Parrot fit right in. It offered a different double feature every night for 50 cents, a triple feature every Friday. Many of the movies were pretty cheesy, but not all; I remember seeing Dr. Strangelove there.

The Green Parrot's clientele came from the First Avenue milieu. Some guys - the customers were almost all guys - went there to sleep, or just to pass the time until morning. I once encountered a couple of shabby, grizzled men who were just killing time until the neighboring Shellback Tavern opened its doors the next morning, so they could ask the bartender, Gus the Greek, to cash a longshore check.

The Green Parrot didn't really stay open all night, and when it closed at two o'clock for a badly-needed cleaning, I walked home through the bleak area no one then called Belltown. As I walked, I would occasionally see a little knot of people waiting patiently on a street corner. You could look in all four directions and not see a single car, but the pedestrians had a red light, and they were standing dutifully at the curb, waiting for it to change.

Lights and crosswalks are good things, but all too often people who rely on them become roadkill. People get run down in crosswalks all the time. Seattle City Council aide Tatsuo Nakata was killed in a West Seattle crosswalk last year. It's so easy to get lulled into a false sense of security. The other day, as I walked south through downtown Seattle, I came to a cross street with a red light, looked both ways, saw no traffic, and walked safely across. Then I reached an intersection with a green light. I had the light. I had the crosswalk. I didn't bother looking - and almost got nailed by a car turning into my path.

The late comedienne Jackie "Moms" Mabley recorded a monologue about sending an urban child off to his first day of school. People say watch the lights, watch the lights, Mabley said. I say damn the lights. Lights never killed no one. Watch the cars! Moms was right. It's a lesson Seattle walkers, cops, and planners might take to heart.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Daniel Jack Chasan

Daniel Jack Chasan

Daniel Jack Chasan is an author, attorney, and writer of many articles about Northwest environmental issues.