Seattle's pedestrian-umbrella boondoggle

When city budgets are being slashed, is now really the time for a $50,000 pedestrian safety campaign featuring free umbrellas for holiday shoppers?

Crosscut archive image.

The pedestrian campaign involves umbrellas like these.

When city budgets are being slashed, is now really the time for a $50,000 pedestrian safety campaign featuring free umbrellas for holiday shoppers?

There's always cause to nitpick government spending, but is now really the time for Seattle's Department of Transportation to spend nearly $50,000 on an ad campaign for pedestrian safety, a campaign that includes handing out brightly colored umbrellas to holiday shoppers? Couldn't that money be saved? Or how about clearing a few more streets next time it snows?

Phil Bevis, owner of Arundel Books at First and Madison downtown, is complaining about a new addition to his shop:

Ever wonder why the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) seems incapable of finding the money to keep our roads clear during a 3" snowstorm? 

Well, I did too until SDOT dropped off two nice umbrella buckets (complete with drain holes!) FULL of free umbrellas — an array of trendy designer colors — for us to give away to our customers. Yes, REALLY. Although I really don't get it, supposedly they have something to do with crosswalks.

Yes, they do have something to do with crosswalks. According to SDOT spokesman Rick Sheridan, "The umbrellas are part of our Holiday Pedestrian Safety Campaign, which aims to remind drivers and pedestrians to slow down and be more aware of each other. Collisions involving pedestrians and cars increase significantly during the winter months, primarily due to increased darkness and inclement weather."

Customers can pick up a colorful umbrella at one business, cross the street, and drop it off at the next participating merchant. Or return it to its place of origin. Fine, I suppose, if the winter rain is not persistent, and if shoppers remember to turn them in. The program is aimed at downtown and Pioneer Square. So far, umbrellas can be found at the Starbucks and the Carousel at Westlake, and Pacific Place, along with Arundel.

Cannily, the umbrellas are emblazoned with an SDOT logo. 

The umbrellas are only one part of a larger campaign that will include "Metro bus ads, posters, stickers on pay stations, window displays and publicity events," according to SDOT.

The umbrellas are intended to publicize the holiday safety campaign and make shoppers more visible when they cross the street in the dim light of a Duwamps winter, a more stylish solution than waving those neon-orange crosswalk flags you see around town. SDOT estimates the campaign cost at around $47,000.

Of that, $5,000 is for the 500 umbrellas purchased for the promotion, which is funded by Bridging the Gap and is part of the implementation, SDOT says, of the pedestrian master plan. "SDOT believes that it is a small amount of money to spend on safety, especially if it prevents a collision or saves a life."

The $10 umbrellas are meant to be returned, but that's on the honor system.

Like a lot of downtown business owners, Bevis is concerned about people just being able to get to downtown:

Remember how many people couldn't get to work, or shop in the week before Thanksgiving? Buses stranded, people walking for miles in frigid weather. An extraordinary level of vehicle and property damage. Has anyone ever thought about the economic impact of all of this? Not that they care about the impact on Seattle businesses, but maybe someone can explain to Seattle's government that when people are stuck at home and can not get out to shop during the holidays, they tend to buy online from (in many cases) out of state businesses that neither EMPLOY locally or collect Washington sales tax... hence further eroding the City of Seattle's employment base and tax revenue....

[T]o me it seems misguided in terms of the challenges Seattle faces, and demonstrates an inability to prioritize between basic services and frills.

Sand, salt, snowplows, preparedness: much more important than an umbrella campaign. And perhaps more effective at preventing accidents.

I don't doubt that Seattle drivers need to be more aware of pedestrians. The behavior of drivers toward people in crosswalks is often appalling. And good people make mistakes. But this seems to me to be mostly a matter of raising the consciousness of drivers (during driver's ed, or in testing for your license), not outfitting the public with pink, yellow, or blue bumbershoots.

Besides, we're very ambivalent about umbrellas in Seattle. Some people even use them as weapons. Many refuse to use them, and those who have them, often lose them. The Metro Lost & Found reports some 1,700 umbrellas left on buses during a six-month period.

But even if you think free umbrellas and bus signs and stickers are a good thing, isn't this just the kind of extra that ought to be axed for something more important? Wouldn't that $50,000 save more lives if applied to law enforcement or the social safety net, if it prevented one more murder by a mentally ill person not getting the right help? If it bought a new crosswalk or two or three? Or if, as Bevis suggests, it bought some more salt and sand so a few more streets or sidewalks could be made passable during the next storm?


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.