Pandemic streets showed the promise of car-free Seattle

Seattle’s plan to give walkers and riders safer streets started with a bang. Whether it remains depends on how loudly residents fight to keep them.

Joel and Stephanie Killough walk with their 2-month-old daughter along the First Avenue Northwest Stay Healthy Street on Oct. 20, 2020. There are currently Stay Healthy Streets in 13 locations in Seattle. (Dorothy Edwards/Crosscut)

One morning in early April, at the height of the coronavirus pandemic’s first wave, Gordon Padelford watched one man with a pickup truck leaving “local access only” signs and traffic cones along 25th Avenue South in the Central District. A longtime advocate of pedestrian and cycling street access, Padelford held his breath: Would the low-budget infrastructure really work?

Hours later, a dad with two young kids trailing on balance bikes padded by. “You just don’t see that in the street,” says Padelford. “I’ve been here for five years, and I’d never seen that. So it was a good indication to me that something had changed.”

When the COVID-19 pandemic struck the U.S. this spring, Seattle was one of the first cities to explore what a drastic change in lifestyle meant for how we use streets, sidewalks and other public rights-of-way. As people’s lives narrowed from miles to meters, some looked at their immediate surroundings with new appreciation: We didn’t need to drive three hours to a mountain to find worthwhile nature, recreation or room to breathe. Meaningful adventures were just beyond our doorsteps, and there was as much value in maintaining the rooty sidewalk in front of our house as our favorite trail at Rainier. 

These space-making efforts seem small, but they oppose nearly a century of car-centric urban design so ingrained that many accept it as a given. They also represent a shift in thinking that could help cities like Seattle hit aggressive targets to mitigate carbon emissions.

“There is a reckoning, a revisiting, of the purpose of this tremendous amount of public space in our midst to serve more than cars,” says Dr. Kathleen Wolf, a research social scientist in the School of Environmental and Forest Sciences at the University of Washington. 

Seattle is no stranger to experimenting with the right-of-way. Its parklet and streateries programs, which allow community organizers and businesses to turn parking spaces into curbside parks and restaurant seating, have for years asked residents to consider all the alternative things we could do with space set aside for cars. Vocal and organized cyclists and alternative transportation advocates consistently advocate bike and pedestrian safety measures ⁠— and they often see results

But there’s a real dearth of street, sidewalk and greenspace access in many parts of the city. A recent review found that 26% of Seattle streets lack dedicated places to walk. And while the Trust for Public Lands’ recent Park Score assessment found 96% of residents live within a 10-minute walk of at least one of Seattle’s 508 parks, 70% of land situated around parks one acre or larger is single-family zoned. Only 13% of Seattle’s city land area is reserved for parks and recreation, below the national median of 15%. In the pandemic, many planned outdoor improvements, like the Greenways Initiative have been rainchecked. In Seattle, street right-of-way makes up 27% of the total land area. 

Seattle’s expansion of open streets for recreation, transportation and outdoor restaurant seating in the pandemic started with a bang ⁠— producing a nationally recognized impact on sustainable transportation. But as the months wore on and other cities embraced bold, often permanent street changes, open streets programs revealed just how difficult it is to truly change street use and create safe outdoor spaces in Seattle ⁠— and who is still missing out. 

With colder weather settling in, and some pilot open streets programs winding down, what happens to streets may depend on how loudly Seattleites fight for it. 

 

Launching Stay Healthy and Keep Moving streets

As the city shut down in the spring and stay-at-home orders discouraged car use, Seattle Department of Transportation employees realized people needed space to exercise, run errands and reach essential services on foot and by bike. “In order to do that, we didn't have enough sidewalk space for people to remain distant from each other,” says SDOT Neighborhood Greenways program manager Summer Jawson, who leads the Stay Healthy Streets program. As the city added quick restaurant loading zones, made parking adjustments and more, it considered whether streets could change for pedestrians and cyclists, too. 

Sheer interest and the county and the city's decisions to close major parks and trails in late March and early April amplified the need. The city announced the Stay Healthy Streets program on April 16; at the outset, SDOT was fielding daily requests for open streets. Four Keep Moving Streets, located on higher trafficked roads near major parks and which emphasized recreation more heavily, followed in June, with a Labor Day Weekend end date.

“The interest in using the street in that way just exploded — and we've heard from so many people that they never thought that they would go out and bike with their kids on the street; that always felt unsafe,” SDOT's Jawson says. But with traffic down significantly, more residents experienced what streets could be like without cars, she says. 

 

a car on a street next to a person walking in the street

A pedestrian shares the road with a car on Lake Washington Boulevard South on Oct. 21, 2020. The street used to be a designated Keep Moving street, which was started by SDOT and Seattle Parks and Recreation, but was opened back up to regular traffic on Oct. 5. (Dorothy Edwards/Crosscut)

A pedestrian shares the road with a car on Lake Washington Boulevard South on Oct. 21, 2020. The street used to be a designated Keep Moving street, which was started by SDOT and Seattle Parks and Recreation, but was opened back up to regular traffic on Oct. 5. (Dorothy Edwards/Crosscut)

“It's such a good idea, and I think it would have been seen as radical before the pandemic started,” says Tom Fucoloro, who runs the popular Seattle Bike Blog. “It challenges what people think of as the purpose and the best use of a street.”

In order to expand Stay Healthy Streets as rapidly as it did, SDOT overlaid them on top of streets that already had existing bike and pedestrian safety infrastructure and community buy-in. The 45-mile, nearly decade-old Neighborhood Greenways program already had support from the Seattle Neighborhood Greenways advocacy network, made up of 16 neighborhood groups throughout the city. 

The Greenways traffic-calming effort gave streets signage that made it clear walking and biking had priority; added street features that purposefully slowed traffic; and started a broader attempt to link qualifying streets into a transportation network. “That was a good starting place for us, especially when we're talking about building longer routes … because those greenways had a lot of infrastructure already built into them,” SDOT’s Ethan Bergerson says of their value to Stay Healthy Streets.

The Keep Moving Streets were near parking lots that had been closed to drivers (like Seward Park), or on streets already under construction (like around Green Lake). Lake Washington Boulevard already had decades of community support behind it for temporary closures, thanks to its Bicycle Sundays tradition in the summer. Jawson says it usually takes two years of outreach to establish a Greenways route. “We didn't have two years to respond to COVID,” she says. 

 

Neighborhood usage

Seattle eventually made national headlines for its ridership increase during the pandemic. Enthusiasm spread even to hilly streets like First Avenue Northwest in Greenwood. Jawson remembers watching kids on big wheels being pushed to the top of the hill by parents before screaming down as fast as they could, laughing. “It’s just so fun to see what was considered a pain point in the commuting network becoming a joyful space,” Jawson says.

In Queen Anne and Greenwood, some neighbors launched "rogue” Stay Healthy Streets ⁠— some going so far as to create their own Stay Healthy Street signs. “So many people have started reclaiming [Bigelow Avenue], that it's a de facto Stay Healthy Street,” says Jazmine Smith, who lives near the flat, sidewalk-sparse avenue curving through east Queen Anne. “Cars yield to people, and there are kids in the street. It’s definitely people first.”

Early on, SDOT staff observed streets and collected data to understand how people used them, like counting users per mile to compare against pre-pandemic street usage numbers. Between SDOT employees and other agency staff, like Parks and Recreation, people had conducted at least 100 hours of direct street observation by mid-October, says SDOT public affairs manager Dawn Schellenberg says. Maintenance staff submit reports as they drive around, and technology including tube street counters (those black rubber tubes strung across the road) have collected about 400 hours of data at intersections, and 14,500 hours at midblock locations on Stay Heathy Streets. 

Early data show, on average, significant increases in pedestrian and cyclist use of these streets and decreased car traffic. According to SDOT data, the Neighborhood Greenways that were turned into Stay Healthy Streets have seen 73% more pedestrians, 54% more cyclists and 58% fewer drivers. About 65% of people use them for exercise, 55% use them for leisure, 35% use them for transportation and just under 20% say they don’t use the streets. 

The city also released a community survey in July that more than 9,000 people completed. SDOT expects to finish analyzing its survey results by the end of the year. 

Some people are more skeptical about the effectiveness of Stay Healthy Streets. Anna Zivarts, who works with Disability Rights Washington, says the Stay Healthy Streets in her southeast Seattle neighborhood didn’t provide any practical gains — and in some ways, they created confusion and opposition. 

“If you actually want people to be able to safely recreate on streets, there needs to be traffic diverters; there can’t be through traffic,” Zivarts says. “The little popup whatever signs from SDOT don't really serve that purpose to divert traffic. In my experience, drivers just continued to cut through.” 

One damning piece of evidence came when a driver injured a runner in a serious car crash in September on Lake Washington Boulevard, when it was still a Keep Moving Street.

“They’ll only ever be as safe as the biggest jerk on the street,” Fucoloro says. 

Ensuring equity

Relying on the existing Neighborhood Greenways network to roll out the Stay Healthy Streets program had implicit problems baked in — all of them visible to Jazmine Smith, who serves as co-chair of the Queen Anne Community Council’s transportation committee. 

Smith, who has started biking and roller skating more during the pandemic, notices people skating, relaxing in lounge chairs and generally discovering joy when she passes through Stay Healthy Streets. But she herself has to travel to get to them. Like many people who live in dense parts of the city, Smith doesn’t have any Stay Healthy Streets (or Neighborhood Greenways) in her section of Queen Anne.

“If you live in one of the denser neighborhoods or you're not near a Greenway, then nothing has really changed for you, especially with the closure of [Keep Moving Streets]," says Cascade Bicycle Club’s Vicky Clarke. By choosing the lowest hanging fruit for Keep Moving and Stay Healthy streets ⁠— those streets that are closest to parks, to encourage park access, or already on safer streets ⁠— the city exacerbated inequality for people who don’t live near those kinds of categories of roads, Clarke says. “You are out of luck in terms of having somewhere safer to walk and bike at a social distance.”

Most of the Greenways network is in the north and central parts of Seattle ⁠— but safe-street access is most limited in Seattle’s dense south side. (The extension of the program to Bell Street, which is not in the Greenways network, was a rare win for these communities.) 

A 2017 gap analysis by the Seattle Parks and Recreation shows that areas of Seattle south of downtown, north of Greenlake, and in the University District have the least access to open spaces. Overwhelmingly, these areas are not where existing Greenways are. 

In many ways, bike infrastructure has been seen as a sign of gentrification, because there’s a perception that when it comes to improvements, white, affluent voices are prioritized. 

“It's been a problem for many years that the loudest communities have tended to be the most wealthy and centrally located,” says Ryan Packer, an editor at The Urbanist. “And Neighborhood Greenways have not had perfect outreach. But I think there has been an improvement and a realization in the past several years that [SDOT] needs to be including a citywide lens.”

The demographic results of the Stay Healthy Streets survey reflect these patterns. Most respondents who’ve taken the survey live nearby such streets, and are white. 

Being a person of color in Seattle means never feeling quite sure that you’ll feel accepted or safe in any given public space, says Smith of the Queen Anne Community Council. “Stay Healthy Streets give people permission to be there,” Smith says.

For its part, Seattle Neighborhood Greenways quickly did its own outreach and proposed a 130-mile Stay Healthy Streets network, and stressed the need to decriminalize walking everywhere. In some places with narrow sidewalks, it’s almost impossible not to walk in a street to maintain 6 feet of distance. But in Seattle, jaywalking tickets are issued most often to Black residents. 

Some Stay Healthy Streets in the south end face geographic or other limitations. In southeast Seattle, the Greenway routes are much hillier than those in other parts of the city. “If you’re trying to bike or walk a Greenway route to get somewhere, it's going to be significantly more work,” says Disability Rights Washington’s Zivarts, who lives near an undulating north-to-south Stay Healthy Street that runs through Mount Baker and Columbia City. “As the weeks have gone by, a lot of the signs in my neighborhood for the Stay Healthy Street near us have sort of disappeared or become piles of rubble.”

SDOT is also exploring whether some communities want these streets at all.

“These Stay Healthy Streets went out with really minimal engagement from the community, and we are working now to engage in and to listen and make sure that they are in the right place, and that we respond to the places where they aren't serving people and adjust and move [them],” Jawson says. “Because in this very fast response to COVID, we may have put one in the wrong place.” 

The murder of jogger Ahmaud Arbery and other Black, Indigenous and people of color attempting to use streets safely prompted a shift in the conversations around Stay Healthy Streets, says Peaches Thomas, a lead community organizer with Duwamish Valley Safe Streets.  

“There wasn't enough thought being given to who gets to utilize the street, who is allowed to feel safe walking down the street or biking down the street, versus who’s more likely to have the cops called on them, and accused of loitering or being harassed or even harmed,” Thomas says. 

The Seattle Neighborhood Greenways network has been predominantly white for years ⁠— Seattle is 68% white — as have most sustainable transportation and recreation groups in the city. Yes Segura, a transportation planner who volunteers with Seattle Neighborhood Greenways, says the group has started prioritizing BIPOC voices and needs.

In July, Seattle Neighborhood Greenways launched the Whose Streets? Our Streets! task force, which Thomas says is dedicated to reviewing and recommending changes to street-use design, laws and policies in order to better meet the needs and support the lives of all street users, especially the BIPOC community. “I think there's a feeling and a very false perception that everyone feels safe and welcome in public spaces,” says Thomas, who serves on the task force alongside Segura. The task force last met in October. 

SDOT is working with the city Department of Neighborhoods to increase outreach in places like Lake City, the Central District, Rainier Valley, High Point, West Seattle and Beacon Hill. Efforts include working through community liaisons, phone calls, getting materials translated into as many as eight languages and rolling out listening sessions and forums with community councils. They are also considering hosting pop-up events as a way to reach people they don't commonly hear from, and build on online survey responses, Schellenberg says.  

That research will help determine where the city might fulfill its promise to make 20 miles of permanent Stay Healthy Streets. “We want to focus on those places that we haven't been able to hear from and to serve, but that we know are very heavily impacted by COVID,” Jawson says.

To address equity concerns with Stay Healthy Streets now, the city set up the Stay Healthy Blocks program, which lets community coalitions apply free for limited street closures between  9 a.m. and 6:30 p.m. Twenty-three permits have been issued so far. 

Thomas herself has filled out applications on behalf of community members for two Stay Healthy blocks in South Park and two in Georgetown, all of which were approved, and she says the residents are excited. 

“The greatest thing that's come out of the Stay Healthy Streets program is that there's been such an outpouring of support for it ... it's hard to ignore just how successful it's been,” she says. “Obviously, there have been some drawbacks. But I think for a pilot, it's been really great.”

 

Barriers and obstacles 

But while he applauds the effort as a whole, the Seattle Bike Blog’s Fucoloro thinks the program stagnated early. 

“The frustrating part is that they were hot out the gate and put a ton of miles of Stay Healthy Streets all over the city, and then it just kind of stopped, even though they didn’t reach everybody,” he says. “I think a lot of us thought that was [just] Phase 1. It turned out to be the only phase.”

Advocates understand that the city has reasons to move slowly before making streets permanent — reasons further slowed by the reality of the pandemic. “I think that the reason that they haven't moved to a permanent solution on Stay Healthy Streets is that they want to do some meaningful engagement and that's going to take time,” Clarke says. “People aren't experiencing the pandemic [equally], and the people who have likely been hardest hit by the pandemic are the ones who have often been left behind in these types of conversations. Being really sensitive to that has been front and center, and I think that's good.” 

Not everyone has welcomed the program. SDOT’s Schellenberg says drivers complain that being rerouted around arterials worsens commutes. There have been complaints about parking challenges and concerns that streets would become noisy or full of trash. Instead, SDOT has dealt with the disappearance or destruction of its 400-plus Stay Healthy Street signs. 

“Sometimes we actually found them on streets where they were not Stay Healthy streets that people, I think, would have liked them to be on,” Schellenberg says, noting the intersection of Northwest 75th Street and Third Avenue in Greenwood as one such area: SDOT found (and removed) a Stay Health Street sign that had been chained to a concrete block there. These days, they get maybe half a dozen requests for sign replacements each week. 

There is also lingering disappointment that the popular Keep Moving Streets initiative has ended. ⁠This follow-up to Stay Healthy Streets closed roads and parking lots near major parks, like Golden Gardens and Seward Park, to through traffic. Residents have long uninterrupted stretches of pavement to stomp, and for Lake Washington Boulevard, that pavement connects lots of residential streets, creating easy access to a makeshift park expansion. 

The incredibly successful program was meant to be temporary, but the fact that it shut down despite significant community support has been a sticking point for many — especially since it was particularly effective at creating open space in areas with fewer resources, like southeast Seattle.

“Opening up Lake Washington Boulevard was even better than just having Seward Park,” Fucoloro says. “It took away the successful program in the neighborhood that needed it most. It's kind of baffling.” 

On the first day of the Keep Moving Streets closure in April, zipping past the lake under the shade of the boulevard’s many trees felt like a celebration, with families everywhere riding and walking at every imaginable speed. 

But without proper signage and diversion, it became clear this street wasn’t safe for bikes. A July ride with Segura during a pause in the Keep Healthy Streets program was marred by cars passing within 2 feet, some drivers honking and shouting obscenities. Support was strong enough that SDOT eventually extended the street closure, but the program officially ended Oct. 5. The city responded to outcry over the closure of Lake Washington Boulevard street closure by saying it would consider an extension again.

“I think that’s why it’s hard to get people really excited about new programs or initiatives,” Thomas says. “You get volunteers to rally supporters, and people really buy into having these spaces, and then to have that been taken from them, I think it's really difficult for people. It makes people less likely in the future to want to engage.” 

Rolling to the future

As the pandemic surged onward, cities across the globe made the best of a bad situation by broadly expanding road rights-of-way away from cars, in many cases permanently. Some cities even moved closer to the 15-minute city ideal that ensures citizens can access essential services and amenities without a car. But Seattle’s vision for street reallocation hasn’t been as aggressive. 

“This is really a map of where we thought we could quickly and easily serve communities by creating space for people to safely recreate,” notes Padelford, the executive director of Seattle Neighborhood Greenways. “So it's a little bit different than some of the innovation you're seeing, like in Paris, or Milan, or Barcelona, or Bogota, where they're implementing sort of permanent networks of walking and biking routes.” 

SDOT’s Bergerson says the goal of broad reallocation was on the table from the beginning, but the sheer compendium of crises facing the city — from COVID to the West Seattle bridge closure — made reaching it difficult. 

“Outreach and engagement is very important to us at the city of Seattle ⁠— we try to build that into everything, especially when we're talking about these conversations about equity ⁠— and relearning how to do that in the age of COVID has definitely been a challenge,” he says. 

Right now, there are 26 miles of Stay Healthy Streets and one mile of Keep Moving Streets. Officials say the city will be “switching gears” to focus on identifying the 20 permanent miles of Stay Healthy Streets. 

“What I think we would like to do is pivot our energy and our resources toward permanency ⁠— getting rid of some of the 400 signs and getting some real kind of hardscape solutions in there,” Schellenberg says. “Our efforts will center race and equity, discuss how to respect the cultural significance of neighborhoods, how to evolve the streets into the neighborhood fabric, share the type of treatments we could use to replace the current Street Closed signs and collect potential locations for expansion.” 

Streets that have been especially popular, like Greenwood’s First Avenue Northwest, are being considered for permanent installation; communities like those near Alki Point, which have expressed desire for permanent streets, are also being considered. Holly Street, near Rainier Avenue, is a possible pilot for the permanent streets, Schellenberg says. “It feels like that would be a good location, maybe to pilot out some of these different tools, which might be larger cement block, or barrels that could be painted with new signage,” she says.

Some advocates worry that the pause in momentum — and impending budget shortfalls — could stop city efforts to make Stay Healthy Streets permanent in its tracks. But they also say that the needs and experiences borne out by our pandemic summer and fall might catalyze a broader, deeper interest in street use across the city. 

“We are extremely familiar with every inch of pavement within a few blocks of our home at this point,” Fucoloro says. “I think that people may feel a larger sense of ownership over the streets around their homes, with lots of people starting to wonder, ‘Well, hey, isn't the best use of this space people walking now? Why are we designating so much public space to cars?’ ”

Some city employees even recognize public space as the linchpin for surviving all the crises brought on by 2020. 

“We've seen over the last couple months how important public space is for First Amendment rights, and how essential public spaces [are] for social distancing and economic recovery,” says Amy Nguyen, program development supervisor on the public space management team within SDOT's street use division. “I think about all the time, how that public space is 27% of total lands in the city of Seattle. And as public space practitioners, it is imperative that we think about this resource as an opportunity for economic and civic recovery. That's a part of our duty.”

The big question mark, advocates say, is whether people revert to pre-COVID travel patterns. Drivers will need to get on board with the kinds of lifestyle shifts that deprioritize cars in favor of walking, biking and climate goals. 

“You have to do it in a way where you're not just, you know, shoving it down their throat,” says Segura. “That's no way to win an argument, nor be respectful of their time.” 

But with a dark winter closing quickly, the need to access more safe streets will only grow. 

“People cannot stay inside for six months,” Fucoloro says. “I think people are still going to be looking for ways to get out and walk around and bike around and move their bodies.”

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