Pedestrians to Retake More Streets Under New City Program

by Ben Adlin

More Seattle streets will be temporarily closed to thru-traffic and converted into shared community spaces under a new program announced Monday by City officials. It’s the latest in a series of initiatives aimed at rethinking how public roadways are used in a world transformed by the pandemic. 

The Stay Healthy Blocks program, unveiled Monday morning by Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office and Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) officials, will allow community organizations and nonprofits to open “one or more blocks on non-arterial streets to Seattleites to enjoy outdoor space for recreation,” Durkan’s office said in a press release. 

Applicants will be required to notify neighbors, close the street with barricades and signs, and monitor compliance with social distancing and other public health guidelines. Applications are free and will be accepted immediately through a City website.

“Since the start of the COVID-19 crisis, we’ve listened carefully to residents and worked diligently to develop a toolkit of programs to meet their needs, while keeping public health considerations at the forefront,” SDOT Director Sam Zimbabwe said in a statement. “Stay Healthy Blocks are an important new tool for us to use during this challenging time.”

Already the City has launched a handful of other programs during the pandemic aimed at prioritizing pedestrian traffic and getting people outdoors. The Stay Healthy Streets initiative, most notably, upgraded more than 20 miles of non-arterial roadways to prioritize what the city describes as “people walking, rolling, or biking” instead of traditional car traffic. A related program, Keep Moving Streets, set up similar arrangements in popular areas such as Lake Washington Boulevard, Golden Gardens, Alki Point, and Green Lake.

Generally speaking, Stay Healthy Streets are permanent, set to remain after the pandemic. Keep Moving Streets are temporary. The new Stay Healthy Blocks program is also described as temporary by the mayor’s office, with an initial evaluation period set for four weeks.

“In response to overwhelming demand from residents, we are offering more opportunities for community to safely come together during COVID-19,” Durkan said in a statement. “We can’t let up in our fight against this virus, but through programs like curbside dining, Stay Healthy Streets and now Stay Healthy Blocks, we can stay connected to our community.”

Other SDOT initiatives have transformed sections of roadway into open-air eating spaces. In Columbia City and Othello, for example, the Seattle Together Streets pilot program has helped local businesses temporarily close certain blocks in order to set up tables and chairs to be shared by customers from nearby restaurants. Individuals are asked to sanitize the area after using it, and organizers are responsible for overseeing the space.

Community feedback on the street closures so far has been mixed but generally positive. In a recent batch of comments about the Keep Moving Street on Lake Washington Boulevard, for example, most urge the closures to continue.

“If you come and look at what’s going on, it’s truly amazing,” wrote one commenter. “All kinds of people, across racial and socioeconomic spectrums, are actively using the space.”

“Let’s have this closure be one of the silver linings of COVID,” wrote another. “Bear in mind, I say all this as someone who drove on that road many times a week and have had to change my habits; I don’t mind given what is being given to our community in return.”

A few took issue with the closures, arguing that limiting vehicle traffic actually reduced accessibility for some groups, such as those with mobility issues. “I do hope you plan to keep your word and … reopen LWB to the rest of the tax-payers unable to cycle or walk comfortably more than a few yards,” said one comment.

“I’m a boat owner and the shut down of Lake Washington Blvd is a bit overdone,” another opponent said. “It’s a big inconvenience.”

Urban planners who have long lamented how much of Seattle’s public space is reserved for vehicles, however, see the changes as a glimmer of what the city could look like if cars took a back seat for a while.

“The ongoing COVID-19 crisis has compelled us to reimagine how we live in our city,” Yes Segura, a Seattle-based urban planning consultant, said in a statement provided by the mayor’s office. “By adapting our streets to prioritize people and not cars, SDOT is transforming how we use Seattle’s public space.”

Ben Adlin is a Seattle-based reporter.

Featured image is attributed to SDOT Photos under a Creative Commons 2.0 license.