by Jack Russillo
Beginning on the Fourth of July weekend, the 3-mile section of Lake Washington Boulevard between Mount Baker Park and Seward Park will be closed to vehicles every weekend of the summer.
The Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) announced the road closures on Thursday, June 24, as part of its Stay Healthy Streets initiative.
The barricades that will signal the section closed-off to cars will be installed Friday afternoons and will be removed Monday mornings, except for Fourth of July and Labor Day weekends, when the barricades will be removed on the Tuesday morning after the holiday weekend. People driving to homes along the boulevard because they live there, are visiting, or making deliveries are allowed.
“This summer’s approach […] expands the lakefront for more use, and supports affordable travel options by making it easier to walk, bike, and roll,” SDOT said in its announcement. “It provides space for children under 12 that are not currently eligible for vaccinations to stay active. It’s consistent to help people planning their trips and it maintains vehicle access during typical commute hours.”
Last year, the COVID-19 pandemic forced changes to the decades-old tradition of Bicycle Sundays, which closed off portions of the same section of Lake Washington Boulevard one day a week during the summer for decades. After opening up the 3-mile section last summer to allow more space for people to socially distance themselves outdoors, it became clear that it was a contested issue between commuters who use the road for transit across the city and residents who didn’t feel safe recreating on the lakeside, park-owned roadway. SDOT wanted to balance providing more space for families to recreate close to home and by the lake with maintaining one of the primary north-south arterial roadways in Seattle’s South End.
Seattle City Councilmember Tammy Morales told the Emerald she supports the plan. “I think there needs to be a shift in thinking about how much space we give to people who drive versus how much space we give to people who can’t drive or choose not to.”
Morales says the open roadway allows people, including young kids like hers, to bike around more safely. “There’s a lot of bicycle incidents, especially on the South End,” she said. “And I think it’s because people aren’t used to giving over some space, and this is an opportunity for people to be able to enjoy themselves on a bike without worrying about the fact that somebody doesn’t want to give them some space.”
Morales says this is an equitable decision, too. “I think it’s really important that we recognize and acknowledge that, particularly in the South End, we do have a lot of folks with mobility issues.” People with disabilities and mobility issues, such as vision impairment or who use a wheelchair, need to be able to recreate and enjoy their neighborhood, she added. “They all also need some space, and I think this a good way for us to see how we can make that space for them.”
This spring, SDOT launched a survey on the boulevard’s fate that attracted more than 6,700 responses from April 23 to May 10. The top preference was to close the 3 miles of Lake Washington Boulevard all summer, on weekends and weekdays. While more than 75% of respondents self-identified as white, SDOT says that when they broke down the data by people who lived in nearby zip codes and people who identified as BIPOC, the top result was the same.
Of the 525 people that identified as BIPOC and said they live in the 98118 zip code, the full-time closure of all 3 miles was still the top choice with more than 45% of the votes, but it was also the option that collected the most last-place votes. The weekend closure of the 3-mile section was the next most popular preference.
Gilbert Pettit, a third-generation Black Seattleite, is currently a Beacon Hill resident that opposes the weekend closure. “I think it reflects consideration for insiders and those that have access to our City leaders versus those that do not. It’s sad.” While Pettit feels that closing the road to cars for one day per week was fine, two days per week hurts commuters who have already been impacted by fewer lanes from more bike lanes and increased traffic.
Pettit also thinks that those who are benefiting from the road closure are newcomers to the area. “In the big picture, this is another indicator of gentrification.”
The road closures will be in effect through September, and maybe longer. As the initiative is not an official capital project for the City, there is no baseline set for a more permanent decision. If the boulevard closure to vehicles becomes a capital project, then SDOT would likely roll out a more “robust” engagement plan to collect the community’s input, with walks around the lakeside trail with SDOT officials, tabling sessions, and more surveys, according to Sara Colling, a senior outreach lead at SDOT.
“At this point, we just don’t know [how long the closures will last],” said Colling. “It’s good to get the quantitative data from the survey, but a lot more supplemental, qualitative data would be needed.”
SDOT did carry out listening sessions with BIPOC community members and residents who live near the boulevard ahead of the decision and received hundreds of emails with input for how to move forward with the boulevard closures. Colling said that the responses from emails and listening sessions yielded more negative opinions on the road closure compared to the survey, where more than 60% of responders answered that their first choice was to close the full 3-mile section.
SDOT will continue to collect data related to possible traffic diversion points at nearby parking lots and about how pedestrians are using the closed roadway. The agency is also working on developing a more effective garbage pick-up system as last summer’s closures saw increases in foot traffic outpace waste collection efforts.
Previous closures highlighted opportunities to make the road closures more accessible via parking lot access and signage. In the past, the entire boulevard had been barricaded in a way that had shut down road access to parking lots along the roadway, which has limited accessibility for people that can’t walk or bike the whole way from their homes to the lake. With unclear phrasing or a lack of translations available at all signs, not all visitors were able to easily navigate the road closures.
Under the updated plan, all public parking lots along the boulevard will be open, with access available at the nearest cross street. Designing a system to keep the lots open to cars coming and going while still minimizing their access to the boulevard was one reason that the decision on the road closure was held up past its previously expected deadline of Memorial Day weekend.
Colling, for her part, looks forward to the road’s opening to pedestrians and others. “When we open up space, people use it and they use it in unexpected ways,” she said. “I never knew how many people roller skated in Seattle until we opened up space like this and so I am looking forward to going out there and enjoying the beach with my kids and seeing how other people imagine the possibilities of this space.”
Proponents of walking and biking see the move as a hopeful step.
“I was really heartened to see that SDOT got nearly 7,000 responses to their survey with 65% support for keeping it open [to pedestrians] all the time for the full length,” said Gordon Padelford, the executive director of Seattle Neighborhood Greenways. “That was really heartening to see that public support, including support from BIPOC folks and people in the 98118 zip code when they broke it down by those two different demographics.”
Though Padelford would ideally have liked SDOT to close the boulevard to vehicle traffic full-time, his group is optimistic the closures will go on beyond September. “And hopefully, with additional funding, they’ll be able to conduct an equitable engagement process and create some sort of permanent space on the street.”
In other efforts to improve the space whenever it is open for pedestrians, Seattle Neighborhood Greenways is offering seed funding to any community groups that wish to host an event along the boulevard. From buying water bottles for a jazzercise class to providing snacks to a roller skating club, groups interested in partnering with the organization can send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org to coordinate hosting a “smaller, community-led” event on the boulevard.
“Seattle has so much private waterfront, and this is one of our few sections of public waterfront,” said Padelford. “On weekends like this, where it’s a scorcher, it’s especially important to have space for people to get out safely and be by the water. And this should be possible all year round.”
Jack Russillo has been reporting in Western Washington since 2013. He covers the environment, social justice, and other topics that affect a sustainable and equitable future. He currently lives in Seattle’s Beacon Hill neighborhood.
📸 Featured Image: A bicyclist rides along Lake Washington Blvd (Photo: Susan Fried)
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