by Mark Van Streefkerk
For Seattle to meet its carbon-neutral goal, we need to take an honest look at how we get from one place to another. Burning fossil fuels, like gasoline and diesel for motor vehicles, emits greenhouse gasses. In Seattle, roadway transportation makes up 40% of greenhouse gas emissions. For the U.S., emissions from transportation account for 29% of total greenhouse gases. Reducing our reliance on cars and gasoline plays an important role in reducing our carbon footprint. The good news is that everyday choices to walk, bike, scoot, or roll instead of driving can significantly reduce the greenhouse gasses we produce. Earlier this year a study found that ditching the car for one day out of the week can reduce personal carbon dioxide emissions by a quarter. Swapping even one trip in a car with walking or rolling makes a significant impact over time.
Leaving the car at home sounds great, but for South End communities, walking or rolling everywhere isn’t as simple as that. For starters, investments in infrastructure for South End neighborhoods have been lacking for generations. K.L. Shannon is a community organizer for Seattle Neighborhood Greenways, a grassroots group that advocates for safer streets for everyone. She pointed out that Rainier Valley has historically been underserved when it comes to pedestrian infrastructure, especially when it comes to “Seattle’s most dangerous street,” Rainier Avenue.
“There is the concern that the sidewalks are so bad that anyone can easily get hurt, especially our elders,” Shannon said. “We do have a lot of elders in the South End that do a lot of walking. There have been elders that have been injured because of cracks in the sidewalks.”
Between the hazards of tripping and falling from cracked or insufficient sidewalks, and the possibility of getting hit by a car on Rainier Avenue (in 2020 there were at least 15 serious or fatal collisions on Rainier Avenue), heading out on foot in the area can feel risky. But these risks can be reduced, provided funding is allocated to making the streets safer. Making streets and sidewalks safer for non-drivers helps reduce our carbon footprint while making our neighborhoods more accessible for everyone.
Shannon said she would like the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) to give the South End as much attention as it does to other areas like Madison Valley and Wallingford. “Let’s be honest: Most of the time that attention is not given because the majority of people on the South End are People of Color, BIPOC community [members],” she said. “I think it’s really insulting and disrespectful that we have to fight to get the same advantages that say, Madison Valley or University District gets.”
Improving Walkability Is Intersectional Social Justice
Anna Zivarts, director of Disability Mobility Initiative at Disability Rights Washington is a white, low-vision mom and non-driver who lives in Hillman City. Among other social justice causes, Zivarts also advocates for accessible sidewalks and safer streets, which she sees as a deeply intersectional issue.
According to the Disability Mobility Initiative website: “We know that Black, Indigenous and People of Color … immigrants, poor people, elderly and disabled people are much less likely to have a driver license or access to cars, we are more likely to be transit reliant and more likely to walk or roll for transportation.”
Zivarts pointed out that people with disabilities or others who don’t drive would prefer to live in areas with smooth sidewalks, curb ramps, and higher-visibility crosswalks (generally speaking, both property owners and the City share responsibility for sidewalk maintenance). The reality is that these characteristics are most commonly found in wealthier neighborhoods. “Often the folks that need [these features] the most get priced out, and end up living in areas that don’t have sidewalks, or don’t have good bus service,” Zivarts said.
Seattle has a Pedestrian Master Plan, and Zivarts has “heard that the City is going to come out with a new plan based more on equity considerations,” but there’s no clear indicator of when that will happen.
Zivarts hopes that the City sees these investments in safer streets and sidewalks — especially in the Rainier Valley — “as something that would not only improve access for people who aren’t driving and make it possible to roll a wheelchair, a walker, a stroller, a grocery cart down the street, but something that would help us reach our climate goals and our public health goals.”
Bike Advocacy Is Critical
Plans are in the works for getting South Seattle bike infrastructure up to par with the rest of the city. Patrick Taylor — the education and programming director of The Urbanist, who also serves on the Bike Advisory Board and Move Seattle Oversight Committee — said that bike infrastructure is better developed in North and Central areas of Seattle, but the City has several major South End bike projects. “One of our priorities is connecting the South End,” he said. “We really think South Seattle, including Duwamish Valley, Rainier Valley, over into West Seattle has really been neglected in that way.”
There are three big bike projects underway for the South End. One is the development of a direct bike path through Beacon Hill from the Jose Rizal Bridge to the south part of the Chief Sealth Trail. Another project is to make a route from the I-90 Bike Trail down MLK to Rainier with protected bike lanes. “Hopefully that’s a downpayment on a future bike lane throughout the valley,” Taylor said.
The last project, which is fully funded and set to be constructed next year, is the Georgetown and South Park connection. It will be “A wide bike and pedestrian walkway that will connect these two communities that are pretty isolated from the rest of the city, with the idea that they can have a safer way to access each other’s resources,” Taylor said.
In addition to these in-progress plans, the City has a future plan to study a bike route connection from downtown to Georgetown through SoDo. Taylor said he wanted to see the City invest in creating safer spaces to walk and bike, including planting trees along walkways and placing curbs that make cars park further away from sidewalks. “Narrow[ing] the street somewhat makes it less conducive for high-speed driving,” he said.
Find out more about Seattle’s Bicycle Master Plan here.
Devin Silvernail, district director for Concilmember Tammy Morales, said Morales had “secured funding for several sidewalk projects in last year’s budget (including for Rainier Ave South). We’ll also be pursuing more funding for pedestrian and bicycle improvements all over [District] 2 to address road safety for road users who walk, bike, and roll … We’re stressing design that puts safety of people first over anything.”
- Get Involved! Want to help make the Rainier Valley safer for pedestrians, cyclists, and non-drivers? Check out Rainier Beach Action Coalition (RBAC) and Seattle Neighborhood Greenways, two local organizations that are holding the City accountable to making infrastructure improvements. Last fall, RBAC, Neighborhood Greenways, and other community leaders went on a walking tour with Councilmember Tammy Morales. The walking tour helped raise awareness for the need for improvements, with Morales committing to push for funding.
- Support BikeWorks. This nonprofit helps empower youth and adults through the revolutionary power of the bicycle. You can donate (including used bikes), volunteer, and get your own bike serviced — and buy a refurbished bike! — at their community bike shop in Columbia City.
- Be a Conscious Driver. Think about how often you hop in the car to make a quick trip to the corner store. How often are you stuck in rush hour and see seemingly hundreds of single-occupant vehicles? Start with small swaps, even if it’s just walking to the corner store instead of driving, taking the bus to work, or using a bike or scooter share.
This climate change series is made possible with support from Nia Tero.
📸 Featured Image: Ditch the car, and enjoy neighborhood greenways by biking, scooting, or rolling this summer. (Photo: Susan Gleason)
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