Photo depicting the interior of a Link Light Rail car with apartments and green-treed hills in the background outside the window.

‘Week Without Driving’ Challenges Leaders to Reimagine Transit and Accessibility

by Ashley Archibald

(This article originally appeared on Real Change and has been reprinted under an agreement.)

Rebecca Saldaña and her kids had a choice.

It was Wednesday. One of the children had a dance class in Burien. The other had a taekwondo class in the Mt. Baker neighborhood. That’s a lot of back and forth.

Without a car, it was pretty difficult to get to both. Fortunately, the kids took pity on Saldaña. Rather than take the bus from the South End to Burien and back to Mt. Baker, her daughter chose to forgo a dance class.

“We are simplifying our day,” Saldaña said.

Not so simple for an elected official, of course. Saldaña still needed to make it home for a community meeting.

Saldaña, along with more than 100 other elected officials and transportation professionals, participated in a “Week Without Driving,” an event created by the Disability Mobility Initiative (DMI) — a project of Disability Rights Washington — to show the difficulties that non-drivers face in a state and country planned around cars.

The impacts are acute for people who choose not to use cars, especially those who can’t use them because of a disability. That was laid bare for able-bodied people who participated in the event, agreeing to eschew transport by car for an entire week.

In a city, state, and country built around cars, that can be challenging for people, even if they use transit regularly, said Anna Zivarts, director of the DMI program.

“The difference between having the option of a car and not is pretty profound for people in ways that they didn’t quite realize,” Zivarts said.

Selfie photo depicting Sen. Rebecca Saldana waiting for the Metro bus approaching in the background.
State Sen. Rebecca Saldaña. (Photo: Rebecca Saldaña, courtesy of Real Change News)

The Week Without Driving brought in more than 100 lawmakers and transit officials. It dared them to use the transit system that people, including those with disabilities, who don’t drive also need to use to survive.

That’s not always easy, said Kristina Walker, a city councilmember in Tacoma, over a Zoom call hosted by the DMI.

“There were a couple of events last weekend that I wanted to show up to, but I couldn’t get there without a car,” Walker said.

Washington isn’t set up for people who don’t have access to a vehicle. Over the course of 10 months, the DMI contacted hundreds of Washingtonians who don’t drive to ask them about their experiences trying to navigate in their areas of the state. Some lived in Seattle and had access to a relatively rich network of buses, light rail, and other transit. Others lived in more rural areas with one bus per day connecting them to their doctor’s office or other critical appointments.

At least one had to spend hundreds of dollars on cab fare because they missed the last bus to their home in Grays Harbor.

Operating without access to a vehicle, even voluntarily, changed the way Seattle City Councilmember Tammy Morales approached her day.

Selfie photo depicting Councilmember Tammy Morales riding a light rail train.
Seattle City Councilmember Tammy Morales. (Photo: Tammy Morales, courtesy of Real Change News)

Morales goes into the city from her home in the South End twice a week. Most of the time, she doesn’t commute by car anyway — a combination of bus and light rail gets her to City Hall in decent time. But she said it’s a privilege to get to choose when to have the option to ride transit or work from home, which has become more common during the pandemic.

Using transit means walking through the city more, which means seeing the people that she is trying to serve, Morales said.

“Walking around the city and being on the ground, you see a lot of people suffering,” she said.    

Both Saldaña and Morales have help. Neither of their partners are participating in the Week Without Driving, which means they can grab groceries and run errands that might be more difficult without the use of a vehicle. Both had to use a rideshare at least once during the week, Saldaña to get to a park and Morales to pick up one of her children when a local school locked down.

Getting around in Seattle is made trickier because while transit may be plentiful, sidewalks are not. According to an auditor’s report released on Oct. 28, 46% of Seattle’s 2,300 miles of sidewalks are in poor, very poor, or fair condition. Bringing all of Seattle’s sidewalks up to compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) would cost between $500 million and $1.3 billion, according to the auditor.

Those are the sidewalks that exist — roughly a quarter of the city’s blocks — lack sidewalks altogether.

Saldaña certainly knows. Riding the 7 bus route with her was an education on the infrastructure of the South End. Here was the intersection where the pavement was rainy and slick with leaves. There was the area where a road diet had led to better bus service. This was the place where the road had been improved through the Safe Routes to School program, which made it easier for school kids to get to class safely.

Lawmakers like Saldaña, Morales, and Walker have the power to change the material conditions on the street for people with disabilities and other non-drivers. It’s one of the reasons that events like a “Week Without Driving” are so important, Zivarts said.

“It’s also, for non cis white dudes, what’s it like to be out in places when you’re not in the protection of this car bubble,” Zivarts said. “What you need to try to look like, or dress like or act like, not to get harassed, or get the cops called on you. So that’s something I hope some folks started to understand.”

Ashley Archibald is the editor of Real Change News and a freelance journalist with previous work in the Santa Monica Daily Press and the Union Democrat. Her work focuses on policy and economic development, and you can find it in the South Seattle Emerald, KNKX, and the Urbanist.

📸 Featured Image: Seattle Councilmember Tammy Morales and State Sen. Rebecca Saldaña participate in the “Week Without Driving,” riding Seattle Metro buses and the Link Light Rail, including along the new route that connects the University District to downtown. Photo courtesy of Real Change News.

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