by Lizz Giordano
With $400,000 recently set aside by the City to fund upgrades for people walking, rolling, and biking along Lake Washington Boulevard, a redesign might be coming to a South End road beloved by cyclists, pedestrians, and drivers alike.
Some are advocating for closing the road to cars from Mount Baker Beach to Seward Park, and others want to find a way for all users to continue to coexist on the road. On this 3-mile segment, the narrow boulevard winds along the west side of Lake Washington and is one of the last few sections of public lakefront in Seattle.
At the beginning of the pandemic, the City expanded the popular Bicycle Sundays that have run every other weekend in summer for more than 50 years, closing the boulevard to vehicles for several months. In 2021, the City closed the street to cars again, this time on weekends and holidays through the summer. And this year, there were 10 weekend closures, giving more room for people walking and rolling.
Last month, the Seattle City Council approved a proposal to add $404,000 to the Park District budget for 2023 and 2024, put forward by District 2 Councilmember Tammy Morales “for protected path on parks property that can accommodate people using mobility devices, riding bicycles, and walking along Lake Washington Boulevard from Mount Baker Beach to Seward Park,” according to City documents.
This followed a chunk of money Morales previously allocated to fund a Visioning Task Force to help shape a plan and solicit feedback from the community for what a redesigned boulevard would look like.
Councilmember Morales said she would support the Visioning Task Force’s preferred design.
“We will see what design [the] community chooses. That may involve using shoulder space or a motor vehicle lane as well,” Morales said in an email. “Currently, much like the other 3,944 miles of motor vehicle lanes in Seattle, Lake Washington Boulevard is currently only truly accessible to those who drive, except for select weekends in the spring and summer.”
Improving safety is top of mind for the task force members. Since January 2015, there have been about 100 reported collisions between people driving and people biking along Lake Washington Boulevard, according to Seattle’s Department of Transportation (SDOT).
“There’s lots of speeding and reckless driving, is something we all can agree on,” said Clara Cantor, a member of the Visioning Task Force and a community organizer for Seattle Neighborhood Greenways.
Feeling unsafe on her bike when the street is open to cars, Cantor avoids the street. “With no cars, it’s really beautiful and pleasant,” she said.
Last year, before the launch of the task force, Seattle Neighborhood Greenways proposed closing the northbound lane to cars and turning it into a multiuse path, leaving the southbound lane open to vehicular traffic and maintaining access to parking lots. This could be done within the scope of the limited budget by adding Jersey barriers, Cantor said, and not creating a major street upheaval.
The narrow roadway doesn’t leave much space to keep both vehicle lanes and add a new multiuse path without taking out trees. “Nobody wants to cut trees down,” Cantor said. “The pathway that it exists in is pretty narrow and in rough shape with a lot of tree roots.”
Others on the Visioning Task Force oppose closing any part of Lake Washington to vehicles.
Tai Mattox uses Lake Washington to get from her home in the Central District to visit family in Rainier Beach. The tree-lined road with lake views provides mental health benefits for Mattox, she said.
Closing that stretch of the boulevard to cars also raises racial equity issues, said Mattox. “There are a lot of people that I know that have been unable to afford homes and the neighborhoods they grew up in. And they use Lake Washington as a touch point.”
Plus, a lot of People of Color don’t have the luxury or the time to access Lake Washington Boulevard by walking or biking, she added.
Mattox is part of a new group, Coexist Lake Washington, that’s pushing for maintaining car access to the road.
She wants to see the City explore other opportunities for people walking and rolling by expanding and improving the current paths and adding other safety measures, like speed bumps, to improve safety for all users. “It can be made safer without restricting access,” Mattox said.
Daphne Cross, who lives just off of the boulevard, is another member of the group Coexist. She also drives the road as a way to unwind from her day. She wants to see better outreach from SDOT.
“A survey is not the best way to reach all demographics; you’re going to miss the elderly demographic,” Cross said.
With the closures during the pandemic, folks were pretty excited about what could be done on Lake Washington Boulevard, said Adonis Ducksworth, a public engagement lead for SDOT who’s working on the project. “It’s not the intention of the task force to close Lake Washington Boulevard to cars, but how to make it safer for people walking, rolling and biking.”
The summer closures were popular, according to SDOT data. Hourly pedestrian counts by the agency found that about 400 people took advantage of the car-free road at each of the two endpoints of the closed segment in the fall of 2021. And during one July weekend in 2021, nearly 4,000 cyclists biked down the road.
A survey done by The Seattle Times showed overwhelming support for keeping the road car-free, with 70% of respondents supporting making more room for walkers and cyclists by eliminating vehicles.
Last week, SDOT launched another survey soliciting feedback on how people use the current road and what users want to see. Following the survey, the task force will bring forward recommendations to the community to weigh in on early next year.
Participate in SDOT’s latest survey regarding changes to Lake Washington Boulevard online. The survey will be available until the end of November.
Lizz Giordano is a freelance multimedia journalist based in Seattle’s Rainier Valley focusing on transit and housing. She can be reached on Twitter @lizzgior, and more of her work can be found on her website.
📸 Featured Image: The Seattle City Council allocated $400,000 for a protected path along Lake Washington Boulevard for people walking and rolling from Mount Baker Beach to Seward Park. The existing pathway is narrow and riddled with cracks. (Photo: Lizz Giordano)
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