Posts Tagged ‘sidewalks’

Sandwich boards…moved

Friday, January 15th, 2010

Sandwich boards done right in Pioneer Square

Isn’t it nice when progress is easy?

Poorly located sandwich boards, aka A-frames, next to businesses have always been an annoyance for many pedestrians. They force us to walk around them, they sometimes narrow sidewalks to single-file, they can be tripped over, and in some places they’re clutter.

I’ve taken to moving many of the worst ones to the side, sometimes day after day, hoping that the owners will get the message. That doesn’t work very well, though it solves the problem momentarily and is satisfying.

Lo and behold, there’s an easier way. SDOT will come to the rescue upon request. With great effect.

The signs are rarely legal, according to this City web page. “Currently, A-frame signs are illegal except in a City-approved district that has obtained a street use permit to allow and regulate A-frame signs (see BIA).” These districts, where A-frames still face strict rules, are Pioneer Square, Broadway, and the Pike Place Market. A City web page about sidewalk cafes says that even legal A-frames must provide six feet of clear space past seating areas.

I’ve talked to some businesses directly, whether they storm out their doors indignant about “property rights” (this has come up twice, related to poor education presumably), or because I contact them. Sometimes they agree to keep the signs along the curb out of the way. Other times they don’t.

That’s when it’s time to contact SDOT. They regulate signs upon complaint. Just call (206) 684-5267 and leave a message with the address and business name.

I don’t know what they tell the offending businesses, but it works! A few days after a recent complaint about two businesses, both signs went to the side out of the way of pedestrians, and they haven’t offended again. SDOT appears to be enforcing the spirit of the law rather than the letter. I support the enforcement-as-appropriate approach.

There’s a legal side to this. I’m no lawyer, but if someone trips on a sign the City was warned about, shouldn’t the City be liable if it didn’t crack down, and the business be liable if it ignored a City request? Isn’t the business liable regardless? (Any lawyers want to clarify that?) Since liability law is often an excuse to shaft pedestrians (light poles three feet from curbs, crosswalk markings taken away, overly wide streets), it’s nice if the same system helps us occasionally. If the sign is a potential tripping hazard in your opinion, the City will enforce the law to protect itself from costly judgments.

On another tangent, some business owners complain that moving signs hurts business. Maybe that’s true for them personally, but overall, we’ll all buy the same amount of stuff. If the signs have an effect, it’s to move some sales from some businesses to others. Basically illegal signs move sales from complying businesses to non-complying ones. Moving the signs should even the playing field for the good guys.

Now it’s time to try the same thing with parking lot signs. King County’s parcel viewer is good for identifying absentee owners, which could expedite the process for SDOT…

More sidewalks? Depends on who’s paying

Friday, November 13th, 2009

Forget it!
A national survey shows that people strongly favor the development of communities with lots of sidewalks. But ask voters — and especially motorists — to actually pay to make that happen, and you get a very different answer.

Such was the case in Burien where, earlier this month, residents voted on whether vehicle owners should pay an extra $25 car-tab fee to fund the construction of sidewalks and bike lanes. It was the first time a Washington city has voted on taxing cars to pay for such amenities, according to a Seattle Times article.

In a survey of 1,000 U.S. adults by the National Association of Realtors and Smart Growth America, more than 80 percent of respondents favored building more walkable communities. Based on these results, which were published in the January 2008 issue of Realtor magazine, you’d think that Burien voters would have delivered a slam-dunk win for the suburb’s bicyclists and pedestrians.

But you’d be wrong. A whopping 74 percent of voters rejected the proposition.

Members of the City Council could have OK’d a $20 fee without going to the voters, but asked for $25. “We need to know what our community wants to do,” Mayor Joan McGilton told the Times.

City Hall clearly found out.

Marc Stiles covers transportation for the DJC.

Conflicting goals hinder walkability

Sunday, May 10th, 2009

Want to speak out on Seattle’s pedestrian environment, and the City’s upcoming plans? Your best chance is between now and June 15, the comment period for the recently-released Draft Seattle Pedestrian Master Plan. In addition to the summary, remember to see the list of specific implementation actions.

It’s heartening to see so much effort go into boosting walkability, especially since the leaders are frequent pedestrians and experts in pedestrian issues. There’s much to love in the plan (not focusing on that here). At the same time, Seattle has a long history of well-intentioned plans being subverted by other goals, directly or indirectly. The plan addresses all of these general topics, but not in detail, and where it really matters is in practice.

An example is enlarged tree wells. These are good for trees that outgrow their old wells. But they can also interrupt pedestrian flow, they’re often muddy, and sometimes they’re even dangerous. This photograph is a rogue tree well on First Avenue, with a four-inch drop that must surprise a few people, at least those who haven’t walked in it countless times as I have (rather than wait for others to pass). Some hard-packed gravel at sidewalk level would be nice. Or maybe a walkable hard-surface platform of some kind.

At first look, the draft plan itself has some items that need adjustment. The yellow, bumpy plastic “tactile warning strips” it calls for at curb ramps are useful for the blind, but they’re slippery, which is something you don’t want at a street corner! A potential solution would be to build the same thing in concrete, integrally colored or painted so it’s more visible, though even then you’ve created a trip hazard.

Another usually good idea is chirping walk signals for the blind. But some of these signals, such as the ones at 6th & Bell, are incredibly loud, easily audible a full block away. How many advocates would live 50 feet from that? We encourage people to live near work, while making some intersections inhospitable for living. Turn the volume down.

“All way walk” intersections (like First & Pike) are also discussed in the draft plan. These sound like a good idea, until it occurs that at a standard intersection, they mean you can’t walk 2/3 of the time. First & Pike works because there are only two phases, “traffic” and “pedestrians,” plus it’s easy to jaywalk N-S during traffic’s phase. But at a regular multiphase intersection, all way walk is like punishment.

Let’s not get into the parking meters and light poles in the centers of many sidewalks, which exist because City liability fears have required them to be three feet from curbs. This was thought up by bean counters more worried about fenders and dollars than pedestrian safety or walkability. Even the new “pay stations” are often located within narrow sidewalks due to expediency, and can be barriers if people are standing at them. They should be in parking strips.

Curb bulbs are a great idea, to shorten crossings and improve visibility. But please make sure there’s room for not only the car lanes, but bicycles along the right fringe as well.  Just a couple feet. The same stretch of Bell, a significant bike route, is a good example. Hit Fifth Avenue, and either the driver or the bicyclist better give way, because the curb bulb sticks out too much.

Readers, please read the plan and comment. City, good job on the plan, but please make some adustments, and please follow through on implementation!

Livability means a pedestrian scale

Monday, November 3rd, 2008

Frequently in my posts and in opinion pieces I suggest we should organize our thinking about growth as a city into three distinct domains: affordability, livability and sustainability.

I am continuing to think through these domains and defining them in more detail. But when I think of livability the first thing that comes to my mind is pedestrian scale. . . . at 12th and Thomas

If Seattle did one thing to support livability as we work toward accommodating more growth, it would be prioritizing pedestrian travel. The pedestrian would be at the top of the hierarchy followed in descending order by bicycles, scooters, transit, freight, shared vehicles and at the very, very bottom single passenger cars.

Two examples come to mind of what I mean by pedestrian scale and they are at extreme ends of the continuum. The National Mall in Washington D.C. stands out as an example of being out of scale with pedestrian travel. Although it was designed before the rise of the automobile it represents the kind of Brobdingnagian scale that lends itself to cars rather than people. It’s just too damn big.A quiet oasis . . .

At the other end is 12th and Thomas, shown above and at left. A look at these pictures might lead you to think that this is in someone’s back yard or perhaps a park. But the fact that this little oasis is part of a sidewalk near a busy street can teach us something.

Building Seattle as if we had to walk everywhere will make our city more livable. It doesn’t just have to be more sidewalks and gutters.

Instead, humanizing our walkscape means less pavement and more landscaping, less impervious surface and more unpaved amenities. The oasis at 12th and Thomas won’t save the world but you really can’t appreciate it driving by in a car.

More strides needed on walkability

Friday, October 31st, 2008

Seattle has taken important steps toward being a good pedestrian city. Our strategic plans say the right things, we have some excellent City staff as well as advocacy groups (Ped Board, Feet First), most streets have sidewalks at least in older neighborhoods, and so on. But, oh, could we do better.

To cross Denny Way from Belltown is to know where pedestrians really stand in Seattle – somewhere below getting cars to Ballard. At major intersections pedestrians can cross on one side only, at Queen Anne, First, Fourth, and Fifth. This forces some pedestrians to cross three streets rather than one, and creates a psychological barrier that discourages walking.

Denny has some push-button crossings too, as do other major streets on the edges of Downtown, like Boren. This means you have to get to the intersection well before the light changes. Basically you have to wait every time, unless someone else has pushed the button. This is odd given how many pedestrians cross Denny and Boren. How annoying push-button signals must be to those who don’t ignore them as I do, when there’s a decent gap.

Slippery metal grates and covers are a big problem. Many pedestrians know you walk gingerly on them when they’re wet, but they’re still dangerous. Why aren’t we covering metal with friction coatings, like sprays or tape? These should be required, particularly on hills. And speaking of slippery, how about those yellow mats they’re adding to curb cuts for blind pedestrians? Surely the designers knew that a sloped, bumpy plastic mat would get treacherous when wet.

Utility poles, parking pay stations, and other street infrastructure are often located three feet from the curb, which sometimes means the middle of the walkway. This is apparently to avoid dinging cars and the associated liability. Pedestrians, again, take second place.

Sometimes tree wells are too big, creating choke points and tripping hazards. A compromise used elsewhere is covering some of the well with a walkable mesh that allows the tree to grow without ruining concrete, but can be rearranged every few years as necessary at little cost.

About those sidewalk closures…

Wednesday, October 29th, 2008

Cities like New York, Washington D.C., Toronto, and Vancouver B.C prioritize keeping sidewalks open during construction, encouraging covered pedestrian walkways and pedestrian use of the same-side street when covered walkways won’t work.

Better than crossing the street, twice

They will turn to a sidewalk closure only as a last resort. Compare that to Seattle, where city officials discuss covered walkways and same-street use as options during construction, but no clear priority is stated on sidewalk closures v. the alternatives.

A lack of clear priority for pedestrian and cyclist safety is one of the findings of a Seattle City Auditor report on sidewalkaccessibility in the Emerald City. It came out in August.

SDOT also has problems coordinating multiple sidewalk closures, communicating on closures and alternate routes and inspecting and enforcing closures, the audit found.

The audit was undertaken at the request of City Council members Richard Conlin, Nick Licata and Tom Rasmussen.

SDOT and the auditor’s office have agreed on an action plan to address the issues found in the audit. It includes developing methods to protect pedestrians, better enforcing ADA accessibility, naming a street use inspector to coordinate construction projects, developing a policy for waiving inspections, requiring applicants for street use permits to submit a notification plan and making information on closures and alternate routes available on SDOT’s Web site.

Tucson is one city that lets pedestrians know about what kind of closures and obstacles they might encounter.

Closing sidewalks means compliant pedestrians lose time crossing multiple streets and walking on clogged sidewalks. For pedestrians or cyclists who choose not to be inconvenienced, the consequences can be far worse. Time will tell if the changes keep Seattle pedestrians from going rogue.

Street life? What street life?

Wednesday, October 29th, 2008
Seattle's Third Avenue
Sometimes Seattle makes me plain crazy. We profess all sorts of environmentally and socially enlightened values and then we often ignore the obvious. Take our public sidewalks. Active, lively, livable? Maybe sometimes. Often, not so much.
We allow contractors to close off sidewalks while they build towers, despite the fact that most other cities have required protected shelters for decades. Contractors here get to close off block fronts for months while we pedestrians have to negotiate a gauntlet of “Sidewalk Closed” signs. Builders elsewhere have figured out how to stage and service a construction site. Yet we let these private companies usurp our precious public space for their own convenience and cost savings.
Another example: The State Liquor Control Board insists that restaurants serving drinks install expensive and space-consuming “corrals” made of cast iron, steel or wood around outdoor seating areas — ostensibly to protect minors. (And how does that work, actually?) Go east to Idaho and there are no sidewalk corrals. Go south to Oregon, same thing: no fences. Tables and chairs spill out onto the sidewalks like they do all over Europe and the rest of the world. Yet, I’ve never heard that those places have hoards of inebriated minors thronging the streets.
I am reminded that until the late 70s, the Liquor Board had a rule that restaurants serving drinks could not have windows, lest anyone be seen drinking. When they dropped that senseless rule, our restaurant industry began to flourish. Just as they changed that rule, they can certainly eliminate the ridiculous fencing requirement that pens us in.
A Portland vendor at Pioneer Square
But here is the worst example, one that truly prevents our urban sidewalks from being lively and livable. The city/county health department’s rules keep us from enjoying a simple delight that is enjoyed by people in most major American cities: sidewalk food carts. (Seattle’s vending ordinance is also very limiting.)
Portland’s downtown is chockablock with outdoor food sellers. Virtually every block has one or two – operating between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. In addition, numerous small food trucks park in lots and back up their counters to the sidewalks. They are often open late into the evening to serve people leaving theaters and night spots. And these are not just mushy steamed hot dogs. They’re fine, cooked-to-order meals of all cuisines, from French crepes to phad thai and burritos.
A vendor in Queens, NY
None of that here, though. Seems our health department folks insist upon an employee restroom and a three-compartment sink — neither one practical for a tiny cart or truck. I am not aware that folks in Portland have been dying in droves from e-coli or hepatitis-C. And that city has been allowing these little street cafes for many years, ample time for any evidence to appear. Of course, they inspect the premises and even inspect the home-based kitchens. Portland now has sidewalks far more interesting than any we have here.
Portland allows these diminutive enterprises to sell fresh, hand-made food for several reasons. First, they see it as an economic development tool. Small, family-based, and often recent immigrant-owned businesses can start up simply and flourish, perhaps eventually moving into a storefront. Second, the city wants to offer downtown workers the choice of inexpensive lunches. Hence, if the vendors keep their prices low, they charge no permit fee. Finally, they contribute to a dynamic public realm. The little businesses maintain eyes on the street and keep the area tidy.
So simple to do. Such amazing results. Not for us, however.

Read more SeattleScape comments on sidewalks and walking here, here and here.

Sidewalk talk

Sunday, October 5th, 2008

Erica Barnett’s column in this week’s Stranger focuses on sidewalks. It is a great rundown of the politics of sidewalks, street improvements and today’s tension between developers and neighborhoods.

But I would suggest that, like many issues, single-family politics drives the sidewalk discussion.

Last weekend I was visiting family in Tacoma. Someone walked in and said “What is the deal; you have the last unpaved street in Tacoma. Gravel? What gives?”

The road to the future?

Tacoma’s road to the future?

A heated discussion ensued about why the project didn’t happen. “We wanted asphalt and rolled curbs. The City wanted sidewalks that would have slashed into people’s yards and been outrageously expensive.”

I piped up and said “actually the way it is right now is best for everyone, especially for China Lake. If the street was paved, it would create a huge drainage issue because of the new impervious surface. That would create a huge expense and a bunch of dirty water. The road now has much better drainage. Gravel is the way to go. Keep it the way it is!”

Everyone looked at me for a beat with a bit of bewilderment and disdain—as if I had just spoken in Latin—and then continued their debate about sidewalks.

No offense to Tacoma. The opinions expressed there are the same ones that drive the sidewalk debate in Seattle. The bottom line on sidewalks is that they are often needless status symbols creating more impervious surface which is expensive to mitigate. How about those swales?

The next time you hear someone saying “for crying out loud, we don’t even have sidewalks!” think about Palantine NW pictured here.

An sustainable alternative to concrete walkways.

We don’t always need sidewalks to support pedestrian-friendly and pedestrian-safe neighborhoods. And they shouldn’t be a litmus test as to whether a neighborhood has favored status with the City.

Sidewalks add impervious surface which we have to mitigate with huge drainage projects. Let’s focus on how we move pedestrians safely, not creating more sidewalks. Progress can be less sidewalks!

Park(ing) Day makes impression

Monday, September 22nd, 2008

National Park(ing) Day was Friday, and it was quite an effective spectacle. A parking space at First and Spring became a lawn, one of hundreds set up and staffed by volunteers around Seattle and the US.

The park was the first open lawn anywhere near First and Spring in decades.

As the meter ran out, First Avenue lost its park

Perimeter districts around Downtown Seattle are improving quickly park-wise due to a lot of hard work, generally northward, with the Olympic Sculpture Park, South Lake Union Park (phase II coming!), Cal Anderson Park, the new pocket park at Queen Anne & Roy, and the refurbished Cascade Playground – all great additions. Also exciting are the proposed pocket park at 8th & Westlake and the proposed skybridge that will “add” Myrtle Edwards Park for Lower Queen Anne residents. But what about Downtown Proper…the area with the most people?

A little would go a long way. A quarter block is enough room for a big fountain, some trees, and a couple patches of grass, fertilizer-free of course. It’s easy to imagine a spectacular design, whether traditional or avant garde. The park would stay active all day by encouraging pedestrians to pass through and by being both interesting and pleasant. The City’s promising new Park Ranger program would help keep it friendly.

Two parks of this size would be even better. Or three, since I’m dreaming, including one in Belltown.

The elephant in the room is our fear of drunks, panhandlers and noisy teenagers. Forget that much of our fear is unfounded; perception might as well be reality if it keeps you from using a park. But parks don’t create drunks. If a few of our parks seem overrun, it’s because we don’t have much public space, so the drunks seem concentrated. To continue this non-pc thought, adding more public space would reduce the concentration.

With that, plus more parks nearby, perhaps a lot of us would use parks more. Maybe we’d regain a lost aspect of our culture.

Downtown’s growing mixture of uses would be a boost. A growing residential population, lots of shoppers, rising tourism, a huge office population, and scattered event crowds are combining to keep parts of Downtown active all day and, in some areas, all evening. The best park locations would be places that serve several of these groups.

Wow, another topic that’s far too complex for a blog post. More later.

More sidewalk cafes for Seattle

Tuesday, June 24th, 2008

I love Paris in the springtime. I love Paris in the fall. I love Paris, oh why oh why do I love Paris? Because of all the sidewalk cafes they have there!

Spring has come to Seattle, finally (though it’s officially summer), and with that warmer weather, our mayor’s thoughts have turned to sidewalk cafes and why it is that our fair city is not teeming with them.

Deux places, s'il vous plait.

Mayor Greg Nickels says the current permitting process for sidewalk cafes is too costly, confusing and time-consuming.

Nickels sent a proposal to the city council this afternoon that recommends housing sidewalk cafe permitting within one agency, the Seattle Department of Transportation (as it is now, DPD and SDOT shuttle them back and forth).

It also recommends simplifying the permit review process to achieve a 10-day turn-around and reducing the permit’s cost by nearly $1,700.

The proposal also recommends establishing design standards for the cafes, including accessibility guidelines, and recommends allowing the cafes in all areas where restaurants and grocery stores are permitted.

The city of Seattle currently has 225 sidewalk cafes, about one for every 3,000 Seattleites.