Posts Tagged ‘pedestrians’

Exposed!

Tuesday, December 29th, 2009

Now that the rainy season has arrived full on, perhaps it’s timely to expose certain downtown buildings and their owners for a socially reprehensible offense to pedestrians. I am referring here to the growing prevalence of fake canopies.

Over the last year a number of older buildings around the downtown core have been retrofitted with projecting canopies constructed of glass and steel. Some are simple and serviceable, others are quite elegant. Some have been accomplished as a part of Metro Transit’s commendable efforts toward making downtown a better place to use transit. All of these improvements are welcome in a climate that demands cover over the sidewalk during the winter and sunlight in the summer.

However, the objectives of this general endeavor are apparently not universally shared. Whether done by individual merchants or property owners, we are seeing constructions of steel ribs and struts that extend out over the sidewalks but in fact contain no glass or other materials to provide actual cover. It’s quite the mean-spirited trick: What looks like cover is, in fact, open to the sky and, therefore, rainfall.

I have experienced at least three of these architectural cheats. One is over the entrance to Belltown Court on Second Avenue. Although a small canopy, I have seen more than one parent waiting to send a child off on a school bus while waiting under this false cover and getting soaked in the process.

More egregious is the one Third, just north of the Century Square building, which has recently had a handsome canopy added to its west- and south-facing sides. The offending canopy is actually a quite elaborate and costly structure but it offers no glass panels.

American Apparel:Thumbing its nose at shoppers.

The third one I have experienced is at the American Apparel store on 6th Avenue. This structure is really a sign disguised as a canopy, which should not be allowed at all. Here is a prime street in the retail core with a national brand business thumbing its nose at shoppers. How completely rude is that?

I’m sure there are other examples, which I leave to respondents to point out.

I fear that perhaps the city’s land use code does not mention the requirement of glass (or other solid covering) in its definition of canopies – a loophole that should be corrected immediately. If glass is indeed a requirement, then these parties should be sent notices of a city code violation with the associated penalties.

Now, for those who will undoubtedly send me some sharp retorts about how transients or teenagers will gather under these projections and businesses would have to pay more for cleaning, security, blah, blah, blah — save your breath (or typing fingers). Throughout downtown there are scores of glass and steel canopies, generous in width, high enough not to block storefronts and low enough to offer shelter that are not havens for antisocial or criminal behavior. To not provide canopies in this climate and latitude along primary pedestrian streets is either being lazy or insulting.

Besides, why would we ever take the view that, because of a few miscreants, 95 percent of the population must suffer?

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.

Surface option? Still not buying it

Friday, October 30th, 2009

Don't let these cars end up on downtown surface streets.
I’m very pleased to see that my post about the future of Highway 99 through downtown Seattle (tunnel vs. surface streets) has engendered so much interesting debate and commentary.

While recent events have toned down the civic debate about the tunnel – mayoral candidate Mike McGinn conceded he won’t try to block it if elected, while his opponent, Joe Mallahan, has supported the tunnel all along — it’s still not yet a resolved issue.  And I have become ever more convinced that if no tunnel were dug that the virtual elimination of this important highway corridor through our city would be disastrous.

My two main areas of greatest concern relate to economic vitality and the street-level environment.

Historically and globally speaking, all major economic powerhouses are located at key crossroads or transportation convergence points, be they waterways, railroads, highways or a combination.  Seattle is a textbook example of this phenomenon.  No one can deny that the roots of Seattle’s historic economic success story lie in its pivotal location.  Whether going back to 1851 when the founders realized that Elliott Bay was a potentially new “New York Harbor” for the West Coast, or returning to 2009 with Seattle as the midpoint of a north-south, over 100-mile-long metropolitan area, our city’s location has been a preeminent determinant in making it the center of one of the most prosperous and economically viable metropolitan areas in the country.

In short, transportation is a key attribute to any economically viable region, yet our region’s traffic congestion has begun to hinder our economic viability.  Seattle-area traffic congestion ranked ninth worst in the nation last year, while we ranked only 15th in population.  Freight mobility has become a key issue for the region’s industrial sector..

Let’s face it.  No one has a crystal ball here – neither the dyed-in-the-wool surface-streets supporters, nor the diehard tunnel supporters.  Those in favor a streets-only solution believe that the consequent reduced capacity and increased congestion will somehow naturally regulate the traffic flow, weeding out that percentage of current motorists who could switch to transit and/or choose alternative routes or times.  Those of us in favor of the tunnel worry that the resulting traffic congestion and increased travel times may severely hamper our economic vitality.  The questions that occur to me as I contemplate the notion of severing one of our region’s transportation lifelines at the downtown Seattle choke point are the following:

·  If surface-street traffic congestion were to reach day-long gridlock conditions, as I fear, what ultimate effect would that have on freight mobility and the general movement of goods and services that serve our economic vitality?

·  In the face of a future of endless gridlock along the erstwhile Highway 99 corridor, would businesses related to the Port of Seattle and downtown Seattle locations, especially, seek other locations to base and/or conduct their business?  Would they accelerate the tide of industrial business loss from Seattle to the suburbs?

·  Would we gain the dubious distinction of becoming one the top-five worst metros for regional traffic congestion?

As an economic development professional, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve fielded inquiries from folks about the region’s infamous traffic congestion, so I can’t even imagine the perception we’d receive with even worse traffic.

And lastly, even if the city’s or region’s economic vitality would not be at any peril, the urban designer in me shivers at the potential future of downtown’s pedestrian environment with the majority of Highway 99′s vehicle traffic dumped onto our surface streets.  Today, especially in the p.m. peak hour(s), First, Fourth and Fifth avenues are at virtual gridlock.  And some of the steep side streets (especially where the larger office buildings are located) are even worse. It’s not uncommon to see vehicles wait through several full traffic-light cycles before advancing through a single intersection. Does anyone really think these streets can handle the majority of the existing Highway 99 traffic volumes?

I do not profess to know of all of the potential “enhancements” contemplated to accommodate this additional vehicle traffic, but the list may include the following: elimination of parking lanes, greater use of left (and even right) turn prohibitions, reduction in general-purpose lanes, and even, as Mayor Giuliani did in New York, prohibition of pedestrian crossings at key right-turn locations for vehicle traffic.

Even if these “enhancements” could somehow accommodate Highway 99′s traffic, my greatest fear would be the impact to pedestrians, including valuable shoppers, visitors and tourists!

Without curbside parking, pedestrians would no longer be “sheltered” from the impacts of passing vehicles (fumes, noise, splashing, even wind and vibration from larger trucks and buses). With multihour-long gridlock conditions, the cacophony of horns, screeching brakes, together with the fumes and odors of idling vehicles (especially diesel vehicles), would sharply sour the pedestrian’s street-side experience.  Pedestrian street crossing could be hampered.  Increased pedestrian-vehicle and pedestrian-bicycle collisions could ensue.  In summary, I’m quite worried that downtown Seattle would increasingly be shunned by any discretionary visitors (shoppers, tourists, day trippers), losing both its charm, character and economic vitality.

The tunnel opponents don’t want increased traffic on our streets either. But they are willing to risk the potential traffic and pedestrian impacts that I and others fear as a hedge against their greater fear of the tunnel’s cost and potential cost overruns.

We tunnel supporters, fully recognizing that the current proposal is not perfect, fear the impacts to our environment and our economy more than we fear the cost and potential cost overruns.  In fact, I would posit that the potential, permanent adverse economic impacts related to lost business if we do not build a tunnel would more than outstrip the one-time costs of the tunnel.

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!

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.

They’re driving me crazy

Monday, October 13th, 2008

When drivers’ manners and safety are discussed, it’s generally about their impacts on each other. But ask anyone who walks – the whims of drivers have huge effects on pedestrians.

I admit to some bias as a constant pedestrian and non-driver. To be honest, I’m pissed.

Typical scene at Second & Spring

It’s not just the big stuff like red-light runners, speeders, and drivers that turn without looking right. All of those can kill or maim pedestrians. Why offenders are allowed to keep their licenses is a mystery.

It’s also the subtle rudeness. My special pet peeve is cars that edge into crosswalks at red lights. This doesn’t endanger (necessarily) but still manages to convey…that the driver doesn’t care about others, that they aren’t qualified to drive, that cars are more important, who knows.

For 20 years, my response has been to touch every car in every crosswalk. Some drivers don’t like that, which is exactly the point. If they look like they might turn without looking, they get a couple taps on the hood. They like that even less, but maybe they’ll think twice next time.

Cars parked on sidewalks are equally annoying. Again, they’re (usually) not safety hazards, except when they force people to walk in traffic, but aside from some rare scenarios (giving birth perhaps?) it’s always rude. Architects are well-schooled in symbolism – maybe one of you can weigh in here.

Drivers don’t want pedestrians to take over lanes of Fourth Avenue. And we don’t plan to — it would be both dangerous and rude, as well as illegal. It goes both ways.

P.S. We’ve done a good job cracking down on drunk drivers. But isn’t rude and dangerous driving just as bad when the driver isn’t drunk?

P.S.2 Thanks to anyone who drives with pedestrians in mind.