Seattle's swift street closures show the highs and lows of rushing the process

Seattle permanently closed 20 miles of streets to through traffic, but residents wonder what "closed" really means. (Johannes Eisele/AFP via Getty Images)

In April, under the cover of shelter-at-home orders, Seattle suddenly closed a few streets to most through traffic. Within a few weeks, the closures grew to cover more than 20 miles of previously unrestricted city streets, and will reach 27 miles by early July.

The roll-out came with little opposition: Many locals cheered the expansion of open street space when it was most needed, and advocates in other cities held Seattle up as an example to follow.

But within three weeks of the initial closures, the city surprised residents by announcing that most of those closures would be permanent. While outsiders praised the decision, local opinions split. For people living on or around the blocked streets, questions lingered about what the closures really meant. Who could still drive on the streets? How would the rules be communicated to drivers, and how would the rules be enforced? And what happened to the public input process that usually goes into making this kind of decision?

“I read about the streets somewhere,” says Greg Dember, who lives just off a closed section of Fremont Avenue North in the Greenwood neighbourhood. “Then, a couple days later, they made it permanent.”

Dember rallied neighbours in an online forum to contact the city with concerns. Among their frustrations was that few understood what the permanent closure meant, and what qualified as the “local traffic” that is still allowed on the streets.

That confusion highlights why cities usually have lengthy processes for changes like this. Typically, officials will present multiple options for street plans, solicit public comment, hold community meetings, and allow for an adjustment period. It’s often a cumbersome process that can take months or years, where even seemingly minor issues can get heated. So it’s easy to see why, in a public health emergency, the city would opt to seek forgiveness rather than permission. But with a decision that’s expected to last well beyond the state of emergency, many residents still expect to have a voice in the process.

The city has offered some clarity in a blog post, writing that, “People with destinations along Stay Healthy Streets – like residents, essential workers, emergency service providers, delivery providers, and garbage and recycling collectors will continue to have vehicle access”. But what most people experience on the ground isn’t so descriptive. Seattleites now turn onto their streets to see sandwich boards that say “Street Closed”. Smaller plastic signs say “Local access & deliveries OK,” but they're only readable up close.

For Tom Fucoloro, who writes Seattle Bike Blog, one of the biggest points of confusion is the word “closed.”

“Part of that is the city making it sound cooler than it is,” he says. “Local traffic” can still drive down a street that has been declared closed, but pedestrians cannot legally walk on one that is considered open. He suggests people think of the street space as an extension of a driveway: “You don’t expect to speed down your driveway, and there might be people in it.”

Perhaps the strongest visual cue in some areas would be the presence of people, not cars, on the streets. Some places, like Greenwood’s 1st Aveue North, filled immediately with families on foot, while users in the Rainier Valley say they haven’t seen the same.

Seattle’s Department of Transportation (SDoT), which made the decision in conversation with the mayor, says social distancing prevented the city from following the usual process of outreach and public meetings. Instead, the department used a framework it already had in place for creating “neighbourhood greenways”: streets with traffic-calming interventions like speed bumps and enhanced safety measures at intersections.

The city already has a long history of public outreach regarding neighbourhood greenways, and officials used that work to stand in for the process when making the initial decision to temporarily close streets. Almost all of the new Stay Healthy Streets are on previously completed neighbourhood greenway routes, and SDoT refers to the new projects as upgrades to what already existed. High on the initial success, they kept moving forward at full-speed.

“I don't think that the decision to make them permanent would have happened in the same way if not for us hearing mostly positive feedback,” says SDoT media and public affairs lead Ethan Bergerson. “There was a real need to make sure people had additional options to get around safely without a car.”

For some of the Stay Healthy Streets, like Fremont, that works: the street runs straight north/south, crossing two other Stay Healthy Streets and meeting up at one end with the Interurban, a 24-mile multi-use trail. But other routes aren’t so comprehensive. Joe Ray, who lives near a route in the Rainier Valley neighbourhood, says it wiggles through the neighbourhood in a way that’s not as useful. “It’s cool they’re there,” he says, but they can’t be considered bike lanes.

“The Rainier Valley route makes no sense as a transportation route,” Fucoloro says. But because the original batch of Stay Healthy Streets grew out of the neighbourhood greenways, it only compounded existing problems: “A whole area of Seattle that is far less white than the rest of the city also just conveniently doesn’t have any direct, complete biking/walking structure.”

The patchy Rainier Valley route runs through Columbia City, which is about 30% white. The more complete Fremont route runs through Greenwood, which is closer to 80% white. “That’s not a coincidence,” Fucoloro says. “That’s neglect.”

That pattern reflects a consequence of using past decisions to move quickly on new ones: If those early decisions were inequitable, the next step only compounds the inequity.

It’s still an open question as to what signage and barriers will ultimately look like on permanently closed streets. “It’s one of the ongoing challenges,” Bergerson says, adding that officials are balancing three tactics used to shape people’s behaviour when streets change: engineering (of signage or physical barriers), enforcement, and education. “It’s a challenging time to get word out quickly.”

The concept is also “hard to jerk-proof,” says Gordon Padelford, executive director of the grassroots organisation Seattle Neighborhood Greenways. The closure framing presents a problem, he says, because an enforcement policy raises deeper issues between residents and the police. They’re open to everyone except for drivers looking to cut through, he says, which was the original concept of the neighbourhood greenways.

“They were never intended to be for through traffic,” he says, but that got watered down in the plan’s execution.

Much progress in cities butts up against slow bureaucracy and the often slower process of changing public opinion. While Seattle found a way to move quickly, the sudden and permanent change frustrated many residents, even ones who ultimately like the result. Now the hope is that the results speak for themselves.

“It’s hard for people to visualise what change is like,” Padelford says. “Giving people the chance to experience that, to walk in the street for the first time with grandma or bike with kids; you can’t convey that with public process.”

Naomi Tomky is a freelance writer based in Seattle.


Urgently needed: Timely, more detailed standardized data on US evictions

Graffiti asking for rent forgiveness is seen on a wall on La Brea Ave amid the Covid-19 pandemic in Los Angeles, California. (Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)

Last week the Eviction Lab, a team of eviction and housing policy researchers at Princeton University, released a new dashboard that provides timely, city-level US eviction data for use in monitoring eviction spikes and other trends as Covid restrictions ease. 

In 2018, Eviction Lab released the first national database of evictions in the US. The nationwide data are granular, going down to the level of a few city blocks in some places, but lagged by several years, so their use is more geared toward understanding the scope of the problem across the US, rather than making timely decisions to help city residents now. 

Eviction Lab’s new Eviction Tracking System, however, provides weekly updates on evictions by city and compares them to baseline data from past years. The researchers hope that the timeliness of this new data will allow for quicker action in the event that the US begins to see a wave of evictions once Covid eviction moratoriums are phased out.

But, due to a lack of standardization in eviction filings across the US, the Eviction Tracking System is currently available for only 11 cities, leaving many more places facing a high risk of eviction spikes out of the loop.

Each city included in the Eviction Tracking System shows rolling weekly and monthly eviction filing counts. A percent change is calculated by comparing current eviction filings to baseline eviction filings for a quick look at whether a city might be experiencing an uptick.

Timely US eviction data for a handful of cities is now available from the Eviction Lab. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

The tracking system also provides a more detailed report on each city’s Covid eviction moratorium efforts and more granular geographic and demographic information on the city’s evictions.

Click to the above image to see a city-level eviction map, in this case for Pittsburgh. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

As part of their Covid Resource, the Eviction Lab together with Columbia Law School professor Emily Benfer also compiled a scorecard for each US state that ranks Covid-related tenant protection measures. A total of 15 of the 50 US states plus Washington DC received a score of zero because those states provided little if any protections.

CityMetric talked with Peter Hepburn, an assistant professor at Rutgers who just finished a two-year postdoc at the Eviction Lab, and Jeff Reichman, principal at the data science research firm January Advisors, about the struggles involved in collecting and analysing eviction data across the US.

Perhaps the most notable hurdle both researchers addressed is that there’s no standardized reporting of evictions across jurisdictions. Most evictions are reported to county-level governments, however what “reporting” means differs among and even within each county. 

In Texas, evictions go through the Justice of the Peace Courts. In Virginia they’re processed by General District Courts. Judges in Milwaukee are sealing more eviction case documents that come through their courtroom. In Austin, Pittsburgh and Richmond, eviction addresses aren’t available online but ZIP codes are. In Denver you have to pay about $7 to access a single eviction filing. In Alabama*, it’s $10 per eviction filing. 

Once the filings are acquired, the next barrier is normalizing them. While some jurisdictions share reporting systems, many have different fields and formats. Some are digital, but many are images of text or handwritten documents that require optical character recognition programs and natural language processors in order to translate them into data. That, or the filings would have to be processed by hand. 

“There's not enough interns in the world to do that work,” says Hepburn.

Aggregating data from all of these sources and normalizing them requires knowledge of the nuances in each jurisdiction. “It would be nice if, for every region, we were looking for the exact same things,” says Reichman. “Instead, depending on the vendor that they use, and depending on how the data is made available, it's a puzzle for each one.”

In December of 2019, US Senators Michael Bennet of Colorado and Rob Portman of Ohio introduced a bill that would set up state and local grants aimed at reducing low-income evictions. Included in the bill is a measure to enhance data collection. Hepburn is hopeful that the bill could one day mean an easier job for those trying to analyse eviction data.

That said, Hepburn and Reichman caution against the public release of granular eviction data. 

“In a lot of cases, what this gets used for is for tenant screening services,” says Hepburn. “There are companies that go and collect these data and make them available to landlords to try to check and see if their potential tenants have been previously evicted, or even just filed against for eviction, without any sort of judgement.”

According to research by Eviction Lab principal Matthew Desmond and Tracey Shollenberger, who is now vice president of science at Harvard’s Center for Policing Equity, residents who have been evicted or even just filed against for eviction often have a much harder time finding equal-quality housing in the future. That coupled with evidence that evictions affect minority populations at disproportionate rates can lead to widening racial and economic gaps in neighborhoods.

While opening up raw data on evictions to the public would not be the best option, making timely, granular data available to researchers and government officials can improve the system’s ability to respond to potential eviction crises.

Data on current and historical evictions can help city officials spot trends in who is getting evicted and who is doing the evicting. It can help inform new housing policy and reform old housing policies that may put more vulnerable citizens at undue risk.

Hepburn says that the Eviction Lab is currently working, in part with the ACLU, on research that shows the extent to which Black renters are disproportionately affected by the eviction crisis.

More broadly, says Hepburn, better data can help provide some oversight for a system which is largely unregulated.

“It's the Wild West, right? There's no right to representation. Defendants have no right to counsel. They're on their own here,” says Hepburn. “I mean, this is people losing their homes, and they're being processed in bulk very quickly by the system that has very little oversight, and that we know very little about.”

A 2018 report by the Philadelphia Mayor’s Taskforce on Eviction Prevention and Response found that of Philadelphia’s 22,500 eviction cases in 2016, tenants had legal representation in only 9% of them.

Included in Hepburn’s eviction data wishlist is an additional ask, something that is rarely included in any of the filings that the Eviction Lab and January Advisors have been poring over for years. He wants to know the relationship between money owed and monthly rent.

“At the individual level, if you were found to owe $1,500, was that on an apartment that's $1,500 a month? Or was it an apartment that's $500 a month? Because that makes a big difference in the story you're telling about the nature of the crisis, right? If you're letting somebody get three months behind that's different than evicting them immediately once they fall behind,” Hepburn says.

Now that the Eviction Tracking System has been out for a week, Hepburn says one of the next steps is to start reaching out to state and local governments to see if they can garner interest in the project. While he’s not ready to name any names just yet, he says that they’re already involved in talks with some interested parties.

*Correction: This story initially misidentified a jurisdiction that charges $10 to access an eviction filing. It is the state of Alabama, not the city of Atlanta. Also, at the time of publication, Peter Hepburn was an assistant professor at Rutgers, not an associate professor.

Alexandra Kanik is a data reporter at CityMetric.