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.


Mayor Marvin Rees' hope for Bristol: A more equitable city that can 'live with difference'

“I call on everyone to challenge racism and inequality in every corner of our city," Bristol Mayor Marvin Rees says. (Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

When the statue of 18th century slave trader Edward Colston was torn from its plinth and dumped in Bristol’s harbour during the city’s Black Lives Matter protests on 7 June, mayor Marvin Rees was thrust into the spotlight. 

Refraining from direct support of the statue’s removal, the city’s first black mayor shared a different perspective on what UK home secretary Priti Patel called “sheer vandalism”:

“It is important to listen to those who found the statue to represent an affront to humanity,” he said in a statement at the time. “I call on everyone to challenge racism and inequality in every corner of our city and wherever we see it.”

48 year-old Rees, who grew up in the city, has since expanded on his approach to the issue in an interview with CityMetric, saying “wherever you stand on that spectrum, the city needs to be a home for all of those people with all of those perspectives, even if you disagree with them.”

“We need to have the ability to live with difference, and that is the ethnic difference, racial difference, gender difference, but also different political perspectives,” he added. “I have been making that point repeatedly – and I hope that by making it, it becomes real.” 

What making that point means, in practice, for Rees is perhaps best illustrated by his approach to city governance.

Weeks after the toppling of Colston’s statue, a new installation was erected at the same spot featuring Jen Reid, a protester of Black Lives Matter. However, the installation was removed, as “it was the work and decision of a London-based artist, and it was not requested and permission was not given for it to be installed”, Rees said in a statement.

Bristol may appear a prosperous city, logging the highest employment rate among the UK’s “core cities” in the second quarter of 2019. But it is still home to many areas that suffer from social and economic problems: over 70,000 people, about 15 percent of Bristol’s population, live in what are considered the top 10 percent most disadvantaged areas in England. 

In an attempt to combat this inequality, Rees has been involved in a number of projects. He has established Bristol Works, where more than 3,000 young people from economically disadvantaged backgrounds are given work experience opportunities. And is now setting up a commission on social mobility. “Launching a Bristol commission on social mobility is not only about social justice; it [should not be] possible for a modern city to leave millions of pounds worth of talent on the shelf, just because the talent was born into poverty,” he says.

The mayor is also a strong supporter of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), explaining that SDGs offer a way to talk about sustainability within a framework of many issues, ranging from climate change and biodiversity to women’s issues, domestic violence, poverty and hunger.

“What we want to achieve as a city cannot be done as a city working alone,” he insists. “We don’t want to benefit only people inside Bristol, we want to benefit the planet, and the SDGs offer a framework for a global conversation,” suggesting that a vehicle should be launched that allows cities to work together, ideally with organisations such as the UN, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund involved. 

Greater collaboration between cities would be “beneficial in terms of economies of scale,” he argues, “as cities could get more competitive prices when buying materials for building houses or ordering buses, rather than each city acquiring a few of them at a higher price.”

In an attempt to focus on the long term, Rees launched One City Plan in January 2019, setting out a number of goals for Bristol to achieve by 2050.

Investing in green infrastructure to meet 2030 carbon emission targets spelled out in the SDGs is a key area here, with the mayor noting that transport, mass transit and energy are important sectors looking for further investment and government funding: “The sooner we meet our targets, the sooner we will benefit from them, and invest in sectors that will provide people with jobs.”

Jobs, especially following the outbreak of Covid-19, are of paramount importance to Rees. Bristol’s council wants to ensure that any government money given to the city will be quickly passed on to businesses to help prevent redundancies, he says, though given that mass job losses seem inevitable, reskilling options are also being looked into, such as through a zero-carbon smart energy project called City Leap.

Another important area for investment in Bristol is affordable housing, with 9,000 homes already built under Rees’s term of office. “People could build a base for life with affordable housing, [and this would mean] their mental health would be better because they have a safe place,” he explains. “Children in families that have a home that is affordable are more likely to able to eat and to heat, [and they are more likely to enjoy a] better education.”

Taken in the round, Rees’s agenda for Bristol is its own blueprint for shaping history. The Colston statue now lies in safe storage, with a local museum likely to play host to the controversial monument. But the Black Lives Matters protestors were fighting for a fairer, more equal future, and it is here where Rees is determined to deliver.

Sofia Karadima is a senior editor at NS Media Group.