Life on the run: new development and pedestrians

Sidewalks and construction, Washington DC style

I’m a runner and a walker, a frequent user of sidewalks and right-of-way, but the last thing that I would want to do is to add more stuff to the code to make it harder to support new development in Seattle. However, now that we’re in a down spot in the development cycle, this would be a good time to address pedestrian and construction conflicts. I think that the dangers out there for pedestrians are largely a function of attitude about whether site plans for new construction should be about protecting cars from people or people from cars.

I’ll start out by saying that I don’t have first hand experience with the discussions over this issue that have happened in the last several years. The last go around was in 2008, a the height of the real estate boom when the Seattle City Council directed the Auditor’s Office to conduct a review of perceived conflicts between walking and construction. The public was complaining about long closures to sidewalks, especially downtown. And even Councilmembers had experiences with trying to walk around construction sites. The review looked at whether the City was doing enough to

Minimize the duration and impact of street and sidewalk closures on pedestrians and cyclists. They were particularly interested in alternative solutions for better pedestrian access, given the current high volume of construction activity in the City’s downtown core. [The] audit reviewed all aspects of the City’s current street use permitting process.

It’s not clear where the results of this audit went. The recommendations from the review were largely focused on improving compliance with the Americans with Disabiities Act (ADA), improved communications of alternative routes for pedestrians, and the implementation of a program implemented by the City of Washington DC for more covered walkways to protect pedestrian mobility and safety.

Here’s what I found in the code about pedestrians and construction in SMC 15.22.024. It isn’t the land use code, but it appears to be the controlling language that affects this issue. It says in part:

It is City policy (1) to protect the public passage within the existing roadways and walks; if (1) is not practical, then (2) to authorize a detour around the work area on the same side of a street or boulevard within the right-of-way; and if (2) is not practical, then (3) to close the sidewalk, and as a last resort, the street. In determining the practicality of an alternative, an authorizing official may take into consideration the purpose of the proposed use, its hazard to the public and the user’s need for control of adjoining right-of-way, traffic patterns (both pedestrian and vehicular), the terrain, the impact of a detour or closure on adjoining properties and businesses, the expense of the alternative, and its duration.

The issue here is who determines what is “practical.” Ultimately it falls on staff people reviewing permit applications and traffic control plans, which map out the phasing of street and sidewalk disruptions. I have been a fan of the idea of delegating a lot of things to the Director of the Department of Planning and Development through her various designees. I like having the staff sort out the details because it allows more flexibility when it comes to achieving broader outcomes. In this case I am not so sure.

The Traffic Control Plan (TCP) for a project must include a description of any Temporary Traffic Control Revisions, including sidewalk closures. The TCP requires the applicant to

Draw footprint of work zone, with dimensions, and location to fixed points such as crosswalks . . . Note on the TCP where pedestrians are blocked or affected. Route pedestrians with a minimum of 4’ width pathway (add 18” buffer from curb face) and use of ramps. Show revised traffic lane widths (one lane each way shall not be less than 11’ when each lane is adjacent). Note problems of access to abutting property and show mitigation . . . Identify the type, number and location of signs, and channelizing devices, including any specially worded signs or other special devices which may be necessary. Note flaggers or Uniformed Police Officers.

Of course determining what is “practical” is part of this process and will likely reflect issues peculiar to the site, the inspector, and the project proponent.  As a result we still see sidewalks closed for extended period requiring the pedestrians to do the sidewalk weave, the annoying job of having to cross to the other side of the street from the site or, worse, get into the flow of automobile traffic.

At one project site at 1200 Madison Street I have been watching I have seen improvements. However, based on the public record, it’s hard to know why these improvements have happened. Here’s what the usually busy sidewalk looked like a few weeks back:

Sidewalk block on busy Madison Street

Here’s that same spot just a few days ago:

This is what I call "practical"

What once was a stiff arm to pedestrians pushing them either into the very busy Madison Street (or a long detour), has now become a well lit, covered Washington D.C. style walkway. Thank you! This is the right way to do things. I’m not sure this is just normal procedure or if this represents the changes the auditor called for.

In any event, it is refreshing to see this. But on the other side of the project here’s what we have.

Maybe I should be happy that the busiest and most active pedestrian thoroughfare has a covered walkway even though this part of the project, once again, forces pedestrians into the street or to walk the longer way around. To be honest, I’d make the trade here. So maybe things are working or getting better. But I’ll admit there are some days walking around town when I want to do this:

It is City policy (1) to protect the publicpedestrian passage within the existing roadways and walks; if (1) is not practical, then (2) toby authorizeing a detour around the work area on the same side of a street or boulevard within the right-of-way; and if (2) is not practical, then (3) to close the sidewalk, and as a last resort, the street. In determining the practicality of an alternative detour, an authorizing official may take into consideration the purpose of the proposed use, its hazard to the public and the user’s need for control of adjoining right-of-way, traffic patterns (both pedestrian and vehicular), the terrain, the impact of a detour or closure on adjoining properties and businesses, the expense of the alternative, and its duration. Closure of the sidewalk can be authorized by approval of the City Council.

I’d hate to see it come to that. If the current process is working, putting a higher priority on making sure pedestrians are safe and don’t have to detour, let’s let it keep working and learn more about why it’s working. But we need to keep stronger measures in our pocket just in case. In the end it all comes back to what is more important: moving people or moving cars.

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One Response to Life on the run: new development and pedestrians

  1. Pingback: Pedestrian safety: That’s the way I like it! | Seattle's Land Use Code

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