Don't be that guy.
Don’t be that guy.

With nearly 100 years of urban activity for public trade and assembly, Pike Place Market is a mark of deep civic pride for Seattleites. The market nearly met its end on numerous occasions: in 1950, a plan was hatched to turn it into a giant parking garage; in 1958, the Municipal Market Building burnt down; and, in 1964, Downtown interests wanted to raze the whole district to build high-rise office towers instead. Despite all of that, the market still stands as a honeycomb of activity driven not by big box retailers, but rather local artisans, harvesters, and beloved cultural figures who call more than a dozen buildings and their surrounding streets home.

Naturally, this kind of steeped history makes that market a place of authenticity where tourists and bona fide city dwellers alike to meet, eat, and peruse all that the district has to offer. On any given day, the market is bustling with people on foot through the market halls, alleyways, sidewalks, and even the streets! Yet, this people-oriented success also seems to be its greatest pitfall. The market happens to draw large numbers of drivers who can’t fathom giving the space over to the people who really own it–the market-goers.

So, it’s no surprise then that on a Saturday spring afternoon, when the marketplace is entirely teeming with people, the market hallways are nearly impassible while those relegated to the sidewalks are pushed into parked cars. But even that isn’t the worst; walking in the streets can be a terribly unpleasant experience with drivers grimacing at the market-goers because they’re “blocking” traffic.

Yet, in a recent article, Matthew Johnson of Seattle Transit Blog astonishingly lauded this nightmarish scene as Seattle’s best woonerf. Johnson went further to argue in favor of people driving through Pike Place. To his credit, his brief discussion raised good points about changing the make up of the pedestrian environment and keeping the street open for deliveries. But these points were layered under a set of poorly devised arguments for general vehicular traffic:

[T]here are legitimate reasons for driving on Pike Place. Maybe you are dropping off someone with mobility issues, or you’ve got a dinner party and don’t want to haul 2 cases of wine from Pike and Western Wine Shop up the hill and back home on Link, or maybe you even work for a business in the market (yes it’s not just a tourist photo op, but an actual market) that needs a delivery….As long as automobile drivers recognize the priority of non-motorized users (which they obviously do in Pike Place), what is gained by banning automobiles? The only change I would make to Pike Place would be to either lower the sidewalks or raise the street. In Seattle’s only real woonerf, it would be nice if the street engineering matched the usage. Aside from that, leave it alone, why fix what isn’t broken?

Arguments like the wine shop and two cases of wine are sour grapes. They’re an emotional appeal to people’s sentiments about some perceived equity–like the need for on-street parking over other uses–but ultimately, they just don’t hold water.

The Dutch are the masters of woonerfs and they put people first; everything else comes second. So here’s my proposal: Let’s put foot traffic first on Pike Place.

Woonerf with loading zones in Cork City.
Woonerf with loading zones in Cork City.

The Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) should close Pike Place and Pike Street from First Avenue to Virginia Street to non-delivery through traffic. Daily restrictions should be in force from reasonable morning to afternoon periods (approximately 10am to 4pm) in order to capture the core market hours for people activity. With the street stretching a mere four blocks–with most of the traffic centered on Pike Place itself–the restriction should be a relatively benign change when in operation. Outside of these hours, the restriction would not apply, which would return the district to a regular circulation and demand pattern.

Pike Place Market restriction area in green.
Pike Place Market restriction area in green.

The closure of Pike Place to through traffic is not as dramatic as it might sound, but it would require changes to the space and streets leading up to it. SDOT (or their designees) would need to manage the entry points to the market core to ensure that general vehicular traffic is routed away from the market during enforcement of the street restrictions. The main entry points to the market consist of: Pike Street/First Avenue, Pine Street/Pike Place, Stewart Street/Pike Place, and Virginia Street/Pike Place. As a first step, SDOT could place clear signage notifying motorists of the general vehicle traffic restriction on Pike Place.

Retractable bollard.
Retractable bollard.

A more substantial, but relatively inexpensive option is bollards. These have the benefit of restricting traffic movements and offering an opportunity to enhance the streetscape if executed properly. It wouldn’t take much for SDOT to put in automatic, retractable bollards at the base of Pine Street and Stewart Street to prevent spillover traffic while still allowing access for emergency vehicles. First Avenue and Pike Street as well as Pike Place and Virginia Street would need to have part of the right-of-way blocked by bollards to keep a one-way flow of delivery traffic. Streets would necessarily be clearly signed as such, potentially with painted notices on the ground to ensure that the message is clear for motorists. Alternatively, SDOT could use moveable gates to achieve the same effect, whether automated or manually operated.

There’s no question that deliveries are imperative to the operation and success of market vendors and proprietors at all hours–not just before and after the close of business. SDOT should identify priority loading and unloading zones with maximum times for deliveries/shipments to occur within designated locations of the market area.

Moveable gate at Western Washington University.
Moveable gate at Western Washington University.

On-street parking on Pike Place would be prohibited for general vehicular traffic during restriction hours. However, these spaces would available upon the lifting of restrictions and close of business. Some might argue that this would be a burden to the less able or those who are making significant purchases at the market. But, ample parking would remain accessible within a block or two of the market on the east-west streets and the market parking garage. Vendors and regular patrons use existing accessible routes and dollies to transport themselves and goods to buses, taxis, or their own vehicles. There’s no reason why such restrictions would put any unreasonable burden upon those who choose to visit.

With the part-time closure of Pike Place, the street could be put to greater use for both people and vendors. It’s conceivable that a whole new class of street vendors could fill in some of the opened space by the removal of a car lane and parking lanes in front of the market. Temporary, rollaway stalls could be placed in the street or perhaps new pop-out awnings could be added to market buildings. At the same time, it may make sense to create a true woonerf. Pike Place is a cobble street with irregular sidewalks. Entirely removing the sidewalks to create a curbless space could dramatically improve permeability for people on foot and push them to want to interact with street vendors. A practical way of achieving this would be to roll the curb softly into the existing cobble bricks lining the street.

With a 56-foot right-of-way, there’s no reason why people should have to resign themselves to less than 10% of the street space. Let’s push for a Pike Place Market renaissance, one in which people are put first.

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  1. It is so amusing that people can’t find an easy win-win. Those buying heavy or awkward items need to have a way to get them on / in vehicles. The simple solution is a loading area for customers that bypasses the crowded street. Using modern technology the buyer could drive up, load and be on their way in minutes with very little waiting. The idea is not to discourage shoppers from enjoying the experience. Many have small children with them and did not plan to by that items or items. Not everyone is 20 and super healthy either.
    So planning is a bit more challenging. Good then the taxpayer,buyers and sellers can go about their business without constant adjustments to “bright ideas” that constantly need adjustment.

  2. The vehicles shown in this picture are very typical summer mid-day– they are not vendors.They are visitors/tourists who don’t know how to access the parking garage, think they might snag an on-street space, or aren’t actually visiting the market– just doing a drive by so they can say they “saw it.” None of those are good reasons to have cars idling in the best public space that Seattle has.

  3. I think the city should take baby steps and see how it goes. Start by marking the street as “local access only”. This will get the tourists off the street. My guess is a very high percentage of people who drive on that street have no idea that it is what it is — extremely slow and full of people walking on the street. Google provides no clue. Nor do most paper maps. There is basically nothing marking this as any different than any other street. As a result, if you want to get from one place to another, you take a turn and “Wait a second — WTF — what are all these people doing in the middle of the street?!!”. That just isn’t good for anyone. So a little signage and hopefully the map makers would get a clue.

  4. This is spot on. I lived right below the market and walked through it daily for nearly 4 years. Just loose the autos – let deliveries and setup/breakdown happen say 6-8am/pm and keep the cars out. It always was incredibly annoying to deal with 1/2 cars who are lookie loos and the other 1/2 looking for a parking spot (but not finding any and simply taking up space. Even in the winter, just having that core 3-4 blocks of traffic free space would be a wonderful addition to the Market. In the summer load it up with tables and pop ups, in the winter put covered awnings out there. It would add to the experience IMHO.

    Once the viaduct comes down, and the condo’s start popping up, you’re going to see a huge increase in local shoppers to the DT core – more people, without cars with money to spend. There’s plenty of parking nearby in garages (or in the market garage itself) that people with disabilities can use (ie getting dropped off @ first down or on Alaska or Western and elevator up. Really you’re talking about loosing 50ish parking spots max.

  5. Completely disagree. Spent 2.5 years working in the market, observing how this street is used on a daily basis. It’s one of the best-working spaces in the city. I have no idea how you could be so dead wrong on this other than perhaps you’re not really trying to fix a problem here but trying to push a solution you happen to personally really be attached to. Your article suggests as much by glossing over any actual problems with the street and jumping into a discussion of potential fixes. I’ve watched workers, locals, and tourists on this street extensively, and guess what? The cars do not detract from their enjoyment of the space, and in fact–for Americans especially–this space is a unique chance for them to experience what pedestrian dominance over traffic feels like. That alone is a great reason not to prohibit cars from this roadway.

    • There’s no question that the market is a great district because of its charm and amenities that it offers, but the *overwhelming* consensus is that it could be better by enhancing the experience for people by giving them more outlets to interact and appreciate the atmosphere. That can’t happen with the current configuration because of the abundant public realm conflicts.

      There seems to be an odd notion that this street is somehow a triumph over cars or that it is a model of “coexistence” amongst certain urbanists. But, really, it’s just an abdication of space to motorists who largely are there by mistake, not intent. Despite the slowness of the street, it is tight because of parking and drivers still refuse to behave appropriately–or at least as inappropriate as they can in a hoard of denizens confused about how to navigate the disastrous sea of metallic mobile objects.

      I will say, I wrote this article exactly because people have been asking what can we do to make Pike Place better in general, but specifically more comfortable to navigate. This is just a jumping off point for one possible solution, not necessarily *the* solution. We’ll explore ways to improve the general concept of how we can make Pike Place better for people and why that is good for the market and market-goers.

      • “That can’t happen with the current configuration…”. Ok, seriously: What on earth are you talking about? Have you any data that users of this space are somehow being deprived of an ability to interact with and appreciate the atmosphere, or are you inferring it? I worked at a social service agency in the market and had no business interest as some street-level vendors may or may not have in the presence (or absence) of traffic. My observations and daily experience are just so fundamentally opposed to what you’re–apparently without any justification–proposing is some nightmare scenario on Pike Place where people don’t feel comfortable or safe or able to enjoy themselves.
        “Motorists largely there by mistake”…again, data? This is also not my experience in the least.
        To be honest with you, when I first started working in the market, I (as a generally anti-car person) thought like you, “Pedestrians already basically own this space, why not just get rid of the cars completely?” After a couple of months I realized that there is a balanced use of this space that works pretty darn well.
        Is this coming from somewhere ideological for you?

        • It’s clear you both disagree but I’d like to interject before this gets personal. It’s quite obvious there are a lot of people, including in this comment thread, who know the market intimately and agree with Stephen. This isn’t ideological.

          For the sake of future posts, what data would you like us to provide? Would a percentage of space that is used for parked cars be sufficient? What about a percentage of space taken by cars driving through?

          Also, just to clarify, Stephen isn’t saying the street is broken or terrible. It’s likely if there was a vote, many of us would point to pike place market as one of the best streets in the city but that is a separate question from whether the street could be improved. If you’re interested in contributing as to why removing cars would make the street worse, we’d be happy to see and likely publish your writing.

          • Collect data that could verify or falsify the claims made in the article. They read like hyperbole to me, and without data, the article seems highly ideological. We already have enough people in Seattle who never visit the downtown or go shopping there. Making Pike Market out to be some kind of pedestrian hell zone is not helpful (e.g.: “people relegated to the sidewalks pushed into parked cars.” Why not go talk to the PDA, the Market Foundation, and other users of the market space and collect data before landing on a solution?

          • I don’t mean to beat a dead horse but if you could point to the claims that you think need supporting with data that would be very helpful.

          • 1. “while those relegated to the sidewalks are pushed into parked cars.” Ask people (and/or observe), did you feel pushed into parked cars while you walked on the sidewalks of the market?

            2. “But even that isn’t the worst; walking in the streets can be a terribly unpleasant experience with drivers grimacing at the market-goers because they’re “blocking” traffic.” Can you get quotes backing this up? I’m not going to say nobody has ever had a terrible experience while walking on Pike Place, but in all my years of living and working in Seattle, I personally haven’t heard anyone relate such a story. More to the point, can you find evidence that people have terrible (or even sub-optimal) experiences *because of* cars in this space? How many people, as a percentage, feel this way about this street?

            3. It was suggested that many motorists arrive on Pike Pl by mistake. Data?

            4. “there’s no reason why people should have to resign themselves to less than 10% of the street space.” Observe pedestrian choices in this space. Where are the people walking, really? The idea that users of Pike Place “resign” themselves to the sidewalks seems so foreign to me as a former daily user of this space. People go where they want for the most part, including the roadway. Ask people on the sidewalks, “do you feel like you have to walk here, or can you also walk on the street?” Observe pedestrians: How many of them use both the sidewalk and the roadway?
            Are you guys assuming with this 10% number that pedestrians aren’t using the roadway?

          • Next time I’m down in the Market, I’m going to find a seat with a view down Pike Place and sit and observe for a while, in the middle of the day, after lunch. Just to see for myself if there’s a different reality going on, one that I’ve missed up until now.

            In terms of what data, for a start I want to see daily vehicle counts by hour and by type (automobiles & trucks). I’ll keep a tally on my site visit.

          • Vehicle counts don’t matter, Roger. You are missing the point. There is no reason for cars on this street, or in Pioneer Square, Broadway, or the Ave. We are closing them all when the new council comes in. All on them. And then we closing the street right n front of Roger’s house, just for grins.

          • Oh, I get it now. This is a political issue, an ideological matter; zealotry over practicality.

          • Totally agree kevin. This idea was one that I supported for a long time, until I saw the market really work and saw the effect of the open ROW. As an urbanism I wanted a pedestrian only street in seattle because I felt and still do feel, that it would be cool. But it doesn’t really solve any problems in the market, and would create a host of new one that would have to be mitigated, costing vedors money. I now feel like in this case it is a preference solution in search of a problem. Because it would feel good for urbanism to final get a total win over cars.

    • FWIW as a resident who is a 5 minute transit ride from the market, I do not shop at Pike Place Market whatsoever because the sidewalks are totally overcrowded and the cars shove everyone off the streets.

      So unlike a European market (where it’s efficient to buy stuff and fun for tourists) it becomes completely impractical and unpleasant to do shopping there, rather than at my local farmer’s market + grocery store.

      Cars here absolutely ruin the enjoyability/comfort of the space for me – and have probably divert at least $500 of my business alone away from the market each year.

  6. Just wondering (and don’t mean to be flippant) — this question was raised at a recent lecture with Scott Kubly, who responded that (of course) nothing here would happen unless the PDA asked for it.

    Are you just writing this for self-expression – or are you going to reach out to Pike Place and make a case for something happen? If latter, good for you!

  7. Great idea! Unfortunately, Jonathan is right, many (not all) of the businesses inside the market itself are vehemently against the idea of closing the street, which they feel pushes people onto the sidewalks and into their businesses on the street level and in the belly of the market. There is no coalition yet strong enough to tackle this vocal segment of market businesses.

      • ….which seems like a great opportunity for a pilot summer weekend street closure project with data collection. 😉

        • The pda closes the street on lots of summer weekends already. This works great, because the pedestrian density is high wnough. Most of the time it isn’t high enough unfortunately

  8. Stephen’s dead on with this. But first, let’s get the terminology sorted. Pike Place, or any through-street in a commercial district, is not, and cannot, be a woonerf.

    Woonerven are in residential districts.

    A ‘woonerf’ for commercial districts is called a ‘winkelerf. Except that in order for Pike Place to be a winkelerf, it would need to be difficult for cars to access and exit, and pedestrians would have to have supremacy. Winkelerf/woonerf are primarily pedestrian spaces that bikes and cars may use. I

    Pike Place could be (and should be) a decent autoluwe zone/fussgaengerzone. Essentially, this is a street that’s closed to private traffic certain hours, except for cabs, transit, emergency vehicles, etc.

    In the warmer months, tourists & visitors swarm the market. The sidewalks become overcrowded. The logical solution is to give the street to the denizens and market-goers. Let cafes spill onto the streets. Let buskers entertain larger groups without crowding the already narrow sidewalks. Let people lounge.

    The logistics of dropping off, deliveries can be worked out – hundreds of cities with car-free/ped zones much larger than a few blocks, and filled with a multitude of businesses and daily markets, have figured this out.

    It’s long past time for the city to do the same.

  9. Also, FYI, foot traffic is already first on Pike Pl. The street is not actually public property, it is all owned by the PDA. This makes it technically a driveway, subject to PDA rules. The PDA puts peds first, so there you go. This is why people can be 86’d from the market (not public land) and also a possible reason the police force won’t send an officer to direct traffic at the northern intersection with Virginia.

      • I think we are getting wires crossed because semantics. The PDA owns the street. The PDA is owned by the City of Seattle. But it is not administered by the city. That is the point of DAs. The PDA can choose to close the street whenever, no permits needed. They often do this as situations require. The PDA is also able to tresspass people from the sidewalks and streets, because they are not governed by SDOT directly. They are held by the PDA.

        • You are both wrong. The PDA does not ‘own’ the Market. This question was settled once and for all when a prior board at the PDA tried to issue a ‘deed in lieu’ to a New York City based investor group in the 1980s as part of an investment scheme. The city retains all ownership rights; the PDA did not have rhe right to sign a deed, a necessary legal aspect of ‘ownership’ But this argument over who owns the Market is beside the point. The Market should be closed to all but emergency vehicles and necessary delivery/pick-up vehicles at ALL times. The retracting bollards can be used and they work great, as anyone who has seen a James Bond film knows. Delivery and pick up must be restricted to early morning and late night. Remember, we want to see the Market turn into a more lively late night destination, so the streets (Pike Pl, Stewart, Pine and Virginia) should be closed, to ALL traffic (including local traffic) from about 7 AM to 2 AM.

          • No matter where we allow cars, there will always be some distance that deliveries have to be carried without a vehicle. This occurs already. The suggestion that deliveries occur late or early is specifically about large deliveries driven directly onto Pike Place.

            Businesses can still get deliveries during the day and it would be easy to make the end of Pine, Stewart or Virginia, loading and unloading zones, as well as some of Western. The final small distance that delivers have to travel would only be increased slightly and only for smaller deliveries.

            There are places throughout the world that are able to handle this with much more restrictions than what the article proposes.

            Additionally, the primary point of the article is that most vehicles are not for deliveries and that is the real problem. Why are we letting tourists drive through Pike Place? Aren’t there better uses of space in Pike Place than parking?

          • That’s why I think the obvious compromise is to only allow delivery and service vehicles. Mark it “local access only” or “market business only” and be done with it. Someone could probably get away with cheating, but it is also a pretty easy thing to have a cop verify.

            One of the main benefits is that you get this off the maps. Right now, Google (and other mapping services) have this as a through route. My guess is a very high number of people slogging through there are just blindly following directions from their phone.

  10. I have to disagree. The Pike Place is too wide to keep profitability if the cars are removed. I worked there for 6 years, and even was a part of a group to look at this possibility with the PDA. It just doesn’t pencil out. There are certain specific circumstances where it pencils out, and the street is usually closed then. Go down there at 3pm on a Wednesday in March… Just no way. The Market works great as is right now, and if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it.

    Also, I love the idea of adding vendors. But any cosmetic change to any of the historical structures is such a bureaucratic hassle I can’t imagine it happening. I’ve known people who weren’t allowed to repaint their sandwich board because the Historical Commission got wind of it.

    • Whether or not buildings are modified are up to the PDA. If it’s worthwhile doing, they should explore it. If it really is a hassle, then maybe not. But there’s no reason to shoot down the idea on a maybe situation and one which was simply an example of potential. Clearly, there are tons of creative uses that could be allocated to the street.

      I seriously question the assumptions that vested interests at the market have about removal of car traffic. This is the same assertions that businesses in all business districts make when on-street parking could be taken away or the reduction of lanes. Time and again, Seattle data shows that these changes are a net positive to businesses. For instance, 65th St in Roosevelt had a bike lane added and saw sales soar. People are fearful of change and they’ll cook the books to be cautious when in reality the story is different.

      I have absolutely no doubt that added vitality to the street would increase profitability for vendors and store owners while drawing in even more patrons.

      • It’s not the parking removal, its the ROW width. As it stands, there are some times when the pedestrian density is so high that cars are not needed to nudge them into shopping areas. But mostly the cars are needed. Otherwise people just walk down the street gazing at everything, which is nice, but they never buy anything, which is REALLY bad. Most pedestrian markets dont have this problem, since the ROW is usually way narrower. Peds have to be within sellable distance in order to be good for business. If the ROW was 20-30 feet, it could work. But it is just too wide.

        Most of the time taking the cars out wouldn’t add vitality, it would just decrease uses. Most of the time, it is just not that crowded in the Market. In my view, urbanism is about promoting uses, not promoting walking for the sake of it.

  11. I completely agree. I’ve always wondered why we still allow cars there. And I don’t see any compelling reasons to have cars (with the exception of vendors). The argument of “that’s how it’s always been” or “it forces cars to slow down” not really a good enough argument when the streets could be filled with tables and pedestrians and tourists. It’s why people come here!

  12. Awesome idea. If I might piggy back, I’d make two suggestions:

    1. Put table and chairs in the street, giving people to sit and people watch/ actually eat their delicious food. The chairs/tables can be cheap ikea pieces that can be moved and stored easily.

    2. Allow deliveries during the evening and morning, similar to NYCs policy:

    No one enjoys having the cars herding the walkers onto the overcrowded sidewalks, including the drivers. I’d imagine a substantial portions of people who drive down there are tourists who didn’t know what they were getting into.

    • Regarding 1, the trick is what to do with all of the dumpsters that line this street. Find a way to remove or enclose those, and street dining would work well.

    • I think your outdoor dining idea is a good one, except that we live in Seattle. 8 months out of the year people won’t want to sit outside.

      Also, the businesses there enjoy the cars herding the walkers onto the sidewalks, towards their businesses. If the market became a promenade, it would wither and die.

      • Again, knocking a legitimately good idea because of potential pitfalls. There are ways to activate space year round with programming. Outdoor chairs and tables could certainly serve some of those months. Find other things to fill it the other eight then.

        • I’m not knocking the idea, I’m telling you about the pitfalls. I’m saying that unless x,y and z are worked around and thought about, a ped-only pike place is likely a bad idea. Bad idea as in less used, less crowded, and less popular.

          • 1. The proposal put forth isn’t a ped-only street, it’s a ped-first street.
            2. Constructive criticism would note that there needs to be programming or the street designed in some way to keep it active throughout the year, not outright knock the idea as impractical.

  13. I’m going to have to disagree. The brilliance of Pike Place and of woonerfs is the very fact that uses share the space. This is one of the very few places left where people have priority over cars – lets keep it! It is critical that we start to develop a shared social understanding that on some streets it is preferred that cars drive slow, behind a person walking, biking, in a stroller, driving a forklift, etc. By saying that such a use is bad, and by bowing to “drivers grimacing” as the guiding force in how we use our city we lose the ability to put people first.

    We need to expand the Pike Place model, perhaps to the Ave, perhaps to Bell Street, and other potential true woonerfs in the city. We do not need to segregate uses. Sure, remove the car storage and add additional space for vendors on the side of the street – great idea. But that doesn’t mean we need to limit the uses.

    “With a 56-foot right-of-way, there’s no reason why people should have to resign themselves to less than 10% of the street space.” – exactly. Put people in the middle of the street. Make cars wait. Expand and repeat.

    • The problem is that cars rule the street and pedestrians don’t. That’s the fundamental point of this article. Anyone calling this a woonerf is kidding themselves. It’s quite an unpleasant street and locals need to recognize that. It isn’t a mark of pride. We don’t need to give over spaces meant for people just because we’ve been abdicating streets for people over the past 90 years.

      The kind of streets you’re talking about need to be added to neighbourhoods across to Seattle. Full-time woonerfs could work on most of the city’s residential streets. Pike Place deserves better for the people who are there and that starts by reducing the crowding out caused by large numbers of vehicles.

    • The Market is not the right place for woonerfs. Please stop misusing that term. Woonerfs are spaces where pedestrians and vehicles MUST interact (for example, to reach parking adjacent to a residence). Woonerfs are never through streets; they are always street ends or local access only streets. I am taking your license to use the word woonerf away until you can prove you have the necessary training to use it.

      • If your criteria are correct, then the City should have its license revoked also, so they stop calling Bell Street “Park” a woonerf.

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