Most long-time Seattleites know that sidewalks are a highly charged and controversial discussion point in many neighborhoods. But that’s not because people don’t like them. Quite the contrary. Residents like them so much that they are infuriated that they still don’t have access to walking facilities in their neighborhoods.
If you look at the map below, streets north of 85th Street tend to lack sidewalks, but they’re not the only ones in Seattle. Plenty of streets in the Industrial District, West Seattle, Southeast Seattle, and neighborhoods in between are missing basic walking infrastructure, too.
For a bit of perspective though, it’s worth noting that Seattle has over 2,000 miles of sidewalks, which collectively cover 72% of city blocks. The City of Seattle estimates that replacement cost of this existing infrastructure is somewhere around $1.5 billion. But that still leaves some 900 miles (28% of city blocks) without any sidewalks; adding those to the pedestrian network would cost at least another $675 million.
Yet, there are reasons for why so much of the city lacks sidewalks.
Areas north of 85th Street, for example, largely remained under the jurisdiction of King County until 1954 — that’s the year when Seattle annexed large swaths of land between 85th Street and 145th Street. But unlike the city, King County did not have development regulations that required the construction of sidewalks as part of platting and building nor a program to construct sidewalks. This meant that as neighborhoods grew outside of Seattle, pedestrian infrastructure was largely neglected.
Other parts of the city were annexed mid-century as well, including portions of southwest West Seattle (annexed in 1954 and 1955). The lack of King County sidewalk requirements and programs certainly explain why these areas are missing pedestrian infrastructure. But it’s not clear why Southeast Seattle lacks so many sidewalks considering that the area was almost entirely annexed into the city by 1910.
Perhaps the best reason that one could surmise for the lack of sidewalks in Southeast Seattle is topography. Streets throughout the Rainier Valley are built on very steep hills. As the map shows, many of the streets without sidewalks are fairly poor gridded and even unconnected blocks. It would seem that in many circumstances, the topography could have made the provision of sidewalks challenging, if not infeasible. Streets like Letitia Ave S and 34th Ave S serve as great examples of this.
As you can see, the streets are very irregular in width, height, and direction. Other blocks in the vicinity are similarly challenged with some making erratic jogs. Houses built adjacent to them are often elevated below or above the streets with steeply inclining footpaths to the streets.
But reasons for the lack of sidewalks aren’t enough.
Ask residents in Lake City or Broadview what they think about the complete absence of sidewalks in their neighborhoods. What you’ll probably hear is that they’ve long-been-promised the installation of them since they joined the city in 1954. And while that assertion has yet to be formally substantiated in the public record, whether or not it’s true is inconsequential. All parts of the city deserve safe walking conditions. Blocks without them pose a serious challenge and threat to all people regardless of age, income, or ability. We need to fill in the blanks in spite of the costs.
Stephen is a professional urban planner in Puget Sound with a passion for sustainable, livable, and diverse cities. He is especially interested in how policies, regulations, and programs can promote positive outcomes for communities. With stints in great cities like Bellingham and Cork, Stephen currently lives in Seattle. He primarily covers land use and transportation issues and has been with The Urbanist since 2014.