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.

Sidewalks in Seattle
Sidewalks in Seattle

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.

Southeast Seattle streets at Letitia Ave S and 34th Ave S.
Southeast Seattle streets at Letitia Ave S and 34th Ave S.

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.

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Stephen is an urban planner with a passion for promoting sustainable, livable, and diverse cities. He advocates for smart policies, regulations, and implementation programs that enhance urban environments by committing to quality design, accommodating growth, providing a diversity of housing choices, and adequately providing public services. Stephen primarily writes about land use and transportation issues.

11 COMMENTS

  1. time to woonerf-retrofit the city. we don’t need to invest in unnecessary sidewalks. bonus is more public space.

    • I spent years trying to keep sidewalks away from a soft-edge rural-heritage neighborhood in the city. Our plan for the neighborhood settled on paved sidewalks on on side of the road only. Woonerfs (windy roads?) would work in most places, but in this neighborhood, the long narrow streets was part of its character. Speed bumps might have been better. Then again, through ritual daily maintenance, you could have an aggregate-surfaced shoulder that was good to walk on. No cement.

      • Seattle’s streets are usually linear, not windy. But woonerfing them could involve subtle rechannelisation in paving or other minor interventions to slow the street and make it accessible to pedestrians and bicyclists. An aggregate approach in Seattle would not be ADA compliant, though paving or surfacing doesn’t necessarily have to be cement. Keep in mind that all of Seattle is urban, not rural.

  2. This map appears to be computer-generated, not drawn from physical reality. Portions of extant city streets (gray lines) are missing, And some of the streets shown with missing sidewalks actually have sidewalks on one side. Best to use the map as a macro-level indicator, not for planning to fill in missing pieces.

    • This map is indeed GIS generated, as noted it’s produced by SDOT. As evidenced in the map, only streets that are maintained by the City of Seattle are shown. Private roads are excluded, like 40th St in the U District owned by the UW. Ravenna Blvd also is highlighted as missing sidewalks, but that has to do with the trail in the middle of the boulevard. Despite some caveats to the map, it’s highly representative of the truth on the ground.

      • Not to belabor minor points, but some of the missing streets in my precinct are very much City streets. And the “missing” sidewalks around Jefferson Park and Green Lake Park are that way on purpose — sidewalks on the side of the street with homes and a nice gravel footpath on the park side; makes perfect sense.

        • Are you certain that they’re inventoried streets with the City? I’d like to verify those instances.

          As I noted, the trails are indeed unimproved; some are intentionally lacking paved surfaces. But yes, they still fall into the same categorisation. I’m not sure what there is to quibble over on that.

          • Trails which lack paved surfaces are unusable by people in wheelchairs. (With the exception of certain packed-earth types — gravel is definitely no good.) They’re not generally a good idea. All very well for hiking trails in natural areas, not good for proper city parks.

  3. I lived for 4 years near the intersection in the photo above at Letitia. It was designated a “safe route to school”- which was ridiculous. Not safe for pedestrians- barely safe for cars. Extremely narrow and the hill created even less visibility. Glad to see it getting some attention

  4. I’ve thought a lot about sidewalks. probably because I live in a neighborhood without many. For good reason, sidewalk funding is usually lumped in with transportation funding. Unfortunately, this means that dollars spent on sidewalks have to compete with dollars spent on bus lanes, traffic signal improvements and the like. Since sidewalks are really expensive, I have a hard time arguing for them over spending money on other transportation projects. I think we should consider using money from the park system to pay for sidewalks. They would still be built by SDOT, but compete for park money instead. If given the choice of building a new pocket park or adding a few blocks of sidewalks in my neighborhood, I think a majority would support the sidewalks.

    Then there is the issue of where to add them. As part of its pedestrian master plan, the city used several criteria to prioritize sidewalk projects, including distance to a popular destination, population and the popularity of the corridor.

    The city places higher priority on sidewalk projects that are next to a busy street. This makes sense. No one wants to walk along the side of the road on a busy highway. The good news is that for the most part, the city has built sidewalks for the arterials. There are exceptions, and in some cases, these should be a priority. There are times when it is essential for a person to stand or walk along a busy street (e. g. to catch a bus).

    But at the same time, building sidewalks only along busy streets is not sufficient. People don’t want to walk along a busy street, and will avoid doing so if possible. On the city survey, the two biggest reasons people gave for not walking to their destination are “too much traffic on the roads” and “lack of sidewalks”. I’ve seen people drive a few blocks to a park, only to then walk around. This is silly, but I don’t blame them if the alternative (walking to the park) is miserable.

    In my opinion, there are several things worth considering beyond what the city has used as their criteria:

    Sidewalks on one side are better than none. I would love to see sidewalks on both sides of the street in the entire city, but with costs of around two million a mile, that won’t happen. Given the choice, I would rather every street have a sidewalk on one side of the street rather than half the streets have sidewalks on both sides.

    Long pathways are better than lots of short pathways. Long, continuous pathways allow for better mobility than a bunch of short pathways. With a long continuous pathway, you minimize the distance that someone needs to travel to reach a sidewalk. There are exceptional cases, of course, where sidewalk work needs to be done because an area is is populous, or there are important attractions (schools, shops, etc.) in the area. But for the most part, building longer connected pathways are better than lots of short paths.

    A good example of the trade-off is the area just west of Aurora and north of 85th. Between 85th and 98th, there are sidewalks connecting Aurora to Fremont Avenue. A dozen streets have two block sidewalks. At the same time, there are no sidewalks connecting Aurora with Holman Road. If sidewalk were skipped on the odd streets, there would be enough money to make several connections in that neighborhood. If I lived in the area, I would consider that a great trade-off. If I lived on 91st, for example, I would gladly walk over to 90th if I knew that I could walk all the way to Whitman Middle School on a quiet street with sidewalks. It is too late to do that (of course) but we should strive towards building these long pathways, rather than lots of little, somewhat redundant sections.

    Connecting neighborhoods via quiet pathways is important. It is hard to define a neighborhood. But for the sake of discussion, I will call a neighborhood an area surrounded by arterials or natural divisions. For example, this map shows a couple of small neighborhoods: http://tinyurl.com/osho5ye

    Providing a quiet route between these neighborhoods, as well as to other attractions should be a priority. Ideally, these routes would be straight, as that is most efficient.

    If enough sidewalks were built in this manner, than it wouldn’t cost a fortune, but provide enough pedestrian ability for people to get from place to place fairly safely and comfortably. It might mean walking a couple blocks on the side of the street, then walking a much longer distance on the sidewalk, then back to the side of the street. This is similar to the way people drive (first on a residential street, then an arterial, then a residential street). Having a similar set of sidewalk paths from neighborhood to neighborhood (away from the busy arterials) would lead to a lot more walking, which is good for everyone.

  5. To join in on Erin G’s comment, the school district has committed to a neighborhood school assignment plan. (They were not able to give every student a school to walk to for elementary but most students do have that ability.) The district did this for two reasons (1) parent requests and (2) busing costs. The idea is that kids can walk or bike to school.

    You cannot ask parents to have their kids walk or bike on the same roads – sometimes dark and rainy roads – as cars. This is yet another reason – if our City is committed to reducing the use of cars – to put in sidewalks.

    I note that Burgess asked for money to be put into the upcoming transportation levy. I view that as a feel-good idea and that, in the end, it won’t happen. Those dollars will get driven elsewhere in that massive levy.

    The saying is that good fences make good neighbors – I think sidewalks make even better neighbors.

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