Seattle Can Be A More Walkable City


In the new book Drawdown, editor Paul Hawken, an environmentalist and author, lays out 80 solutions to reverse global warming by 2050: modest, attainable goals to slow the production of CO2 and accelerate sequestration. Ranked #54 in impact on the list is the creation of walkable cities. The book estimates that simply by replacing 5% of car trips worldwide with walking trips, 2.9 fewer gigatons of carbon would end up in the atmosphere and also save $3.3 trillion dollars in costs associated with operating those cars. Coupled with carbon reductions that could come with increasing bike trips and mass transit options, including high-speed trains, these solutions for cities are needed if we are going to change course from our current climate future any time soon. And a good place to look at exactly how we get there is in the master plans of cities like ours: Seattle is about to finalize its update to the Pedestrian Master Plan this spring.

Douglas MacDonald, former director of the Washington State Department of Transportation, laid out his low opinion of the Pedestrian Master Plan update in Crosscut last week. His point about the gap between the goals in the Pedestrian Master Plan and its implementation is a well intentioned one. The Pedestrian Master Plan lays out some very big goals: after all, the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) has long said its goal is to make Seattle the most walkable city in America. But until we know exactly what SDOT envisions its implementation plan looking like, we should not be so quick to condemn the master plan as unachievable.

We know that we have a very long road ahead of us, so to speak, when it comes to getting sidewalks on every block in Seattle. MacDonald points out that Move Seattle only plans to fund 250 blocks of sidewalks, when there are 11,794 blocks missing sidewalks in Seattle. He concludes that because Move Seattle doesn’t fund anywhere near the number needed to complete the sidewalk gap, then the plan must be to fund the remainder with the next levy, which he rightly calls “absurd”. Transportation levies include too many different projects to allocate that much money toward new sidewalks. But what the master plan can only do is lay out what areas should be prioritized for new sidewalks, and the criteria makes a lot of sense. Areas near schools, transit lines, and where pedestrians have previously been injured by vehicles or unsafe road conditions. This still leaves a big priority network, one that we can’t fund with our current levy.

Missing sidewalks, from the proposed Pedestrian Master Plan. (City of Seattle)

But the alternative would be a master plan that sells itself short. When creating the Bicycle Master Plan, SDOT did not assume that they wouldn’t be able to implement an entire city-wide bike network because it would be too expensive, even though the total costs were estimated at $391 million to $540 million. Move Seattle, being $930 million in total, will not fund anywhere near that, particularly as costs are escalating for projects like protected bike lanes. But the job for dealing with the disparity is and should be left to the implementation plan. Can you imagine a master plan that doesn’t even acknowledge that sidewalks would be desirable in your neighborhood, particularly if your neighborhood is close to a school or transit line?

Another key point that MacDonald makes is that SDOT doesn’t have a good idea of where sidewalks are in bad condition: this is true. The city council, mainly at the urging of the Pedestrian Advisory Board, added money to this year’s budget for a sidewalk assessment. But the idea that we need to pause the master plan until we have an idea of what our sidewalk conditions are is a bit silly. The master plan lays out how the department will approach sidewalk repair, but it doesn’t lay out specific sidewalks to get repaired. We would not hold off on a plan to fix potholes until we had a log of every single pothole in the city–or one thing more would be created by the time the study was completed. The same is true for sidewalks that are in poor condition. This is a reason to push for more funding, not to throw out the plan. Waiting on the sidewalk assessment would be very unlikely to provide us with a different outcome.

The Pedestrian Master Plan is not perfect. We have dug into it critically in the past year as it has worked its way toward city council, and the plan has evolved in response to criticism. We were critical of the targets that were laid out in the plan: for example, there was no target for pedestrian mode share, only a desired trend line of increased pedestrian mode share. The plan being reviewed by the city council now includes a target of 35% mode share of all trips by 2040. The funding levels for pedestrian trips compared to other spending is absolutely an issue, and one that Seattle residents need to be vocal about during the upcoming mayoral and city council elections. New issues will come up: it’s pretty clear that signal technology SDOT is keen on installing on busy traffic corridors does not work well for pedestrians.

But the fact that our plan is ambitious because our goals are is not reason to surrender to defeatist tendencies and say that Seattle will never be walkable. Seattle can and will be more walkable than it is today, and making sure that it is is our job. We have our work cut out for us, but I think we’re up for the job.

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Ryan Packer lives in the Summit Slope neighborhood of Capitol Hill and has been writing for the blog since 2015. They report on multimodal transportation issues, #VisionZero, preservation, and local politics. They believe in using Seattle's history to help attain the vibrant, diverse city that we all wish to inhabit. In December 2020, Ryan started a three-month stint as editor of Seattle Bike Blog.


  1. If we want to speed up sidewalk repairs, consider a grassroots campaign to notify the city of all sidewalks where the displacement is greater than 1/2 inch (defective). Until the city does its own meaningful survey of the defects which riddle our sidewalk system, it can conveniently claim ignorance as a defense. But our neighborhoods are well aware how bad the sidewalks are and where those locations exist. Simply passing that information on to the city as a public record might encourage a more proactive approach to public safety. At the very least, it will help injured pedestrians bring attention to a sidewalk maintenance system that until this point has responded on a case-by-case basis, literally.

  2. Seattle is walkable now. I walk in Seattle every day. No one needs SDOT to help them walk in Seattle. Just go out and start walking.

    • Sure, much of Seattle is walkable and it’s great that you can with ease. But many people simply cannot due to substandard, obsolete, and missing sidewalks and pedestrian infrastructure. Please don’t speak for everyone who can’t navigate this city with ease. Seattle can and should do better.

    • Much of Seattle IS walkable. But much is NOT.
      The problem that MacDonald points out is that the city is TALKING about an objective of making Seattle the most walkable city in the US, but is actually DOING very little to make it happen. (Even the BMP was proposed with specific year-to-year funding objectives.) Each year its getting worse, not better. For every two rugs up because of new projects there seems to be three rungs down due to lack of maintenance, care, and concern.

      Just a few cases in point:

      Last year Greenwood Ave N. north of 112th was repaved. It was a large, expensive project. But absolutely no attention was paid to the *total* lack of sidewalks, in spite of the fact that it is lined with new apartments and senior retirement homes and an elementary school. Millions were spent on a “river for cars.” Nothing for people walking. So much for the “Complete Streets” policy. It’s often ignored.

      Aurora: North of 115th Street there are very few occasional sidewalks along Aurora. One has to walk on the shoulders of one of the busiest highways in Seattle, only a few feet from 4 or 6 lanes of traffic. WSDOT plans on repaving Aurora from near the tunnel to 145th in 2018 . They approached Seattle two years ago to begin joint planning. Nothing happened. The city did not step up. Fortunately a few of us found out about it late last year and are wheedling and working with WSDOT, SDOT, and Metro to at least try to identify and pursue some modest pedestrian-safety improvements to add to the project. Hopefully we may have some success.

      Some of us are working on Safe Routes to Schools for a new school campus containing 3 schools for 1,660 K-8 kids on N. 90th, one block west of Aurora. Over the last couple of years we spent hundreds of volunteer hours to enter the “hunger games” competitions to get NPSF and NSF grants. We were fortunate. We beat out others who also had great needs and obtained some fairly large grants to do a fraction of what needs to get done. (Sorry guys, better luck for you next time, at least we got ours … does it really have to work that way?) …Thankfully, and to their credit, SDOT reorganized some of their priorities to provide even more improvements and are doing a fantastic job helping. But even after those improvements many of the parents are afraid to let the 11 year old kids navigate the remaining hazards. They’ll drive their kids to/from school.

      Think back to when you were 11 years old. How many places were your parents willing to let you walk and bike? How did you get to school? Now think about Seattle today. Where would you feel comfortable letting your 11 year old kids walk and bike by themselves? Can they safely get to school? In much of Seattle? Of course. But there are wide areas of Seattle, especially in north, south, and West Seattle, where many would not feel comfortable.

      The problem is not the Pedestrian Master Plan’s intent. Its intent is admirable. But it could be so much more. It could define some *achievable* steps, complete with their realistic budget and timetable, to identify what Seattle can do. Will Seattle EVER be able to afford sidewalks everywhere? It looks like never. But it could point out realistic costs and work on realistic steps … and in so doing, set realistic expectations. And who knows, maybe that dose of realism would shock the city into doing more.

      Seattle, the most walkable city in the US? Hogwash. Successfully make some steps in the right direction, see what Seattle actually CAN do, and then push for better.

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