Neighbors spar on 35th Avenue NE.

“You’re a liar,” an enraged, middle-aged man shaking a red sign with the words “SAVE 35th” in white block letters screamed as a young woman expressed support for traffic improvements to 35th Avenue NE in Seattle’s Bryant/Ravenna/Wedgwood neighborhood. “You lie!” he kept yelling as she tried to go over data related to how bike lanes and pedestrian improvements reduce speeds and accidents. “This is fake news!” This occurred in front of the local library, when the two sides of the issue met during a community event.

Normally you’d think residents would applaud an attempt by the city to make their neighborhood safer, but this project, like projects across the city that have suddenly become political firestorms, removes parking and adds bike lanes. These two issues have overwhelmed any other aspect, benefit or consideration. Almost overnight, businesses who feared losing free parking on public streets had red placards in their windows asking residents to “SAVE 35th – save our parking”.

A few residents then got involved and mobilized a petition opposed to the improvements. How they converted a project originally inspired by the community into controversy is the epitome of how these groups have thwarted progress all over the country. And this is not by accident, the Save 35th group enlisted the assistance of social media consultants and a representative from Keep LA Moving, John Russo. Mr. Russo and others have provided guidance to the group and it is this template that is being used to stop the implementation of bike lanes, pedestrian improvements, and road diets in our city and all over the country.

Editor’s note:  Recently, the Save 35th group won even more concessions from Mayor’s Durkan office. A fourth parking study was performed in an attempt to appease them, and now, Mayor Durkan has hired a mediator (John Howell from Cedar River Group) at a cost of $14,000 (despite an apparent conflict of interest due to ties with a Save 35th leader) to give them even more of a chance to air their opinions. It’s intended that Mr. Howell will meet with those opposed and those for the safety improvements and attempt to reach an agreement that somehow satisfies everybody.

Some history though before we discuss how in the world we got here. In 2012, residents of four neighborhoods in north Seattle began a process to enhance 35th Avenue NE. They formed committees, developed concepts and detailed ideas. They performed public outreach, staffed tables at community events and held ‘coffee talks’ where experts explained design and engineering concepts. So successful was this, they won a local neighborhood grant from the city to hire consultants to further their plans. Again, they did so well, in 2016, the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) took over and again, held public meetings, solicited feedback, setup online surveys and questionnaires, and engaged the community. The 2014 Bicycle Master Plan for the city included bike lanes on 35th.

Then, in late 2017, SDOT released their design documents, and it is then, and only then, that businesses flew into action and certain residents started attending public meetings and other community events.

The problem was, they hadn’t been paying attention. They hadn’t been bothered to get involved with the plans for 35th until businesses and concerned neighbors began making them aware of it on NextDoor and other social media sites, and of course, the red signs went up.

But with the history of the project, the incredible amount of community involvement, the public outreach, the designs and the plans, they had to figure out a way to make it seem like they’d never been engaged, that a paving project was now, all the sudden, changing the neighborhood.

This first tactic was almost natural because for many of them, it was true. They’d ignored the surveys and the postcards on their doorsteps, shewed away the nice people at their door and said no thank you to the people holding clipboards in front of the grocery store. So, they argued that this was all happening too fast, and we needed to slow down and work as a community to develop a new plan–one that would keep all parking and not add bike lanes.

At first, the Save 35th group was unashamedly all about not losing parking. It was all over their signs and their notices. They invented a number–that the plans would reduce parking by sixty-percent–and splashed it over everything (they’ve never been able to explain where this figure came from–even after repeated requests).

They were also unabashedly opposed to bike lanes. They did not care about any data to the contrary. Even though 35th is the only street that goes north to south without interruption (all other streets stop and start randomly), they argued cyclists could just use side streets. In now deleted social media posts and tweets, they taunted cyclists and made fun of bike lanes. Then, unfortunately, they made fun of the wrong people and had to delete their Twitter account completely after a collection of mothers who cycle took them to task for a particularly sexist tweet. They also removed their ratings from Facebook and comments had to be approved. But, they remained adamantly opposed–even going so far as to brag about holding up bike lanes on a connecting street (NE 65th Street) where a cyclist died.

It’s important too to note that these are Seattleites. These people overwhelmingly caucused for Bernie Sanders in 2016 and have environmental stickers on their Leafs, Bolts and Priuses. In any other instance, they lament that lack of facts and science in public policy, and urge lawmakers and public officials to be inclusive and progressive. How ironic then that these same people, when faced with overwhelming data that slated safety improvements would reduce collisions, improve livability, and make the neighborhood safer, called it ‘fake news’ and ‘lies’.

And this was their next tactic. When they were faced with the history and could not argue that improvements had come out of the blue and no one had tried to tell them, they turned to calling everything a falsehood. When all facts are questionable, there are no facts. Every piece of data was not good enough. If city officials pointed out that safety plans had helped other cities reduce accidents, it was not Seattle. When representatives pointed out how improvements helped diminish collisions on other streets in the city and the neighborhood, it was not 35th. By constantly moving the target, no data was ever enough.

And, it didn’t hurt that they refused to believe any facts. Any time SDOT provided a study, it was bogus; when an engineer explained how rechannelization reduced speeds without drastically effecting travel times, she was ‘cherry picking facts.’ Actual data from traffic and parking studies – multiple studies performed by engineers – were packed with lies and untruths, to the point where they would call people liars and scammers and hacks for the city hall.

A natural progression from constructing an environment where you don’t believe facts is to move into playing on people’s fears and concerns, and this was where they went next. They began spouting anything that they knew would scare people, especially the elderly – you won’t be able to park anywhere near your destination; rogue cyclists will run you down as you try to get out of your car; children will have to exit school buses into busy streets; and runaway commuters will be gunning through side streets at 50 mile-per-hour. They went so far as to claim that the improvements did not include any pedestrian improvements (the plans include extensive ADA improvements, as well as sidewalk widening, curb bulbs, fixing buckling and cracked areas, and improving intersections). Another one they used a lot was that the changes – any changes – will cause congestion on 35th and that will send commuters on to other streets.

Despite its growth, Seattle is still a commuter city as well – millions of people flood in every work day and flood out every night, and they only see roads as ways to get to their destination. Our city has been for decades designed to accommodate this setup, and it’s done nothing to promote safety, livability and inclusiveness.

And that last issue, inclusiveness, is where they went next. People for the bike lanes were ‘ableists’ and ‘young tech bros’, and improvements (regardless of a myriad of pedestrian and vehicle safety improvements) would only benefit the fit and the young, and make it more difficult for the elderly and the disabled. Despite numerous elderly and handicapable people speaking out about how the improvements would help them, from a woman explaining that she cannot drive due to her disabilities but can operate an electric-assist bike, to another woman detailing that she feels unsafe in her motorized wheelchair on 35th because of the speeds cars drive on it, it did not matter.

Those opposed to the improvements flipped the issue–realizing improvements would help more people and make the street safer for more people, they turned an advantage into a disadvantage. They targeted churches and community centers, stood out in front with their petitions, and preyed upon their concerns and fears. They told neighbors they wouldn’t be able to find parking at the library or the post office anymore, that they’d have to park miles away from their destination and walk all the way, and that the improvements would actually make the street more dangerous.

And this was something Russo from Keep LA Moving advised them to do–frame it so they are the ones actually worried about safety, not SDOT. Not only that, despite the studies and data showing the street would be safer, they argued no one cared about vulnerable people. They filled their posts and notices with the word ‘safety’. They invented ways to argue that safety improvements would make the road less safe: crazy cyclists, too much happening on the road (cyclists, pedestrians and cars), less visibility (removing parking actually improves visibility), and of course, congestion causing drivers to scream through side streets running down children and cats like a game of Death Race 2000.

The problem has been and remains that they have no data–no studies, no engineering, no science–to support any of this. And they don’t need it. Once they’d told half-truths and untruths, and really got people scared, they launched a communication blitz aimed at the mayor’s office. They had 3,000 signatures (none of which have been verified and many are admittedly from outside the neighborhood and city) and they bombarded the mayor with calls, emails and meeting requests. She took notice. She sought to appease them. She agreed to ‘relook’ at parking studies (there had already been three) and take their concerns into consideration.

This is what is happening in Seattle right now and all over the country. The people with no facts, no statics, no science, and no engineering are getting their way. Mayor Durkan has stopped safety improvements on other streets (despite the fact that studies have shown they really do improve safety for all users) and she’s underfunded and delayed significant transportation plans that would offer more transportation options and reduce accidents. She’s putting me and my friends and family in greater danger to appease people with no basis for their concerns and no facts to support their contentions.

This is how we ruin cities, neighborhoods and communities. Our leaders lack vision. They crumble under the weight of difficult decisions. They let bias and prejudice determine policy. They do not invest in the future and they let fears hold back their potential. The problem is, we pay for it. Our roads become more congested, our infrastructure and bridges fail, our communities become less safe and less enjoyable, improvements become more expensive, and we lose lives pointlessly.

We’ve seen this before. We’re living it right now. Hopefully by recognizing these tactics and developing plans ahead of time to deal with them, other communities and other neighborhoods can follow a better path and implement safety improvements for everyone in the community.

Article Author
Chris Priest

Chris Priest is a writer and community advocate who lives in northeast Seattle. Chris is a founding member of Safe 35th--a community-based group focused on bringing planned and agreed upon safety improvements to 35th Avenue NE in the Wedgwood, Ravenna and Bryant neighborhoods. He is a frequent cyclist, runner, transit rider, and walker who believes safe, inclusive modes of transportation are the way of the future.