A recently passed Seattle City Council resolution provides recognition of the U District Station Area Mobility Plan, but falls short on specifics for implementation.
Standing at the corner of NE 43rd Street and The Ave (University Way NE), it is quickly evident why the street was selected as a pedestrian connection between the University of Washington campus and light rail station arriving in 2021. Only two short blocks of street traffic separate the future station and a long green pedestrian walkway leading up into the leafy campus. Already well-served by Metro buses, this is one of the few areas of Seattle where pedestrians regularly outnumber cars. With light rail on the way, it is difficult to imagine a future in which cars continue to rule the intersection.
These days the car is still king on NE 43rd Street, as it is throughout all of Seattle. Even so, the imaginative vision of a pedestrian connection on NE 43rd Street feels really modest. Between the rich access to transit and human-scaled shopping corridor flush with small, quirky businesses, it is not a big leap to arrive at the conclusion that this pavement should be dedicated to non-vehicle modes of transportation (i.e., modes that allow people to amble in and out of stores and cafes without fears of being accidentally crushed by fast moving objects weighing thousands of pounds).
That is why the arrival of light rail has inspired visions of a fully pedestrian street here, as well as on a segment of the Ave, specifically between NE 42nd Street and NE 45th Street. This vision is bolder than simply prioritizing pedestrians on a short two-block stretch of a non-arterial street, but it comes nowhere near the level of the eight block pedestrian mall near the University of Virginia in Charlottesville or many other pedestrian-focused streetscapes found in similar shopping areas across the world.
And yet, despite the recent passage of a Seattle City Council resolution “recognizing the community-led visioning process and the recommendations found in the U District Station Area Mobility Plan, and supporting a pedestrian-focused rebuild of NE 43rd Street,” it is hard to the believe that the future of NE 43rd Street and The Ave will differ substantially from the car dominated present.
For one thing, the resolution is nonbinding. While it honors the effort that has been put into create the U District Mobility plan, it does no obligate Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) to take any specific course of action, not even on NE 43rd Street.
Additionally, the simple phrase “pedestrian-focused” is very ambiguous. SDOT could argue that any of the alternatives that have been presented to the public for NE 43rd Street, even those that maintain all on street parking, are pedestrian-focused because they offer small improvements for pedestrians, like better marked intersections or more ADA accessible curbs.
Lastly, the resolution says absolutely nothing about the future of University Way. A lot of walking and biking advocates were excited when the U District Mobility plan published Scenario 2, which featured a design in which both NE 43rd Street and University Way would be redesigned as pedestrian malls.
According to U District Mobility, of the three scenarios they have released, Scenario 2 has attracted the most support from the public.
In recent months, SDOT offered a survey in which people were encouraged to share input on their preferred alternative for NE 43rd Street. The survey, which has since closed, presented options for alternatives ranging from a fully pedestrian street in line with U District Mobility’s designs Scenario 2 to preservation of on street parking and car access.
SDOT was supposed to release the survey results and announce its select of a Preferred Alternative for the project in March; however, a statement shared with The Urbanist by SDOT reveals they are still reviewing the options.
There are still a few more steps in our internal review before a final decision is made. We will be keeping the City Council resolution and the Mobility Plan priorities in mind as we move forward in our decision making process. We expect to announce the preferred alternative later this month.Casey Rogers, SDOT media contact
Part of the reason for delay may be related recent controversy over proposed upzones along University Way NE. As part of Mandatory Housing Affordability (MHA), the building height was supposed to be increased from 65 feet to 75 feet; however, after many small businesses issued complaints stemming from fears of displacement, the City Council decided to postpone implementation of the upzones, pending further study of potential impacts on the area’s small businesses and affordable housing.
The same concerns that led to the postponement of upzones could be contributing to SDOT’s caution in moving forward with a plan for NE 43rd Street.
NE 43rd Street Will Be an Important Test Case
These have been dark days recently in Seattle for advocates of walking and biking. SDOT’s deeply discouraging decision to cancel protected bike lanes on NE 35th Avenue has since been revealed to be merely the first of many Bicycle Master Plan projects on the chopping block now that the Move Seattle levy funds dedicated to bike lanes are running out.
At a recent Sustainability and Transportation subcommittee meeting, new SDOT director Samuel Zimbabwe defended both SDOT’s decisions and Mayor Jenny Durkan’s leadership, arguing that both SDOT and the mayor remained committed to creating a better connected bike network, but that with only $77 million remaining in funds, new scaled back plans would be “more realistic” than the initial plans hatched back in 2016.
With a new director at the helm, NE 43rd Street offers an important test case. Whether or not SDOT chooses to truly prioritize pedestrians on a street connecting two major pedestrian destinations, one that also has continued to function despite a long standing partial closure to vehicle access, will reveal a lot about new director Sam Zimbabwe’s leadership and priorities for SDOT. It will also show whether or not the agency can begin to shift away from a focus on designing for cars.
Designing a pedestrian future for NE 43rd Street feels like it should be realistic. And while plans for a pedestrian mall on University Way NE are more ambitious, they are certainly not unreasonable or impossible.
“I’m really excited about the imminent opening of the University District light rail and the opportunity to create a vibrant, lively transportation hub there that serves all sorts of users,” Councilmember Mike O’Brien said shortly before the City Council completed its 7-0 vote, approving the resolution on NE 43rd Street.
Let’s hope that the excitement coming light rail has brought to plans for the U District can actually translate into concrete steps implementation of infrastructure that puts the actual users–people–and not cars first.
Natalie Bicknell Argerious (she/her) is Managing Editor at The Urbanist. A passionate urban explorer since childhood, she loves learning how to make cities more inclusive, vibrant, and environmentally resilient. You can often find her wandering around Seattle's Central District and Capitol Hill with her dogs and cat. Email her at natalie [at] theurbanist [dot] org.