Downtown Seattle is more than a central business district. It is a neighborhood 88,000 people call home. This neighborhood has the highest concentration of population anywhere in our city. It is also home to the most restaurants, bars, cafes, and pedestrian-oriented businesses per square mile. These people and businesses are looking for space to keep safe distance and restore vibrancy.

Despite having the highest density in the city, downtown streets are designed to move car commuters at peak traffic times. Nearly all are designated principal arterials and feature one-way traffic design. One-way arterials are dangerous, unpleasant, and polluted roads that are not designed for the neighborhoods they serve.   

Reclaiming Urban Space in Crisis

Dining in parking spaces allow for safe social distancing on Granby Street in Virginia. (OpenNorfolk)
Dining in parking spaces allow for safe social distancing on Granby Street in Virginia. (OpenNorfolk)

Cities around the world are reclaiming their streets for people and safety. Visionary leaders have taken advantage of the vacated roads and have realized streets thrive with fewer cars. Some have closed streets entirely so restaurants can spill seating into the street, others have popped up bike lanes to test the popularity of new infrastructure. Seattle’s Department of Transportation (SDOT) has focused on car-lite Stay Healthy Streets, which were so initially popular they will make the program permanent. And, albeit late in the process, SDOT will also relax the permitting process for businesses to spill out into parking spaces and sidewalks for dining and retail

Streets For Outsiders

  • Almost every street downtown is a one-way street. With 60% of Downtown Seattle streets designated as Principal Arterials, the ability to convert parking spaces to outdoor seating is not part of the outdoor pilot program of waiving the permitting process. (City of Seattle)
  • West Seattle has a star racial divide in the east-west direction. The designation of Principal Arterials seems to follow suit. (Left: City of Seattle; Right: University of Washington)

That brings us to downtown Seattle. If the streets downtown feel comfortable for you, chances are you are driving and commuting into the neighborhood. For the rest of the community, those who live here, bike here, walk here or take transit here, these streets are noisy, scary, and polluted. SDOT classifies over 60% of downtown’s streets as Principal Arterials, which are not included in SDOT’s pilot program for outdoor seating and require additional review. Seattle’s downtown streets are left with archaic designations and designs that have a poor history of racial equity. 

One-way streets are terrible designs for downtown. They are designed to move peak traffic loads of outside commuters for a small portion of the day. After peak hours they sit largely vacant, a waste of high value urban space. Few have bike infrastructure or feel welcoming for walking. As urban living decayed in the early 20th Century with the subsidization of car ownership, coupled with a segregation focused White-flight to suburbia, downtown streets across the country converted from two-way streets to one-way. The idea was simple and inconsiderate. People drove in and out of cities to make their 8-to-5 job. So, streets were designed to encourage their attendance and to forget those left living in the community.

District 7 is the fastest growing city council district in Seattle. Nearly all the housing growth is contained in the urban core, meaning it will become its own council district next election cycle. (City of Seattle)
District 7 is the fastest growing city council district in Seattle. Nearly all the housing growth is contained in the urban core, meaning it will become its own council district next election cycle. (City of Seattle)

But downtown has changed. Starting this century, Seattle has passed several upzones sparking the largest highrise housing boom the city has ever seen. As a matter of fact, City Council District 7–which stretches from Magnolia to Downtown–has grown so dramatically, downtown will likely be its own council district next election cycle. 

The Two-Way Slowdown

One-way streets do not belong in neighborhoods or downtown. They encourage high speeds and less safety. Cities that have reverted them back to two-way streets have seen a decrease in pedestrian collisions, less pollution, and more vibrancy. And where extra space is provided, the addition of bike lanes, wider sidewalks, or transit only lanes have encouraged sustainable travel that gets results.

Coming with a giant opportunity cost, parking sees little return on investment. But bike infrastructure, cafe seating, and safe quiet streets? The modest investment brings enormous returns. So how many one-way streets should downtown Seattle have? How about none? Converting all of the streets would be as wildly popular as the Stay Healthy Streets, relaxing outdoor seating permits, and building bike infrastructure.

SDOT has already committed to eliminating beg buttons, and NHL Seattle, the owners of new arena coming to Uptown, have granted millions of dollars to the city for street improvements as part of their public benefits package. Seattle has assets and other potential sources that we can leverage to convert traffic lights and design around urban comfort.

The time is now. Why not utilize the suspension of commuting, as businesses open downtown, and reclaim our streets for people and safety? The biggest hurdle isn’t a financial one, it’s a political one. The city has resources, but do we have the political will?

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8 COMMENTS

  1. An entire article about downtown Seattle, and not a word about buses. That is like writing about the ocean, but ignoring the fish.

    • Yeah. 3rd Ave downtown is a two way street that carries more buses on any given day than anywhere in the United States. One Way designs would ruin that

  2. I personally find one-way streets generally better for pedestrians than 2-way streets, which, in my book, is reason enough to keep the downtown streets one-way.

    The reason is two-fold. First, is as Jesse said that crossing a one-way street, either mid-block or on a red light is much easier than crossing a two-way street because you only need an opening in the traffic running one direction. Second, two-way streets means accommodating left turns. Accommodating left turns means turn-arrow cycles in every signal phase, during which all pedestrians have to wait. By contrast, when two one-way streets intersect, the crosswalk is open at all times for either one street or the other, greatly reducing pedestrian wait times.

    All that said, I do think there is a case for making many of downtown’s one-way streets two-way for bikes, since it makes navigating the city on a bike easier, while also helping to avoid sidewalk riding from people traveling against the direction of traffic. For instance, Pine St. should absolutely have two-way bike lanes all the way to Pike Place Market. I can also see contraflow bus lanes making sense in special cases along busy routes where a few blocks of contraflow lane makes buses run considerably faster.

    But, making the downtown streets run two-way for cars feels mostly about benefiting cars. If the goal is to slow down cars, there are better ways to do it. For instance, synchronizing the stoplights for 12 mph (e.g. bicycle speed) travel is remarkably effective. Anyone driving too fast is immediately forced to stop at the next block’s red light, until the slower driver catches up.

    • Every city that’s converted one way streets to two way saw fewer vehicle accidents, fewer collisions with bicycles and pedestrians, and slower speeds

  3. That’s an interesting perspective to me as someone who used to live in Belltown without a car. I actually liked the one-way streets because they were easier to “frogger” my way across midblock than two-way streets. Also, they made left-turns much easier for me on my bike. But I can definitely understand how two-way streets would slow things down and ultimately make things safer. I think, regardless, we need more pedestrian-friendly design with less room for cars and more room for people.

  4. I agree that the city needs to do much more to create space for people on our downtown streets, but full conversion of the downtown grid to 2-way streets would be really expensive and I highly doubt you’re going to find anyone at SDOT willing to take this on. Installing a single signal costs about $250k, so just converting the signals on 2nd, 4th, 5th, 6th, and 7th would run something like $20-30 million.

    I’d rather see the city just carve out pedestrian, bicycling, and transit space from the existing one way street system, starting from the assumption of no more than 2 GP lanes on any of the downtown avenues and 1 for the East-West streets.

    • We are about to spend $400M on a bridge to west Seattle. Let’s never complain about *any* project’s costs ever again

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