The Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) is loosing the cars on Lake Washington Boulevard on Monday, but it should stay an open street permanently dedicated to people walking, rolling, and biking.

Lake Washington Boulevard has proved a popular biking and pedestrian route after ten weeks as an open street, but–despite this success–SDOT is shutting it down and letting cars rule once more. In a tweet, the agency has teased re-opening the street to people walking, rolling, scooting, and biking for one long weekend per month, advocates are asking for more. Seattle Neighborhood Greenways started a petition asking the City to keep the program going every weekend through the winter and spring. It quickly gained more than 300 signatures.

The “Keep It Moving Street,” as SDOT and Seattle Parks branded it, has been in place since July 24th on a three-mile stretch of Lake Washington Boulevard from Mount Baker Beach to Seward Park. Among more than a dozen open streets SDOT initiated across the City in response to Covid, Lake Washington Boulevard stood out as the most popular with Seattleites of all ages and abilities. Kids are learning how to bike on a boulevard otherwise known for burn cruises and rich people revving their oversized sports car engines.

Due to this smashing success, we implore SDOT and the Mayor to make the open street on Lake Washington Boulevard permanent. We count four reasons why.

First off, the open street returns Lake Washington Boulevard to its historic use and designed purpose. The Olmsted brothers designed the boulevard as a linear park for people walking, biking, and picnicking. It wasn’t designed as a motor speedway. It was intended to be one of Seattle’s signature places to relax, bike, and stroll. Car traffic has detracted from that.

The three-mile open street from Mount Baker Beach to Seward Park will be a more pleasant place to walk, roll, or bike. (SDOT)
The three-mile open street from Mount Baker Beach to Seward Park will be a more pleasant place to walk, roll, or bike. (SDOT)

Secondly, it’s a key bike route serving underserved Southeast Seattle. Lake Washington Boulevard provides a safe and flat bike route connecting to the rest of the bike network in a quadrant of the city sorely lacking such connections. The Seattle Bike Advisory Board, Cascade Bicycle Club, Seattle Greenways, Seattle Bike Blog, and just about any other group of advocates out there have identified safe bike routes in Southeast Seattle as their highest priority.

Lake Washington Boulevard helps rectify this, and it connects to the Mountains-to-Sound Greenway, which would provide an all Ages, Languages, Ethnicities, Genders, Races and Abilities (ALEGRA) bike route into the downtown core and Judkins Park Station, Seattle’s new light rail station on the soon to open East Link. Improving bike access and safety in Southeast Seattle will take more than just a car-free Lake Washington Boulevard. But losing this route is going in exactly the wrong direction.

Thirdly, physical distancing is really challenging on this corridor without the open street. Sidewalks are narrow and bike and foot traffic is high along the boulevard. Without the open street, people struggle to keep six feet apart and may not feel safe being there at all.

Finally, cities that are truly walkable and bikeable don’t stop and pack it up in the winter. Seattle’s climate isn’t all that different in Copenhagen–arguably the most bikeable city in the world–and yet Copenhagen doesn’t dismantle its bike facilities in the winter. They stay in place and people keep on biking. If Seattle wants to have a world class transportation system, it’s going to have to follow suit. Making it permanent also allows SDOT to improve traffic diverters and signage and save on the hassle and cost of tearing them down and putting them back up. Simpler to make it a fixture of the boulevard.

Take action: We encourage you to sign the Seattle Greenways petition asking for the open street to stay on weekends and email Mayor Jenny Durkan to make it permanent.

The editorial board consists of Natalie Bicknell, Ryan Packer, and Doug Trumm.

We hope you loved this article. If so, please consider subscribing or donating. The Urbanist is a non-profit that depends on donations from readers like you.

The Urbanist was founded in 2014 to examine and influence urban policies. We believe cities provide unique opportunities for addressing many of the most challenging social, environmental, and economic problems. We serve as a resource for promoting and disseminating ideas, creating community, increasing political participation, and improving the places we live.

7 COMMENTS

  1. I understand the need to allow local vehicular access to people’s homes and parking lots, but that doesn’t mean the road need to be open to thru traffic. Instead of a one-size-fits all approach, different roadway sections can be treated in different ways:
    – Long sections of Lake WA Blvd. not adjacent to any homes or parking lots can be closed to cars permanently and converted into a walk/bike trail.
    – For the remaining sections, the permanent configuration can be open to traffic, but with diverters installed every half-mile or so so that Lake WA Blvd. becomes a series of dead-end streets for cars, but goes through for bikes/pedestrians.
    – Close the parking lot just north of Seward Park entirely (except for a couple of handicap spots) to reduce car traffic on Lake WA Blvd. from cars getting into and out of the parking lot.

    As to justification, it’s no so much about social distancing as a combination of basic safety (allowing people of all ages and abilities to ride a bike without getting run over) and making for a more pleasant park without the constant roar of traffic. The latter is a benefit that applies to everybody, even people walking on the sidewalk.

  2. The property along the Boulevard, along the entirety of the recent closure, is part of the Seattle Parks and Recreation system’s land inventory, including the areas between the Lake’s waterline and a variable boundary on the side of the road away from the Lake. SDOT maintains the street. The question is what use the citizens believe is best for this priceless asset.

    For many years, the Bicycle Sundays program has facilitated closing the same section of road to motor vehicles for a number of weekends in the late Spring and Summer. This program has always allowed limited vehicle access to some of the parking lots, and boat launches, as well as access to residential driveways. It would be constructive to survey all of the owners with driveways, to gauge their reaction to the recent long closure. I suspect many would prefer less traffic on the Boulevard over the inconvenience of the closures.

    As the traffic in South Seattle has increased, and some changes were made along Rainier Ave. South, more cars are using this road (pre-covid) as an arterial than in the past. The speed limit was lowered to a uniform 25 mph, but driving habits have often not adapted to this new law, and there is little or no enforcement.

    As a first step, one option I believe should be seriously considered is to close Lake Washington Blvd. South, to motor vehicles, from Mt. Baker Beach (allowing for vehicle access the the parking lot there), to 43rd Ave. South, the first intersection North of Stan Sayers Memorial Park. There are no private driveways on this section of the Boulevard. The cost to the City would be minimal. Exceptions to vehicle access would be for Park maintenance and, possibly, Sea Fair set-up and removals. This would provide very high quality park land, which includes forested uplands (public and private), and would divert the arterial use of the Boulevard to city streets and other arterials. It would decrease the traffic on the Southern half of the Boulevard from Stan Sayers Memorial Park to Seward Park.

    Such improvements would significantly enhance the park.

    • > The speed limit was lowered to a uniform 25 mph, but driving habits have often not adapted to this new law, and there is little or no enforcement.

      Well, perhaps enforcement would be a good start. Speed cameras and “Your Speed” signs, would improve things.

  3. Has the closure had any adverse effects on the adjacent residential streets? I remember last spring -before I knew – doing a crazy zigzag through streets that aren’t used to traffic (along with a bunch of other people). I have to admit, I lament the loss of a gorgeous nearly traffic free and lightless route (when everything else has gone to poo) between South King County and Madison Valley.

  4. I disagree. As a cyclist, I believe that turning Lake Washington Boulevard into a bike, pedestrian, non-car road is solving the problem the wrong way.

    Firstly, people who live on the road rely on it to access their homes. That’s a reality you conveniently ignore.

    Secondly, the issue is not that cars can drive on the road. After all the Olmsted brothers designed the boulevard to carry vehicular traffic – not just a lakefront park area. The issue is that the park area they designed does not meet a standard of pedestrian or cycling pathway that allows all modes of use adequate room.

    But this can be solved by widening the path that is barely wide enough in places for two people to walk side by side. Make it as wide as the path around Green Lake, or wider. Make it a path that supports cyclists and pedestrians. Narrow the road slightly if need be, but don’t take it away, as driving on it is also a wonderful way to experience the beauty of the lake front, and offers more convenient access for all (because even families that walk or bike on it typically drive to it to do so).

    Cyclists would also be better able to ride on the roadway if it were simply resurfaced. The pot-holes and rough roadway are the main deterrents. The speed limit is already low at 25 mph, but it could also be reduced to make sharing the road easier.

    And let’s not always conflate cycling for pleasure with the kids with being another mode worthy of a world class transportation system.

    And it is about time we stopped with the nonsense of catering to a 6 feet physical distancing rule. COVID-19 has been proven to dangerously spread far further than just 6 feet, which is now a measure that’s more politics than scientifically meaningful. It is just that changing all the signage and such to suggest people physically distance from one another by more than 6 feet would be tedious and unpopular.

    • Seems like a compromise could be to either lower the speed limit to something like 8mph, or convert it to one lane so the other lane becomes a wide, multi-use path. That way people can still access driveways and the various parking lots, boat ramps, etc., and those who are unable to walk or roll can enjoy the parkway.

      If the one-way route is split northbound/southbound at, say, Alaska, that makes the Blvd useless for through-route but still available for those who want/need to drive. But probably safer to make it one-way southbound so no one gets confused on which lane the cars should remain in.

    • There are various types of infrastructure improvements that can be made as you point out and I don’t want to disqualify those or variations of them.

      However I would like to point out some counterpoints to your specific comments. First is that local access is always preserved and I do not think anybody serious has proposed taking that away. Second is that your qualification of the road-friendliness of the blvd does not include safety considerations, instead saying it is the road quality that is the main deterrent to it being a bike-friendly road. It is clear that although there is a 25 mph speed limit, many cars would go faster and also do dangerous maneuvers, which is probably what deters non-advanced cyclists more than the exact road conditions. Some design has to be changed to make it safer and prioritize other modes of transport, more than changing the speed limit or repaving. Lastly, regarding historical usage or intention, I personally think these tend to be weaker arguments and less positive and so I think its inclusion in the article can be reframed. However, as I said before local traffic is never seriously intended to be taken away, and furthermore regardless of the intention of traffic on the road, the fundamental qualities of cars and traffic now a day are different to the point that I don’t see how it matters what the original designers wanted in that regard.

      I think improving sidewalks or other paths is infrastructure that should be investigated as you point out. And I’m not an expert in public health, but I would prefer to have their input before eschewing guidelines that many of them continue to support (your point also suggests that the real distance that should be kept is more than 6ft but since we can’t do that we should forget all social distancing. If the 6ft make a significant difference, which you do not deny, only that it is possible to spread beyond 6ft, I don’t see how the article can be qualified to catering to policies that work…)

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.