Sunday Video: Can We Make Cities Car-Free?

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Dave Amos looks at how cities across the globe are making streets and districts car-free. He also explains how this is improving economic and social outcomes.

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Stephen is an urban planner with a passion for sustainable, livable, and diverse cities. He is especially interested in how policies, regulations, and programs can promote positive outcomes for communities. Stephen lives in Kenmore and primarily covers land use and transportation issues for The Urbanist.

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Daniel Thompson

asdf2, I agree people on the streets is the key to both a sense of safety and supporting a rich retail/dining industry in any urban area. There are basically three ways to get more pedestrians on the streets in Seattle:

1. Those who live there (excluding the homeless);

2. Tourists.

3. Those who travel in from somewhere else nearby, including commuters.

Unfortunately vacancy rates for higher end renters in the downtown area are up around 14% since the start of the pandemic. It isn’t clear whether they will return.

The downtown is pretty large housing wise, and runs from the west part of Pioneer Square to Belltown to lower Capitol Hill. I know several people who live in the Pioneer Square area and right now the streets at night are rough. If a safe pedestrian core is created from the convention center to the Pike Place Market these downtown residents will still have to get there somehow, although my guess is for most it will be Uber/Lyft which do not need parking. I also lament more residents don’t want live in the downtown core, especially Urbanists as this is the only true density in Seattle, but for reasons I understand they don’t want to (housing costs and crime). Instead we upzone our residential neighborhoods, which I think is counterproductive because it changes the residential character of the neighborhood, and removes those residents from the downtown that needs population density to survive as an urban core.

Tourists usually don’t need parking, but they do need safe streets, and most hotels are outside the pedestrian corridor Mayor Rice proposed. I guess shuttles or Uber/Lyft can get them from the hotel to the pedestrian corridor. From what I have read, although commuters will likely decline post-pandemic tourism will increase post-pandemic, although I am not sure how attractive Seattle is right now for tourists (especially with a convention center under construction). Tourism is a good litmus test about how attractive your city is because tourists can pretty much go anywhere, for close to the same cost. Tourism is a very big part of revenue for a city like Seattle, and supports many service industries.

Finally you have the bulk of potential Seattle shoppers/diners/entertainment goers, and those are folks who live in outlying neighborhoods or cities and cannot walk to a pedestrian corridor from the convention center to the Pike Place Market. Since there will likely be many fewer commuters who stick around after work we are talking about specific, voluntary trips to Seattle to do something not available where they live. They have three methods to get to Seattle (if they want to go there): 1. transit; 2. Uber/Lyft; or 3. drive.

I am not sure about there being too much parking pre-pandemic in downtown Seattle. It certainly is not cheap, with a 20% parking tax on top. Meanwhile most eastside areas have free parking. If I remember correctly a big selling point for Westlake Mall was the city would subsidize parking, but I believe that has ended. If someone begins with a $15 parking cost to come into Seattle to shop or dine that isn’t much of an incentive. Remember, the first goal is to avoid the implosion of Seattle retail and dining, not get rid of cars.

Some citizens I suppose could take light rail and avoid Seattle’s streets, especially coming from the north, although how many will want to take a bus to a train to get to Seattle to dine or shop. Light rail won’t be completed to West Seattle and Ballard until 2035 and 2040 right now. I am not sure how popular the light rail milk run from Tacoma to south Seattle to a pedestrian corridor would be. I suppose East Link might be popular to take to Seattle, except it will be close to $8 round trip per person when it opens and will still require a drive to a park and ride, and any rider would have to bypass Redmond and Bellevue on their way to Seattle. As an eastsider I can tell you eastsiders like to drive, especially during non-peak times, and expect to park for free or close to it. Some Urbanists hate free parking, while eastside cities embrace it.

I guess in the end I would leave parking policy up to the retailers. I know last time Nordstrom objected to limiting driving and parking and said they would walk if parking and driving were not prioritized, and imagine they would object again if parking was restricted or too expensive. Of course Nordstrom and other retailers could just leave too.

Daniel Thompson

I thought this video would have produced more comments. Most of the cities cited by the person in the video (although in some ways these videos are informercials for a paid service) that have gone car free are older European cities that were built before cars and so simply don’t have the street width for cars (or parking, or transit), along with two new experimental northern cities with pretty complicated transit infrastructure from the ground up.

No American City, certainly one the size of Seattle, was noted in the video as having banned cars, and of course most U.S. cities have been developed with the car in mind from the beginning.

Although I highly doubt U.S. cities will suddenly go car free, there is an argument to be made post-pandemic for converting parts of city cores — especially Seattle — to a car free zone, and in fact this idea has been proposed before.

When Norm Rice was mayor Seattle’s retail scene was deteriorating. Frederick & Nelson closed their iconic store, and Nordstrom was threatening to leave Seattle, in large part due to many of the same issues as today: declining street safety especially between third and first back then, declining retail density, declining shoppers from outside Seattle’s core.

Mayor Rice began a lobbying process to keep Nordstrom, and to have Nordstrom actually buy and refurbish the Frederick & Nelson building, which attracted other developers to build retail malls or locations like Pacific Place and Westlake Mall. But Nordstrom objected to turning Pike Street into pedestrian only because it claimed its shoppers were car oriented and mainly from outside the city core, and demanded a sky bridge which is usually frowned upon by the Seattle Planning Dept. because it removes shoppers from the street (the Convention Center is another exception to the rule).

The thinking at the time was Pike would be a tree lined pedestrian path from the Convention Center past the Bon Marche to the Pike Place Market, and even then planners were thinking about replacing the Viaduct and connecting Seattle to the waterfront. Sam Israel had died, or would die soon after, and he owned the critical block that runs from Pike to Pine along first, that for reasons I can’t fathom still today has not been developed.

What a pretty idea.

Seattle today faces many of the same issues Norm Rice faced, plus a very large homeless population. At the same time eastside competition for retail is much stiffer, and the loss of the commuter from working from home could remove many shoppers and diners from Seattle retail and restaurants. Seattle is just not seen as an attractive destination to shop or dine on the eastside right now.

Ironically one of the worst places in Seattle today is from 3rd (really 4th now with the closure of Macy’s) to the Pike Place Market on Pine, same as Rice faced. Even before the pandemic hotels were telling customers to take a cab to the Pike Place Market from areas above 3rd, which is sad.

There is a sense among some that the need to reclaim Seattle and restore its safe streets and retail shoppers is just too large a project, from south of Yesler to Bell Town. Norm Rice faced the same hurdle, and so began with a gentrification process for a part of Seattle (which I can tell you from personal experience did not benefit Pioneer Square where the displaced went). So how about beginning with a part of downtown Seattle, its iconic heart of retail Norm Rice saved all those years ago, and resurrect Mayor Rice’s original vision of a pedestrian boulevard from the Convention Center to the Pike Place Market.

It would need to begin with very strong police patrols for this entire area to make it safe and secure for anyone walking, even at night, and some massive zoning changes and buy in from the retailers (who are probably thinking about leaving anyway). The old Sam Israel block at First and Pine/Pike needs to be developed, instead of the nudy show, It would also need adequate parking around the edges because to thrive this area will need shoppers and diners from the rest of Seattle and the Eastside, and overwhelming they will drive, except perhaps if light rail serves them so they can avoid the rest of Seattle’s streets to get to the this “safe area”.

It will take a new mayor, and maybe a new council, to take on such a bold vision that Rice took on, and not someone who sees a pedestrian corridor as anti-car, but pro-retail. I think if successful it would convince businesses and shoppers and diners Seattle can be reclaimed bit by bit, and hopefully creating a safe, retail rich pedestrian core will cause it to branch out block by block.

Otherwise I worry Seattle is going to see a very large reduction in commuters due to working from home, and won’t have the attractive retail and dining options to lure citizens from outside the retail core (which is declining in population), which will lead to more retail businesses and restaurants leaving this protentional pedestrian part of Seattle. If another anchor tenant like Nordstrom left I doubt this area could ever be revitalized.

asdf2

One thing I would like to see more of downtown is residential space. More people living downtown means more customers for downtown retailers who don’t care about parking which, in turn, makes opening retail space more attractive. It also creates “eyes on the street”, avoiding some of the safety issues you cite.

One thing downtown Seattle definitely does not need, however is more parking. Even before COVID, much of the downtown parking capacity wasn’t even used. If partial work from home becomes a new normal, the parking utilization rate will decline even further. There is absolutely no reason to replace downtown buildings with more parking lots.