Tuesday, 31 March, 2020

Advocates Urge City to Open More Streets to Pedestrians and Cyclists During the COVID-19 Epidemic

A family of cyclists rides without having to worry about car traffic on "Bicycle Sunday," scheduled dates in which a portion of Lake Washington Boulevard is closed to motor vehicles. (Credit: Seattle Parks and Recreation)

Last week Rainier Valley Greenways and Safe Streets (RVGSS) submitted a letter to the Seattle City Council and Mayor Jenny Durkan requesting that the City open a segment of Lake Washington Boulevard to pedestrians and cyclists for the duration of the COVID-19 stay-at-home order. RVGSS also called for the City to implement traffic calming measures on Rainier Avenue South, the highest collision corridor in the city, citing the need to do more to prevent crashes during a time in which medical care and supplies may be overstretched due to the pandemic.

The stay-at-home order includes allowances for essential errands and daily outdoor exercise so long as people maintain social distancing while out in their neighborhoods. You may have already noticed it’s actually pretty tricky to maintain the mandated six feet of separation when sharing Seattle’s sidewalks with other pedestrians–which is often due to skimpy sidewalk widths and cluttered sidewalk designs.

Outside of certain arterial streets with RapidRide bus routes in Downtown, the minimum width for a sidewalk in Seattle is six feet. While the additional width that comes with space allotted to the building frontage and furniture/landscape zones that abut sidewalks can sometimes offer up more space, as the visual below demonstrates, those areas are not guaranteed to be clear of obstacles. Sidewalks are designed for pedestrians to travel in close proximity to each other, especially when passing.

Nathan Talks to NPR and Slate About That Virus


Well, everyone else is talking about it. Here I am trying to be extra diplomatic while still being interesting and truthful. The Slatearticle is derived from an interview that was repurposed into a first-person account; I didn’t actually pen those words (as anyone familiar with my writing will quickly glean), but did speak their meaning to the interviewer. Hope you enjoy.

Perfecting Issaquah Light Rail

Aerial view of Issaquah. (Credit: City of Issaquah)

Among all the Link light rail extensions unleashed by Sound Transit 3 (ST3) lurks a weakest link: the Purple Line to Issaquah. But we can fix that. 

It starts and ends at a parking lot.

If it were built as currently planned, its Issaquah terminus would be one mile away from its city center and almost 4.5 miles away from the Issaquah Highlands. With its current routing, the Purple Line is set to become yet another compromise in favor of the Eastside’s currently car-oriented landscape. That’s arguably because the Purple Line is public transport designed for now. Sound Transit spending a few billion dollars building a light rail to the low-rise “downtown” of Issaquah is simply not feasible at the present day. But to the park-and-rides with wide, glamorous parking spaces for hundreds of cars? Maybe.

Regardless, it’s important to first note that both Issaquah expects its population to grow by over 17,000 people by the time the Purple Line opens in 2041. Much of the growth is likely to be accommodated by dense mixed-use development, a stark contrast to existing land use patterns. The Purple Line designed for today simply will not fit the Issaquah from the tomorrow. It would have insufficient connections to central areas and is a missed opportunity to transit-centered living.

So instead of pouring billions into a Purple Line that’s only half-completed, let’s design one that accommodates future growth and the people that growth brings. It’s important to start planning early for this proposed extension so that the cities can grow into and around light rail. 

First stop: Gilman at 7th Ave NW and NW Gilman Blvd. Gilman Station builds upon the City of Issaquah’s plans (Central Issaquah Plan) for the area around the station to be part of Issaquah Valley, the city’s new mixed-use urban core. The City is working to zone the surrounding area as higher-density, mixed-use development. Light rail works in perfect harmony with that dense development: residents can enjoy a more walkable immediate neighborhood while light rail connects them with destinations further afield so they can ditch cars altogether. The key here is access: optimally, transit should be located within a half mile of all residents; this holds especially true in a car-dominated suburb like Issaquah where easy access to transit needs to be seriously considered in order to get residents out of their cars. Hence, Gilman Station can work together with Central Issaquah Station (about a mile away) to improve accessibility and promote denser, transit-oriented development (TOD).

What We’re Reading: Failure To Test, Greater Eastside Transit, and Economic Shock


Hunker down: Washington Governor Jay Inslee has issued a mandatory order that residents stay home to slow the spread of COVID-19. Meanwhile, local businesses have tried to adapt by moving to a to-go model.

Victory gardening: The coronavirus epidemic is bringing back World War II-era “victory gardens”.

Failure to test: How did the Trump administration squander a month of slowing and detecting the spread of COVID-19 ($)?

Transportation funding continues: Car tabs will continue to be collected under an order by a King County judge ($) while I-976 continues to be fought in higher courts.

Death cult: Using the coronavirus epidemic as a policy excuse, the Trump administration has had the United States Environmental Protection Agency take the reckless action to suspend vital environmental protections and regulations.

Tougher fight: With the pandemic in full swing, it could make fighting fires in Washington much more challenging.

Pandemic forecast: How could the pandemic unfold in the Puget Sound Region and affect healthcare systems?

Field hospital: CenturyLink Field Events Center will become a field hospital for COVID-19 patients. Medical staff from the United States Army have arrived to operate the facility.

Greater Eastside transit: Transit cartographer Oran Viriyincy has created a new Greater Eastside transit map.

Tragedy struck: A Community Transit bus operator has died of COVID-19.

Falling ridership: Washington State Ferries will stay on a winter schedule through April 25th while Amtrak Cascades will further cut back service due to the coronavirus epidemic. Meanwhile, King County Metro’s ridership is cratering.

High-speed hospitals: France is using the high-speed rail network to move patients across the country to reduce local pressure on healthcare systems.

Falling traffic: How much has traffic fallen in the United States in the past week due to the coronavirus epidemic?

Condemnation proceedings: Sound Transit is suing Microsoft in order to advance elements of the East Link light rail project ($).

Will history repeat?: What is the history of the housing market and the effects of a major epidemic?

Economic shock: More than 3.3 million Americans have filed for unemployment ($) due to the coronavirus epidemic and economic shutdown.

Green stimulus: What would a Green stimulus recovery plan look like in a post-coronavirus era?

Financial jolt: A $2 trillion bill to maintain social security and economic energy has passed Congress in the midst of the coronavirus epidemic. $25 billion will go to public transit agencies, much of which will cover operational expenditures as revenues fall.

Not essential: Governor Jay Inslee has clarified that most construction work is not essential while his stay at home order is in force.

Sunday Video: The Rise Of The Stadium District


Dave Amos at City Beautiful takes a look at the newish stadium district trend that pairs new arenas and stadiums with mixed-used, urban development. Is it any better than the old suburban model of fringe locations with seas of surface parking?

Back Door Man


Every bus driver has experienced this.

There are many reasons people disregard the needs of others. Some are cultural, and some personal, ingrained by role models or lack thereof. Certain folks don’t consider others because they are young, and the last part of the brain to develop is also the portion concerned with empathy. It’s a survival mechanism; as a child you need to prioritize yourself to survive.

Other folks are older but just don’t have the brain development. Hard drug use is quite literally brain damage, and if you start using before the age of 25 (the age the brain fully matures), your brain will stop growing.* If you manage to kick your habit before 25, your brain is able to complete development, even if the process is delayed; but if you keep using past 25, your brain will never complete its maturation. For the rest of your life, you’ll be wandering around in an adult body but stuck with the emotional capability of a teenager, and you’ll wonder why existence seems so much easier for other people. Oh, Life. It can be so forgiving… except when it isn’t.

Still other people are self-absorbed for less dramatic reasons. They didn’t have parenting that encouraged caring or empathy. Maybe they were spoiled. Or they have cultural standards that look dismissive from the outside—differing concepts of personal space or noise, for example. Perhaps they are experiencing crises situations which require focus on themselves; the survival mechanism again.

Riding into the Future

A dodo on a bike along the industrial waterfront. (Reed Olson)
Will humanity go the way of the dodo? (Reed Olsen)

Living In Seattle, I am flooded with calls and texts from loved ones across the continent inquiring if we are OK. It is a warm feeling amongst the darkness how we mobilize and show up for each other. 

“I’m off to do a grocery run for my friend because he can’t leave the house,” I say, closing a call.

“How are you gonna do that, you don’t have a car?” exclaimed my dear friend.

The following pause had made it clear that the eye roll I am infamous for was piercing through the phone straight at him. Conversations like these are basically platitudes for commuting cyclists, but they bear repeating. In times of disaster, these conversations are telling of our collective conditioning. Even with this friend, who was once a candidate for a cross country bike tour with me. 

It is the 17th of March, 2020. I saddle up and ride out to greet the day. Seattle is sunny, warm, with a brisk wind. It is quiet. One can hear the birds. Without the roar of the nearby road, I can hear the flapping of crows wings overhead. The obvious is made clear and I am struck by the basic truth that yes, birds flapping their wings make noise. You just could not hear it before. Telling. 

The spread of COVID-19 in Seattle, while deadly serious, has shifted longstanding paradigms to a new normal overnight. There is opportunity in the cracks to ponder what kind of world we want and could have as we residents all dream of a return to normal. For a brief moment in the stillness, I imagine a future of my dreams. 

In the last four years while living in Seattle, I have seen what can only amount to a double-speak of residents: media and politicians voicing a concern for climate change while giving a free pass to cars, only to turn around and express dread for the city’s growing traffic problem. As a city, we are ranked as one of the worst in the country for congestion. Local radio station KUOW has initiated a reporting series on transportation and mobility in Seattle, and I have yet to hear the bicycle mentioned as a serious form of transport or remedy to the problem. The Seattle Times recently wrote a piece on new Amazon building construction in Bellevue, focusing on the congestion disruption. Again, no mention of incentivizing cyclists. Elected officials offering “we are a car-centric city.”

“A lot of people never use their initiative because no-one told them to.”


New York City just released a million dollar ad campaign with Billy Idol to encourage drivers to, well, not idle their cars and trucks. As an artist/illustrator, what I want to propose is a cycling public-relations campaign, invoking the PSA works of the New Deal era. Using the power of visual art to make the act of cycling both racially- and class-inclusive as well as the key ingredient: irresistible. We so often frame these conversations about what we have to lose, how about what do we have to gain? What would the stepping stones to that future look like? What kind of stories or narratives do we want to tell? My goal is to motivate, inspire, and draw wider, more inclusive circles in the world of cycling.  

Below is an assembly of my playfully polished visual thoughts on the matter…

Don’t Blame Density for Pandemics

Time Square is a good place to avoid pandemic or no. (Photo by Doug Trumm)
Time Square is a good place to avoid pandemic or no. (Photo by author)

If you’re a newspaper columnist or governor of New York, a pandemic is a great time to trot out medieval myths, repackage them like new, and feast on everyone’s anxiety to bring antiquated ideas into vogue once more. And that’s how you end up with “density is to blame” takes on COVID-19 running in the New York Times.

It’s also how Andrew Cuomo–governor of the state with the largest city in America–can tweet “density is destructive” and not be laughed into retirement. Perhaps if Governor Cuomo had sooner instituted a shelter-in-place order he could have used his high office to solve the problem. Instead he’s casting blame like any other Twitter troll.

The contention is nearly preposterous enough to defeat itself, but many urbanists gave it some help. Emily Badger corrected her breathless colleague with a “density is good” response that is definitely worth the read.

Many pointed out that countries that have most excelled at containing COVID-19 are among the densest. South Korea and Japan have two of the largest cities in the world with Tokyo and Seoul and yet have been remarkably effective at containing the spread, making tests widely available, and tracking down people who were exposed and likely infected to quarantine them and cut off the spread. Density didn’t prevent them from rising to the occasion.

And so Americans are left helpless reading dumb “must be the density” takes while sheltering in place at home and wishing we had the nimbleness of Japan or South Korea in responding–not to mention the density of Tokyo or Seoul that makes it likely a neighborhood has everything you need within walking distance.