Livability would flourish in surrounding neighborhoods if cars were removed from one of Seattle’s deadliest and most polluted streets.
Today’s Aurora Avenue in Seattle is a wall, a loud, dangerous, polluted wall that divides communities. However, solving Aurora’s problems also provide an exciting opportunity to rethink sustainable mobility, undertake visionary climate protection, add ample social housing, and provide much needed high quality open space.
Doing so would require a bold change: removing car traffic from Aurora and replacing it with tramways, bike lanes, and parks and plazas at intersections.
Critics might say that such a change is impossible, but cities the world over are re-thinking mobility in the midst of changing work patterns due to Covid, our worsening climate crisis, and the pedestrian safety crisis. Visionary Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo is in the process of removing half of the on-street parking spaces and converting them to parks, wider sidewalks, and bike lanes. Cities from large to small are developing plans to remove cars, while simultaneously increasing livability and mobility. Amsterdam, which was choked with traffic in the 60s and 70s, is at the forefront of this — but they aren’t stopping with where they are today. The Agenda Amsterdam Autoluw (Autoluw is Dutch for nearly car-free) includes incredible transformations — both underway, and in planning — to make space for green mobility, eliminate thousands of on-street parking spaces, and ensure a healthier and cleaner city for present and future residents.
The International Panel on Climate Change report released in August also highlighted how climate change is, at this point, inevitable. Drastic courses of action will be needed to slow the extent of warming, as well as mitigate and ruggedize against unavoidable long-term effects. Seattle’s heat dome may no longer be an anomaly — wildfire smoke now has its own season — and we are constantly reminded of the devastation that downpours can do — Germany’s floods from this summer alone will cost $35 billion for recovery.
Unfortunately, Seattle’s own climate goals will continue to be missed with a mayor and transportation department that continue to prioritize the least sustainable form of transportation over efficiency and livability. Seattle is in the midst of a massive housing crisis, and a deepening climate crisis, exacerbated by our city’s inability to meet our climate goals. The main reason we are unable to meet our climate goals is private transportation. Simply replacing combustion engine vehicles with electric vehicles does nothing to address the worsening pedestrian safety crisis, the embodied carbon of parking and sprawl, rampant noise pollution, or the die-off of salmon populations. Without a re-visioning around sustainable movement of goods and people, Aurora Avenue will stand as a stark memorial — much as the SR-99 tunnel does — of failed leadership on climate action and safe, livable streets.
The current situation sets up a future environmental justice disaster
There are four Urban Villages (UVs) that straddle or abut Aurora Avenue — Fremont, Wallingford, Aurora-Licton Springs, and Bitter Lake. Greenwood’s UV boundary is just a few blocks to the west. These UVs all have massive deficiencies of park and open space, with almost no major spaces planned to be added in the future. However, much of the land on either blockface of Aurora is zoned for buildings 55 feet to 75 feet in height. Thus, as Aurora continues to develop, it will see five- to seven-story buildings along either side. Unlike in walkable European and Asian cities, this density steps down quickly to low-rise and single-family housing. An Aurora with fully developed buildings on either side would put thousands of residents directly facing an incredibly dangerous street on which few given the choice would prefer to live.
Nearly half of Aurora Avenue doesn’t have sidewalks. It is also one of the noisiest streets in Seattle. Motorists routinely drive double the speed limit, and it remains one of the deadliest streets in the city with yet another deadly crash just last week. All of this occurs with six elementary schools, two middle schools, four high schools, several private schools, and at least 30 preschools and daycare centers within a half mile of the road. Our families avoid walking or biking on it due to its numerous problems, and trying to cross in the handful of places where it is actually legal requires waiting several minutes. I personally can’t imagine living on Aurora. Simply adding tens of thousands of new residents on it, as many people advocated for during Housing Affordability Livability Agenda (HALA) outreach a few years back — without addressing the pollution, noise, and safety impacts, let alone its inaccessibility, will do nothing to make for future livable neighborhoods in the corridor. Instead, business patrons, children and families frequenting nearby schools, and new residents will be situated in an environmental justice disaster. There is, however, another way forward.