20 Miles of Seattle Streets Will Soon Close Permanently to Most Cars

During the pandemic, Seattle closed streets in eight neighborhoods, with vehicular access permitted only for residents, delivery drivers, garbage and recycling workers, and emergency responders. (Photo: Nick Falbo [CC BY-SA 2.0]/Flickr)

Seattle, a city well-known for its embrace of sustainable transportation initiatives, is moving to permanently close 20 miles of streets to nonessential traffic. The move, expected to take effect at the end of May, is the next phase for neighborhood roads already temporarily closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

"Our rapid response to the challenges posed by COVID-19 have been transformative in a number of places across the city," SDOT Director Sam Zimbabwe told the Seattle Times. "Some of the responses are going to be long lasting, and we need to continue to build out a transportation system that enables people of all ages and abilities to bike and walk across the city."

In an effort to promote social distancing and allow people to exercise and enjoy the outdoors during the pandemic, Seattle shuttered streets in eight city neighborhoods, with vehicular access permitted only for residents, delivery drivers, garbage and recycling workers, and emergency responders. Called the "Stay Healthy Streets" initiative, officials say the positive response to the closures signals a potential shift in how the city will reduce traffic and encourage biking, walking, and public transportation in the future.

"As we assess how to make the changes that have kept us safe and healthy sustainable for the long term, we must ensure Seattle is rebuilding better than before," Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan wrote in a blog post. "Stay Healthy Streets are an important tool for families in our neighborhoods to get outside, get some exercise and enjoy the nice weather. Over the long term, these streets will become treasured assets in our neighborhoods."

The city expects the permanent transition, which will include signs and new barriers, to cost anywhere between $100,000 to $200,000 to implement.

The rise of 'open streets'

An 'open streets' event in Minneapolis in 2018.
An 'open streets' event in Minneapolis in 2018. (Photo: Fibonacci Blue [CC by 2.0]/Flickr)

Seattle's decision to permanently close miles of streets comes as other cities around the country are experimenting with similar closures. New York City, which in May shuttered 9 miles of roads to nonessential vehicles as part of its Open Streets initiative, recently announced it was adding an additional 12 miles of closures. In Oakland, California, officials there shuttered 74 miles, about 10% of the city's streets, to vehicles.

Like Seattle, the initiatives are designed to give pedestrians and cyclists room to maintain proper social distancing while enjoying the outdoors during the pandemic. Whether others will follow in Seattle's footsteps to make the moves permanent is questionable, but it's clear that a more sustainable U.S. will need to embrace fewer cars on the road. The pause during the pandemic is offering a kind of proof-of-concept that might otherwise have taken many more years to implement.

"In that shift, urbanists see a chance to save city dwellers not just from the sweep of a pandemic, but from the auto-centric culture that has dominated urban life for decades," writes Alex Davies for Wired. "They want to prioritize the movement of people — pedestrians, cyclists, transit users, and their ilk — over cars."

To that end, Seattle is also making changes to how pedestrians move about downtown. The city recently adjusted nearly 800 traffic signals to reduce the time people need to wait to cross. They've also reprogrammed a majority of walk signals to show automatically without the need to press a button.

"Just like we must each adapt to a new normal going forward, so, too, must our city and the ways in which we get around," said Seattle Department of Transportation Director Sam Zimbabwe. "That is why we're announcing a nimble, creative approach towards rapidly investing in a network of places for people walking and people biking of all ages and abilities and thinking differently about our traffic signals that make pedestrians a greater priority.

"Despite the many challenges we face, 2020 will remain a year of thoughtful, forward progress as we build a safer, more livable Seattle for all."