Move Over, Rover

Social Distancing Is Impossible on Most Seattle Sidewalks

How wide are they, exactly, and where are the best spots for pedestrians to roam in peace? We've got answers.

By Benjamin Cassidy March 31, 2020

Image: Jane Sherman

In recent weeks, a new bad guy has emerged in Seattle: the runner. Yeah, maybe they’ve been a little obnoxious at times over the years, what with their “26.2” bumper stickers and “PRs,” but the most fit among them have also long been hailed as paragons of healthy living. Now, they’re being decried as just the opposite. In a world of social distancing, a panting marathoner slipping by you on the sidewalk is no longer just mildly annoying; it’s a potential hazard to your health.

Yet, runners have a pretty good defense for what may seem like selfish behavior. While public officials continue to say that it’s critical for us to stay six feet away from each other and occasionally go for walks and runs to maintain our sanity, doing both is quite literally impossible on most Seattle streets. According to Seattle Department of Transportation data, just 6.9 percent of the city’s 46,271 sidewalks have unobstructed pedestrian zones greater than six feet. In other words, if two people are passing one another on 93.1 percent of the city’s sidewalks, they’re definitely not adhering to our social distancing decree.

Last I checked, though, the human body isn’t as wide as a toothpick, so let’s bump that width threshold up to 102 inches, or the average space (roughly) two human bodies take up plus six feet in between them. Only 1,254 sidewalks meet that standard, or 2.7 percent. Keep in mind about a quarter of Seattle streets don’t even have walkways.

Now, the unobstructed pedestrian zone doesn’t comprise the entire sidewalk. Landscape/furniture areas, with plants, poles, and hydrants, supplement and sometimes even exceed the width of the designated walking space. Combining those two areas’ widths changes our perception of the problem; if they’re added together, 61.3 percent of sidewalks equal or exceed 102 inches.

But that magic number of eight and a half feet only applies when two people are passing one another. It doesn’t account for stubborn hand-holding couples (single file for a sec is just too hard, guys?) and strollers. And even if it’s just a one-on-one sidewalk encounter, who wants to spend their walks and runs maneuvering around trash cans and trampling plants, or stopping next to them, a la hikers on narrow trails?

The answer, as demonstrated by the many who are now ambling out into our (less trafficked, but still dangerous) streets and crowding our parks, is not many. So, using the city’s data visualization via Esri’s ArcGIS maps, we’ve found some areas where you can walk (or run) in peace, without ever having to leave the sidewalk.


Normally, it might seem counterintuitive to venture to the city’s hub to socially distance, but with businesses well into WFH life or takeout-mode, these streets are fairly empty, which means there’s a whole lot of unoccupied sidewalk to roam: Unlike most of the city, pedestrian zones have to be at least eight feet wide downtown. Elsewhere, six is the standard. Here’s a pretty typical block in Queen Anne that is filled with 72-inch sidewalk widths.

What lots of six-foot sidewalk pedestrian zones look like.

Now, compare that to the downtown area, where Pike and Pine offer long stretches of elbow room. (The thicker the orange line, the greater the width.)

Pike and Pine may actually be fairly easy streets on which to socially distance.

Stadium Central

The Mariners and Sounders might be out of commission for a while, but that doesn’t mean you have to avoid this area that’s flush with several wide walkways.

Not as many sidewalks as some areas of Seattle, but very roomy ones.


Hubbard Homestead Park offers its own walkways, but parts of Third Avenue and beyond in this neighborhood have a 12-foot sidewalk width.

Don't sleep on these walkways.


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