Recently some folks have been floating around the idea of making certain streets in the Pike/Pine neighborhood off limits to cars during weekend nights. To prove that I am not a fundamentalist car hater, let me say this: It's a silly idea.
A potential benefit such closures would be the hype and identity that would promote the local night time businesses. But I think what grabs most people's imaginations is the idea of pedestrians taking the street back from cars. And while that's a wonderful idea in principle, that doesn't mean it makes sense to do it everywhere.
One of the likely targets is Pike Street between Broadway and 12th, but the thing is that strip works just fine with cars in it. The striped crosswalks are fairly well respected by drivers. Because there is so much activity around the street, car speeds tend to be relatively slow. Cars and pedestrians and bikes all coexist to create a healthy urban street energy.
If the cars were removed, however, the space would be much too big, and all that energy would lose its punch because it would become too unfocused and diffuse. Pike is a wide street---about 80 feet from building face to building face---and that's a formidable swath of empty pavement (check out the photo at the top).
It's a wonderfully transformative scene when filled with people, as in the photo above on Pike Street during the Capitol Hill Block Party. But under normal conditions there would never be enough people around to activate all that horizontal space between the curbs. And people don't feel comfortable in large, barren open spaces with no activity. This is why we end up with dead plazas and failed pedestrian malls.
A better way to foster the pedestrian environment on Pike Street would be to narrow down the car travel lanes and widen the sidewalks. As is evident in the photo above, the ~12-foot sidewalk on the south side of Pike doesn't cut it.* How about we take out the center turn lane and give that space to the sidewalks?
Such a move would reduce car capacity on Pike Street (gasp!)---indeed, it's a classic example of the inescapable conflict between driving and walking. But if there's any place in the City where the pedestrian realm should take priority over car capacity, Pike/Pine is it. The "visual friction" created by a narrowed street would keep traffic slow, and make it both safer and more comfortable for pedestrians.
To compliment wider sidewalks, we also need to keep pushing for policy that promotes street life. In typical Seattle fashion, the City has struggled to update obsolete code that restricts sidewalk cafes and street food vending. Why does it have to turn into a multi-year process to do away with the stupid rule that limits street food to hot dogs, pretzels, popcorn, and coffee? (Psst, hey there "green" Seattle, hot dogs are not exactly the most sustainable choice of food.)
Beyond regulations, there are all kinds of possibilities. In Copenhagen cafe owners give blankets to their patrons and put space heaters out on the sidewalk. In Seattle, rain is an issue, so how about some creative ideas for more extensive weather protection over sidewalks?
So there you have it folks: Car Hater on the record coming out against taking cars off city streets. The Pike/Pine neighborhood is among the Seattle's best opportunities for creating a flourishing sidewalk cafe culture, but banning cars isn't going to help us get there, and could, in fact, be counterproductive.
*An aside: Those puny tables squeezed on to the sidewalk came in handy for me and my family the other day because children aren't allowed to sit inside in the booths at Big Mario's Pizza due to Seattle's asinine alcohol rules. When, oh when, will our fair city become civilized?