Third Avenue’s a mess.
Drivers ignore signs instructing them to stay off the street between 3 and 6:30pm, slowing the buses the rules were meant to help and making traffic worse for everyone. Loiterers block the intersection of Third and Pine, creating an inhospitable atmosphere. And much of the street is, frankly, an open-air drug market: In July, SPD officials told the city council they were seeing between $30,000 and $60,000 in crack sales in the area every day.
Chipping away at the edges of the problem—more cops, better lighting, crackdowns on scofflaw drivers—hasn’t worked. It might be time for a bolder solution: Shut the street down to traffic and turn it into a pedestrian mall.
In New York, under the direction of mayor Michael Bloomberg, seven blocks of Broadway became a pedestrian mall in 2009. Since then—despite dire warnings of sterile streetscapes, crime, and traffic snarls—tourism is up, crime is down, and while traffic in America’s biggest city still sucks, gridlock has failed to materialize.
So what’s to stop us from doing the same? Well, political reality. Ask anyone at the Seattle Department of Transportation, Sound Transit, the Seattle City Council, or King County Metro, and they’ll say the idea doesn’t have political legs—because, as city council transportation committee chair Tom Rasmussen puts it, “We need it for transit!”
What just might be viable, however, is a compromise: Kick the cars off Third, create two bus lanes in the center of the street, and turn the rest of the road into a haven for pedestrians and cyclists. Even better: Eliminate the dangerous bike lane on Second Avenue, which is positioned right in the path of opening doors and turning cars (Cascade Bicycle Club government affairs director Craig Benjamin calls it “a disaster—one of the most frightening bike lanes in the city”) and move all the tunnel buses onto the surface, improving the reliability of light rail in the tunnel.
Rasmussen says the city hasn’t studied the impacts a carless Third would have on nearby streets—an analysis that would have to take into account tolls on the new downtown tunnel replacing the Alaska Way Viaduct, which are expected to push many drivers onto surface streets. But, he says, he’s definitely “interested in exploring the idea.”
This doesn’t require reinventing the wheel. Effective examples of car-free streets already exist. In Denver, where transit (in their case, a shuttle that runs along the center of a pedestrian mall, created in 1982 and extended in 2001 and 2011 to stretch from one end of downtown to the other) has completely transformed a downtown that used to roll the streets up at 5. Denver is obviously a very different city than Seattle—flat, sprawling, and very car oriented—but it shares some of Seattle’s demographic realities, including the fact that the Denver area, like the Seattle area, is expected to gain one million new residents in the next 20 years. Today, Denver’s downtown is a bustling hive of activity day and night, full of shops, bars, theaters, and restaurants. What would Seattle rather have—a place to hurry through on the way to somewhere safer, or a real downtown destination?