In this week’s Q&A, we ask why vehicles have access to the old roadway through Pike Place Market when it’s already clogged with pedestrians on busy days.
Tourists, yes, we see you — hands gripping the wheel and a look of confusion on your face as your car inches through a thick crowd of pedestrians clogging Seattle’s Pike Place at our famous downtown farmers market.
Pike Place Market, established in 1907, attracts thousands of people on foot daily, maneuvering in and out of stalls and stores bordering the cobblestone roadway.
As part of our Traffic Lab series of Q&As, we’re asking why vehicles have access to the old right-of-way when it’s already clogged with market patrons, farmers and others walking through the busy downtown area.
Full disclosure: This question came from a Seattle Times staffer. But it’s one that many of us have heard outside the newsroom, so we figured it was fair game.
Traffic Lab is a Seattle Times project that digs into the region’s thorny transportation issues, spotlights promising approaches to easing gridlock, and helps readers find the best ways to get around. It is funded with the help of community sponsors Alaska Airlines, CenturyLink, Kemper Development Co., Sabey Corp., Seattle Children’s hospital and Ste. Michelle Wine Estates. Seattle Times editors and reporters operate independently of our funders and maintain editorial control over Traffic Lab content.
Emily Crawford, a spokeswoman for the Pike Place Market Preservation & Development Authority (PDA), wasn’t surprised by our inquiry.
“We do get this question a lot!” she wrote in an email. “It used to be horses, buggies/wagons and the occasional car — then in the late teens and early 1920s, it was a whole lot of cars, which got everyone riled up — it’s a perennial issue.”
In other words, whether in a wagon or rental car, dodging people shopping for fresh produce and crafts, or those selling them, is a deeply rooted Seattle ritual.
“Foolishly turning down that street and spending 30 minutes to go 10 feet is part of the experience,” one person commented on a Reddit thread dedicated to the issue.
Driving on the road was even harder a century ago with the way farmers’ wagons and stands took up road space, according to the PDA. Add automobiles to the mix, and market organizers faced new pressure to keep the street clear and passable for traffic.
So why does the road remain open to vehicles? The market’s hundreds of vendors and businesses need easy access to their stalls, shops and restaurants for transporting goods, Crawford said. Some vendors also park their cars or trucks on the road and use them for storage.
“Pike Place is unique in that it is the only street where vehicles can access the Pike Place Market,” a spokesman for the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) said in an email. “To successfully remove vehicular traffic and create a pedestrian zone would require the support of adjacent property owners.”
When asked why vehicle access isn’t limited to delivery cars and trucks, Crawford said: “Pike Place is not a private street. It’s a public street with multiple access points.”
During some special events, such as the weekly Evening Farmers Market, which begins on May 31, market organizers temporarily block off vehicle access to stretches of the road. And during busy days, security staff can decide to close it, too, if they see significant traffic backup on First Avenue, Crawford said.
But as for a permanent, pedestrian-only designation, the SDOT spokesman said officials have worked with market organizers on the issue to no avail. He said they “hope to start discussions again” with groups such as the PDA.
Over the past decade, Crawford said city officials, along with the PDA, have studied traffic flow on Pike Place. Vehicles access the roughly 940-foot stretch, a one-way heading north, from Stewart Street, Pine Street or Pike Street off First Avenue.
In 2011, a one-week analysis during summer — the market’s busy period — found about 3,020 vehicles used the road daily, according to the report by SDOT. For perspective, 50,000 pedestrians could be moving through the area daily during the same period.
Crawford pointed to the new $74 million MarketFront expansion, which is set to open June 29, as an example of the PDA and city officials prioritizing pedestrians in the area. The project boasts 30,000 square feet of open space featuring a public plaza and viewing deck.
In the market’s history, no person has died or been critically injured in a traffic incident on Pike Place, according to PDA records.
A stand-up comedian in 2010, however, crashed his Subaru in the area of Stewart Street past First Avenue, injuring three pedestrians.
Got a question?
If you have a question or idea for Traffic Lab, send it to email@example.com. We may feature it in an upcoming column.