To make a path for the struggling streetcar, Seattle transit planners propose closing more lanes to cars in South Lake Union. I say: Don’t stop there. Close ’em all! Make the Amazon jungle a car-free zone, just as they have in Europe.
The poor South Lake Union streetcar can’t win for losing.
It was built to bring people to and fro between downtown and our hottest startup neighborhood. But now, after Amazon exploded, there’s so much toing and froing that the dang streetcar itself can’t get through.
It’s mired behind traffic to the point that ridership has plummeted. It ding-dings 15 hours a day through the hottest job center in the nation, yet it’s gotten so slow it carries 20 percent fewer riders today than it did six years ago.
So Tuesday city leaders talked about the inevitable: closing more road lanes in the Amazon jungle to cars. They proposed barring cars from one lane on three blocks of Terry Avenue North, as well as on two blocks of Fairview Avenue North. This follows the decision two years ago to close lanes to cars each way on Westlake Avenue so buses and the doddering streetcar could move through the mess.
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Yet even with all this, nobody was exactly forecasting rapid transit, for buses or the streetcar. A Seattle Department of Transportation official warned: “It’s going to be a continual struggle to keep blockages down, and to keep transit moving through there.”
Right. A continual struggle. That’s what we’re signing up for.
So how about we try something completely different. Something … European?
Let’s ban cars from South Lake Union altogether.
Seriously: Seattle’s glittering new neighborhood has grown so fast it’s choking on itself. It’s got the Mercer Mess and the Denny Disaster for the cars. But between those two quagmires, there now are so many thousands of blue-badged pedestrians ambling about with their phones that it’s increasingly difficult to drive through anyway.
The car and pedestrian interactions have become so comically dangerous that a recent time-lapse video of the mayhem made by an Amazon engineer from his office window made the news.
Something’s got to give. It’s the cars or the people. But it’s also the cars or the transit. We should boot out the cars.
I have suggested this before, after I visited some great Italian cities and their blissful car-free areas, called “zona traffico limitatos.” These are camera-enforced zones you can’t drive into unless you have the right license plate.
So my idea is that in South Lake Union, buses, streetcars, delivery vehicles and people who live there could enter. OK, since it’s Amazon, we’d have to let food trucks in, too. But otherwise, it’s a 30-block zone — bordered by Mercer to the north, Denny to the south, Fairview on the east and Dexter the west — where cars would be limitato. Cars could still travel on those crucial arterials as well as on Westlake, but not on the side streets in between.
It could be our own “Italianate car-free workers’ paradise,” as I wrote before. Or, if you prefer, it’d be the rejuvenation of the Seattle Commons idea. Because once the cars are restricted, some of the smaller streets could be turned into piazzas for the people.
As it is, we’re insanely building ginormous new parking garages, even as city planners admit the streets already are so clogged the transit can’t function.
A recent commuting study of nine downtown area neighborhoods found that workers in South Lake Union take transit less than any other, as well as drive alone more than most others. But, crucially, nearly one of five walks to work. That’s a walking rate two to four times higher than the other neighborhoods surveyed.
The point is: The transit to South Lake Union is terrible. The traffic’s making the transit worse. But the area is already chock-full of walkers. So it’s a prime candidate to be the one spot in the city where we just let the walkers win.
Oslo, Norway, is planning to ban cars from a 60-block area of its downtown. Madrid is doing the same. Their rationale is much the same as mine here: To make a pedestrian zone of respite. And allow transit to flourish.
Many of you will scoff that I’m tilting at windmills again. Probably true. But to me it beats what Seattle’s doing, which is stubbornly choosing continual struggle.