Seattle will permanently close 20 miles of residential streets to most vehicle traffic

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A pedestrian crosses East Columbia Street in the Central District, which is closed to through traffic to give people space to walk and bike. (Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times)

Nearly 20 miles of Seattle streets will permanently close to most vehicle traffic by the end of May, Mayor Jenny Durkan announced Thursday.

The streets had been closed temporarily to through traffic to provide more space for people to walk and bike at a safe distance apart during the coronavirus pandemic.

Now the closures will continue even after Gov. Jay Inslee’s stay-at-home order is lifted.

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Over the next couple of weeks, the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) will replace the temporary closure signs on the so-called Stay Healthy Streets with permanent markings, guiding drivers to other routes.

The program, which has rolled out in phases, has been implemented in the Aurora-Licton Springs, BallardCentral District, West SeattleGreenwood, Othello, Rainier Beach and Beacon Hill neighborhoods.

Residents, delivery drivers, garbage and recycling workers, and emergency response vehicles can continue to use the streets, but no through traffic is allowed.

“Our rapid response to the challenges posed by COVID-19 have been transformative in a number of places across the city,” SDOT Director Sam Zimbabwe said. “Some of the responses are going to be long lasting, and we need to continue to build out a transportation system that enables people of all ages and abilities to bike and walk across the city.”

More streets could be closed to through traffic in the coming months, depending on community demand. SDOT will evaluate streets based on whether they reach dense areas, allow people to stay close to home and keep parks from getting crowded, among other factors.

Streets under consideration include Magnolia Boulevard, Lake Washington Boulevard and extensions to existing closures. Streets used by public transit or where bus drivers park for breaks won’t be closed.

The street-safety advocacy group Seattle Neighborhood Greenways, which led an early push to create more space for pedestrians and bicyclists, proposed converting 130 miles of streets to Stay Healthy Streets — a list that includes 45 miles of existing neighborhood greenways.

Zimbabwe called the Seattle Neighborhood Greenways plan ambitious. “We’re going to be as ambitious as resources enable us to be,” he said.

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Three miles of Stay Healthy Streets will be added Friday in Rainier Valley and a small portion of Beach Drive Southwest in Alki between 63rd Avenue Southwest and Alki Avenue will also close. Those additions will be evaluated by SDOT before becoming permanent, Zimbabwe said.

Bellevue will close 1.5 miles of residential streets to most vehicle traffic, the city announced Wednesday.

SDOT estimates spending between $100,000 and $200,000 on making the street closures permanent.

Despite an expected drop in tax revenue from the pandemic, Durkan pledged to continue expanding options for people to safely walk and bike around the city. For example, construction of bike infrastructure will be accelerated this year, she said.

“As we’re looking across our budget landscape, we’re doing everything we can to fill that significant deficit we have but we also know there are projects we’ve got to continue and accelerate to invest in the city we want to be when we come out of this,” the mayor said.

“That’s going to include a range of programs, both those that help people most in need and programs that really improve the public realm and public infrastructure,” she added.

SDOT also is adjusting the timing of traffic signals and pedestrian walk signals to give people more time to cross the street and avoid bunching.

Instead of pushing the arrow to request a walk signal, about 75% of the nearly 600 walking signals in denser parts of Seattle, including downtown, will be automated so people don’t need to touch a surface.

Zimbabwe said cities across the country are reevaluating their streets amid the pandemic. “We’re all looking to each other, and Seattle is rapidly responding to changes in how people are using streets,” he said.

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Michelle Baruchman: 206-652-6588 or mbaruchman@seattletimes.com; .