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Background

Nice new sidewalkSeattle has long been a leader when it comes to pedestrian initiatives:

  • The City was an early pioneer in the traffic calming movement, implementing neighborhood traffic calming projects that have since been emulated in cities and towns throughout the United States.
  • Seattle has implemented more road diets than any other city in the country, pioneering this strategy for reducing the number of travel lanes on arterial roadways, resulting in the improvement of walking and bicycling conditions.
  • Seattle has also served as a leader in pedestrian facility design. Along with creating a special signal warrant for pedestrian half signals, which resulted in 92 installations citywide, Seattle is becoming the first U.S. city to implement new guidance for uncontrolled marked crosswalks developed by the Federal Highway Administration in 2005.
  • The City is also a leader in the implementation of policies and ordinances that encourage walking, such as the City’s 2007 Complete Streets ordinance.

Despite its position as a national leader, Seattle is also a place of contrasts when it comes to walking conditions. In some neighborhoods, Seattle has achieved a high level of walkability. Neighborhoods such as Queen Anne, Capitol Hill, Wallingford, Columbia City, and Ballard have a commercial core that serves as a hub of activity and is easily accessible on foot. And yet, these accomplishments do not extend to all of Seattle’s neighborhoods, many of which have streets lacking sidewalks and curb ramps.

While Seattle has done much to enhance walking conditions, there is room for improvement. Walking conditions along and across streets with high traffic volumes are challenging, especially in locations that have long blocks and more suburban-scaled land uses. Free-flowing on-ramps and off-ramps for highways and major arterials can make pedestrian access difficult. These physical characteristics are barriers to walking in Seattle and the challenges they present are especially acute for people with disabilities and older residents. Despite the City’s leadership in the field, Seattle can learn from other communities that are also striving to improve pedestrian conditions.

Benefits of Walking

Man in motorized wheelchair on sidewalkThere are many benefits to be gained from walking. Walking is a viable means of transportation that promotes vibrant communities and helps to improve individual health and fitness. As cities grow, walking is a notable quality of life factor that plays an important role in residents’ decisions about where to live. Significant environmental, health, and other issues related to walking are discussed below.

  • Accessibility.Walking is the most broadly accessible form of transportation and recreation, requiring no fare, fuel, or license. For those who cannot use other modes of transportation, the ability to walk safely is essential. For young people, walking affords a sense of independence, and for seniors, walking is an effective means to stay active both physically and socially. According to the 2000 U.S. Census, 12% of the population in Seattle is 65 years or older. In addition, people living with disabilities are more likely to be pedestrians, as some physical limitations make driving difficult. More than 12% of Seattle residents over age five (or more than 66,000 people) live with a disability. [View maps of Children Under 18, Adults Over 65 and People with Disabilities that are 5-15, 16-64 and 65 and Over years old.] Given the large proportion of people in Seattle that are aging or that have a disability, universal design strategies are critical.
  • Economics. While some residents choose not to own a motor vehicle, others cannot afford one. In fact, in Seattle approximately 15% of the occupied housing units do not have an available vehicle. In many cases, because the average family must work for more than six weeks to pay a year’s car expenses, they choose walking as a more affordable option (U.S. Census, 1998 median family income figures). Seattle’s Comprehensive Plan recognizes the economics of walking versus driving in a policy to “promote public awareness of the impact travel choices have on household finances, personal quality of life, society, and the environment, and increase awareness of the range of travel choices available” (Seattle’s Comprehensive Plan, Toward a Sustainable Seattle, 3.9). [View maps showing Cars per Housing Unit and Median Household Income.]
  • Equity. Accessibility and economics are inherently tied to equitable transportation solutions, and the need to provide options for travel within the City cannot be overlooked. The City has a commitment to address issues of race and social justice, and the design and implementation of pedestrian projects is no exception. The Pedestrian Master Plan will provide for the needs of all of Seattle’s neighborhoods, with the goal of improving the walking environment for the City’s diverse populations.
  • Covered walkway Health. The health benefits of regular physical activity are far-reaching, including reduced risk of some forms of cancer, coronary heart disease, stroke, obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes, and other chronic diseases. In fact, research conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that “obesity is linked to the nation's number one killer—heart disease—as well as diabetes and other chronic conditions.” The report also states that one reason for Americans’ sedentary lifestyle is that “walking and cycling have been replaced by automobile travel for all but the shortest distances” (Journal of the American Medical Association, October 27, 1999). Ensuring adequate pedestrian facilities that incorporate universal design principals can help Seattle residents and visitors make walking part of their daily routine. As noted in the 2005 King County, WA Study of Land Use, Transportation, Air Quality, and Health (LUTAQH), “residents of the most walkable areas of King County were less likely to be overweight or obese and more likely to report being physically active” (Frank et al., September 2005, E3).
  • Environment. Seattle’s residents and elected officials have a long history of environmental leadership. For example, the Climate Action Now Plan commits the City to meet or exceed the Kyoto protocols for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Since transportation is the number one contributor to greenhouse gas emissions in the Seattle region, walking helps the City meet its commitment by reducing emissions from motor vehicles—the most significant polluter. Decreased pollution also has health benefits, as air pollution is an irritant that can trigger asthma attacks in children and adults. The health of the Puget Sound is also affected by our transportation choices—the number one pollutant flowing into the Sound is non-point source pollutants such as petrochemicals and heavy metals from automobile traffic.
  • Economic Vitality. Cities are increasingly recognizing that the pedestrian environment is a key element of economic vitality. Walkable neighborhoods typically have active streets that promote commercial exchange, while providing safe and efficient ways for residents to travel on foot. Seattle recognizes the role of the pedestrian environment in its urban village strategy, which is a comprehensive approach to planning for a sustainable future by concentrating growth and building on successful aspects of the City’s existing urban character. While improving the walking conditions in a neighborhood or urban village can positively impact the economic vitality of the area, it is typically the case that economically vital areas are generally more pleasant and more popular places to walk. The mix of uses and destinations makes walking trips feasible for a variety of purposes. In order to most effectively encourage walking in the City, it is important to think about increasing the quantity and quality of accessible destinations as well.
  • Quality of Life. Investing in safe and connected pedestrian facilities helps to ensure a high quality of life for residents as well as visitors. With approximately 40% of the land area of U.S. cities dedicated to transportation, streets and sidewalks are a city’s most expansive public space. Sidewalks ideally function as positive places to meet, play, live, work, and shop. People who live in areas where walking is comfortable and convenient are likely to be more familiar with their neighborhoods and to have richer social connections to their community. This is true for the full range of Seattle residents, from the youngest children to older adults and everyone in between.
  • Congestion. Traffic has a direct effect on walking conditions, pedestrian safety, and quality of life for local residents. Converting motor vehicle trips into walking trips (or walking/transit trips) can reduce the use of the personal automobile and reduce congestion on the City’s streets, while simultaneously improving climate and population health. Table 1 shows the number and percentage of people walking and taking public transportation to work in Seattle , as compared to a selection of other U.S. cities. The mode choice goals presented in the Seattle Comprehensive Plan are also discussed in the “Planning Context” section of this report. [View maps showing the Percentage of Workers Walking to Work, Traffic Flow and Arterial Speed Limits in Seattle.]

 






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