Skip to content

Deciding Between Cars And People On 23rd Ave

2013 April 22
by dan bertolet

The City of Seattle is currently weighing the options for an upgrade to 23rd Ave in the Central Area, the outcome of which will say everything about whether or not the City walks its own talk about creating places for people instead of cars. There is no room for compromise, literally. Due to space constraints, the only way that 23rd Ave can become a street that isn’t a hostile place for people and a dividing gash across the neighborhood is through removal of travel lanes.  And to do so means car capacity will be sacrificed.

The choice is clear: people or cars?  What’s it going to be, Seattle?

As shown in the video above shot at 23rd and Marion, much of 23rd Ave has four travel lanes squeezed into a 60-foot right-of-way that only leaves room for narrow sidewalks and no buffer between pedestrians and cars. It’s a scary, dangerous, and wretched place to walk. To parents of small children, a road like this is a constant source of anxiety, and for good reason.

I live half a block off 23rd Ave and for 15 years have experienced first hand how it severely degrades quality of life and compromises the City’s goals to create walkable neighborhoods. As I wrote in 2008:

Because walking along 23rd is a such a totally miserable experience, very few people do it, street life is dead, and 23rd is like a black hole cutting across the neighborhood. Pedestrian-oriented businesses fail. And street environments that repel pedestrians have a tendency to become havens for street crime — it is no coincidence that 23rd and Union, as well as 23rd and Cherry and other areas further south on 23rd Ave have had troubled histories.

23rd Ave is one of the City’s most important north-south arterials. But if the City decides that all four travel lanes must be preserved to maintain vehicular capacity, there is pretty much nothing significant that can be done to make 23rd Ave a more people-friendly street—there simply isn’t space.

The only way that 23rd Ave can be tamed is through the removal of travel lanes to open up space for wider sidewalks, bike lanes, or other buffers between moving cars and people on the sidewalk. Such a reconfiguration would also be expected to reduce speeding, which is rampant under current conditions.* But there is no question that removing travel lanes will also reduce capacity and increase traffic backups during peak periods. Complicating the issue further, a lane reduction could also increase travel times for Metro’s #48 bus line.

We can all acknowledge that this will be a difficult decision. Some folks will be outraged over the potential for worse traffic on 23rd Ave. But though it may be difficult, to me the right choice is obvious. Because creating neighborhoods where life without a car is an attractive option is one of the most important strategies for ensuring Seattle will be a city that can thrive through the coming decades of increasing resource constraints and climate change. We need places that are less about enabling cars to tear through on the way to somewhere else, and more about supporting human beings with feet on the ground.

These goals are widely agreed upon in the typical rhetoric of Seattle’s electeds, and are also supported by numerous adopted City policies.  What happens on 23rd Ave will be the pudding.


*After I petitioned the City for a crosswalk on 23rd at Marion St about ten years ago the City clocked cars passing through the area and found frequent speeding.