Green street in Seattle: over the long term, will it put the City in the red?

By this point, the term “green building” has more or less entered common parlance: even if a sizable majority of people don’t know exactly what it entails, they can form a reasonably well-educated guess from the adjective. And, extending those contextual cues, they can speculate with similar accuracy on “green design”, since it loosely applies the same figurative use of “green”. Then there’s “green construction”. And we all should “think green”, and do our best to “live green”. Maybe, to a certain extent, at least some of us ascribe to the principles of the Green Party. Rinse and repeat.

And while we can probably stretch those same semantic fundamentals to speculate on what a “green street” might look like, the reality may not align with most people’s perceptions. The City of Seattle, though, is striving to bring a certain green street incarnation to sundry neighborhoods across the municipal limits. And, in the spring of 2014, the City officially cut the ribbon on the first of its green streets.DSCF4160Bell Street may share the surname of the Belltown neighborhood that it sprawls across, but it’s hardly the primary arterial. In fact, it’s little more than a local road that links the popular Denny Park to the north with Pier 66 along the waterfront. It does, however, sit squarely within its neighborhood, a formerly underutilized industrial quarter that has exploded in recent years with mixed use development. As a result, Belltown has metamorphosed into a primary arts and entertainment district just northwest of downtown and Seattle’s most densely populated neighborhood. Concomitant with this growth in population came a demand for green space, which this nascent green street aims to satisfy by unconventional means.Bell Street green street

 

Sure, it’s still a street, affording access to all the residences that front it. And the predominant color remains the gray of its various paving surfaces, not the green or even the emerald from which Seattle has earned its nickname. But the figurative green of “green design” rarely achieves that literal combination of yellow and blue. Regardless, Bell Street is unequivocally greener (in the figurative sense) than your average urban residential street.DSCF4156Previously two lanes and one way, Bell Street has, thanks to the City’s interventions, morphed into a one-lane street across four blocks (still one way…obviously), where pedestrians, bicyclists, transit and cars share the cartway equally. The strategic, regular placement of rain gardens at the shoulders not only add to the verdure and help manage stormwater in this notoriously rainy city, they appear in alternating fashion on either side of the street, resulting in a chicane-styled formation that forces vehicles to swerve, slalom-style, and preventing them from moving too quickly.DSCF4164The design is slightly more visible on the photo below, in which a bicyclist approaches Bell Street on the right side.DSCF4165Bulb-outs and distinctive textures make the pedestrian crossings particularly safe.DSCF4166DSCF4157

 

A narrative from National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) provides a much more detailed description of the amenities conferred to Bell Street, some site plans, and a few superior before/after photos. The overall impression is that the green street offers a reprieve for non-motorized traffic, without ever fully excluding vehicles. Most of the road-diet and traffic-calming strategies are fairly conventional, but I was particularly taken by one that is visible in the photo below:DSCF4161Can you see what I’m talking about? If not, here’s a closer look:DSCF4169Each intersection forces a right turn, though buses and bicycles are exempt.

 

While I’m sure this strategy exists at least somewhere else in the U.S., perhaps on roadway even shorter than Bell Street, it’s obviously rare. About the only other time I’ve witnessed forced right turns at a four-way intersection was in certain neighborhoods in Chicago, but in those cases (to the best of my understanding), the design intended to deter speedy vehicular escapes in high-crime areas, and City of Chicago re-engineered the four-way intersection into two tangent 90-degree angles, resulting in a physically forced right turn rather than a regulatory one, as is the case in Seattle. The traffic management tactic on Bell Street is apparently a late-stage addition. According to the NACTO article, the installation of the chicanes, bulb-outs, and other more conventional traffic calming measures did not substantially reduce the daily volume of cars much more than 10%–which was insufficient to elevate the street into a welcoming linear park for pedestrians. Six months after the spring 2014 opening, the City introduced these regulatory effects, which compel motorized vehicles to turn off of Bell Street at the first opportunity. Thus, the green street is not a through-street, and motorists who seek to traverse between Denny Park and Pier 66 must choose one of the neighboring streets.

 

The tactic seems to have successfully reaffirmed Bell Street’s new function as a green street, a demi-park in a high density area where the comparative scarcity of privately owned yards consequently puts public green space at a higher premium. I’m still not sure what I think about it in terms of the functional classifications of roads, for which the FHWA provides a more nuanced breakdown, but the fundamentals are what most of us know (or can easily figure out): primary arterials, secondary collectors, and tertiary locals. Arterials are fewest in number and the design should emphasize efficiency and distance traveled over higher speeds, while locals are more about maximizing access to the land cover, typically at lower speeds because they serve mostly residential areas. Bell Street in Seattle fell under the “local” classification prior to its conversion to a green street, and, today, it remains local. By most metrics, the forced right turns do not undermine its functional classification, since local roads by design to not serve motorists well for going long distances. So, by this metric, the forced right turn works just fine.

 

However, local roads in urban settings operate differently from their rural or even suburban counterparts. Relatively few suburban local roads—often curvilinear and terminating in cul-de-sacs—serve anything other than very low-density residential. Urban local roads often remain constrained to a grid, which is the most efficient configuration for handling a density of users that engage with a higher variety of land uses: residential, commercial, retail, perhaps office or industrial. And forced right turns undermine the very interconnectedness and versatility that serves the urban latticework so well. The photo below effectively delineates this predicament:

DSCF4167DSCF4170

 

On a northern end of the area in question, just a bit outside of its “green street” improvement, an incipient skyscraper presides over the minor residential street. Not yet complete when I took these photos (spring of 2015), the skyscraper now injects a tremendous residential density onto the streets that it fronts, including modest Bell Street. The streetside pocket parks no doubt appeal greatly to the skyscraper’s many residents, and presumably the majority of them capitalize on the walkability of Belltown by minimizing their use of private vehicles. But a residential high-rise at this scale will inevitably reintroduce some of the traffic volume back to Bell Street—the same condition the City of Seattle carefully mitigated through both physical planning and policy. And the desirability of the green street in general is likely to encourage other high-density developments in the area, appealing to pedestrians (a plus) but inevitably inducing more traffic as well (a minus).

 

Such is the double-edged sword that hacks away at virtually all public initiatives, raising new questions as to what true “quality of life” entails and whether green streets—green design, green construction, green thinking in general—will outlast the current era, or if it will eventually go the way of the numerous civic plazas from the era of Urban Renewal, nearly all of which today suffer the epithet “ill conceived”. Then again, with the increasingly popularity of mobile-activated transportation on demand (Lyft, Uber) as well as the emergent self-driving cars, its hard to speculate much on the long term future of green streets, pedestrianism, transit, or even urbanism as we know it today.

16 thoughts on “Green street in Seattle: over the long term, will it put the City in the red?

  1. Chris B

    If I understand correctly that a car or truck is only allowed to traverse a single block of Bell before being forced to turn off, in terms of vehicular traffic it would function as an “alley”. A very nice and well-kept one, but an alley nonetheless.

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      Good point, Chris, and alleys rarely factor in to the functional classification of roads. They, of course, would be at an even lower rank on the totem pole than local roads. The difference, here, of course, is (at least as I recall it) this “alley” allows some, albeit limited, on-street parking. And I suspect that at least one or two of the structures have their primary entrances fronting Bell Street.

      Reply
  2. Alex Pline

    I wonder what the compliance rate is? That might be telling as to the efficacy. Sort of like lowering the speed on a highway geometry arterial to 25 and expecting people to obey it.

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      Compliance is probably critical, Alex, and, then, of course, the enforcement for violators. I’d be hard-pressed to imagine they have computerized enforcement, since that would require cameras snapping the license plates of a vehicle at multiple points on the same four-block street, which starts morphing into outright surveillance. I don’t know enough about the topic to distinguish the legal limits of monitoring a motorist’s behavior remotely, but it may even prove a cost consideration. Then again, if the penalties are lucrative enough, it probably could justify the installation of monitoring equipment at each intersection. The District of Columbia has certainly reaped the benefits of cameras monitoring moving violations; the city has the same name of speed trap cameras as New York City (all 5 boroughs).

      Reply
    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      Indeed Steve. Nice to hear from you (and happy birthday BTW!). This green street also vaguely recalls a “bicycle boulevard” that was proposed a few years ago in your neighborhood, around 17th or 19th streets, I believe. Are you familiar with that proposal at all?

      Reply
  3. Becky Kilimnik

    I’ve always been leery of “street diets” in general if an alternative traffic option isn’t introduced at the same time. Many streets in Atlanta are being reduced, and yet our infrastructure remains stagnant (or falls apart completely, as was the case with the I-85 bridge collapse and the simultaneous I-20 sinkhole). What we see as a result is people forcing their way onto otherwise residential streets to avoid the major artery messes (I’m no exception). And for streets that have been reduced in width, these new traffic patterns could only serve to create hell for those living on them.

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      Hey Becky! You’ve tapped into the planners’ predilection for Pollyannaism amidst all prospects. Honestly, many planners remain convinced that by simply removing vehicle lanes and making traffic worse, people will immediately start turning to transit, bicycles, or walking. It ain’t that simple, is it?

      There are undeniably streets that justify a road diet, usually something where a traffic impact study can determine if they merely have a Level of Service (LOS) of A or B, or whether it is such a high A that they probably received too many lanes back in the day. (My home city of Indianapolis did this, and it does not seem to be all that worse for wear because of it. Then again, they shrunk another street in the Broad Ripple neighborhood from three lanes to two with bike lanes, and it triggered all sorts of protests.) But you pointed out an example of what ACTUALLY happens more often than not: the newly induced bottlenecking on what street merely diverts the flow to another street nearby.

      I’m not sure about this Seattle example. It was a pretty nice street, and it was a local street to begin with–not a busy collector or arterial that had much traffic. But it’s also in a high-density area, and an area that is growing denser all the time. Sure, many of those people will walk and bike, but many others will not. While the street seems pleasant enough with those generous sidewalks and rain gardens, how nice will it be to sit at a pocket park, if a bunch of high-rise apartments get built alongside it, and it suffers a steady stream of bumper-to-bumper traffic? I guess we’ll have withhold judgment until we get there. Or grumble about it in places like metro Atlanta, where it’s clearly eliciting some seriously iffy results.

      Reply
  4. Anonymous

    Plan vs. reality? Planners are wont to tout the benefits of the connected grid of streets, but then when they want to fiddle with the grid and hierarchy of streets without an understanding of where the unwanted traffic actually will go…quality of life declines, both for commuters forced into longer commutes, and neighborhood residents who get “WAZEd” by traffic-avoidance apps.

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      I think you’re right in large part…though, as much as I hate to say it, I think it’s less about a lack of “understanding of where the unwanted traffic actually will go”, and, to some extent, it’s about a lack of concern, predicated on the arrogant assumption that eventually people will grow so weary of the conditions that they’ll walk or bike. Maybe the planners are right in some cases. Others will continue to drive, and, as you rightly pointed out, will let WAZE guide them on the road less traveled, which usually is a street that no one ever engineered to handle anything more than light traffic.

      Reply
      1. AmericanDirt Post author

        Don’t worry about it, Chris. I accept pretty much all posters unless they are only there to drive traffic to their own sites through embedded web links.

        Reply
  5. Brian M

    San Francisco seriously limits through-traffic on Market Street in Downtown, as well as (newly) Mission Street. Not sure why anyone would try to drive the length of market street, but it can be very confusing.

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      Hi Brian, was this a road diet or a green street initiative, by any chance? The Bell Street transformation in Seattle was the first example I had seen of such a thing, but I’m sure not the last, and I’d suspect San Francisco might take a stab at a similar initiative…though putting it on one of the major streets downtown would seem controversial just about anywhere.

      Reply
  6. Brian M

    No. More of a traffic control/transit promotion (and bicycling) and safety program. Predated the whole “green streets” lingo, although some of the objectives are similar.

    Reply

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