On a cold December afternoon, Seattle City Councilmember Tom Rasmussen met Pioneer Square residents and Seattle University (SU) staff members and students for an eye-opening tour of Seattle’s historic Pioneer Square neighborhood.
They met in front of the transit tunnel entrance on Yesler Way and then traveled through the neighborhood to see all the places that are inaccessible or difficult for people with mobility challenges.
But they didn’t intend for Rasmussen to take a walking tour. He was going for a ride.
“We think this would be interesting for you to see this from a little bit of a different perspective than you’re used to,” said Kiana Parker, alternative media coordinator at SU’s Disabilities Services. She pointed to an old, metal-frame wheelchair with a powder blue seat. “So we have a wheelchair for you.”
Rasmussen, wearing a sweater vest and a black, soft-shell jacket, took a seat for what would be a bumpy ride with SU sophomore Cameron Stanton pushing from behind.
Almost immediately, the councilmember’s wheelchair started bouncing. The sidewalk’s sharp ridges, which run between historic, purple-glass panels that open onto the Seattle Underground below, provided bumpy terrain for Rasmussen’s wheelchair.
“Oh, this is a good massage,” Rasmussen joked as his chair bounced up and down along the sidewalk.
Crossing Second Avenue, Rasmussen hit the first of many snags. The metal footrests of his wheelchair scraped into the roadway as his chair descended a ramp that was meant to allow wheelchairs on and off the curb. Stanton pushed; With a hand on either wheel, Rasmussen tried to shimmy himself onto the street.
Neither action worked, so Rasmussen stood up, pulled the chair into the road and proceeded to cross the street.
It would happen two more times before Rasmussen reached First Avenue South and gave up on the chair. The final ramp did him in. Crossing James Street toward the large, black shaded walkway called the pergola, Rasmussen reached a ramp made out of thick, lumpy cobblestones.
They had several more blocks to go, but Parker and Randy Earle, a Pioneer Square resident who gets around the neighborhood in a wheelchair, had made their point: Pioneer Square’s sidewalks are treacherous for people in wheelchairs or pedestrians with limited mobility.
The extra mile
Parker and Earle, a counselor at Seattle Central College and SU alum,
arranged this walk to urge city officials to take a comprehensive look at pedestrian access around the city, but particularly in neighborhoods such as Pioneer Square where the pedestrian infrastructure often predates the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Earle has lived in Pioneer Square for eight years and has been working with businesses to make their storefronts more accessible to people like him, who have limited mobility. Earle has been in a wheelchair most of that time in Seattle due to adrenomyeloneuropathy, a genetic disorder that damages the spinal cord, the adrenal glands and the thyroid gland.
Parker was motivated to advocate for improving Pioneer Square after a visit to Earle in the neighborhood. She fell a few times on her way to the visit and then saw how difficult it was for Earle to travel in his wheelchair. She became fed up.
“I got tired of falling,” Parker said. “I felt like it shouldn’t have to be this hard.” Parker can walk without assistance, but not when the streets are uneven and tilted as many are through Pioneer Square. She and others have resorted to taking circuitous routes to their destinations in the neighborhood.
“If I want to hang out in Pioneer Square, I have to go all the way down to the International District stop and come back up northbound,” Parker said.
They planned the route knowing that Rasmussen would get stuck, and they wanted him to experience what it was like for people with limited mobility who travel through the neighborhood every day. It slows down people’s lives, she said.
“There’s an underlying assumption that people with disabilities have forever to get where they need to be, and that’s just not true,” Parker said. “We have busy lives just like everybody else; our time is valuable just like everybody else. We have times when we’re running late just like everybody else.”
Liz Stenning, parking supply project manager at the Alliance for Pioneer Square, said access has long been a problem for the neighborhood. Some sidewalks are flat, while others have been patched together over a hundred years into an uneven surface that’s difficult to travel.
In 2012 the International Sustainability Institute and the Alliance did a study on how to make Pioneer Square more accessible and found 38 areas that needed improvements.
After his short trip down Yesler, Rasmussen agreed that the neighborhood needs work.
“It’s just an obstacle course,” Rasmussen said. “It’s so different for anybody with any balance or mobility issues.”
He attributed the problem to years of small improvements that are not integrated and coordinated. The area lacks clear pathways from one transit hub to another — and there are many transit hubs in Pioneer Square.
The bus tunnel has entrances on Yesler Way and Cherry and Jackson streets. There’s a train station in the International District, and the ferries dock on the waterfront at the end of Yesler Way.
“We would like at least to see the transit hubs connected,” Stenning said.
The challenge is typical of most neighborhood improvements: It comes down to money. Pioneer Square is an historic neighborhood sitting on hollow walkways that make it challenging to add pedestrian infrastructure. Many buildings are considered historic landmarks that can only be changed with special approval, and the sidewalks can cost up to $100,000 to repair because they require additional infrastructure.
At the very least, Parker hopes Rasmussen’s experience in the wheelchair showed him that traveling through Pioneer Square is a public safety issue, and not just about convenience.
“I wanted him to feel stuck,” Parker said. “Because when you’re stuck at a curb cut like that, your safety is at risk.”
This article won First Place in the Government/Politics category at the 2014 Washington Press Association Awards and First Place at the 2015 SPJ Awards