On Tuesday, Dec. 13, Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) Director Greg Spotts met with Real Change vendors, staff and community for a discussion on important transportation issues. Participants went on a short walk around the Pioneer Square neighborhood to see firsthand how transit, cycling and pedestrian safety issues affect community members.
Spotts said his meeting with Real Change was just one of more than 100 listening tours he has done since he became SDOT director at the start of September, averaging more than one a day.
According to a survey conducted by the Real Change Advocacy Department, vendors rely mostly on walking, biking and transit to get around the city. The organization has focused on making biking and non-car transportation options more accessible.
For example, earlier this year, Real Change vendor Leroy and the Advocacy Department organized an effort to repeal a King County ordinance that penalized cyclists for not wearing a helmet. The law was criticized for disproportionately targeting unhoused people.
However, in the discussion with Spotts, vendors mentioned that barriers remained to making cycling a safer and more viable transportation option, such as the lack of secure bike parking and uneven distribution of protected bike lanes throughout the city.
Also present at the meeting were members of Whose Streets? Our Streets! and Seattle Neighborhood Greenways, who advocated for the repeal of the helmet law alongside Real Change.
SDOT staff with the Vision Zero division also joined the meeting and walking tour. Vision Zero is the city’s plan to eliminate vehicular deaths and serious injuries by 2030. According to staff, progress on this goal has reversed over the past two years due to an increase in reckless and speedy driving, even as driving rates have rebounded to just 7 percent less than pre-COVID-19 pandemic levels.
Spotts said that he commissioned his department to initiate a 90-day review of the Vision Zero program, gathering community input and producing a report that is scheduled to publish in early January 2023. Currently, the Vision Zero division is led by four staff members, three of whom were present at the meeting with Real Change. Spotts hopes to bolster this team and also ensure that Vision Zero is a priority for all of the 1,200 staff across the department.
As the tour around Pioneer Square proceeded, participants paused next to the Occidental Mall streetcar stop. Spotts said he wants to revive the plan to connect the First Hill streetcar line with the South Lake Union one. The lines currently terminate at Pioneer Square and Westlake, respectively. The planned middle section was canceled by former Mayor Jenny Durkan in 2018 due to cost overruns.
Spotts said that under his leadership, he wants to bring back the middle section, dubbing it the “central culture connector.” He hopes to recruit business and neighborhood support by branding the project as part of an economic development package. If built, it would run along First Avenue north from Jackson Street, stopping not far from Pike Place Market before turning east to connect with Westlake.
Real Change community members also discussed issues with the lack of reliable bus routes. For example, one vendor wrote a question asking if the 121 bus line to Burien will be revived. While SDOT does not manage buses, which are run by King County Metro and Sound Transit, it does subsidize Metro to offer expanded service on certain routes. In fact, according to Spotts, the city has offered money to Metro that the transit agency isn’t able to use because of a shortage of bus drivers.
When questioned about making transit free, Spotts said that he had conversations with Kansas City officials, who told him that the city had seen great success with its free transit policy. He added that the city was looking into ways to make transit more affordable, especially for people with lower incomes.
While attempting to cross Main Street along the pedestrianized Occidental Park mall, tour members brought to attention the fact that there are two unmarked crosswalks between the mall and park, making it more difficult for pedestrians to cross the street safely. Spotts said that SDOT would look into this issue and invest more in Pioneer Square safety projects, in general.
With a strong focus on public outreach, Spotts has charmed many local community advocates with his accessibility to the public. Spotts and new Sound Transit CEO Julie Timm have been prolific posters on Twitter, offering urbanists and other constituents a new pathway for engagement. Sometimes this has backfired, such as when SDOT removed an unauthorized volunteer-painted crosswalk in November, leading to widespread public backlash. However, despite the negativity, it seems like the engagement is still a net benefit, as Spotts wrote in a Nov. 30 Twitter post.
“In my first 90 days living and working in Seattle, I’ve averaged 757,000 Twitter impressions per month (10X the audience I had in Los Angeles),” he wrote. “…I take this to mean that Seattleites are passionate about transportation.”
Read more of the Dec. 21-27, 2022 issue.