Seattle’s Pike Place Market Should Be Closed To Cars

The case for “pedestrianizing” well-trafficked urban spaces.

A typically crowded day on Pike Place Market / Wikimedia

Seattle, WA–Pike Place Market is one of the world’s most-visited tourist destinations, and its busiest time is summer. This was evident during my recent visit, even at 2pm on a Tuesday. People were jammed shoulder-to-shoulder along narrow walkways within the market, viewing the fresh fish and local berries and countless craft merchandise. Because there’s also commerce across the street, people were spilling as well onto the brick-covered Pike Place roadway.

Yet automobiles navigated this street too. After tourist drivers turned onto it, I could see their visible regret, as they suddenly found themselves blocked by dozens of pedestrians. And the pedestrians were of course still having to avoid these cars, unable to enjoy the street to themselves.

This seemed like an odd setup for a world-class public space. Here were automobiles and pedestrians clashing on a narrow street, slowing down the former and endangering the latter. Why would a city like Seattle, which has taken strides to embrace transportation mode shifts in its downtown area, tolerate this in 2017?

It turns out that the situation has been a longstanding and complicated one in the Emerald City. Before Pike Place Market was considered a cultural treasure, there were debates about whether it should even exist. Starting in the 1950s, various redevelopment schemes called to knock it down, replacing it with either a parking garage or high-rise towers. The debate still remains about whether it should be for cars or pedestrians.

Those who want to close it to cars make the same observation that I did: the current mixing of the two is incompatible. Such arguments generally come from urbanist types who want Seattle to become more bike- and pedestrian-friendly, and less car-dependent. In 2015, a local blog The Urbanist called for Pike Place to become a multi-block pedestrian mall during its busiest hours.

A Google Maps image of the proposed pedestrian mall route / The Urbanist

Skeptics of this thinking believe it would hurt Pike Place’s bottom line. For decades, such skepticism has come from the area’s strongest asset: its merchants. They have argued that closing the street off entirely would be ruinous, since merchants rely on the constant in-and-out flow of service vehicles.

“The Pike Place Market,” wrote Sara Patton, president of Friends of the Market, in the Seattle Times, “houses hundreds of small owner-operated businesses — farmers, produce sellers, retail shops, cafes — all of which are heavily dependent on convenient vehicular access for delivery and service purposes.”

The merchants don’t want customer car traffic to be blocked, either. They think the ability to drive directly to, and park in front of, the market is crucial for customers’ mobility.

To outsiders, then, this debate might seem parochial. On one hand, there are urbanist types who may want to dispel cars simply because they are anti-car, and not necessarily because they’re thinking of the merchants. On the other, there are merchants who may be harming the market’s overall experience, thanks to their narrow interest of wanting a few parking spots in front of their stores.

But one question that stands above all this is–what policy would actually improve the economic health of Pike Place Market? That is where examples from other cities apply.

In cities and towns nationwide, this same battle exists about whether merchants should enjoy side-street parking, and general car mobility to their stores, or whether key downtown roads should instead be readapted for alternative uses. The right answer depends in all cases on the context, but I’ll wager that in many smaller cities, urban-style merchants are reasonable for wanting those few parking spots. Along a struggling Main Street, it may be the very thing that helps them compete with suburban retail, more than, say, a bike lane.

But in dense urban areas, where most customers don’t arrive directly by automobile, the fight to save side-street parking and other car concessions is senseless. During Michael Bloomberg’s mayoralty, New York City made Times Square a car-free plaza, because of the pedestrian hordes already there. Merchants claimed this would hurt them, but instead commercial rents increased and pedestrian accidents decreased–while thru-traffic even sped up.

In San Francisco, there was a recent debate about whether some of the parking along Polk Street, a central retail corridor, should be transformed into parklets. Again, merchants complained; but then a study came out determining that 85% of Polk Street’s customer traffic arrived without cars, making these pedestrian-friendly amenities sensible after all.

Seattle is in a similar situation—it’s already one of America’s densest cities, exceeding Los Angeles in per-square-mile population. The downtown, where Pike Place is located, has become legitimately urban. Perhaps there was a time when people entering downtown Seattle could drive directly to and park at their destinations, but that ship has sailed. Over 70% of inbound commuters take alternative transportation modes, and the solo drivers who remain mostly park in garages. They must then walk to wherever it is that they want to go–joining the pedestrian hordes that dominate the downtown streets.

Pike Place Market provides the best example of this shift. According to a 2011 analysis, 50,000 pedestrians used the street daily, compared to 3,000 automobiles. So by closing Pike Place to cars, the city would be appealing to, not eradicating, the market’s biggest customer base.

And, again, this shift towards pedestrian-orientation would likely benefit other crowded urban American spaces. Pedestrian malls don’t work everywhere, but they do in places where walking is already the dominant travel form; side-street parking might be important, but not where bike lanes, parklets and wider sidewalks would better raise property values; multi-lane road networks might help traffic flow, but this is counterproductive in neighborhoods where faster driving endangers people. The areas benefiting from a pro-pedestrian strategy change might include Calle Ocho in Miami, Sixth Street in Austin, and Broadway in Los Angeles, among other famous corridors. And it would, of course, likely include Pike Place Market.

[This article was originally published by Forbes.]

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