Man walking from sidewalk toward Community Transit bus
This man is a pedestrian, too! Photo by Bruce Englehardt.

At last Thursday’s Growing Seattle candidate forum, moderator Erica C. Barnett asked the six participating mayoral candidates to perform a simple but revealing exercise: rank transit riders, pedestrians, cyclists, and car drivers in order of priority. The candidates’ answers varied widely. The answers of Jenny Durkan and Sen. Bob Hasegawa are notable, though, because they illustrate a common and fundamental blind spot about successful transit.  Let’s have a look:

1) Transit
2) Bikes
3) Cars
4) Pedestrians

1) Transit
2) Cars
3) Pedestrians
4) Bikes

Both candidates put transit on top. But neither seems to think walking deserves much attention. That is inherently contradictory.

Especially in the city, where very few riders drive to transit, almost every transit trip requires a walk on public streets. Very few riders are lucky enough to have a bus stop outside their door on both ends of their trip.  So every transit rider is also a pedestrian. And if the walk to or from a transit trip is impossible or unsafe, that transit trip doesn’t work well as a whole. Riders with poor pedestrian access are less likely to ride transit instead of driving, more likely to be unsatisfied with transit when they do ride, and more likely to suffer injury at the hands of car drivers.

For all those reasons, walking safety and comfort are an integral part of building a successful transit system. It makes no more sense to say “transit deserves more priority than walking” than it does to say “make the pizza better, but don’t worry about cheese quality.” Transit doesn’t really have priority over car drivers unless pedestrians do too. Ms. Durkan and Sen. Hasegawa would render many transit trips less workable, and undermine their own stated preferences for transit, by putting pedestrians at the back of the line.

40 Replies to “Transit Can’t Work Without Pedestrian Priority”

  1. I could not agree more. My bus stop from home is literally across the street, but I have to leave at least four minutes to get there because the stop light is timed to get cars moving on N.40th Street, and so if I just miss it when I get to the corner, I’ll probably miss the bus if I leave less than four minutes from my back door. From work, I can readily be stopped at the ridiculous right turn light from Union onto Fifth that makes that cycle go on forever followed by the southbound traffic on Fifth that goes on even longer and if you’re not at the corner when the light changes, you basically will wait another cycle. The same will happen on Fourth. So I have missed the bus if I leave work less than eight minutes to walk three blocks.

    1. I agree with Breadbaker. My last apartment in Seattle was across the street/on the next block from my morning bus stop- meaning I cross at an intersection with an unmarked cross walk on an arterial. Even at the very beginning of rush hour, with fewer cars out, it could take me 3-4 mins to cross. Trying to catch the bus at 7 AM or at any time throughout the day? Leave 10 mins before the bus is scheduled and walk to the nearest signaled intersection, hoping a car will yield to pedestrians. It would be so bad sometimes I would start counting each car that didn’t stop for the waiting pedestrians. (Yes, plural.)

      1. I make them stop by not being the typical Seattle pedestrian who stands waiting patiently for a driver to obey the law. I step into the street and signal to them that I’m crossing so they need to stop. I wish SPD would do stings using pedestrians crossing at intersections those drivers who fail to stop are then pulled over further down the street and ticketed. An emphasis on that is long overdue!

    2. I know, I mutter a bad word whenever I get to a downtown intersection where “don’t walk” is showing in every direction for no apparent reason! That’s crazy, and should never happen downtown in a big city. People first, things on wheels second. Oh, and another gripe is having to push a button to request clearance to walk. Maybe that’s okay in some far-flung suburb, but as a pedestrian in the city, the signals should assume there are people on the sidewalk ready to cross.

      1. “should never happen downtown in a big city” – when drivers have a green left turn lane, pedestrians should not cross either street. If drivers are otherwise prohibited from turning left on (solid) green, this is actually safer for cars & pedestrians, though it does add an extra cycle to the intersection.

        This is how the intersection in front of my office works – pedestrians can cross at least one of the streets >80% of the time, with the ~20% for protected left turns plus pauses between cycles.

  2. #1. Yeah, in the suburbs and exurbs folks drive to transit – especially working parents – the Hasegawa-Durkan priorities might work. Not one but I converse with my fellow riders – especially on the 510/511/512.

    #2. For Seattle, it’s pedestrian-transit-freight-bikes-cars. Yes, freight deserves priority because moving freight means keeping JOBS.

    #3. At some point, Skagitonians will get bus-only lanes for our urban core. I see that as a hope by 2020 and a reality by 2030.

    1. RE: #1 – yes, but Hasegawa and Durkan are running for Seattle mayor….

      Also, even in the suburbs, most Links & Sounder stations have some sort of walkshed that supports ridership. Look at the RR-B -> outside of the endpoints at the Bellevue & Overlake TCs, it runs through classic suburbia, and there is also zero parking at the bus stops, so every person who rides that bus needs to get there by walking from a nearby house, apartment building, or strip mall.

  3. “make the pizza better, but don’t worry about cheese quality” actually seems like a totally reasonable request. Work on the dough and the sauce.

    1. I’m glad someone said it, or I was going to.

      the cheese is probably the least variable ingredient in great pizza. If you told everyone they had to use the same kind of cheese, you’d still have wild differences in the quality of pie created.

      Extending that to transit, if your city was a walking mecca but the transit was terrible, you could reasonably improve the transit without improving the walkability of the place one iota.

      I don’t think we’re there, and I agree that walking needs to be at least on par with transit importance. Let’s leave pizza out of this.

    2. I disagree, cheese is very important. Sauce & dough are important, but you can’t have truly great pizza without good cheese.

      Dough = transit infrastructure: rail lines, bus lanes, bus stops, etc.
      Sauce = transit level of service: frequency, span of service, etc.
      Cheese = walking infrastructure
      Pepperoni = parking garages
      Anchovies = Uber

      It is a pizza without cheese? Sure. But why would you want to do that?

  4. Look at it this way: on a bus with 100 people, there are 3 bike rack spots and no car spots. How did those other 97 people get on the bus?

    Your pizza analog is faulty, its “make the pizza better, but don’t worry about the dough”. Pedestrians are your dough.

    1. It depends on the route. Some serve a P&R in the middle of nowhere. Some serve neighborhoods where people live and walk to the bus route. The E Line comes to mind as one that serves mostly pedestrians who got there on foot, but in many neighborhoods had a perilous path getting there.

      Also, counting bikes on a rack is meaningless. Most P&Rs have bike storage of various sorts.

    2. The bike racks are a perfect illustration of this kind of thinking. They’re clearly designed for a situation where almost nobody takes a bike on a bus, as opposed to if 50% of 75% of riders did. They come from an era when riding the bus itself was a rarity, and a bus+bike trip was even more of a rarity. It doesn’t scale, so it doesn’t solve the problem, and it leaves uncertainty whether all the racks will be full and you’ll have to wait two or three buses for a space (which is expecially a problem if the bus is half-hourly or hourly). It’s the same reason I don’t go to the outer suburbs at night and depend on Uber for the return trip, because what if there is no driver there? Bike parking at P&Rs only helps if you’re only using the bike on the home end of the trip — not if you’re doing a mostly-bike trip but just using a bus for one 5-10 mile stretch.

      1. That and it’s no less a delay (twice per rider) than a cash-fumbler, particularly at rush hours.

      2. It’s actually not a delay if there are a bunch of people getting on/off the bus anyway, which is of course particularly the case at rush hour.

      3. Only true when the rider is the last on/first off. Otherwise it’s a delay, and I see it on the 11 most days.

  5. This is actually a sensational, broad and terrible thing to ask a candidate to do. At some point, any auto driver or transit rider is usually a pedestrian. Many people use different modes at different times during the day — ride the bus to work, drive to the grocery and walk to dinner, for example. It’s also usually a locational question — there are places where pedestrians would be put in danger, for example.

    A better question would be to ask candidates how they would integrate the many modal plans that have different objectives and plans that get recommended.

    1. Yeah, I don’t think this helps the discourse much. Promoting more walking is as much a land use issue as a transportation planning one. Walking is also, obviously, not a time-efficient way of longer-distance travel. So, unless people live/work/play in a 1-2 mile radius, we must prioritize a more time-efficient mode of travel. Cars are not scalable, so that must be transit.

      The other issue, at least for me, is that walking has limited opportunity for taking share from other modes. I already walk as much as I can – no amount of walking investment would increase my walking mode share. However, better transit could replace many of my car trips.

      1. The idea of pedestrians being important isn’t because people walk such long distances. Almost everyone has to cross at least one street several times a week, unless they’re able to drive everywhere and park directly in front of the store or other business they’re going to. People who take transit to work, for instance, usually end up having to cross streets twice a day, even if their bus stops directly in front of their home and their office. They will need to cross the street once for each trip.

        I personally walk very little on workdays except to go to and from bus stops, and to lunch or to mail a letter at work. In fact, even if I go to lunch somewhere where I don’t need to cross the street, I have to cross streets 13 times.

        And as Felsen mentions below, pedestrians are the most vulnerable.

    2. It was in some ways an unfair question, and the answer only gives illumination on one aspect of the problem. But it does show who is aware that the pedestrian environment makes or breaks all others. I first learned about this in Donald Shop’s ‘Walkable City”. The conventional thinking is that 80% of trips are by car, 17% transit, 2% bike, and 1% walking, so investing in car infrastructure benefits the supermajority and the widest cross-section of society, while walking has so few users that it’s inequitable to spend much at all. But that’s only counting the majority mode of each trip. If you instead ask, what percent of trips does each mode have at least some part in, the answer is 100% for walking. So pedestrian improvements benefit everybody, and luckily they’re the least expensive improvements. But all this takes time to explain, and additional time to evaluate policies against it. To do that properly in a candidate-interview forum would require doing all that and scheduling at least half an hour for it.

    3. I think a smarter reporter would have asked where a candidate thinks the biggest deficiencies are, not what is more important. The basic structure of the question is flawed in many ways and the responses don’t tell us anything at all.

      I think this is about as useful as “rank which family member is more important — wife, daughter, sister or mother” I wouldn’t consider any candidates response revealing except perhaps how well they respond to a silly reporter question.

    4. I see your point, Al, to a certain extent, this is a BS question. One way to look at it, though, is to ask it in context. If you are going to increase funding, which mode would you increase more. To a lot of people, improvements in pedestrian travel drop to the bottom. I get that. Even within the context of transit, this is reasonable. Do you fix the minor cracks in the sidewalk, or make that bus run twice as often. I think a lot of people would choose the latter.

      But a lot of people wouldn’t. The “Safe Routes to School” people wouldn’t. For a lot of them, the biggest weakness in our transportation system is just that — lack of safe routes. There are miles and miles of streets in Seattle that lack sidewalks. Adding them is not cheap. But if this is your lowest priority (and the answer suggests that) than either you are completely unaware of the situation (perhaps because you live in a nicer neighborhood) or you just don’t care.

      1. But it’s not only a funding question. It’s a functional question as well.

        Here’s an example of SDOT’s priorities in action. There is a long left-turn arrow from Denny to Dexter. While that left turn arrow is on, the walk light across Seventh is solid Don’t Walk. There is no reason for this; absolutely nothing is moving across that intersection except from turning cars that would need to yield to pedestrians, and there aren’t many of them.

        But because there is no countdown during that long left turn sequence, pedestrians (and there are increasing numbers of them) do not know how long they will have to cross Seventh, and many then get caught when the light changes and cars and bikes on Dexter and Seventh begin to cross Denny. That’s a safety issue and fixing it is, presumably, not a budgetary concern for the city. It’s simply that they don’t keep track of things like this unless there’s a serious accident or death.

        And the whole point is that this should not be the reason to fix something so cheap and so obvious.

    5. It’s good you raised this point about what distinguishes a person who is presently a pedestrian, and one who counts as a motorist.

      A motorist is a person who is at the controls of an automobile. A bicyclist can change roles much easier than a motorist. SUV racks on transit could be a problem.

      So for transit’s purposes, its passengers are pedestrians, and vice versa. From experience driving and riding, a crowded streetcar is still more like an elevator than a bus is.

      But in my overseas experience and observations, especially in plazas and other public open space, pedestrians are much more comfortable at close quarters with streetcars than with buses.

      I think the main difference is the subconscious knowledge that the outer edge of a railcar won’t protrude past a given line.

      Interesting related realization on I-5 this morning: I feel more comfortable in the company of semi’s than among average motorists.

      Maybe it’s from transit days, but I think it’s the sense that once you’ve gotten used to their company, the actions and responses of their drivers are more understandable and predictable than with automobile drivers.

      Truckers and their insurers would never permit a test in this country, and I wouldn’t do it, but I if I had to choose, I think pedestrians would be safer sharing plaza space with trucks than ordinary car drivers.

      Meaning give motorists a parking place, like Tukwila International or similar, a long way from any central city, so they can cast off their evil shell and de-werewolfize into pedestrians before they arrive anyplace crowded.

      Reason that the future streetcar network of Seattle will include an excellent Waterfront line, however long it takes. The more pedestrians across a public area, the better streetcars fit.

      “Brunnsparken” Downtown Gothebburg

      City Hall Plaza, Oslo Waterfront:

      And carefully note the darker stones along the tracks. They’re raised just about the thickness of a shoe-sole. So pedestrian can feel safety line without looking.

      Important caution, though. Since the 19th century, average European has been introduced to streetcars long before they can walk.

      Plaza in Oslo doesn’t have a single pedestrian warning, let alone walk-don’t walk. Because from their passenger time in a stroller, Nordic mothers’ ordinary conversation mentioned “streetcar” just before one went by.

      Mark Dublin

    6. Considering there was just one hour to ask six candidates for mayor questions about transportation and land use/housing, the question was brilliant. As everyone who reads this blog is aware, Seattle is facing huge transportation and housing challenges. There are too many issues to discuss in depth during this kind of forum. Just considering how much conversation this one question generated on this blog, other blogs, and on Twitter, is proof enough that it was in fact an excellent question. If you ask people who attended the forum which question and answer stuck out the most for them, this would be one of the top ones. It certainly stuck with me and it certainly helped me rule out a candidate or two from my further consideration.

      During the forum, candidates had just 1-2 minutes to answer each question. As anyone who follows politics and watches debates, especially those with more than two candidates, knows, it’s almost impossible to get deep into any subject. What this question did was quickly distill candidate’s thinking on transportation priorities. If a candidate prioritizes cars before pedestrians, we get a pretty good sense of what their transportation initiatives as mayor would focus on.

  6. I think pedestrians should always be on top of that list, just due to the fact that they (we) are the most vulnerable, and are at the mercy of the other classes. I have to cross the Montlake Bridge to get to UWS from my office, and it’s quite a gauntlet between impatient drivers and cyclists who think their commute is some sort of Tour de France time trial. The time penalty to cross Montlake on foot is maddening as well – if I ride the 48 down 23rd to get to my office (NOAA) it’s better to use the stop prior to my closest stop since there’s no where to legally cross for a block and half either direction, and you almost always have to cross twice due to no 4-way crossings!

    1. I’m in agreement, and I think it should go farther to prioritize (when I use the word “prioritize” it means when a planning decision needs to be made between modes, not generically) in order of who will or could possibly benefit or use that mode. This would mean 1) pedestrians, 2) transit, 3) bikes, 4a) HOV, 4b) SOV.

    2. It’s true that priority isn’t only about movement efficiency. It’s also about vulnerability. I’ve heard the prioritization rule of thumb expressed as “softest to hardest”. But it’s also not only about the act of commuting. This kind of prioritization increases the chance you’ll end up with a place that’s enjoyable to actually be in, not just a place everyone just wants to pass through with minimal delay. To stretch the pizza analogy even further, you don’t get a great pizza by focusing only on the delivery box.

  7. I have a solution that resolves this contradiction: Don’t vote for Durkan or Hasegawa.

    1. Agreed. Hasegawa is my legislator and I’m not happy with him. I don’t live in Seattle so I can’t vote for or against him in that election but I don’t like him.

      1. Hasegawa sounds like a bit of a loon. Maybe that isn’t fair, but he just seems to be all over the place. I think he would make a terrible mayor.

        I think Durkan would be a competent mayor, but I think her priorities are all messed up. What Seattle is facing now is quite extraordinary and deserves bold changes. We can’t slowly become more urban, the way that everyone expected us too, just a few years ago. Amazon is growing like crazy, there are other local businesses growing as well, and we are in the middle of the “back to the city” movement. We need to make some big changes as far as zoning and public transportation. But we also need to deal with the growing pains that require solid management of the core services of the city (police, health and human services, etc.). I think Durkan would do a good job with the second part, but do little with the first. I think Hasegawa would be bad with both.

  8. My vision of priority for creating a more livable city would be:
    (noting that #1 and #2 would also require the least cost investment for the city)
    1) Pedestrians
    2) Bikes
    3) Transit
    4) Cars

  9. I don’t think the answer is the same on all roads. Some roads really do need to process large numbers of motor vehicles. In other places pedestrians should be the priority.

    In say, California, here’s what I see, on say, a typical urban neighborhood commercial street with two lanes in each direction, on-street parking, and a bus line:
    Priority according to policy and rhetoric
    1. Pedestrians
    2. Bicycles
    3. Transit
    4. Moving cars
    5. Parked cars

    Actual priority according to attention paid and resources allocated
    1. Parked cars (“every space” is sacred)
    2. Moving cars (traffic must flow)
    3. Bicycles
    4. Pedestrians
    5. Transit

  10. Right on. Let’s educate them.
    Of course, we should have educated the ST board before they chose the alignments in the freeway envelopes.
    With Seattle’s limited capital dollars, its seems more important to build sidewalks on the transit arterials that lack them then to spend $150 million on a downtown circular loopy streetcar.
    Moon may have ranked them: peds, transit, bikes, and cars. Of course, parallel parking should be last.

  11. If transit and pedestrians go hand-in-hand, that suggests it was a poorly framed question and the candidates’ answers may not reveal as much as the article claims.

  12. Rules of the road / Safety / common sense:


  13. Has anyone tried to categorize pedestrian “variations”? To me there seem to be several forms of pedestrian traffic, and some of them have become more popular recently. Such as: Pedestrians with large baby strollers, people with rolling luggage, people walking dogs, folks with small private shopping-style carts. Keeping track of the volume of these variations would be a good idea, not only because buses have to make room for these passengers, but because pedestrians like these are very vulnerable at crosswalks and similar areas of troublesome city terrain.

    (Just out of curiosity, I’d be very interested to know the Metro usage stats of bikes-on-bus riders as compared to moms-with two-baby strollers.)

  14. I would like to point out that it’s likely that these candidates had not thought too deeply about this and weren’t well-prepared for the question.

    Candidates for mayor have a lot of issues to thing about. There’s crime, policing, economic development, housing, industry, budget, emergency preparedness, to name a few. Some candidates might place street layout as a top priority, but I suspect that most don’t.

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