If you want something done ...
If you want something done ... Sergey Pakulin / Getty Images

Mr. and Mrs. Mason headed into the city from Ballard one night in October. After crossing the Fremont Bridge, another driver zoomed through the intersection at Fourth and Florentia without stopping. Mr. Mason jerked the wheel to the left, swerving into the middle lane in an attempt to avoid a crash, but he wound up colliding with a third car, fracturing his wife's shoulder.

The report of that crash comes from 1937. As one of the first mentions of Florentia St in newspaper archives, nearly a century later it serves as an appropriate introduction to a street that has continued to be a site of unsafe speed and collision. People have reported nearly eighty crashes on that street in the last ten years, not counting an unknowable number of unreported fender-benders.

Councilmember Andrew Lewis has been working with residents on simple safety measures for Florentia since 2020, but after encountering one delay after another from the City, he and his constituents are growing increasingly frustrated. And they’re not alone. An international movement from Seattle to New York to Delhi has seen residents give up on waiting for city governments to protect them. Now they're taking the law into their own hands by quietly implementing their own guerrilla modifications to tame reckless driving.

But there’s also been a backlash from city transportation departments, with many cracking down on these upgrades, creating a standoff between slow-to-act municipalities and residents fed up with delays.

Improvements perpetually a year or two away

Florentias ready for its closeup.
Florentia's ready for its closeup. The Seattle Star, October 22, 1937.

“This has been a really big source of concern in the neighborhood,” says Councilmember Lewis, whose District 7 stretches from Pioneer Square up through Queen Anne and Magnolia. Florentia Street, which is home to a school and bus stop, has experienced a surge in new housing, and residents have expressed concern about speeding and frequent T-bone crashes. Florentia’s posted speed limit is 25 mph – down from 30 mph a few years ago – and the lack of crosswalks, stop signs, and curb bulbs makes it easy to careen recklessly from east to west.

In 2020, residents approached Lewis for help, and so began the long, arduous Seattle Process of performing site visits, holding community meetings, and consulting consulting consulting consulting.

The solution that emerged seemed like an easy fix: Change Florentia’s designation from an “arterial collector” to a normal residential street. That would mean dropping the speed limit by another 5 miles per hour and removing the center stripe to reduce the temptation for motorists to speed. Simple.

“We were initially told that we could just do that, redesignate the street,” says Lewis.

But then word came from the Seattle Department of Transportation that Florentia was designated as an arterial in the city’s Comprehensive Plan. That meant that any change would require an amendment to the plan, which required a whole separate process.

Okay, that’s a little annoying, but not impossible. So Lewis passed a bill to make an amendment to the plan in the spring of 2021. City staff initially said the change would be done by March of 2022.

When March of 2022 rolled around, residents started asking when the changes would be done, at which point SDOT told Lewis – and stop me if you’ve heard this one before – that they really didn't know if they wanted to change the designation.

“They want to wait until we redo the Seattle Transportation Plan in 2024,” says Lewis, the weariness evident in his voice. “And I’m like, no. We wanted to do this in the fall of 2020. Then we had to wait to spring of 2022. Now you're telling my constituents, who know the street is unsafe because they live on it … they have to wait until 2024? That’s not acceptable.”

"We neither promised nor dismissed potential reclassification of Florentia St," wrote an SDOT spokesperson in a statement. SDOT says they're planning a "network-level review" of the entire city's streets as part of the Comprehensive Plan update, which the City Council is expected to review in 2024. "For this reason, we, and the Office of Planning & Community Development (OPCD) recommended deferring the possible reclassification of Florentia St.," the statement explains. "The need for arterial and non-arterial traffic calming both within District 7 and citywide outpaces our limited resources," the spokesperson added.

SDOT, which has a budget of about $740 million, also cited the need for emergency vehicle speed as an obstacle to changing the designation, according to The Urbanist. The department also noted that Florentia "is in an area of ‘Lowest Disadvantage’ as measured by the City’s Racial and Social Equity Composite Index," and that other neighborhoods have higher priority for reforms.

The mystery of the guerrilla crosswalk

Florentia residents aren’t alone in their frustration. Sometime in September of 2021, an anonymous Greenlake resident (or group) grew tired of waiting for a long-promised crosswalk at N 83rd St and Greenwood Ave N. So, under cover of night, they painted their own.

The guerrilla crosswalk didn’t meet the City’s normal requirements for pavement paint: It wasn’t reflective, and it didn’t have bars to indicate where drivers should stop. But neighborhood consensus generally held that it was better than nothing. Eighty-third Street is a bike route, and Greenwood was a major barrier for commuters traveling east-west. After the guerilla crosswalk appeared, drivers started pausing for pedestrians crossing the street, rather than blowing through as they had before.

(Worth noting: Seattle’s Comprehensive Plan, last seen impeding improvements to Florentia, specifically calls for the Greenwood area to be made more pedestrian-friendly.)

“That is a totally expect-able response if the City is not living up to its obligations,” Lewis says of the guerrilla crosswalk. “I think it’s an indictment of our failure to rise to the occasion to meet our goals of Vision Zero.”

Vision Zero is the City’s professed goal of having zero traffic fatalities or serious injuries by 2030. It's not going well. From 2019 to 2020, the citywide collision rate rose by 14%. That year there were 74.2 collisions per million trips, the highest rate in a decade.

The Greenwood crosswalk survived for about eight months until SDOT scraped it up earlier this month. Removing the paint, the department says, cost $40 in materials and equipment.

SDOT said they removed the crosswalk because it didn’t meet safety standards. They added that they plan to install significant upgrades “in the coming months.” The intersection will get a traffic light, crossing signals, and an official set of crosswalks.

But locals will believe it when they see it. Those upgrades have been promised for years, but they have been eternally delayed by staffing shortages. (Even getting this information took longer than expected, due to staff availability in SDOT’s communications department.)

An international movement

Citizen-led streetscape improvements are nothing new — transportation safety enthusiasts refer to the practice as “tactical urbanism” — but reports of deployment have been growing in cities and towns as residents realize that safety upgrades may never happen unless they do the work themselves. Crosswalk-painting is a relatively easy, cheap process, requiring just a few hundred dollars and a couple of volunteers.

“The city doesn't keep us safe, so we keep us safe,” announced a group called Crosswalk Collective LA back in March of 2022. The Crosswalk Collective has been painting crosswalks around the notoriously deadly city for the last few months, much to the chagrin of LADOT.

Last week, LADOT carved away guerrilla crosswalks at one intersection, but the neighborhood activists moved fast, and while city workers were busy removing paint, the Crosswalk Collective was busy laying down new stripes in Silverlake.

Tactical urbanism has long been a tool for pressuring cities to make streets safer. In Connecticut, a guerilla crosswalk prompted the City to implement a full overhaul of a pedestrian-unfriendly crossing in 2013. A little citizen paint on a New York curb ramp stopped drivers from blocking pedestrians. A group in Charlotte, NC built benches for bus stops. A tactical urbanism project in Delhi reduced conflicts by 32%. In Portland, a citizen-led demonstration resulted in a new bike path along the river.

In fact, some cities have encouraged tactical urbanism. Atlanta released an official guide for citizens wishing to upgrade their streets, as did the town of Jackson, Tennessee. Indiana awards grants to community groups for tactical urbanism projects.

Even Seattle has flirted with tactical urbanism in the past. Back in 2015, the city experimented with pedestrianizing Pike/Pine on weekend nights over the summer to combat overcrowding on the sidewalks. That project came together relatively quickly, requiring only a few months' worth of planning. In 2016, Seattle Neighborhood Greenways painted temporary pavement markings to improve a Burke Gillman Trail crossing, which worked well enough that SDOT made the markings permanent. In 2018, SDOT made Seattle Neighborhood Greenways' pop-up bike lane on Pike permanent.

But the City is not always so nimble. Despite dropping speed limits from 30 to 25 on arterials in 2016, SDOT left an old “30” speed limit sign in place at 12th and Republican for years, actively instructing drivers to speed.

In emails shared with The Stranger, a nearby resident asked SDOT to update the signage in June of 2021. An SDOT investigator wrote back, "We only cordoned out the downtown area with 25 mph speed limit signs to avoid sign clutter. The Vision Zero team is going to develop a cost estimate and will see if they can fit this into next year's workplan. We do not have funding or crew capacity to make this happen this year."

After waiting several more months, in December of 2021 someone made their own speed limit sign and placed it over the old one. The citizen-made sign lasted only a few weeks before the “30” sign was restored. It was finally updated to the correct speed in early 2022.

The pattern that has emerged over the last few decades is clear: Sometimes cities and citizens are able to work hand-in hand on rapidly testing streetscape improvements. But when transportation departments aren't able to move quickly enough, pop-up improvements will appear – whether city agencies like it or not.

Why are we so bad at this?

Visit beautiful Seattle(s parking lots).
Visit beautiful Seattle('s parking lots). Matt Baume

And that brings us to a car-free Pike Place Market, which should be the easiest-slam dunk project in the world. You couldn’t ask for a more pedestrianizable street than cobblestoned, foot-trafficky Pike Place. And yet, Seattle just can’t seem to get it done, even after a motorist assault that sent one woman to the hospital.

After suggesting some restrictions on private vehicles, Councilmember Lewis has been ramping up the familiar old Seattle Process, and he hopes to have made progress on improving circulation through the market by the end of the year. That’s disappointing news to anyone hoping to stroll through the market this summer, but at least it’s something.

“The Pike Place Preservation and Development Authority [PDA] is going to be going through their campus master plan process starting in the fall,” Lewis says. “We had to have a big fight to even agree to have people talk about this.”

When asked for comment, Madison Bristol, the Market's Marketing and PR Manager, wrote, "It’s a complex operational ecosystem," noting that many tenants regard the street as "a lifeline."

Bristol added that the pandemic has left the Market in a place of "recovering and rebuilding," and that "altering that flow at such a delicate time is not in the best interests of our businesses. Once we get to a place of stability, we will discuss ways for Pike Place to function at its fullest potential with the Market community at the forefront."

There's already an eight-hundred-spot parking garage attached to the market, and a recent survey showed that 81% of Seattle residents support traffic limits. Restricting access to deliveries, emergencies, and people with mobility needs seems like it ought to be uncontroversial.

But Lewis says that in his conversations with market tenants about reducing private vehicles, many “think it’s an existential threat to the existence of the market.” He doesn’t see it that way, “but there are a lot of veto-gates on this. Like the PDA has a really big role in everything in its borders.”

That phrase “veto-gates” is a helpful visualization for what stands in the way of change. Every proposal to change a street must pass through an ever-growing series of gatekeepers, each with their own veto, no matter how popular or simple or cheap the change may be. And though other cities seem to have figured out ways to expedite projects, Seattle has few options.

“That’s been my frustration over the last two-and-a-half years as a council member,” Lewis says, noting that City departments ultimately answer to the Mayor, not to the city council. For the last two years, he says, “we had an executive who wasn’t interested in doing anything.” He’s hopeful that Mayor Bruce Harrell will take a different approach.

The Stranger reached out to the Mayor's office about pedestrianizing Pike Place, and we received a noncommittal response from his spokesperson:

"Mayor Harrell is focused on welcoming Seattleites and visitors back to our treasured Pike Place Market this summer," wrote Jamie Housen. He added that Harrell "looks forward" to developing a "long-term" vision for the entire city that includes Market access and economic activity, with an expected adoption date of 2024.

Meanwhile, the saga’s not over for Florentia Street. Lewis has emails out to various City staffers to see what legal options might be available for making changes sometime this century.

“I hate asking people to be patient. I’m right there being pissed off and impatient with you,” Lewis says. “My colleagues do everything we can to knock down these bullshit impediments. But it’s frustrating.”

It's true — those impediments are indeed frustrating, whether in Seattle or in cities across the country. But time and time again, they've proven no match for a few buckets of paint and a handful of neighbors tired of waiting.