The Case Against Banning Cars in Pike Place Market

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Image: Flickr user Kirt

The bustling Pike Place Public Market is back in the spotlight again. Shining that unwise spotlight is Seattle City Councilmember Andrew Lewis, who represents District Seven (downtown, Queen Anne and Magnolia). Just before Christmas, Lewis said he planned to conduct workshops this year, a “collaborative process with stakeholders to bring about change at the Market.”

Lewis proposes taking traffic off Pike Place’s historic cobblestone blocks, which run north-south through the Market. Acknowledging that the Market is one of the city’s greatest treasures, he says it “deserves to be elevated into one of the world’s great pedestrian spaces.”

Lewis argues “great cities all over the world” have pedestrian plazas at their heart, citing two U. S. cities: Boulder, Colo., and Charlottesville, Va. He imagines Pike Place becoming “a festive bazaar of outdoor dining, coffee sipping, and people watching, free of cars and noise.”  Although high on his workshop idea, Lewis wants to avoid what he calls “the Seattle Process of endless conversations and stalled progress.”

This seems nonsensical. In other words, let’s have workshops and “a collaborative process,” but heaven forbid that we want to deal in “Seattle Process.”

Lewis hardly needs more work assignments. He already shoulders a heavy load as chair of the council’s Select Committee on Homelessness and Investments. The crisis of homelessness is hardly solved. What’s more, Seattle’s downtown is still a shadowland of boarded up storefronts, unsheltered shapes sleeping in doorways, drug deals on display, streets devoid of normal pedestrian traffic. 

By contrast the Market radiates activity. In the daytime the Market is abuzz with customers and merchants, buskers serenading, fishmongers slinging salmon, trucks loading and unloading. Nearly 115 years after its beginnings, the Market continues a happy, slightly chaotic jumble of vendors, pedestrians, slow-moving cars and delivery vehicles. The Pike Place Public Market is not some tourist bureau come-on; it’s the real thing.

Circulation and access are life blood to the Market’s 500 small businesses and to ancillary services like the Health Clinic, Day Care, and Foodbank. Circulation and ready access matter also to the transport of shoppers and visitors, the pickups and deliveries of Door Dash and Uber Eats. Why anyone would want to cut down on the Market’s success is a mystery. 

In his defense, Lewis cites a poll taken by Seattle Neighborhood Greenways and Northwest Political Institute. It purports to show that 81 percent favor removing vehicles from Pike Place. However, one has to ask how many of those 81 percent work at or patronize the Market. 

If Lewis intends to push through his workshops, it will be essential to consult with vendors, residents, restaurants, bars, hotels, drivers, security and the agencies that actually run the Market: the Market PDA (Preservation and Development Authority), the Historical Commission, the Design Commission, the Constituency, the Merchants Association, and the Market Foundation. Also, the groups that came to the Market’s rescue in times past, such as the Friends of the Market and Allied Arts.

Among those rescuers is former Seattle councilmember and port commissioner Peter Steinbrueck, who worked to save the Market from New York investors in the 1990s. Peter reminds us that his dad, original Market savior Victor Steinbrueck, was clear about the need to keep the street open to cars and people. Since cars have to yield to pedestrians, traffic is always slow, often stalled. Peter calls it “almost self-regulating.” 

In a recent Seattle Times op-ed, Peter and his colleagues Tom Graff of Allied Arts and Ernie Dornfeld of Friends of the Market, concluded: “Rather than fixing what doesn’t need fixing, let us instead bring our energy and resources to help the rest of downtown return to health and vibrancy.”  I say Amen!

Jean Godden
Jean Godden
Jean Godden wrote columns first for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and late for the Seattle Times. In 2002, she quit to run for City Council where she served for 12 years. Since then she published a book of city stories titled “Citizen Jean.” She is now co-host of The Bridge aired on community station KMGP at 101.1 FM. You can email tips and comments to Jean at jgodden@blarg.net.

32 COMMENTS

  1. Sorry, I part company on this one with CM Godden (ret’d.). Pike Place should be open to vendors and suppliers ONLY until 10a, then closed to non-permitted vehicles. Dare I mention that I hope it doesn’t take a tragedy to come to a common-sense policy.

  2. Just yesterday afternoon a woman was hit by an SUV. The driver attempted to flee but was stopped by a bystander, by force. Both men were arrested and the woman was sent to Harborview with a broken leg. https://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/law-justice/road-rage-injury-at-pike-place-market-comes-amid-debate-over-limiting-vehicle-traffic/

    All of this would be preventable with a couple dozen removable steel bollards. That the author does not support such a basic public safety measure makes me question whether they themselves spend any time at the market. Is this violence contributing to the vibrancy o and authenticity? How many traffic injuries, or worse deaths, are acceptable to the author in service of “circulation”?

    • Tragic as yesterday’s apparent hit and run was to those involved, it remains an isolated and rare incident in a part of Seattle consumed by daily examples of mayhem and violence of other types. For those of us who live in the neighborhood but are unable to walk our groceries home, the ability to drive into the Market and park for just 15 minutes allowed my wife and I to purchase most of our meat, fish and produce needs throughout the pandemic. Tourists don’t buy groceries. Local residents do.

  3. “Why anyone would want to cut down on the Market’s success is a mystery.”

    The writer makes a big assumption here with no data. The Market will not suddenly see a loss of tourists or business if it were closed to traffic.

    I think more people would come, knowing they don’t have to worry about cars. I’d include elderly folks in that.

    And I concur that you leave it open to cars/trucks until 9 or 10 am and then it’s closed.

  4. Why ???
    Andrew Lewis is a person running for an office, who needs another cause to champion so that we are not reminded of his current term’s mistakes.
    Change does not necessarily equal better.

  5. The figures cited by the ban-traffic forces are 150 accidents since 2004. That was 8 years ago, so less than 10 per year, mainly fender benders. What’s the count on other three block stretches in downtown? I used to have a seat at window in the P-I newsroom at 6th and Wall and watched almost daily crashes.
    Nonetheless, I am glad so many of the commenters show concern for the Market and for safety. That should bode well for the future of the Market, which — after all — is a commercial enterprise not some sterile plaza.

    • No comment on the worker and brave bystanders that were nearly killed by a driver yesterday? How many terrorist attacks by SUV are acceptable before the city takes pedestrian, patron , and worker safety at Pike Place seriously?

      Ah, it’s only fender benders. Well, that makes it safe I guess.

      Millions of people visit the Market every year. Very few of them are driving down Pike Place. Just ban the cars already.

    • Fender benders are what happens when a car hits another car. As we saw yesterday, a pedestrian getting hit with similar speed sent them to the hospital. Think of what we can do with the extra space for dining, vending, music, and more with the space circulating cars (who don’t find parking) currently take up.
      Could loading for tenants and vendor still happen, sure. But that’s only a fraction of the motor vehicles.

      • Yes, and every single one of those people dining, vending, going to music, are able bodied. Some people who are disabled need cars. That simple. Why should they be any more excluded than they already are. A driver who hit a pedestrian is horrific. But that doesn’t mean all cars need to be banned.

  6. My apologies: My math was bad; I must have been reading one of the Florida textbooks. I should have said that 150 accidents in eight years amount to just over one per month. It goes without saying that injury accidents are to be avoided at all costs, but Pike Place’s record is better than most urban areas.

    • So is then “just over one per month” an acceptable rate of traffic violence in this “working market”? The Seattle Times reports 39 incidents resulted in injury over the same time period, or two to three per year, more or less. These are our neighbors and guests.

      These rates are far worse than Ballard’s Farmer’s Market, which would be the urban context in Seattle maybe most comparable to Pike Place. As far as I can tell there has never been a traffic-related injury at the Ballard market, because there is no vehicle traffic on Ballard Ave during market hours. This is one reason I regularly recommend the Ballard Farmer’s Market to visitors as an alternative to Pike Place. If Pike Place will not innovate, other neighborhoods will be happy to provide competing alternatives.

      I am glad that we agree that street safety improvements must be made in most urban areas and that traffic injuries are to be avoided at all cost. For the cost of a couple dozen removable steel bollards (like the ones Parks uses to close access to paved pathways) and some traffic signage, yesterday’s injuries could likely have been avoided. I encourage friends of the market to work in good faith with CM Lewis so that a compromise can quickly be reached.

  7. Amen and right on Jean! We have more important issues to discuss and debate in Seattle now.
    The Council should put all of their energy into public safety, homelessness and reviving the economy!

  8. Why not a a brief experiment?
    Two—three months?
    Try out a different approach (w/ highest likelihood of success) and see if it works?

    • If it doesn’t work, it’s always possible to take it back, so … sure. But it will take longer than two or three months to develop the pedestrian only setup to its full potential. And going back to cars will be hard on the vendors and others who invested in outdoor facilities etc.

      I don’t spend enough time at Pike Place to have an opinion, but if Steinbrueck is for keeping the cars, I think I’d leave it the way it is and experiment somewhere else.

      • That’s how Seattle limits itself :
        “It can’t be done.”

        Personally I don’t care one way or the other about Pike Place; but I sure would be frustrated if “No, we can’t figure out how to experimentally close a street in three months of study”.

        Very sad that Seattle is incapable of tying its shoes, maybe can’t even put in slippers.

  9. As someone who uses the Market for grocery shopping regularly – I am always shocked that we still allow cars to drive there. There are plenty of parking structures nearby and it would make for a much more pleasant and civilized experience without cars in the thick of the market. It seems some are equating cars with the Market being successful. I disagree with this assumption.

    • Nearby isn’t good enough for people who are disabled. Why do we assume that they don’t matter, don’t need access.

      • There is at least one parking lot on Market property with disabled access. There may be more but I’m only sure about one. I don’t assume they don’t matter or need access and didn’t mean to imply that.

  10. Ban Cars ?? Not all of us use the bike lanes………Let’s fix what is broken, rather than something that has worked rather well.

  11. The traffic jam of cars on Pike Place DIMINISHES the market’s ambience and appeal, creates problems, and pre-empts other opportunities, as follows:.

    DELIVERIES are important, especially for a farmer’s market, both early in the day and later in the day. But currently delivery trucks are caught in the traffic and space for deliveries is very limited. If private cars weren’t allowed deliveries would be easier and faster, and Pike Place would once again have its historic ambience of a working market (including trucks).

    PARKING FOR RETAIL CLIENTELE was handy when there weren’t many cars and one could park right in front of your destination. But that time passed decades ago. When was the last time you drove down Pike Place and were assured of finding a place a place to park? Usually one has to drive in circles and eventually resort to going to one of the nearby parking garages (they are quite close).

    MORE MARKET VENDING SPACE for additional vendors or expanded space for existing vendors could be accommodated by allowing vendor canopies within parts of the street not needed for actual deliveries. And it would add more life and ambience to the market. It would begin to feel and act more like a traditional market and serve more local people than the tourist trap it now feels and acts like. And there could be additional space for more seating for food vendors and importantly, for those who need to rest.

    CROWDS on the existing walkways currently create an atmosphere on busy days where one feels pushed along by the surging flow of tightly packed people. You are almost compelled NOT to stop and linger to look at and buy vendors’ offerings. Using more street space for people and market activities would reduce crowding and encourage people to stop and enjoy shopping.

    ENJOYMENT is one of the things that brings people to a market. FRUSTRATION is what people currently experience when driving or walking through the existing traffic jam on Pike Place, and who discover that the market has, in some respects, become a tourist trap. People spend thousands of dollars to fly to Europe where they can enjoy the ambience of car-free spaces and markets that seem designed to serve not only tourists, but mainly local clientele. (What percent of people in Seattle go to the market regularly to buy things? I know I would go more often it were more people friendly.)

    IMAGINE what the market could be if the Pike Place traffic jam disappeared. Imagine the ambience if the traffic jams were replaced by more vending space, more eating space, and especially more places to sit rest or to watch the crowds. In short, imagine Pike Place returning to its original market character, emphasizing it as a true working market.

    INSTEAD, PIKE PLACE FOSTERS ROAD RAGE I was there on Easter Sunday at about 3:00. The roadway was full of pedestrians walking every which way. Cars were only able to go 2 – 3 mph; I walked in the street passing several. About 2 hours later a woman was badly hit and the driver attempted to drive off. Another person grabbed a hammer and smashed his window attempting to stop him. The driver then hit him with his car. He got up and stopped the car, fighting with the driver until the police arrived. The mix of people and cars leads to road rage. Cars don’t belong on Pike Place.

    At least ban cars on Pike Place on weekends, holidays, and throughout crowded summer.

  12. As a pedestrian, I’ve been hit by a bicycle (twice) and by a bus (once). Never by a car. Because of its unique topography, Seattle has an extremely challenging street grid. Hills, lakes, canals, narrow streets. No one seems to understand that traffic flows best when all modes flow as smoothly as the streets allow. Closing Pike Place to cars? Forget it. Along with a trolley on First Avenue? Insane. Third Avenue closed to cars but wide open to drug dealing? Can you even make this up? One single unrestricted Northbound lane on Fourth Avenue at Olive? Check it out; it’s already there. We’re blandly enabling our own gridlock. People may not want to go downtown for a variety of reasons. We’re making it impossible for people to go downtown even if they want to. In the words of that great American philosopher John Belushi, “Wise up.”

  13. Bravo, Jean! Especially that last quote: “Rather than fixing what doesn’t need fixing, let us instead bring our energy and resources to help the rest of downtown return to health and vibrancy.” (Peter Steinbrueck)

    As someone who walks the Market almost weekly, has shopped there half a century now, I simply say leave alone what works, what is the Market, and above all, please do not realize Lewis’s “….. festive bazaar of outdoor dining, coffee sipping, and people watching, free of cars and noise.” That may be San Francisco, but it ain’t Pike Place Market!

    • It takes callousness bordering on severe indifference to human life to describe the present conditions as “what works” just after yet another person was injured and taken to the hospital because a car in the Market.

      As for the idea that a festive bazaar atmosphere filled with commerce would be a bad thing…I’m speechless.

  14. Regarding the proposal to clear Pike Place Market of vehicular traffic, it’s a subject that comes up every so often. The first folks to be approached and engaged in such a conversation must be the shop owners, vendors, artists, buskers, restaurant owners and employees, Market workers, folks at the Pike Market Medical Clinic, the Senior Center, and Market residents. They should be given priority in asking if such a proposal makes sense to them. Those with little or no affiliation with the Market and its special place in our city’s history and social scene have the right to an opinion, but precedence must be given to those whose lives are a deep and integral part of the Market’s vibrant daily life. What can’t be denied, the Market has long had and continues to have an authentic bustling urban vibe unique to our region.

  15. God, not another — I fumed when parts of Volunteer Park were closed to cars. This elitist view that only bicyclists and pedestrians are entitled to traverse these places. What about veterans and others like my mother, who’s wheelchair-bound and can ONLY access them through a car? And no, she doesn’t Uber. No, she doesn’t want someone to push her wheelchair. She wants independence. This is a bad idea.

    • She can still drive “to” the market without driving “through” the market. There is an elevator from the parking garage.

  16. I am totally with HSWright on this. There may be only 1 car accident per month but the most important point is that I, as a pedestrian, am always on guard when walking around the Market and especially crossing the street. That makes it an anxiety provoking experience, not fun. Let suppliers and repair people in early but close it at 10:00am.

  17. It`s not as hard as all that, for goodness sake. Cars and trucks that serve the market’s core functions can be issued dated medallions. Cars that roll up their windows and roll through while peering out limo tinted windows don’t need to be there. The only ambiguity I see is with deliveries too cumbersome for a pedestrian to roll, and shopping carts are omnipresent these days. How often do you drop by to pick up a flat of gooseberries? Exactly.

  18. So sad and revealing that Seattle can’t try an EXPERIMENT. It’s the obvious solution. But no, we’d rather discuss and argue.

    I’m indifferent to cars/no cars so my recommendation is TRY AN EXPERIMENT!

    • Set up the experiment, run it for your couple months, and at the end — see the lines still drawn the same. One of the problems with making a decision like this, is that the people who count, at a political level, are entrenched. People who could go either way, depending on how the experiment turns out, don’t count — because they aren’t represented by active special interest groups who get involved at campaign time.

      See SDOT and the council’s dogged support for foot scooter curb rentals, after their “experiment”, despite thorough failure to meet the standards they set in advance for them. Why? Special interests call the tune. They could have skipped the study and just licensed the business, if it was a foregone conclusion.

  19. It’s illegal to walk in the street (RCW 46.61.250). The city is turning a blind eye to all the violations in Pike Place Market, but technically most of the visitors to the Market are breaking the law. It would be to the benefit of the Market for the City to correct this situation by turning the market into a pedestrian zone. Time for the defenders of car access everywhere to step aside in this case. Modern cars are too lethal to be in such close quarters with pedestrians, not to mention all the havoc on the environment all that idling creates. Time and again you see drivers turning into the Market wondering what the heck they got themselves into, with very little hope of finding a legal parking spot. Parking garages and elevators already provide access for the physically challenged as well as everyone else. A drop off point could provided near the entrance if deemed necessary.

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