Complete Streets safety demonstration project: Arlington, WA

In a small but suburbanizing city on the extreme northern edge of metro Seattle, a temporary pedestrian crossing and median refuge helped improve safety, reduce speeds, educate residents and drivers about the importance of slower speeds and better walking access, and spark important conversations about the future of the community.

Arlington, WA

Smokey Point Blvd. demonstration project

Budget: $7,500 / Demonstration length: Three weeks

This is one of three stories from our yearlong Washington Complete Streets Leadership Academy, conducted by our National Complete Streets Coalition in partnership with the Washington Department of Transportation (WSDOT) and Washington Department of Health (DOH) and Washington Transportation Improvement Board (TIB). Three smaller cities—Airway Heights, Arlington, and Wenatchee— came together to learn from the Coalition and one another while building their skills in safer street design, creative placemaking, and community engagement through quick-build pilot projects.

View the full package of profiles

Arlington is a small city along I-5 about 20 miles north of Everett on the extreme northern edge of metro Seattle. A team from the City of Arlington installed a temporary pedestrian crossing and median refuge at Smokey Point Boulevard, a major north-south arterial on the western edge of town with a history of speeding issues, and a neighborhood street that leads to a public park. The team wanted to create safe, accessible walkways to connect residents to the park while helping the community envision a more walking-friendly corridor in line with future mixed use redevelopment coming to the area. Through the Washington Complete Streets Leadership Academy, the team aimed to improve safety, educate residents and drivers about the importance of slower speeds and better walking access, and make the project temporary but reusable in order to do similar pop-up crossings elsewhere along the corridor. The project successfully slowed driving speeds, and sparked important conversations about the future of the community.

The City of Arlington adopted a Complete Streets policy in 2018 and launched a citywide Complete Streets program, but the concept is still new to many residents. The Arlington team hoped to use their demonstration project to increase awareness about the need for safe walking, biking, and rolling access and prompt important conversations about tradeoffs between car mobility and active travel in their growing community. The main goals for the project, located at the T-intersection of Smokey Point Blvd and 180th Street NE, were to establish greater visibility and collect feedback for a permanent project planned along the corridor, improve safety for residents, connect them to an underutilized park to the west, and reduce traffic speeds. The city got the word out about the project to residents through door flyers and social media.

Smokey Point Blvd is known for being a busy traffic corridor with few protected pedestrian crossings. At the start of the project, even the most basic infrastructure was sorely lacking— sidewalks on Smokey Point Boulevard ended entirely a few blocks south of this intersection and shoulders were too narrow to provide a safe alternative. The area largely developed during the second half of the 20th century as the city grew westward towards I-5 and suburbanized, and while much of it is currently residential and low-density, the city knows growth will be coming to this corridor whether they encourage it or not. The city has proactive redevelopment plans for Smokey Point Boulevard to make it more like a town center through rezoning and mixed-use housing. The project team hoped their demonstration could build awareness about these coming changes and help prompt a community dialogue about the future of the area. The city also chose this location to bring more attention to the lower economic and previously underinvested and ignored past of this part of the community, as well as highlight an underutilized park at the end of 180th St NE.

Planning the project

The Arlington team developed a design concept for a painted crosswalk at Smokey Point Blvd at 180th St NE to allow pedestrians and bicyclists to cross safely. The team chose to install a center median refuge protected by physical barriers. The main materials used were reusable rubber curb bumpers with reflective paint, catch basins filled with dirt and plants to try to replicate the feel of a landscaped median envisioned in future plans for the corridor, and street candle sticks, temporary tape and reflective paint. Project staff largely chose reusable materials with the hope of doing similar pop-up crosswalks elsewhere along the corridor.

A local project partner, Panattoni Development, widened the shoulder leading up to the installation. With sidewalks lacking on both sides of the street, this new shoulder will permanently make the crossing more walkable and accessible for pedestrian use. The team reduced the posted speed limit to 25mph, coupled with new signage along the corridor highlighting and explaining the change. The team also painted zigzag fog lines and tapered lane transitions on Smokey Point Boulevard to give drivers a cue to slow down.

Challenges during COVID-19

Unsurprisingly, COVID-19 complications made it difficult to get Arlington’s project up and running. With the Complete Streets Leadership Academy on hold for nearly a year, the city faced staffing turnover and limited capacity when the program restarted, making it more difficult to build the level of buy-in that the core planning team enjoyed before the pandemic. The project had full support from representatives in the city’s Maintenance and Operations Department before the pandemic, along with the city council and the health district, but many of those team members had left their positions or were not able to participate when the program restarted. The pandemic also meant cancellation of a summer market that would have taken place weekly in the park to the west of the site, reducing the number of people accessing the crosswalk.

COVID also affected the process of community engagement. While the team would normally have held in- person meetings to solicit input and help residents get a better understanding of the plan leading up to the project, they were not able to do so when the program restarted in 2021. Instead, the team sent out flyers, placed articles in the newspaper, and held conversations with residents. They also partnered with the local high school’s National Honor Society to help with public outreach and engagement by putting out informational door hangers in the community. While these methods were fairly effective, the project team knew they wouldn’t be getting the level of engagement possible under better circumstances. However, engagement increased after the demonstration project was in place, illustrating why quick-build pilot projects themselves can be such powerful engagement tools. The project provided a real example of what permanent changes, especially to the road design, could look like, making the results highly visible for everyone, moving from the theoretical to the concrete—and giving residents time to react while there is still flexibility to change aspects of the design.

Successfully reducing speeds and sparking an important conversation

Once the demonstration project was up and running, the Arlington team received lots of feedback, both positive and negative. While people trying to walk and bike in the area generally responded favorably, many drivers were unhappy about the reduced speeds. But as one cyclist pointed out, the project did accomplish one of its core goals—more drivers stopped to let people cross:

“A couple evenings ago, I decided to ride a bike through the demonstration area to see if the new marked crosswalk & signage/speed would make a difference. And I believe it did. As I approached the crossing, I gave a slowdown/stop signal & dismounted at the crosswalk. One truck flew by—legally, as I had not entered the walk—but seemingly in a rush. But what was interesting is that when I turned around to check before crossing, a car had already stopped & was waiting for me to cross. That is very unlike the typical behavior I have witnessed running/riding on/over Smokey Point Boulevard.”

The team also received a number of complaints that the height of the catch basin planters reduced visibility for people in lower profile vehicles. Since demonstration projects have the benefit of being flexible, the Arlington team responded by proposing to remove the catch basins for the remainder of the project. 

However, due to fears about liability, instead of removing only the planters, the maintenance and operations team removed the entire installation early. Staffing turnover worked against the Arlington team in this case with a new department director—who was unfamiliar with the project and its purposes—taking over while the Complete Streets Leadership Academy program was on hold. While the purpose of projects like this is to try new things, make changes and learn from them with input and support from the local community, this outcome highlighted the importance (and challenge) of having everyone involved on the same page throughout the process.

The Arlington team also faced similar challenges with the city council and some members of city staff, as well as a general lack of familiarity about the need for Complete Streets from many members of the public. Some stakeholders didn’t understand the purpose of the project and what the team was trying to achieve. The project highlighted the importance of having both political support and a cross-department team aligned and communicating openly throughout the process. The complications from the pandemic also led to competing priorities and limited capacity which made it difficult to keep channels of communication open and the goals aligned during crucial moments of decisions about the project once it was up.

However, despite the initial pushback and untimely early end of the project, the Arlington team successfully achieved all of the project’s core goals: they saw average car speeds reduced from 37 mph to 31 mph along this part of the corridor and average truck speeds decreased from 37 mph to 28 mph. The project team also succeeded in sparking needed conversations about tradeoffs in their community: between car throughput and safety for people walking, biking, and rolling, and between what this corridor looks like today and what it could become if the cIty thoughtfully manages the growth it knows will come. Some of the concerns raised by residents during the process pointed to broader lessons as well, including that residents will inevitably bring larger frustrations about their community’s transportation network into their reactions to specific projects.

Lessons learned

Don’t be afraid of setbacks—you can’t make change without some growing pains

The Arlington project faced a number of challenges over the course of the project, especially staffing turnover and limited capacity. The team persevered through those challenges and turned a frustrating turn of events (the early removal of the project) into an example of why demonstration projects can be such powerful tools in prompting necessary conversations in growing communities: they provide space for those conversations while there is still time to be responsive and make adjustments before putting any permanent infrastructure in place. Other cities should follow the example to continue to push for initiatives they want to see implemented in their communities—even if they take longer than expected or encounter hurdles. And despite the challenges, the project still achieved its core goal of reducing speeds. Nova Heaton, the project lead, said it well: “You can’t be afraid to fail. If you’re afraid to fail you really can’t succeed, especially at new ideas. Guidelines change all the time, and they change because we try new things.”

Bring everyone to the table from the start, and take the time to rebuild buy-in when key stakeholders change

One of the project’s biggest issues was its early removal by the city’s maintenance and operations department, which arose partially from a lack of understanding about the project’s purposes by the department’s leadership, ultimately making it so fears about liability outweighed the perceived benefits. Getting the public on board is always a challenge, but it’s made even more difficult when the internal project team hasn’t gotten everyone who has a role in the project aligned. In Arlington’s case some of these challenges were difficult to avoid: they had broad buy-in initially, but the pandemic, staff turnover, competing priorities, and relatively quick timeline of the Complete Streets Leadership Academy program all made it difficult to recreate that level of buy-in when the program restarted. But their lessons can help other communities avoid similar challenges—rebuilding internal support from scratch can feel like a major setback, but it is worth the time and effort.

Demonstration projects can help raise broader needed changes

The project team intended to use the temporary crosswalk to educate their community about the need for safer, slower speeds and raise the visibility of their broader Complete Streets work. But some of the feedback they heard went far beyond the corridor itself, pointing to larger frustrations with traffic and poor access elsewhere in the community. This was a huge wake up call for the project team. Many residents simply would not be able to separate those larger frustrations from their reactions to individual projects (temporary or otherwise). This insight raised a need to update Arlington’s transportation plan, provide a forum where residents can air those frustrations and have a real impact, and do more engagement about where the city is headed in the future.

These demonstration projects and case studies were supported in part by the Centers for Disease

Control and Prevention under cooperative agreement OT18-1802 supporting the Active People, Healthy NationSM Initiative. Active People, Healthy NationSM is a national initiative led by the CDC to help 27 million Americans become more physically active by 2027. Learn more.

Smart Growth America would also like to thank the Washington Transportation Improvement Board and Barr Foundation for their additional funding support for the demonstration projects in these case studies, as well as the Washington State Department of Health and Washington State Department of Transportation for their partnership throughout this program.

Complete Streets Transportation