A view of downtown Spokane. Photo by Mike Hoy, via Flickr.
In Spokane, WA, thanks to foresight from local leaders, safer streets and neighborhood vibrancy are going hand in hand.
City Council Member Candace Mumm has a new crosswalk ordinance aimed at serving the community for both purposes. The ordinance—which passed on September 8 with a 5-to-1 vote—will require marked crosswalks to be installed at intersections adjacent to schools, parks, hospitals, trail crossings, and other pedestrian-traffic-generating locations.
Located in eastern Washington, Spokane is the second largest city in the state, with a metro area population of more than 500,000. Established nearly 150 years ago, the city has a unique offering of historic buildings and natural urban forest and also boasts several universities located downtown. Much of the older infrastructure in the city, however, is designed on a scale to accommodate automobile traffic, which can be dangerous for pedestrians. According to the Spokane Police Department, 28 pedestrian deaths and 1,400 vehicle collisions with pedestrians have occurred in the last ten years.
For Mumm, a former president of the city planning commission and member of her neighborhood council, the issue was personal. “I saw the real impacts on the ground, in my neighborhood, affecting families,” she says. “When my next door neighbor gets in an accident, or a kid gets hit walking to school, you really pay attention.”
Council Member Mumm’s first major piece of legislation will significantly increase the amount of crosswalks in the city, using design principles focused on pedestrian safety. In addition to installing crosswalks at the new locations, the city can now install mid-block crosswalks, signaling a shift in priorities towards pedestrians. Crosswalks on streets with three or more lanes will have pedestrian refuges, certain intersections will have elevated crosswalks while others will have HAWK lights activated by pedestrian traffic, and all new crosswalks will be Americans with Disabilities Act–compliant. The changes will be implemented as intersections undergo resurfacing and repairs.
The previous incarnation of the crosswalk ordinance essentially stipulated that five pedestrians must be hit in an intersection over a three-year period before a crosswalk is installed. “I wanted to modernize and update our crosswalk ordinance to be proactive, and guide our engineers and our street department to mark crosswalks where we want people to walk—and where we want drivers to know we want people to walk,” Mumm asserts.
Aside from pedestrian safety, local businesses also have the opportunity to benefit from the new crosswalk ordinance. To make space for the pedestrian refuges on larger streets, lane widths can be narrowed, slowing traffic. The city has already conducted a pilot program of painting lane widths narrower on some streets to simulate conditions when the new crosswalks are installed.
According to Mumm, the response from the business community has been positive, thanks to increased sales, more pedestrian activity, and slower traffic. “Traffic is slowing down from 40 miles per hour to 25, which means the customers in vehicles can actually see the neighborhood deli or furniture store from the road now,” Mumm adds.
Mumm’s efforts to improve pedestrian safety align with a number of large and small measures that Spokane is taking to promote a thriving downtown. For example, to support infill development, the City made one minor change to spark the creation of multifamily residences above first floor retail: allowing building owners to use one sewer hookup for an entire building, rather than one for each unit. The change has saved some building owners up to $20,000 and reduces a barrier to creating residential units.
A larger measure gaining steam in Spokane is a proposed electromagnetic bus line called the Center City Line. The line would run a three-mile route connecting the Browne’s Addition neighborhood to the University District downtown, with a possible extension to Spokane Community College. Downtown Spokane is home to more than 50,000 residents and commuters, five higher-education campuses, and a regional health care system. A transit line connecting the city’s busiest neighborhoods has the potential to reduce reliance on single-occupancy vehicles traveling through the downtown.
The vehicle would resemble a streetcar, with an overhead power source, but would have wheels like a conventional bus and not use fixed rails, allowing for the ability to switch lanes. All of the benefits of a streetcar or light rail system could be realized, but at one third of the cost. The city hopes to use 20 percent local funding and 80 percent funding from the Federal Transit Administration’s Small Starts grant. As of September, the city is moving forwards with public feedback on the plans.
Council Member Mumm hopes that these initiatives will continue to promote safer and more walkable neighborhoods in Spokane, increasing pedestrian traffic and promoting community vitality. Mumm is a member of Smart Growth America’s Local Leaders Council. Learn more about how other leaders around the country are making their communities vibrant through their own smart growth initiatives.