Sep 16, 2010

Streets For All - a social justice issue

We are among the many endorsers of the Streets For All Seattle campaign. This is a campaign to make sure Seattle lives up to its fine words about building a street grid that works well for all users, not just those that have cars. This means continuing to improve the pedestrian environment, bicycle infrastructure and transit network. In the short term, the campaign is focussed on raising $30 million in new dedicated annual revenue to stave off cuts in bus service, double the city’s commitment to the underfunded Pedestrian and Bicycle Master Plans, and build critical elements of Seattle’s transportation infrastructure.

There are a lot of good reasons to support this, including public safety, the need to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, the health impacts of driving, the city's mandate to achieve carbon neutrality and the state's mandate to reduce motor vehicle miles traveled. Today I want to talk about another: social justice.

It's depressingly common to see sustainable urbanism painted as a luxury for the rich, but in fact it's car-dependent cities that fail the poor. Owning and driving a car is stunningly expensive - on average over $9,500 per year according to AAA. That's not far short of the entire annual income of someone living on the poverty line, and while it's certainly possible to run a car more cheaply than this average it's unavoidably an expensive thing to own and use. By contrast, a typical bus pass (one zone, including peak times) costs $972 per year for an adult and considerably less for youth. Or a solid, reliable new bike costs under $500 to buy and very little to keep in good working order after that. But the practicality of these alternatives depends heavily on where someone lives: like most cities Seattle has a fairly strong relationship between property values and rents and the ease of getting around without a car. This makes the extra costs associated with running a car effectively a penalty for not being able to afford to live in one of the more central, better-connected neighbourhoods in town, which serves to worsen wealth inequality.

To make things worse, there is a strong correlation between race and car ownership, so car-biased infrastructure is also white-biased infrastructure. And then there are all the people who can't drive, whether through disability, old age or being too young - all of whom are left out by car-centric infrastructure.

Streets For All is trying to fix this pressing inequity by directing more of our limited civic resources to transport infrastructure that doesn't require a car to use. There are a few ways you can help:
  1. Write to the City Council. Letters and emails to the Council are counted, and seeing a wave of support for something does sway their deliberations.
  2. Go to a budget hearing and speak up for this cause. This cycle's hearings will be in Northgate on September 29th, South Seattle Community College on October 13th, and the council chamber on October 26th - more details in this PDF.
  3. Come to a PARK(ing) Day event tomorrow (Friday), to reclaim a little space from the car. It's a simple, fun way to show what else is possible. Parking spots around town will be reclaimed to turn them into temporary parks - here's a PDF map of the sites.


  1. The Pedestrian Master Plan is not *underfunded*, it is *unfunded*. There is ZERO revenue dedicated to the PMP.

  2. Unfortunately, I think you're correct. For what it's worth, I quoted that phrase verbatim from Streets For All.