On Seattle’s Neighborhood Greenways, cute kids can roam free

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Seattle 2011
Future Greenway of Seattle?

What brings more smiles than little kids on bicycles?

How about a well-connected network of safe, quiet streets so they can ride those bikes freely in their neighborhoods, to parks, and to schools?

Seattle’s Neighborhood Greenways initiative aims to provide just that — a network of residential streets, with sane, safe crossing of arterials. Within just a few years, the Greenway network will connect every neighborhood in the city, providing comfortable, safe access on foot and by bike to retail areas, parks, playgrounds, schools, gardens, and homes. Eleven miles are set to be built by the end of the year, with another 11 going in during 2013.

Greenways resemble “bike boulevards,” and part of their function is a bicycling network for adults as well as children; but unlike many projects branded as cycling initiatives, the greenways have encountered little opposition or controversy. And it’s no wonder. Check out the cuteness permeating the opening of the first segment of Greenway, in the Wallingford neighborhood:

I learned about the Greenways when I visited Seattle in March. The highlight of that visit was a bike ride with a couple dozen of the people who have been working hard to organize and advocate for the system.The broad coalition of organizers includes a wide range of volunteers vigorously lending their energy and expertise to the cause — the mix included food activists, bicycling and walking advocates, scholars, mapping experts, parents, academics, and even the full and enthusiastic support of two city councillors. Groups in each individual neighborhood are leading efforts to create greenways that make sense to residents. Funding has fallen into place and ground has been broken within just a couple of years of the project beginning.

The Greenway network is a hugely ambitious project; many more incremental efforts to create safe streets meet with failure all the time. Speaking with the organizers, though, I realized that the large scope of the project is a major reason for its success so far. The Greenways vision is so broad and so fully articulated that it creates a space for people with a wide diversity of interests and needs to invest in it fully. And even if their grand vision of a connected city on a human scale never comes to pass, it’s in part because of the grandness of the plan that pieces of it have already begun to be built. Bicycle advocates often embrace the strategy of incremental change; yet I wonder how much less would have been done by now in Seattle if the group had started out by setting their sights on only the first 22 miles.

Another reason for the Greenways’ success can be found in Cathy Tuttle, the determined force at the center of the project’s framework. A planner who has spent time living in Sweden, Tuttle’s vision for a connected city goes far beyond just the Greenways, extending into food, education, and carbon policy. Her genius seems to be in bringing people together and then letting them loose to do their part, keeping the project on course with a steady hand and a strong nerve, sharing the credit so thoroughly with her collaborators that it’s hard to tell at times that she’s in charge of the operation.

Seattle’s Greenway movement has been successful hugely and quietly — it has not yet, as far as I’ve seen, made a tremendous splash in either the complete streets movement or the transportation news. Perhaps this is by virtue of its being a somewhat amorphous organization without an obvious leader, not to mention being so inclusive that it isn’t easy to define (hey, it took me four full months to write about it here). But I believe the project’s goals and methods deserve great attention from everyone who is working to bring communities together to create safer, better streets for the enjoyment of all — especially cute kids on bikes.

Update: I sent this post to Tuttle, who has the following to add:

Seattle Neighborhood Greenways have had some little note taken in the “mainstream” transportation policy arena [by the APBP and People Powered Movement].

But as you so accurately noted, I view what we are doing in Seattle Greenways as a city building and sustainability effort as much or more than a transportation policy shift — which is why so many different kinds of people are delighted to jump in and get involved. It is a game changer when you do not have to “defend” cycling but instead support safe, healthy cities.

I’m very excited right now about the new group I’m helping to launch in Rainier Valley, Seattle’s most diverse and underserved area.

– Need to be convinced of the cuteness (and viability) of kids on bikes? Two recent photo essays by Seattle-based Sightline ought to do the trick. (Babes on Bikes, part one) (Part two)

– While we’re on the topic, Taking the Lane #8 has the them “Childhood.” The call for submissions is open til August 15th.