You could pick dozens of bad intersections in Seattle from an era of car-friendly road building. However, in the case of 5th and Denny, the concrete that was poured decades ago isn’t the biggest problem; it’s the regulated, almost deliberate hostility to pedestrians in an area that demands the opposite. Four blocks away from last year’s worst “intersection” of Aurora and its non-crossing cross streets of John, Thomas, Harrison, and Republican, 5th and Denny is an active intersection for multiple modes of transportation in a very walkable area in the heart of the city. The sidewalks are relatively wide and smooth and the intersection has two plazas and street-friendly retail.Bordering Belltown, this intersection is host to substantial foot traffic from residents. Unfortunately, pedestrians aren’t allowed to cross Denny on the east side of 5th/Cedar, and instead must cross three streets instead of one. On southeast-bound 5th Avenue, which some call the “5th Avenue onramp,” pedestrians are forced into areas outside drivers’ lines of sight and cars veering onto Fifth speed by.
One of the most remarkable problems of this intersection is the one that is the easiest to address. People trying to cross Denny often find themselves stuck waiting for the signal to change, not realizing that they have to push the button to cross.In much of this area near the Space Needle and multiple hotels, tourists from Tucson to Toronto and Spokane to Sequim experience what walkable, urban, Seattle has to offer. With high pedestrian traffic, frequent bus service, and the monorail soaring overhead, this intersection could serve as an example of what a pedestrian-friendly city can be like. However, the 5th and Denny intersection treats them like second-class citizens with the same “no pedestrians” sign they might see if trying to cross a freeway in Fargo and the same push button signals they would use to cross an 8-lane suburban highway in Houston.
For all of Seattle’s progressive urban undertakings – greenways, road diets, and the proposals to lift parking requirements – what does it say about the city if we can’t be practical enough to make an important urban intersection work well for walkers? What does it say if we don’t allow pedestrian to cross an urban intersection without hitting a button? What does it say if we’re ok with pedestrians being forced to cross three streets instead of one? What does it say if we allow pedestrians to be hidden behind a pillar?
It says that despite the city’s progressive urban ambitious, we will never reach our potential as a city until we rethink intersections like 5th and Denny that put cars first and put pedestrians last.