A walker wonders: Where can I walk when there are no sidewalks?

A reader sends in a tricky question about walking in Seattle where there are no sidewalks.

I live in the area colloquially called “East Ballard” or “Frelard” (etc). There are many blocks in my area that are relatively industrial in nature and don’t have sidewalks. I rarely drive and often find myself walking on these blocks (they’re hard to avoid…).

I’m wondering if there is technically a public right-of-way between the property line and the roadway for these sorts of properties. In many instances, the area between the roadway and the structure on the property is used for parking, and there is literally nowhere to walk without stepping into the street. This seems wrong to me, just on general principle. But I’m not sure if it’s technically illegal to block what would be the sidewalk if there were actually a sidewalk on the block.

Here’s SDOT’s response:

Yes, it is technically illegal to park in the area that would be a sidewalk (between the curb –or between the edge of the roadway–and the adjacent property line). A width of not less than three feet is generally assumed for this area. (Please see the code below.) Since locations vary, especially in older parts of town, we would need to inspect the area to determine the boundaries in a particular situation.

Parking over the sidewalk area is a common problem on streets with no curbs or sidewalks, and the prohibition of parking in the sidewalk area is difficult to enforce. When a curb is constructed, there is no question regarding the location of the boundary line, and most drivers will respect it. In an industrial area, businesses may be interested in supporting such a project for the safety of their customers and employees as well as for other pedestrians.

Some neighbors have joined together to request Neighborhood Street Funds from the city for this type of improvement. This generally requires strong support from the local community, including residents and businesses.

Seattle Municipal Code 11.14.570 Sidewalk.
“Sidewalk” means that area between the curb lines or the lateral edge lines of a roadway and the adjacent property, intended for the use of pedestrians or such portion of private property parallel and in proximity to a street or alley and dedicated to use by pedestrians. For the purposes of this subtitle, there is always deemed to be a sidewalk not less than three (3)feet in width, whether actually constructed or not, on each side of each street except where there is less than three (3) feet between the edge of the roadway and a physical obstruction which prohibits reasonable use by pedestrians. The sidewalk is located where constructed, or if not constructed, adjacent to the property line or as close thereto as can reasonably be used by pedestrians; provided, that no sidewalk shall be deemed to exist on private property unless it is actually constructed.

To be direct, it’s illegal to park in the area where a sidewalk would be and pedestrians who are not able to walk in the sidewalk area due to parked vehicles can call SPD. For ongoing issues, contact the Parking Enforcement Unit at 206-386-9012. They may be able to come out to investigate the situation and work to correct the issue through new signage or more regular enforcement. For more immediate attention, call SPD’s non-emergency number at 206-625-5011.

It’s unfortunate that pedestrians have to compete with drivers for area along the roadway that’s technically not for parking and not really a sidewalk. The Neighborhood Street Fund is one way to have the city build new sidewalks, but is a very competitive process that requires broad community support, which doesn’t come easily in an industrial area. SDOT doesn’t even allow industrial land-owners to fund the construction of a sidewalk by themselves.

With the cost of building all of Seattle’s missing sidewalks estimated at up to $4.5 billion, there’s no realistic solution to create lots more sidewalks. Enforcement of existing laws is the only reasonable option to improve pedestrian accessibility in areas where the infrastructure has been neglected.


3 Responses to “A walker wonders: Where can I walk when there are no sidewalks?”

  • To answer the original question, however: when there are no sidewalks, Seattle Municipal Code specifies that pedestrians should walk in the street, on the left side if practicable, but dutifully step into the gutter if a car happens to come by:

    SMC 11.40.240

    Walking in roadway.

    Where sidewalks are not provided any pedestrian moving along and upon a street shall, when practicable, move only on the left side of the roadway or its shoulder facing traffic which may approach from the opposite direction and upon meeting an oncoming vehicle shall move clear of the roadway.
    (Ord. 115323 Section 5, 1990: Ord. 108200 Section 2(11.40.240), 1979.)

  • A small but dedicated population in this neighborhood calls it “Halibut Flats”.

  • Thanks for the informative post, I will share this with our neighborhood group. We face a similar situation in our neighborhood in Columbia City where residents park on the area between the lot line and pavement line which we refer as the “shoulder.” Cars parked on the shoulder force all pedestrians to walk in the street which is dangerous and with the volume of traffic we have and the speeds many drivers go make walking on our street not fun. We have applied twice for the construction of sidewalks and curbs via the Neighborhood Street Fund application process and it’s been overlooked so far but perhaps third time is a charm; the 2013 application is in process right now. If its denied again, I wonder if the city would help educate residents and perhaps enforce the rule so that residents park their cars on the pavement? We’ve been given conflicting information about whether residents can or can’t park on the shoulder, to me the law says you can’t but the SDOT Engineer I’ve spoken to says there isn’t much the city can do. If cars were simply parked on the roadway it would leave 5ft of usable space to walk safely separated from cars speeding by. That would be nice.

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