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Notes from Seattle: Neighborhood greenways

Several GGW editors and contributors are in Seattle this week for the Railvolution conference. While there, they'll offer a series of short posts about their experiences.

Seattle residents were sick of speeding cut-through traffic on neighborhood streets. In response, the city is creating a network of "neighborhood greenways" designed to slow drivers and make it safer to get around by foot or bike.

A cyclist and a driver navigate a roundabout on a "neighborhood greenway" in Seattle's Wallingford neighborhood. All photos by the author.

Neighborhood greenways are sort of a carrot and stick approach: speed bumps, physical diverters and small roundabouts at each intersection slow drivers down, discouraging them from cutting through the neighborhood, or at least encouraging them to drive more carefully.

Meanwhile, improved sidewalks and marked crosswalks make it easier and safer to walk. Bike lanes and sharrows, or shared lanes, give cyclists a safer ride as well. And all of those roundabouts and bumpouts are great places for landscaping, putting the "green" in "neighborhood greenway."

Seattle first got the idea from Portland, which pioneered the neighborhood greenway a few years ago. The city has completed neighborhood greenways in two communities, including Wallingford, where I'm staying this week.

There are nine additional greenways elsewhere in the city in various stages of planning and construction. Residents are big fans of the project, and have even started a citywide advocacy group to identify potential greenways and push for them.

Ellsworth Drive in Silver Spring is closed to through traffic, but lacks amenities for walkers and cyclists.

If the neighborhood greenway is a carrot and stick, traffic calming in the DC area is often just the stick. Hearing complaints from neighborhoods abutting commercial districts, local departments of transportation often respond by closing streets off entirely. This creates "fake cul-de-sacs" that not only push through traffic to main streets, but sometimes local trips as well.

But unlike neighborhood greenways, these treatments don't always come with pedestrian and bicycle improvements. In Bethesda, where Montgomery County's department of transportation limits access to several streets around downtown, parents say they can't safely walk their kids to school because of too-narrow sidewalks, poorly-timed stoplights, and a lack of crosswalks.

Speeding drivers and cut-through traffic can be a safety hazard, especially on narrow residential streets. But the answer isn't simply to keep them out, as some neighborhoods seek to do. By making it easier to get around without a car, neighborhood greenways create more transportation choices and make the street a more welcoming place for all.

Dan Reed is an urban planner at Nelson\Nygaard. He writes his own blog, Just Up the Pike, and serves as the Land Use Chair for the Action Committee for Transit. He lives in downtown Silver Spring. All opinions are his own. 


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Arlington has something similar on N. Utah Street north of the I-66 overpass. Definitely helps slow down cars that would be cutting through from Washington Blvd. to Lee Hwy. A series of small roundabouts and speed bumps slow things down considerably. No bike infrastructure currently though. I would definitely like to see that added.

by Chase on Oct 21, 2013 12:56 pm • linkreport

Nice summary. Silver Spring's civic association has a penchant for wanting to create virtual gated communities out of certain close in neighborhoods when what they should be doing is working on pedestrian safety, road diet's, and traffic calming devices like you point out. If they restrict cut through traffic, it simply pushes the problem onto the main streets. We need to take advantage of what street grid connectivity we have while making certain drivers respect the slow nature of the residential streets at downtown's perimeter.

by Thayer-D on Oct 21, 2013 1:12 pm • linkreport

Arlington uses these throughout Key Blvd in the Clarendon/Lyon Village neighborhood.

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by Dan on Oct 21, 2013 1:19 pm • linkreport

Note from Arlington: Been there, done that.

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by Jasper on Oct 21, 2013 1:19 pm • linkreport

Re:Utah St. Residents in Waverly Hills in Arlington actually have some problems with the roundabouts. They have turned out to actually cause problems for pedestrians and bicyclists. To get around them, cars end up moving into the path of bicyclists. The community has recommended against putting in any new ones on other streets. They are not looking to remove existing roundabouts, though, but maybe to shrink them.

Also, the fact that this writer published a post about how this is innovative in Seattle without noting how it exists around here is kind of ridiculous. Also, he should note that they have drawbacks and do not promise some sort of car-bicyclist utopia.

by DH on Oct 21, 2013 1:30 pm • linkreport

Just so long as no one else adopts the Seattle practice of drivers parking on the wrong side of the street:

by Alex B. on Oct 21, 2013 1:30 pm • linkreport

"To get around them, cars end up moving into the path of bicyclists."

On a quiet residential street, do cars and cyclists have seperate paths? In the pic Dan presented, they have a Sharrows, with indication bikes should take the lane - which would especially make sense on a fully calmed bike boulevard. Is the problem in Arlington that these streets are not seen that way, and cyclists are expected to let autos pass them?

by AWalkerInTheCity on Oct 21, 2013 1:37 pm • linkreport

PG's older neighborhoods are often closed off completely with dumb one one streets and barriers.

by Richard on Oct 21, 2013 1:40 pm • linkreport

This toolkit is really a no-brainer for localities that want to allow dense development on arterials or areas that adjoin quieter residential neighborhoods. The more that retail destination/high-density through traffic is kept out of residential streets, the easier it is to enable development while mitigating many of the impacts. DC DDOT seemed to get this for a while, but the current group running the agency seems clueless.

by Jasper2 on Oct 21, 2013 1:42 pm • linkreport

I think its great to have local and non local examples. It's hardly a bad thing that people on opposite coasts have similar ideas an goals.

What Dan says about a lot of areas going for "stick only" approach is astute. It can be the dark side of the quick fixes we talked about last week.

by Drumz on Oct 21, 2013 1:42 pm • linkreport

Yup that's exactly it. I see the value in localized traffic calming but maintaining bike and ped connections should be non-negotiable. There are some fair examples in Ballston

by BTA on Oct 21, 2013 1:49 pm • linkreport

re:AWalkerInTheCity; I think the problem is that the streets just aren't wide enough for a dedicated bike lane that would accommodate the roundabout. If they did, it would have to bend along with the circle, which would put the bikers into the pedestrian path. As it is right now, cars moving around the circle end up in the path of pedestrians. It is a real problem to know what to do as a driver when you are approaching the roundabout at the same time as a bike. I usually have to slow down and let them through and then follow and try to pass them before we get to the next one.

by DH on Oct 21, 2013 2:06 pm • linkreport


I didnt say anything about a dedicated bike lane.

Look at Dan Reed's picture above. The idea is the cyclist proceeds in the general travel lane, just as a car does. The car behind him, simply follows behind him. The speed a reasonably efficient cyclist can go is not far below the maximum speed many would want on their quiet residential streets.

"I usually have to slow down and let them through and then follow "

I think thats precisely the idea.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Oct 21, 2013 2:17 pm • linkreport


I think you are missing the point. If your car ends up "in the path of pedestrians" you simply need to yield to them. Neighborhood streets are not the exclusive domain of your car. In any event, judging from the Google images that have been posted it looks like there's more than enough room to drive around the roundabouts without entering the crosswalk.

by jimble on Oct 21, 2013 2:27 pm • linkreport

@DH Do you mean that you and the cyclists are approaching the roundabout from the same direction at the same time? It's not unusual for things to tighten up right in front of an intersection. Bike lanes and turn lanes often merge before signalized intersections in DC, for instance.

Since the point of these roundabouts is to slow traffic down in residential areas (and to the extent that cars are usually what we're trying to slow down), it seems reasonable to expect that cars will merge with bikes at these intersections.

AFAIK, if there's no bike lane on this street, then you and the bike are already in the same lane; as such, you should probably merge behind the bike, just as you would wait to clear the intersection before passing a slower car. Same goes for the bike...if he can't pass you before you get to the intersection, then he should merge behind you.

by Steven H on Oct 21, 2013 2:34 pm • linkreport

The problem is that drivers do not take note of the presence of bikers, and just move right into the path of an approaching biker, causing a dangerous situation.

The solution here is for drivers to pay some attention to their surrounding. Not to widen the road, or to get rid of roundabouts.

A similar things happens here:

View Larger Map
in Georgetown all the time. There is a bike lane there now, but drivers just move into it without blinking or looking whether a biker is moving in the lane. And they actually get angry when you ring your bell and point out you're there. Very weird.

by Jasper on Oct 21, 2013 2:50 pm • linkreport

Vancouver, B.C., had these back in the summer of 2005 when my wife and I moved out there for a three-year stint. They were still expanding their neighborhood greenways, but many existed already at that time.

by Sandy Zuckerman on Oct 21, 2013 2:53 pm • linkreport

Everything new is old. Those kinds of things were part of the subdivision where I grew-up in a Cleveland suburb. They dated to the 20s, although most of the neighborhood didn't develop until well into the 50s.

The long term issue is caring for these. No city is going to spend a lot of money to make them look pretty. Growing up our neighborhood association took responsibility until the association itself became dormant, then the city came mowed grass, which was the only things these had.

by Rich on Oct 21, 2013 2:55 pm • linkreport

AFAIK: I get what you are saying. A driver is to fall in line behind the bicyclist, and maybe that is what is intended. I guess it is confusing because on a normal stretch of the road, there is room to pass a bicyclist, and then it narrows. Without the roundabout both could go through the intersection in the same manner. I guess it slows down traffic, but it still feels unsafe.

Jimble: The problem is not that a driver should yield to a pedestrian; the car the pedestrian are both going in the same direction, and then the driving lane basically moves into the pedestrian crosswalk. Both vehicle and pedestrian should ideally be able to move in a straight line in the same direction. Obviously a driver yields to a pedestrian when they turn onto a street, but if a roundabout makes a driver go around it and then veer into a pedestrian crosswalk going in the same direction, there is a problem. The pedestrian situation is not the same as the bike situation, where as AFAIK notes, the solution is likely for the two to fall in line. A car and pedestrian should not be caused to move into the same travel space on a well-traveled road. I don't need the lecture about the road not being the exclusive domain of my car. It is a question of what is safe. The above post makes it seem like these roundabouts solve problems, I'm just pointing out that they can cause some as well and they should be addressed.

by DH on Oct 21, 2013 2:57 pm • linkreport

Meant to address first part of my response above to AWalkerintheCity.

by DH on Oct 21, 2013 3:04 pm • linkreport

The Neighborhood Greenway may be a new concept, but many Seattle neighborhoods have had little roundabouts (some even smaller than the one pictured) for a long time I believe. They are all over the place there.

by MLD on Oct 21, 2013 3:08 pm • linkreport

DH: If the intersections are designed in such a way that you actually can't drive around the roundabout without entering the crosswalk, then there definitely is a problem. I usually find that if I slow down and drive carefully -- which is the point of these things -- I can negotiate these neighborhood roundabouts without touching the crosswalk. If that's not possible at some of these intersections then perhaps the crosswalks need to be moved back a bit.

by jimble on Oct 21, 2013 3:08 pm • linkreport

"I guess it is confusing because on a normal stretch of the road, there is room to pass a bicyclist, and then it narrows."

Understood. But thats not that uncommon on normal stretches of road - IE that the due to widening and narrowing roads, stretches where passing in lane is safe alternate with sections where it is not.

The best solution is probably to solve it with paint - the normal stretch should also have a painted sharrows, with the location of the sharrows marker indicating whether taking the lane should be considered the default option due to lane width. And there should be sharrows around the roundabout (as in the Seattle pic, but not the Arlington pics) to clarify where cyclists belong in the roundabout.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Oct 21, 2013 3:11 pm • linkreport

note - you should be allowing 3 feet to pass a cyclist (though in Va the current law only requires 2 feet passing room)

by AWalkerInTheCity on Oct 21, 2013 3:12 pm • linkreport

Those little roundabout like planters in the intersections are decades old. They were there in the early 1990s when I was in college in Seattle. And even then they looked to be decades old.

And I don't remember them causing me to drive into a crosswalk. I just had to drive slowly. The point, after all.

by RDHD on Oct 21, 2013 3:47 pm • linkreport

Usually if a car can't avoid crossing into a sidewalk while traversing a roundabout, that means the car is going too fast for the roundabout. Slow down!! Also as cars and bikes exit a roundabout, they must yield to pedestrians crossing that particular crosswalk, for the same reason one yields before turning.

by DaveG on Oct 21, 2013 3:49 pm • linkreport

Great post Dan! We do already have some of these things like the tiny roundabout. There are some in Bethesda and I think DDOT is looking into doing some in Ward 3 also. I also agree that we need more carrots in these neighborhoods like bike infrastructure and more sidewalks.

One note though, I extremely dislike the term "cut-through traffic." A public street is a public street for all to use. If it connects to other streets why, shouldn't drivers use it? "Cut-through" implies that those drivers should not be there. Who says?

by Abigail Z on Oct 21, 2013 3:54 pm • linkreport

Abigail Z,

You may dislike the term, "cut through" but DC (and MD and VA) adhere to the federal highway functional classification system of highways, major and minor arterial streets, collectors and local streets. Arterial streets are supposed to handle truly through traffic. Collector streets are supposed to collect or route traffic from local streets to arterials and local streets are supposed to carry traffic that originates or is traveling to a destination on those streets. Arterials and collectors are typically eligible for federal funds and are often built or designed to carry more traffic. DDOT would say that local streets should not be used to carry through traffic. People usually refer to "cut through" traffic as that which uses local streets as a short cut, or bypass around slower moving traffic on arterial streets. Because local streets in MD and DC tend to be narrow and residential in character, such traffic can create pedestrian/bike/vehicle conflicts, cause pollution and excessive noise, etc., on streets not designed for it.

by Jasper2 on Oct 21, 2013 5:01 pm • linkreport

Nice article!

One thing I'd like to point out - one of the main things that make Greenways work so well, aside from the traffic calming elements that keep speeds down to 20mph, are the arterial crossings.

These neighborhood streets have been around forever, as someone else pointed out. They were perfectly fine to bike and walk on previously, after all. The problem is, you get to a busy street, and you're suddenly playing frogger across traffic. Greenways add improved crossings at these busy streets (pedestrian islands, crosswalks, crossing signals, rapid flashing beacons, and all kinds of other treatments). Suddenly, you no longer have a disconnected network of walkable and bikable streets; you have a connected grid. You're no longer cut off from the grocery store that's only 1/2 a mile away, but required crossing multiple busy streets. You can now cross those busy streets safely and (just as important!) comfortably.

At least, that's the vision! Budgets and politics sometimes get in the way, as with anything.

- Andres Salomon, Seattle Neighborhood Greenways

by Andres Salomon on Oct 22, 2013 1:38 am • linkreport

@Jasper 2

Yes I am aware of those designations but I have noticed that most residents do not know the origins and destinations of the cars they see on their streets. In many neighborhoods the worst offenders when it comes to speeding, disobeying stop signs, etc... are residents of that neighborhood. In my neighborhood the police mention this every time they talk about it. Almost all the people they stop for traffic offenses live close by.

You can't tell by looking what is or is not "cut through" traffic. So, yes we have these designations but we also have to look at real behavior by real drivers and not a perception that "those drivers" are driving on "my street."

by Abigail Z on Oct 22, 2013 2:00 pm • linkreport

the pictured traffic calming devices do not prevent someone from "cutting through" it only prevents someone from going fast.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Oct 22, 2013 2:05 pm • linkreport

@Abigail Z,

While you are correct that the precise origins and destinations of vehicles on a local residential street are unknown, a large volume, on a regular basis, of out of state plated vehicles (for example, MD or VA in DC) on a local, residential street that is non-institutional in character is a pretty good indicator of diversion from an arterial or collector road.

by Jasper2 on Oct 22, 2013 4:02 pm • linkreport

As Andrew and others already pointed out the roundabouts pre-date the greenway initiative but definitely encourage the location of greenways on streets where roundabouts are present.

The big mistake Seattle is making is putting stop signs at the roundabouts for cross street traffic only. It defeats the purpose of a roundabout and makes it extremely confusing, and because of the reduction in stop signs on the greenway we have seen a significant increase in vehicle traffic. They have also tried to put speed humps in to calm traffic but they are hardly high enough to feel the effect in a vehicle, let alone slow down traffic. I see people regularly going over them at 30+ mph.

I think the concept of greenways is great but the implementation leaves much to be desired.

by Southeasterner on Oct 22, 2013 4:06 pm • linkreport

As a point of clarification, Seattle does not have a single roundabout. They have hundreds of traffic calming circles, but not a single one is what we refer to as a modern roundabout. The circles are not yield on entry, they do not provide speed control like a roundabout does, and they are not strictly one-way. For more information, please see Washington State's website making this clarification:

by Roundabouts on Oct 23, 2013 1:36 pm • linkreport

When I was learning to drive a stick back in Seattle almost clobbered one of those!

They are great as long as the city updates the code so there is only one legal direction to navigate them. Seattle didn't have one until recently.

by andy2 on Oct 23, 2013 4:34 pm • linkreport

I think it's cool that you were able to experience greenways and have a fun time in Seattle, but I do just want to give a shout-out to the Seattle traffic engineers of yester-year. Traffic circles have been all over the place in Seattle for decades and decades. The beauty of the greenway system is that the new crop of traffic engineers are using other ideas (like chicanes or blocking through traffic entirely on intersections for automobiles) along with improvements to pedestrian safety. This is what cities need to do, and I'm so proud of my home region for really pioneering the idea. Now if only we could work on infrastructure like this in Paris....

by Devin on Nov 22, 2013 6:17 pm • linkreport

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