Bike racks for cyclists or to keep homeless people out?
Bike racks for cyclists or to keep homeless people out? photo courtesy of jeff few

Before Jeff Few left his Belltown condo for a two-day business trip in September, homeless campers regularly pitched tents on the sidewalk across the street. When he came back, the same sidewalk was lined with bike racks.

The area was under the viaduct, near an onramp, and rarely used for bike parking. The reason for the empty racks seemed obvious to Few.

“They serve no purpose other than seemingly to deter the camping,” he says.

Emails between staffers in the Seattle Department of Transportation confirmed Few’s speculation.

The city installed the racks in September after officials conducted a homeless encampment sweep in the area. SDOT considered the racks “part of the Homelessness Emergency Response effort” and they were meant to discourage camping, emails show. Few obtained the emails through a public records request.

In a statement to The Stranger, SDOT spokesperson Karen Westing confirmed that the bike racks were part of a "strategy for lessening the hazards of unsheltered living by creating space for a different active public use." She said SDOT has not made any other similar installments to deter camping.

The racks and installation cost about $6,700, according to Westing. The 18 racks and six mounting rails cost $3,998 and the labor of three crew members for five hours cost $2,718. SDOT used bike racks purchased through the voter-approved Move Seattle levy. However, the department reimbursed the total cost of the project through an SDOT fund specifically for homelessness, according to Westing.

After posting a 72-hour notice, city crews cleared the encampment from the area in mid September. Over two days, SDOT staff installed the racks, according to a work order for the project.

The encampment where the bike racks are now “provided a difficult challenge,” Westing said. The camp was dangerous for residents exiting tents into the street and for people using the sidewalk, especially those who needed ADA access, Westing said. Seattle Police are now “maintaining access for all users and removing new unauthorized campers,” Westing said.

Few, who works in software engineering, says he’s lived in his condo building for six years. He saw the area underneath the viaduct as a rare spot of shelter from the elements for people living outside. Other residents in his building claimed the campers were a public safety threat, Few says.

“They were looking for shelter,” he says. “There were a lot of women. I saw children. These were not the dangerous people that our neighbors were making them out to be.”

Since the bike racks arrived in September, Few says they have gone “pretty much completely unused." While cyclists ride through the area, "it is not a destination for anyone,” Few says.

After reading the emails between SDOT staffers, Few says, "It pissed me off to see the city taking this stance against people suffering from housing insecurity... For all of the mayor and city council’s platitudes on what they’re doing to resolve this crisis, they’re doing things that are counterproductive.”

Asked whether SDOT considered any information about bike use in the area when installing the racks, the department told The Stranger "general safety was the consideration."

Sara Rankin, a law professor who directs Seattle University’s Homeless Rights Advocacy Project, says she believes this use of bike racks is an example of “hostile architecture.”

Hostile architecture includes obvious deterrents like metal spikes or anti-climb fences. But it also includes less obvious impediments like uncomfortable benches, boulders (Spokane edition; Tacoma edition), lighting that makes it hard for people who use drugs to find a vein, or high pitched noises only young people can hear.

“The idea, of course, is to drive undesirable people away from certain public areas,” Rankin says.

“I do think cities are getting much more savvy in their approaches,” Rankin adds later. “They realize that a fence is blatantly clear to everyone. But if you install bike racks or boulders that somehow are serving other functions, it’s very—disingenuous would be putting it mildly.”

At last count, nearly 12,000 people in King County were experiencing homelessness, about 8,500 of them in Seattle. Countywide, a little more than half of people experiencing homelessness live in shelters. The rest live on the streets or in vehicles, abandoned buildings, and tents. In response to encampments on public land, Seattle has begun using a team of police and social workers known as the Navigation Team in the process leading up to forcibly removing the camps. The team attempts to offer services to people living in encampments before they are required to move along. Supporters of this approach say it gets more people off the streets; opponents say the process of removing encampments forces people living outside into more remote and dangerous locations. From January through October of this year, the city cleared 165 camps, according to a recent report in the Seattle Times.

“What’s unfortunate about this, besides the obvious, is the city has really been touting its efforts to try to increase opportunities for intervention through the Navigation Team,” Rankin says. “The installation of hostile architecture like this removes any possibility for negotiation or intervention [at that site].”