Everyone on equal footing.
Everyone on equal footing. SDOT

The new Capitol Hill Farmers Market moved to its new permanent location along Barbara Bailey Way on the most perfect weekend of the year, during a brief mid-April heat wave under and cloudless sunny skies that drew hundreds to stroll happily amongst the tents. It seemed idyllic, but Mark Ostrow’s not convinced it couldn’t be better.

“We have curbs for a reason,” he says. “They protect people from cars.”

An advocate for sustainable streets, Ostrow is the muckraker behind the Queen Anne Greenways account on Twitter, which has been critical of the novel design of the plaza. Barbara Bailey Way features a pedestrian area that smears into the roadway without the traditional concrete lip of a curb — just one continuous apron of pavement, with just a few subtle concrete ridges to delineate between space for cars versus humans.

Unfamiliar though the treatment may be in Seattle, this curbless arrangement has been appearing in more locations in the last few years, and could be a feature of more streetscape makeovers in the future.

So … why?

“The sentiment from a lot of our stakeholders was to create an area where pedestrians are at the same area as vehicles, and vehicles are guests there,” says Dongho Chang, an SDOT engineer and Twitter superstar. With Barbara Bailey Way, designed in partnership with Sound Transit, the goal was to reduce the amount of cars. Engineers started with some familiar techniques: The street was switched to one-way, and nearby traffic lights were revised to have an all-walk phase. (Cars weren’t banned altogether, at least not yet, to accommodate pickup and dropoff for the Farmers Market and light rail stations.)

As for the vanishing curbs, Chang says, “there was a sense of trying to prioritize a space away from vehicle-centric to pedestrian-elevated.”

Were they successful? Well, judge for yourself: Wander on over to 43rd and University, and you’ll see a four-way intersection with sidewalks that descend seamlessly to the street like sand sloping into the ocean; on Alaskan Way, cars rumbling off of the ferries pass by similar treatments; and Brooklyn Ave by the soon-to-open U District station looks surprisingly Dutch, with a handsome bike lane between the sidewalk and planters alongside a curbless street.

Of those, I can’t stop gazing at that last example — the gaps between planters look like an invitation for pedestrians to meander into traffic. Neighbors had asked for an entirely vehicle-free street, but that would have required a rerouting of buses and a switch from electric vehicles to more polluting diesel. So for now at least, pedestrians will have to contend with drivers.

“If you’re going to reduce the curb protection, you have to provide some other protection,” Ostrow says. He’d like to see SDOT install bollards to block cars from encroaching on pedestrian areas, or narrower streets that deter drivers from moving too quickly.

Additions like those aren’t out of the question, according to Ethan Bergerson, Media & Public Affairs Lead at Seattle Department of Transportation. “People shouldn’t assume that this is the final configuration,” he says. “We want to monitor and see how the space works and over time respond to the stakeholders.” A recent makeover for Bell Street got post-construction tweaks in response to neighborhood requests for lower car volumes, with SDOT adding turn restrictions and adding more street furniture. Designs like those on Barbara Bailey Way and Brooklyn Ave provide engineers with a flexible canvas that can be more easily adjusted in the future.

Will your street get its curb cut anytime soon? Probably not. SDOT is rolling out the curbless design on a very gradual basis, in just a few areas where they know pedestrian volume will be high and car use will be low. Keep your eyes on the Grand Street Commons project at 2201 South Grand Street (near Jimi Hendrix Park) — still undergoing public review, that’s likely to be one of the next street projects to ditch the curb.

And despite his skepticism, Ostrow is generally appreciative of the renovations of old automobile-focused streets — though he notes that curblessness is one of the problems plaguing Aurora Way, a disastrous traffic sewer where pedestrians are transitioned at random from sidewalks to the street alongside fast-moving cars.

“I still think it’s beautiful and it’s a wonderful space,” he says of Barbara Bailey Way. “It’s going to be wonderful when there’s a farmer’s market there. But I think they’re not thinking about what you have to add to a street when you take curbs away.”