Will the Gita robot finally bring SDOT love to our sidewalks?
Will the Gita robot finally bring SDOT's love to our sidewalks? Bellen Drake

To get a sense of how unloved our sidewalks are, we only need to visit the website that the Seattle Department of Transportation devotes to them.

Though sidewalks are the "building blocks of an effective pedestrian network," and though Seattle has 2,000 miles of them, SDOT admits that "many areas in the city do not have sidewalks at all."

In the first paragraph, we already have a sense of gloom and doom.

Yes, Seattle has a short supply of sidewalks, but do not for a minute expect this situation to be remedied any time soon. We do not dream like that at the SDOT. We are realistic about our few sidewalk grants, some local sidewalk funds, and the sidewalk support from a 5-year-old levy. Along with these scraps, we have a 5-year-plan that has as much enthusiasm in it as the walk of a stick insect.

Want a sidewalk upgrade or just a sidewalk in your part of the city? This is how SDOT throws the cold water at you:

Given available funding for sidewalk projects, which allows for approximately 25 blocks of sidewalks each year, and the fact that about 24% of Seattle streets (11,000 blocks) are missing sidewalks, completing the sidewalk network will be a very gradual process. Seattle's Pedestrian Master Plan identifies a Priority Investment Network that we use to make the difficult choice about where to focus our new sidewalk investments. The network includes streets with high traffic volume with multiple destinations to walk, as well as streets connecting to frequent transit service and streets within a quarter mile of public schools.
What's impossible to imagine is the SDOT talking to car owners in this kind of Spartan way.

But maybe the successful marketing of the Gita, "simple cargo-bots, capable of lugging 45 pounds of stuff and then following a human companion," will change all of that.

This idea (Gita as the sidewalk savior) did not come to me on its own. It came to me by way of Ryan Packer, a transportation activist and senior editor at The Urbanist. He thinks that "the general opinion about the Gita robot is that it will spur city officials to improve sidewalks faster than any people in their cities who use wheelchairs." This, I think, is not a joke or a flash of urbanist sarcasm. There is real truth (meaning, a real future, which comes down to the adjacent possible) in this thinking.

People in wheelchairs have begged for sidewalk improvements for years and years with little to no results. Remember this: "The city of Seattle agreed to build thousands of sidewalk curb ramps over the next 18 years, costing hundreds of millions of dollars, as part of a preliminary agreement to settle a federal class action lawsuit." That's right, all of that trouble for 18 years.

Recently, the old plea from the wheelchair community gained some political traction when the Seattle Is Dying bunch saw an opportunity in this approach to the homeless crisis: "A local woman who navigates Seattle sidewalks in a wheelchair says the blocked or closed sidewalks are causing her anxiety and pose as a safety risk." But the fact is our sidewalks are underdeveloped (in the so-called "Third World" sense), and, in this state, are forced to provide all sorts of services for social segments that are severely underdeveloped by market urbanism: housing for the poor, transportation improvements for the disabled, a modern infrastructure for anything that is not a car.

In rolls Gita. If popular, the SDOT might have an experience like that of Paul on the "road to Damascus." Sidewalks will be born again in the eyes of this car-blinkered department. These robots cost serious money ($3,250), a fact that is of great importance to the capitalist economy. The car is worshiped because it costs so much, it builds up debts, it demands monthly payments, it punches a big hole in the already low wages of the working classes.

And this is the key principle of capitalism: make life as costly as possible. Frequent walking, of course, does the very opposite. It makes life cheaper. It even makes long-term big cuts in medical expenses. The same can be said of bikes and buses. All of these forms make capital less dear. This could change with Gita.

Top sneakers cost $100. A good bike begins at around $500. A Gita will set you back $3,250. Maybe now the SDOT will change the sorry tone of its sidewalk website and begin spending big bucks on this neglected building block of the "pedestrian network."