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Willie Weir : October 14th, 2011

Reoccupy Your Neighborhood

Current signage (left) Improved signage (right)

Do you remember when neighborhood streets were not just for cars, but for people too? Do your childhood memories include hide-and-seek, kickball and kick-the-can? Did you learn how to ride your bike right down the middle of your street, not in some park or empty parking lot? You do? Then if you live in the United States, you must be close to my age. I’m 50.

Forty years ago Americans were just as much in love with their cars as they are today. But they were also in love with their neighborhoods. They didn’t just commute through them, they lived in them. There had to be 30 kids on my block, and summer’s seemed to be one long continuous kick-ball game. We set up in the middle of the street outside the Heffner’s house. Kids outside laughing and playing. As it should be.

When a car came down the street. It approached, waiting for the mob of youthful energy to clear out, and then slowly passed by. The driver usually smiled and waved.

One day an incredible thing happened. Bruce was about ready to deliver the kickball at a crucial moment in the game, when there was a strange mechanical sound. We looked up and Mr. Cook’s  garage door  magically opened. All by itself! We stood there in amazement as Mr. Cook’s car appeared around the corner, and drove right into the garage. There was another mechanical sound, and the garage door closed.


THAT was cool.

Mr. Cook (he worked at the bank) was the first one in the neighborhood to get a automatic garage door opener.

The next day at the exact same time (we were waiting) the magic happened again.

As a kid, Mr. Cook’s magic door was the greatest thing since spongy loaves of Wonder Bread. But as an adult, I now see that it was the beginning of the end.

We didn’t see Mr. Cook much anymore. You see, before his cool gadget, Mr. Cook had to get out of his car to open up his garage door himself. Sometimes he’d watch our game for a few minutes. Sometimes he’d talk with us. I remember him saying, “You all argue a lot more than you play kickball.” He was right.

Americans were already spending more time in their cars, but the automatic garage door opener allowed neighbors to actually never physically spend time in their neighborhood.

Of course, there were other factors, (jobs further away, two-three-and-four car families, the shopping mall). They all played a part in the demise of the livable neighborhood.

The sign to the left in the photo above is from my street on Beacon Hill in Seattle. It is one block away from Kimball Elementary School. ONE block. That’s the school zone.  Why? Well, in my opinion, it is because there is the assumption that kids don’t walk to school anymore. They need to be safe in that one block where their parents park or drop them off.

Unfortunately that assumption is right. Come fifteen minutes to school time,  our street becomes a mess of speeding mini-vans and SUV’s with parents, rushing to get their kids to “the school zone”.

Traffic doesn’t kill a neighborhood. But speeding traffic does.

Mr. Cook never sped down our street at 35mph. Not even close. If he and others had done so, our parents wouldn’t have let us play kickball … or kick-the-can. Many of us wouldn’t have learned to ride a bike.

I recently spoke to a crowd of 200 adults. Most of them my age or older. When I asked them to raise their hands if they had walked or biked to school, almost every hand went up.

A couple of years ago I spoke at a junior college and asked the same question. One hand went up. We are quickly losing our collective memory that neighborhoods are safe places to live and play.

It’s time that we reoccupy our neighborhoods. Forget useless, pathetic one-block “school zones.” We need neighborhood zones. Places where cars are allowed, but slowed to a speed that is, well, neighborly. 2omph.

“It can’t be done!”, I hear the cries. Well. It already has been done. Portland’s Greenways program aims to reduce traffic speeds to 20mph. New York City is getting its first 20mph zoned neighborhood in the Bronx. In England they cut it to 20 too! I won’t even bother to list the gobs of examples from the Netherlands and Denmark.

In Seattle, we don’t have to be leaders in this (unfortunately, we usually aren’t). We just have to follow the great examples already in process.

There is a problem. We can’t legally do this in Seattle right now. The Bicycle Alliance of Washington introduced a bill (HB 1217)l earlier this year that would make it easier for local jurisdictions in Washington to set lower speed limits in residential and business districts. It died in committee.

Do you prefer the modified traffic sign on the right of the photo? Let your representatives know that you are in favor lower speed limits in neighborhoods. Do you want to reoccupy your neighborhood? Then get involved in these groups who are fighting to allow you to do so.
Bicycle Alliance of Washington
Cascade Bicycle Club
Feet First
Seattle Neighborhood Greenways

(Kudos to StreetFilms and the Seattle Bike Blog for great bike coverage)

7 comments to Reoccupy Your Neighborhood

  • Ryan Harrison

    If you like this idea, live in Seattle and are a voter, then voting for Proposition 1 should be on your list of to-dos next week. Though its benefits don’t address this issue in particular, funds from the car tab tax (amounting to a tank full of gas in your sedan a year) will go to building the famed Neighborhood Greenways that are a model for slower speeds on residential streets. Two miles of these a year for 10 years will help get us in the right direction.

  • Diane English

    I love this idea. My street has traffic circles to slow the cars down, but they rarely work. It is a slalom course instead. My neighbors have resorted to putting SLOW signs out when they and their boys are trying to say, pass a football or throw a baseball to each other. The only solution offered by the city is to install another traffic circle or speed bump. To do so, it is necessary to borrow a radar gun from them and record speeds yourself…

  • Josh

    Without enforcement, lower speed limits just breed even more contempt for the law.

    Motorists are driving 30+ in our 25mph neighborhoods today, and they rarely face any consequences. Lowering the number on the sign just turns even more motorists into scofflaws unless that new number is backed up with ongoing enforcement.

    State law makes it hard for cities to adequately staff traffic enforcement, by siphoning off much of the ticket revenue to state programs. This is supposed to prevent “speed traps”, a/k/a neighborhoods where you’re expected to obey the law.

    With the Legislature on the side of speeders, you need more then new numbers on your speed limit signs.

  • Can’t speak for your neighborhood, but our neighborhood is like this, and has been for years. From age two to age twelve, there’s been a roving pack of kids on the street, using the pavement as their own playground. One girl accidentally rode up over the curb and straight into the doug fir on our front yard, trying to avoid her little brother. Other than this mishap, the kids seem to have played pretty safely. You just know as a motorist, when you turn into the neighborhood, you have to slow way down. If you don’t know this, it becomes pretty clear within a half block.

  • Peace and Quiet

    While I get what your saying, personally I prefer quiet streets over those filled with screaming kids. I would be more than happy to support this initiative if everyone would also support adult-only communities for those of us that are older and need our peace and quiet. But nooooo…. we are told this is discrimination. Grrr… Parents need to teach their kids to respect the peace of others. These are probably the same parents that take their kids to expensive restaurants so they can annoy other paying patrons. Totally selfish. There – throw your arrows as I won’t be revisiting this link. 🙂

  • […] Hill’s Willie Weir wrote recently about the power of neighborhood streets free of speeding traffic. It’s a vision for our neighborhoods that most people can get behind, except maybe that one […]

  • […] Seattle City Council Member Sally Bagshaw wrote a great blog about the legislation, as did the famous bike blogger Willie Weir. Mark your calendars now. Spokespeople and Neighborhood Greenway advocates will be joining with the […]

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