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Construction Zone Mobility: Room For Improvement

May 2015
Cross-posted with The UrbanistConstruction Zone Signs

Seattle is a boom town. Until recently, traffic plans during new building construction disregarded the mobility of people walking and biking beside building sites. This disregard is a safety issue, not just an inconvenience.

Last year, Seattle created a Construction Hub Coordination Program with dedicated staff who work to improve access for all during construction in high growth areas designated by the City as “Construction Hubs.”. Construction sites in South Lake Union, Ballard, Alaska Way, Capitol Hill, and West Seattle Junction are getting better for people walking and biking near them, but problems still remain, in these locations and throughout the city.

In Seattle, we still place a higher value on preserving street parking around construction sites at the expense of providing safe access for people who walk or bike. Sidewalks are routinely blocked, and safe intersection crossings removed for extended periods.

Further, even with dedicated staff, it often takes weeks for City inspectors to get out to sites and make changes. That is, if you can figure out where to report safety problems in the first place.

Cecilia Roussel saw some clear ways to make the system work better and developed her ideas as her project for Cascade Bicycle Club Advocacy Leadership Institute.

Her main recommendations are:

  1. City: Tighten the Street Use Review Permit process to require walk/bike access plans for all projects in the right-of-way. Increase permit fees for more staff and faster reviews and inspections. City needs to prioritize safe routes for walking and biking and review each application holistically in context with mobility patterns around the job site.

  2. Construction companies: Foster company culture that prioritizes pedestrian and bicyclist safety. Educate crews to set up and maintain job sites for walk/bike access.

  3. Job site signs: Place signs indicating where, and for how long, walk/bike access is going to be impacted, where alternative routes are provided, and provide contact information to report violations or other unsafe conditions.

  4. Community: Be diligent in reporting safety and access problems at construction sites.

Presently, residents have few avenues for reporting unsafe site conditions in the right-of-way. Recognizing that City resources are limited, here is how to triage reporting construction zone problems:

  • For immediate, life-threatening safety problems in the right-of-way call 911
  • Non-time-sensitive concerns can be reported using the City’s #FindItFixIt app
  • Time-sensitive concerns can be reported by a direct call to a Street Use Inspector. Street Use Inspector contact information (including the inspectors that staff the Construction Hub program) is provided by district on this SDOT website. Additional Construction Hub email and phone contact information can be found on the Construction Hub website.
Here is more of what Cecilia wrote about construction site access:Construction Zone Dexter Ave N

Staffing shortages and policy/inattention at the permitting level I think are both issues. It takes weeks to get a response from anyone, either through email routing delays or staff shortfalls. There was a poorly managed construction site on Phinney Ave (not a Construction Hub area) that I emailed repeated complaints about, but only got a response 4+ weeks after my most recent email. Policy is another one. The Seattle Traffic Control Manual for In-Street Work says “maximum effort” must be made to avoid impacts to people walking and biking, but I regularly encounter sidewalks sacrificed and parking maintained on sites. For months, a block near my office had both sidewalks closed without any ped routing, and it took nearly 2 months of correspondence with SDOT to get a response and action. Both are clearly issues that should have been addressed at the permitting phase.

I think the narrow geographic focus of the Construction Hub program is a strength: SDOT staff familiarity with crews and projects over duration of construction, efficiency in travel time.

I asked SDOT Director Scott Kubly about SDOT’s plans for improving the way work is conducted in the ROW at a Move Seattle event, and it sounds like they’re in the midst of an overhaul. Raising permit fees (hopefully to fund more staff), coordinating work to minimize duration and frequency of impacts. But it still seems that there is a huge gap in values. Pedestrian safety should not be compromised in order to preserve parking spots.

Whatever happens in-house is still pretty opaque to me, but it seems that the permitting and pre-construction meetings are a huge opportunity for SDOT to be leaders and educate construction companies, as well as look critically big picture at how multiple projects in the same area impact vulnerable users.

Sometimes, a No Parking sign is the most notice a resident might get about construction impacts in the ROW. But what if we knew more? The unpredictability of faulty traffic routing or mistakes in job site management can present urgently dangerous conditions for people walking and biking. While those users are often the first to observe those conditions, the pathways for feedback are unclear to many. These dangerous situations deserve immediate attention, not just “Find It, Fix It.”.

What if every construction project in the ROW posted a plan for all expected impacts to site mobility?

What if, upon noticing a dangerous situation, you knew exactly who to call?

THE CITY can tighten their review of Street Use permits, making sure that the Traffic Control plans submitted for construction projects prioritize and adequately anticipate the needs of people walking and biking through the construction zone. The Traffic Control Manual for In-Street Work is a document that guides construction in the ROW and includes provisions for the safe routing of people walking and biking. However, the language is sometimes soft. We are all familiar with construction zone efforts that fall short.

CONSTRUCTION COMPANIES can expand their efforts to educate their crews on how to keep the job site safe for everyone. A traffic control plan and other guidelines and best practices are only as good as their implementation by the boots on the ground. The safety and comfort of people walking and biking around job sites must be a shared priority.

RESIDENTS have already been asked by the City to pay attention and use Find It, Fix It to report concerns. The City may not have salaried inspectors on every block, but the people using the right-of-way can act as a proxy. Clearly posted project and contact information on-site is a direct and accessible approach towards empowering residents  to cooperate and make construction zones safer for everyone.

You can find Cecilia’s complete PowerPoint presentation here.