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Volunteers Clear Sidewalks and Bike Lanes in South Seattle

By Bob Svercl, co-chair of Beacon Hill Safe Streets

A selfie with a white man in a red shirt. Behind him, a row of smiling people holding tools pose on a sidewalk next to an enormous wall of blackberry bushes. Himalayan blackberries are quite delicious, but they can be quite vicious when you’re trying to ride in the rain on a trail that has been enveloped by them, their thorny vines grabbing at your rain jacket; they make for an un-fun trip. So is being forced to trek across sidewalks half-covered in vines and mud and bike lanes buried in piles of slippery wet leaves, freshly leafblown (I’ve decided that’s a word) from the nearby sidewalk.

After dealing with delays or cancellations this fall on online requests to clear these obstructions from our car-free ways of travel, a handful of neighbors decided to grab some yard tools (including those of us who don’t even have yards!), attach them to our bikes & e-bikes, and do the work ourselves.

A before image on the left shows a bike navigating a narrow pathway overgrown with high blackberries. An after photo on the right shows two people standing proudly next to a wide, cleared sidewalk bordered by a short concrete retaining wall that was previously invisible.

Volunteers from Rainier Valley Greenways-Safe Streets & Beacon Hill Safe Streets started on the sidewalk of S Orcas St on Beacon Hill next to Dearborn Park Elementary School that was built in 2017 with funds from the Move Seattle Levy. Overgrown with vines and debris, the sidewalk was half-covered and thus half-unusable. We worked our way downhill with clippers, pruning shears, and a broom to cut through and clear the blackberry vines, knotweed, and various other plants that had spilled onto the sidewalk. To our surprise, we discovered a short concrete retaining wall that had been completely hidden by overgrowth. When we finished, the sidewalk had grown to a full 12 feet of useable space.

A before image on the left shows a sidewalk and bike lane covered with piles of wet, slippery, orange leaves. An after photo on the right shows the freshly cleared bike lane and sidewalk, much more inviting and accessible. The vehicle travel lanes are leaf-free in both photos.

The next month, word spread and we were joined by others as we tackled both the protected bike lanes and sidewalks along S Columbian Way between Beacon Ave S and MLK Way, followed by a section of sidewalk along S Graham St near its intersection with MLK Way. Next we joined with Central Seattle Greenways for a group effort clearing up to three-quarters of a mile of the brand new East Union Street protected bike lanes, drains, and sidewalks in the Central District.

Group selfie of white man wearing rain jacket smiling with women and a man standing behind him holding brooms and shovels in a parking protected bike lane that is newly cleared of leaves and debris, now pushed onto the nearby planting strip. Bicycle wayfinding signs with a Neighborhood Greenway sign are behind them.

Pro tip: snow shovels are very useful for picking up piles of mushy wet leaves, as they have a similar density to snow.

One of the best parts about doing this volunteer work was that while we were clearing the sidewalks and bike lanes, we saw many people walking and biking who were immediately able to utilize the safer pathways, and some even thanked us while they passed by. It’s really fulfilling to be able to witness the positive change from your own effort in real time, and I’m appreciative of everyone who took time out of their weekends to help out with these efforts.

A group of people, including a child in a pink shirt, stand on a sidewalk gathered around a cargo bike for a coffee break. Some wear reflective safety vests and hold yard tools.

We don’t plan to clear out all of the bike lanes, sidewalks, and other pathways that people rely upon as they walk, bike, and roll around our city, as that would be an insurmountable task. But we have shown that even a small scale effort can make a big impact on others.

Editor’s Note:

SDOT has only one bike-lane sized street sweeper, and this fall it was out of commission for repairs while wet, slippery leaves accumulated in bike lanes across the city, creating dangerous conditions for people biking, particularly on steep slopes. Neighbors in South Seattle stepped up to fill the void with a series of Volunteer Neighborhood Cleanups where they cleared sidewalks and bike lanes to increase accessibility for everyone.

Thanks to your budget advocacy this fall, the 2022 Seattle City Budget will also include and increase of $800,000 for active transportation maintenance including sweeping bike lanes, as well as repainting, replacing flex posts and more. Maintaining our transportation infrastructure should be the City’s responsibility, but we’re inspired by and grateful for neighbors who step up to take ownership of their community spaces and make sure that they are safe and accessible.