Reader view: A car-free downtown? Creating a European downtown experience in Edmonds

The coronavirus outbreak is allowing us to experience the unimaginable. You might have read stories about swans and fishes reclaiming Venetian canals and the beauty of New Delhi getting revealed as its shroud of air pollution is removed. Edmonds’ Sunset Avenue is experiencing a similar sort of beautiful moment.

We go for a walk on the Avenue every evening to breathe in the fresh air, look at the spectacular sunsets, watch the birds, and listen to the waves. It is a spiritual experience.

Of course, these walks would be a nightmare if the Avenue were dug up to construct the Edmonds Viaduct. Thankfully, the Edmonds Viaduct is off the table, and we can continue to enjoy the beautiful avenue.

However, we have ben frustrated to see idling parked cars causing air pollution, individuals playing loud music, and people having cookouts on their pickups.  About a week ago, we wondered if it were possible for the city to convert the Avenue into a car-free zone. Much to our amazement, Mayor Nelson announced such a policy (we swear, we did not lobby!). With almost no cars (except for the ones who insist on disregarding the “local access only” rule), walks on Sunset Avenue are more beautiful than ever! We hope we could have car-free Sundays for  Sunset Avenue.

In this context, we appreciate Rick Steves’ suggestion of converting a few blocks of the Edmonds downtown into a car-free zone. Imagine outdoor seating for restaurants and artists displaying their art by the sidewalk. Maybe even a concert. It is not such a stretch of imagination. In the summer, every weekend we do close off a part of the Fifth Avenue North and Bell Street for the Farmers’ Market.

As frequent visitors to Europe, we have witnessed downtowns of many cities transformed once they embraced the car-free concept. In particular, we think of Ljubljana (Nives is from Slovenia), whose downtown has been beautifully renovated and made car-free for more than 10 years. A small electric vehicle called Chevalier (similar to a golf cart) drives elderly and mobility-impaired to various destinations. Or, think of London’s Regent Street, which is closed to cars every Sunday in summers.

Might Mayor Nelson and the City Council set up a working group (with active participation from the downtown commercial establishment and the chambers of commerce) to explore the possibility of a car-free downtown, at least during weekends? Of course, Edmonds law enforcement should be actively involved in the planning. The crucial challenge pertains to parking (along with providing access to senior citizens and those with handicap parking permits). One solution is to create a parking garage, say near Aurora, and provide an emission-free shuttle service for visitors to get to the downtown.

Creating parking garages is expensive, especially given the looming recession. Also, there are equity issues in redirecting traffic from the Edmonds Bowl to another, less privileged, place. Therefore, the proposed working group should have extensive public engagement.

Let us reimagine the Edmonds downtown to enhance the quality of life. Rick Steves, Edmonds’ first citizen, gave wise advice. At least it is worth trying on an experimental basis, say during a couple of weekends this summer, as Michael McMurray suggested. We should seriously consider this possibility

— By Nives Dolšak and Aseem Prakash

  1. Would love to see car-free zones like they have in Europe. I lived overseas for many years and it created an amazing atmosphere to enjoy for all. Great suggestion Rick!

    1. I’m glad the Mayor answered answer to your demand but we are still waiting for a light on 240th st ws and Highway 205 we’re waiting for more than two years and nothing happened. Two requests, 2 different standards.

    2. Please remember those people who are older that cannot walk too far. They need to enjoy our city and views as well.

  2. Great suggestion for car free zones, even if we start with just during the summer.
    As a daily walker and often on Sunset, I’ve been watching out for parked cars because their windows are open, not great for social distancing. I’ve observed observed that, in their cars, people are taking naps, tapping on their phones, listening to news. To observe the beauty of the sea, I’d much rather do that from a bench as many people do.

    1. Good suggestion!
      In Europe almost every town small and large has a downtown square that is free of car traffic during daylight hours and some extend into the evening. Sidewalk seating is the norm. The shops take deliveries of goods at night or in the very early morning. Or they use hand trucks to deliver. In some only public transportation is seen letting passengers out in or near the squares.
      Tha would be so lovely here. But there are typically fewer large green spaces which we enjoy. Fewer large play areas for children and empty areas where events can be held. I don’t remember much special accommodation for the disabled or handicapped. These cities and towns are often hundreds of years old and not developed during the time since our cars became an extension of our lives.
      So the way I envision this idea is to have Main Street and part of fourth and fifth avenue be closed and have more of a sixties mall concept, wothout providing nearby parking, and making nearby parking expensive enough that folks might consider some form of public transportation to get there.
      I believe that the organization here that is up and running called ACE could be a good group to present this idea to.

  3. I think this is a great idea for the weekends. There would need to be disabled parking set aside somewhere close by. Maybe the trolley could handle some shuttle service from one of the school parking lots.

  4. Let’s try to build on ideas and see what we can do to help develop a plan to test. The golf cart type vehicle for multi passingers is a great idea. Dr. Senderoff made a presention to an earlier EDC along with some pictures. He may have some of that research that can be shared here. For now this link shows some pictures.

    The city already has money budgeted for a Trolley. Problem with the trolly is we cannot find one locally. We actually have been looking in Florida as a source. We could actually buy 4 or 5 of these multi passenger and have money to pay for student or retired drivers. These Electric vehicles are more environmentally friendly, Better for folks with a handicap, could be used to shuttle people from parking areas to the blocked off area, and they could be used to shuttle employees from designated areas to their work locations, and make runs along sunset for those not able to walk. Lots of uses, new jobs for kids and retired folks. Several MEN contributors could offer commentary along the way and Liberty, Civics, History, and of course Budget analysis.

    Toss out the comments about the hooky commentary and let’s think creatively on how the Edmonds Shuttle Service On Demand, could work. Solves a lot of issues, already budgeted and would be fun. They can be set up for social distancing far easier than a trolley. They could even be sponsor supported to defray some cost.

    Get your creative ideas flowing.

    1. We don’t need to look just at Europe for examples. Boise Idaho has long had two plus city blocks set aside with wide sidewalks a single lane of traffic for local access which is closed for events like their farmers market. While there are always some complainers it has been very successful. it is also a great neighborhood gathering spot. Let’s talk to other cities about their experiences and build on that

  5. I love this idea – and I think it should be extended to all of our neighborhood shopping districts to reduce the need for transport. I understand that our parking needs are a bit of a topic for discussion, but in my view, our continuing need for social distancing still carries more weight.

    Keep the ideas coming!

    1. It would only take 4 council members to stop the trolley. We stopped the Connector that way. Then council could create a study team to provide advice on this issue. That group could Zoom or sit in a park with SD in place and generate even more ways to proceed. Follow up action was planned after the parking survey was done. 705 people created some good ideas and insights. That follow up plan did not proceed. Something to do with adding dollars to the study. Part of that plan was to engage the public on some more precise opinion gathering via the same survey technique used before. That part could be done now while we are all sitting around trying to find ways to help our city.

      1. Hi Darrol,

        Council and all city commissions/boards are still under the Open Public Meetings Act restrictions that limit what we can review to what’s required, what’s necessary, and what is COVID- 19 related. Once we get back to having unrestricted meetings, we’ll have to clear out a bit of backlog. I’m not sure what that will look like.


  6. while there is still controversy about “clean” electricity, see Planet of the Humans,

    peddle power is definitely cleaner!

    why not have multi-person peddled vehicles?


    of course they can be specially designed and built to fit the needs of Edmonds

  7. A car-free downtown core would need to go through the Planning Board. Speaking as one member of that body, I expect it would get a friendly reception.

  8. Did the planning board need to be involved with the “take out” parking only signs? We can create and move ideas forward as citizens. We stopped the connector we can start some creative thinking. This is our town.

    1. Darrol, I was envisioning a lot more than temporary No Parking signs and barricades. Permanent changes to the downtown street system and accompanying capital improvements should indeed go through the Planning Board. Getting it done well is very much a planning project. But given the City’s major revenue losses this year due to the virus, projects like that move well into the future.

      1. Roger, probably short term test. Feds are talking about another big dump of money for repair govt budgets. Probably worth some public discussion to sort out risks, rewards, winners, losers.

  9. Swans and dolphins actually did not appear in the canals of Venice; the stories weren’t true. Despite that, I do like the European walking idea for downtown Edmonds.

    1. Marcia, Everett High I won’t say the year, Your dad was Bob and Coast to Coast and Mt Pilchuck fame? If so ask MEN for my email.

  10. in the meanwhile…

    i have seen pictures and read stories of people using a parking space or two to set up a party/picnic area/open space

    if interested – check with the police dept – once we could fit more than 1 person in that space 🙂

  11. A car -free downtown is a great idea…as long as the taxpayers don’t end up subsidizing it. A Local Improvement District is the way to go. Let the property owners in the bowl and Main Street district pay for parking, shuttle, whetever bells and whistles are inevitably added on to this simple idea. Those properties will benefit from the car-free district, how about if they pay for it?

    I will stick my neck out here and predict that City tax receipts will be in a world of hurt for a while. Now is not the time for the City to take on any new taxpayer funded initiatives. In fact, I’d like to see a few of the currently planned improvements in the bowl (the marsh and the $12 million park) scaled back .

  12. The concept of a traffic-free zone in downtown Edmonds is long overdue. These work SO well not only in Europe, but in many American cities, too. With Rick Steves’ business headquarters here, it would be perfect for Edmonds to become a little bit of Europe on Puget Sound. Phasing in a pedestrian zone might be a good approach. Start on Main east from Third to the fountain and then south to Dayton. The “roundabout” could become two-way on the north and east sides, with the south and west being pedestrian only. If the project is successful, it could expand east to Sixth and north to Bell. Anything would be better than all the cars…especially during the Covid-19 crisis. And having golf carts available for handicapped people would be great.

    1. Bruce, one of your trip companions to Vienna & Prague. I agree with you whole heartedly! I loved walking just such an area as we left our hotel. Wish everyone could have such an experience.

  13. Loving to see the continued interest in this idea. No doubt we could get some great ideas from Rick and his team for the best designs they have seen. I think the best way forward is to just try it out without a lot of expense so we can learn what works and not. Maybe start out by blocking off a few streets that connect to the circle – Dayton/5th, Main/4th, Bell/5th and Main/6th. Expand/Reduce or eliminate the no car zone as we learn the interest level. I’m sure there are permits to be had and other obstacles i’m not educated about, but the idea is to start small and learn. Love Edmonds!!!

  14. Here’s a thought to help those small businesses in the downtown area right now. Disband the Business Improvement District, and distribute any funds held by the city back to those business owners who have paid into it. That is just a practical and very real way to help those small business out. Making Edmonds look like a European town won’t put any food on anyone’s table right now. But this might. Since they were the ones paying in, just give it back to them and don’t collect it going forward.

  15. A no cost, minimal impact to businesses might be to adopt the Italian tradition of walking after dinner – they call it passagiata. Here’s a link:
    It’s a lovely time for families to stroll together – greeting neighbors and friends and indulging in some gelato. Most stores are closed – the focus is on the family and neighborhood. The businesses must be included in any discussion about closing streets when they are open. Eliminating parking during the day may make the difference between them staying in business or not.

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