Seattle Used Bike Racks to Break Up Homeless Encampment

Records from Seattle DOT confirm that these bike racks were installed under a viaduct to deter camping by homeless people. Photo:  Dongho Chang
Records from Seattle DOT confirm that these bike racks were installed under a viaduct to deter camping by homeless people. Photo: Dongho Chang

Back in October, when Seattle installed a bunch of bike racks under a viaduct, it was a little bit curious. They weren’t near any obvious destination that people would bike to.

At the time, one person suggested they appeared to be aimed at preventing homeless people from using the space to camp. Turns out, he was absolutely correct.

The Stranger prevailed on Seattle DOT to produce records about the bike racks. Heidi Grover reports:

In a statement to The Stranger, SDOT spokesperson Karen Westing confirmed that the bike racks were part of a “strategy for lessening the hazards of unsheltered living by creating space for a different active public use.” She said SDOT has not made any other similar installments to deter camping.

The racks and installation cost about $6,700, according to Westing. The 18 racks and six mounting rails cost $3,998 and the labor of three crew members for five hours cost $2,718. SDOT used bike racks purchased through the voter-approved Move Seattle levy. However, the department reimbursed the total cost of the project through an SDOT fund specifically for homelessness, according to Westing.

Tom Fucoloro at Seattle Bike Blog is troubled seeing bike infrastructure used this way. “These aren’t bike racks, they are bike-washed ‘anti-homeless spikes,‘” he writes:

As someone who has been a big advocate of expanding the city’s bike parking, it is disturbing to see hard-won bike racks used in such a way. Bike racks are for improving bike access to businesses and other destinations, not for forming a physical impediment to our neighbors who are just looking for a dry place to sleep. The idea that something this blog and many other advocates for bike access have worked so hard to get into the levy and city budget was used in such an inhumane way makes me feel ill.

If it were a coincidence that the new bike parking displaced some people camping, that might be one thing. But the department admits displacement was the reason. There is no destination near this area warranting that many bike parking spaces. The bike racks were purchased using Move Seattle levy money, but SDOT was reimbursed from a fund for addressing homelessness.

Seattle’s homeless shelters are overflowing with people who have nowhere to go. The problem is exacerbated by local zoning laws that outlaw any type of housing except single-family in 65 percent of the city.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    We have a similar situation in Chicago, where the city is installing sidewalk bike lanes inside viaducts in the Uptown neighborhood as part of a reconstruction project, apparently to prevent longtime homeless encampments from returning after the work is finished. City officials should stop using bike infrastructure as defensive architecture. https://chi.streetsblog.org/2017/08/11/dont-use-sidewalk-bike-lanes-as-defensive-architecture/

  • what_eva

    While not a good solution, at least those sidewalk bike lanes are intended to be used and will get used. Those bike racks aren’t intended to be used.

    For non-Chicagoans, the viaducts are under Lake Shore Drive and link the Uptown neighborhood to the Lakefront trail (a major commuting/recreational route) and beaches.

  • Earl D.

    Preventing homeless encampments and breaking them up when they form is a vital city function, we shouldn’t pretend otherwise. San Diego’s Hepatitis outbreak which has killed 20 and left hundreds with an often chronic and debilitating disease was the direct of its failure to breakup encampments.

    It’s a valid question to ask what is the best and most efficient way to breakup encampments or prevent them from forming, and to continue strive for better solutions to the homeless problem. But the bottom line is that this is a vital, on-going city function that has to be performed one way or another.

  • davistrain

    “Defensive architecture” (also called “hostile architecture”) is something about which several articles have been written. The usual examples are structures and modifications designed to discourage homeless (or as they are called in some areas, “residentially challenged”) people and/or skateboarders from gathering. in commercial areas. The unspoken message is, “if you have nothing to do, don’t do it here.”

  • Alan

    I see both sides of it. The homeless situation can be pretty catastrophic in my city. Some bus shelters have been basically converted into homes complete with public urination. I support shelters and soup kitchens with my charitable donations, im not heartless. But lets not pretend some of these encampments arent real problems. I dont have kids but there are areas I would not let my kids wander in this city if I had them.

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