An episode of road rage at Pike Place Market over the weekend is further stoking the embers of a century-old debate around car access through Seattle’s hub of food and commerce.
The chaotic scene began around 5 p.m. Sunday night, when two drivers — one in a van, another in an SUV — got into an argument as they both tried to turn onto Pike Place, the street running through the Market, according to Seattle police. After the driver in the van threw water at the SUV, both men exited their cars and got into a shoving match.
When the SUV driver returned to his car to drive down Pike Place, police said the van driver caught up to him and hit him through his opened window.
A third driver, in a Mazda, witnessed the exchange and decided to drive his car up to the SUV, where he began arguing with its driver. The two then pulled over and the man in the Mazda took a hammer and smashed out the SUV’s rear window. The SUV’s driver then grabbed the hammer and smashed out the Mazda’s windshield.
Police said the Mazda driver then reversed his car, hitting the SUV driver as well as a woman, who was a bystander. When the SUV driver stood up, he started striking the Mazda driver with the hammer until a crowd began to form and police arrived. Both were arrested on investigation of assault.
The woman who was hit, a 22-year-old who works nearby, was taken to Harborview Medical Center with noncritical injuries.
The morass of violence, ending with an injury to a pedestrian, comes just as the perennial fight over car access into Pike Place Market has taken on new momentum. Except for temporary closures during events or busy days, the stretch of Pike Place between Pike and Virginia streets is open to all vehicle traffic — often tourists following Google Maps to the “original” Starbucks location.
The question of whether such traffic should be limited caught fire again after Councilmember Andrew Lewis, whose district includes the market, said on social media last fall he was interested in limiting cars through the market — part of a pandemic-era upswell of advocacy for making streets in the city more pedestrian-centered. He cautioned that such a decision would only be made after deep conversation with market vendors.
In an interview Monday, Lewis reiterated his interest in reducing the number of cars through Pike Place Market, while emphasizing that “literally no one” is proposing banning all cars.
“This begins with, it’s a working market and there needs to be unhindered vehicles of commerce and industry permitted in and out of the Market,” he said. “Somewhere between that and some monster truck that some tourist is in is a line that you can draw.”
Doing so has broad support among the general public. A poll sponsored by the pedestrian advocacy group Seattle Neighborhood Greenways and the Northwest Progressive Institute found that 81% of voters supported limiting vehicle traffic to just loading and unloading.
Gordon Padelford, executive director of Seattle Neighborhood Greenways, said the weekend’s chaos highlights the safety risks on a street often crowded with both pedestrians and vehicles.
“I think it really undermines the idea that this is a happy dance of people in vehicles and that it all plays out perfectly,” he said. “People have been injured in the past and people are going to continue to get hurt as long as we allow hulking SUVs driven by gawking tourists to drive through the market.”
According to data from the Seattle Department of Transportation, there have been at least 170 collisions involving drivers in Pike Place Market since 2004, both on Pike Place itself and the streets heading east toward First Avenue. At least 39 resulted in injury.
Padelford said he does not expect, nor support, any decisions being made without robust conversation involving vendors and others with a vested interest in the Market. Deliveries, Americans with Disabilities Act compliance and small business support are issues worth discussing and addressing, but should not be seen as immovable barriers to the ultimate goal of making the market more pedestrian friendly, he said.
As the discussion about limiting traffic gains steam, so too does pushback from some of the market’s legacy backers and supporters. Peter Steinbrueck, the former port commissioner whose family is credited with preserving the market in the 1970s, said he was sad to hear about the weekend’s injury, but that it doesn’t change his stance that vehicles should continue to be allowed through the Market.
“This can happen anywhere, any time, in any type of situation where there are people and pedestrians in numbers,” he said. “I don’t think that informs us of anything specific regarding the issue that is being debated over the closure of Pike Place to vehicles. It has to remain open to some vehicles at all times.”
Among Steinbrueck’s biggest concerns is ensuring the Market does not become a “pedestrian mall that is a gentrified parody” of what it has always been.
“It’s the concern that it becomes another mall-like place, like you find in [San Francisco’s] Ghirardelli Square,” he said.
In recent weeks, proponents and opponents have taken to trading barbs through Op-Eds. Padelford would like to see that change.
“My hope is that we stop talking across each other through Op-Eds and start talking to each across the table,” he said.