Take Your Horse (And Bike) To The Old Moscow-Pullman Town Road To See The Changes

Jul 10, 2020

The Old Moscow-Pullman Road has quite a history running through the heart of Pullman. 

It started with a Y-shaped intersection with no traffic signal just west of town, and a road between the two cross-border college towns that was impossible to use in the winter.

In 1929, gravel was put down and, thanks to the nation’s growing number of motorists, what became State Route 270 just grew and grew.

That growth is why there are three lanes of one-way traffic coursing through the quaint Palouse-region downtown of Pullman, home to Washington State University’s main campus.

Make that two lanes now.

The coronavirus pandemic has brought many changes to how our lives are lived, from working at home to the now-ubiquitous masks. Now roads are changing, too.

In Washington, it’s part of the Safe, Healthy and Active Streets Program, a state plan to “leverage the use of our public roadways and resources to better support Washingtonian’s health, safety and economic recovery efforts during the COVID-19 pandemic.” 

The state departments of Health and Commerce are part of the program leg by the Washington State Department of Transportation. Gov. Jay Inslee supports it, saying it will “ensure this land has flexible uses that can improve health and safety, and jumpstart the economy.”

The program’s getting its test run in Pullman, where last month a lane of traffic was converted to a protected bike land and more parking. Some intersections have been reconfigured to create shorter crosswalks. It will be easier for stores and restaurants to spill out onto the sidewalk to help customers remain socially distant.

Pullman City Council member Brandon Chapman likes what he sees.

“We know pedestrians buy things. Cars don’t buy things,” he says. “We use vehicles to get from one place to another, but once you’re downtown. And the merchants can certainly appreciate this. People need to be able to walk around.”

Chapman describes a “utopian” downtown, where people and families come for fun and diversion — not just on the odd Saturday.

“Pullman downtown, we actually have the ability to be that city that other people come to and say, ‘This is fantastic. I love going downtown.’ It’s not just about coming to a Cougar football game,” Chapman says.

All cities struggling

Like most things related to the pandemic, the changes aren’t intended to last. 

In Pullman, the pandemic helped kickstart the newly adopted Downtown Master Plan. Pullman had very recently discussed the changes the town is now experiencing.

“We’re going to see what works and what doesn’t. And it really all does go toward the Downtown Master Plan,” Chapman says. “Like all cities, we’re struggling with budget and revenue forecasts, especially sales tax decreases. So we want to make sure the money we do spend is smart. So this whole test-before-we-invest idea is extremely low cost.”

The changes cost the city $5,000. An effort to create “parklets” — where stores and restaurants can set up tables in parking lots and parking spaces — faced pushback after the council unanimously agreed to apply for $17,500 in lodging tax funding. That was denied by the advisory committee that doles out the funding.

Regardless, the low-cost and quick implementation of such changes are exactly what the state program hopes to spur.

“Every town is trying to do its best to be creative and responsive and take care of the folks who live there,” says Barb Chamberlain, director of WSDOT’s Active Transportation Division who formulated the program. “And so this is one more tool for them both to think about public health and to think about commerce.”

Chamberlain says 458 miles of state routes are eligible for the program’s changes because they meet the criteria of being located in a town or area where people live and already have posted speed limits of less than 35 mph.

Though Pullman is the first city in the state to try out the program, Chamberlain says she’s heard from other interested municipalities, including White Salmon on the Columbia River.

“We started getting requests from communities saying, 'We are trying to do something for economic recovery,’” Chamberlain says. “Or, ‘We have concerns about providing sufficient social distancing space, and your state route comes through the middle of our town. Could we do something about that?’”

Glenn Wagemann, a traffic engineer in WSDOT’s eastern regional office, says his agency is ready to approve changes very quickly, and urges city leaders to do the same.

“We’re just going to be here to say yes. We’re going to make this possible,” he says. “So it’s up to the city to go to the businesses and see if they’re in agreement with this, so you do need to do a little bit of public outreach. Not plan for months for some town hall meeting. You should go door to door and say, ‘Is this something you want?’”

Traffic, business plummet

WSDOT officials said again and again that any modifications to the street must be “community led,” meaning the idea must come from locals, not Olympia.

In fact, beyond approval and some guidance, there’s not much coming from Olympia. The program has no funding. The passage of Initiative 976 in November 2019, which repealed and removed some vehicle taxes and fees, already hobbled transportation funding.

Despite being a college town, home to WSU's main campus, Pullman's downtown core is largely made for cars to drive through. A test over this summer added a protected bike lane and angle parking to make it more walkable.
Credit WSDOT

What’s more, stay-home orders and other public health measures have kept people at home and driving less, leading to depressed gas tax revenue.

According to statistics collected by WSDOT, highway traffic has decreased by 15% this year, use of toll facilities is down 41%, and ferry ridership is down 47%.

At the same time, bicycle riding is up 45%, and pedestrianism up by 18%, making this a perfect moment to create facilities for such transportation options, Chamberlain says.

Lisa Brown, director of the state Department of Commerce and a former state senator from Spokane, says her agency is part of the program because indoor capacity restrictions at restaurants and retails stores have hit local business owners hard.

“I’ll just admit a bias towards supporting our local small businesses right now during this really challenging time,” Brown says. “They don’t have the same resources to fall back on that some of our big box stores have, that are national chains. So to the extent that people can do this and still feel safe, but they’re supporting local businesses and those dollars really circulate in our local economy, then we are excited at commerce to be part of that.”

But she likes the program for other reasons. She thinks encouraging walking and biking is the right thing to do in context of global climate change. She hopes such “active transportation” represents a shift to seeing more retail in neighborhoods, not just automobile-centric strip malls, and a desire to build more centrally-located affordable housing.

‘We have the only road’

WSDOT makes it very clear that the changes are only temporary. Wagemann, the engineer, says it’s the “temporary nature of this initiative” that makes it appealing to towns that would otherwise scoff at a protected bike lane running through town. 

In Pullman, for example, the bollards will be gone by October, when auto traffic will flow again. 

Chamberlain — a longtime bike advocate who founded Bike Style Spokane before moving west to lead Washington Bikes and the Cascade Bicycle Club — says it’s impossible to know if the changes will last. 

“I don’t know that we can crystal ball what the outcomes might be,” she says, noting that some towns may change just during the pandemic, and others may be looking for permanency. “I think each community might have its own goal for doing it.” 

Chamberlain points out that these changes are not that innovative. Parklets and temporary protected bike lanes have been tried all over the world, including in Spokane.

Since the pandemic began, more than 250 cities have modified roads to give more space to pedestrians and cyclists. Places like Paris and Rome are making the changes permanent.

But what is innovative, Chamberlain says, is the involvement of the state Transportation Department in a project trying to get people to drive less.

“It is less common for a state DOT to be involved in something like that,” she says. “It’s a lot easier for a city to say, ‘We’re going to change something on this street because one block over you have a different street you can use.’ We have the only road in some locations.”

‘People do have trucks’

Chapman, the Pullman city council member, says the city is learning a lot from the changes, which have been in place less than a month.

People like the bike lane and new uses of the sidewalk. Crossing the street feels safer. The back-in angled parking, however, isn’t going over very well. He drives a truck and finds the stalls too small.

“We’re in an agricultural community. People do have trucks. And we have to consider that,” he says.

But he wants to see the program through to the end.

“If we change course after a week, then that’s probably not doing anybody a good service. If we wait two months and don’t like it, at least we know,” he says. “There is a science to any kind of urban planning. There’s a science to the way people move. All of that. But it’s still not cookie cutter. We have to make sure we implement the things that feel right for residents and fit our downtown.”