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Seattle Center City: Alley Infrastructure Inventory and Occupancy Study

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Publication Date: 2018

The Supply Chain and Transportation Logistics (SCTL) Center conducted an alley inventory and truck load/unload occupancy study for the City of Seattle. Researchers collected data identifying the locations and infrastructure characteristics of alleys within Seattle’s One Center City planning area, which includes the downtown, uptown, South Lake Union, Capitol Hill, and First Hill urban centers. The resulting alley database includes GIS coordinates for both ends of each alley, geometric and traffic attributes, and photos. Researchers also observed all truck load/unload activity in selected alleys to determine minutes vacant and minutes occupied by trucks, vans, passenger vehicles, and cargo bikes. The researchers then developed alley management recommendations to promote safe, sustainable, and efficient goods delivery and pick-up.

Key Findings:

The first key finding of this study is that more than 90% of Center City alleys are only one lane wide. This surprising fact creates an upper limit on alley parking capacity, as each alley can functionally hold only one or two vehicles at a time. Because there is no room to pass by, when a truck, van, or car parks it blocks all other vehicles from using the alley. When commercial vehicle drivers see that an alley is blocked they will not enter it, as their only way out would be to back up into street traffic. Seattle Municipal Code prohibits this, as well as backing up into an alley, for safety reasons.

When informed by the second key finding—68% of vehicles in the alley occupancy study parked there for 15 minutes or less—it is clear that moving vehicles through alleys in short time increments is the only reasonable path to increase productivity. As one parked vehicle operationally blocks the entire alley, the goal of new alley policies and strategies should be to reduce the amount of time alleys are blocked to additional users.

The study surfaces four additional key findings:

  1. 87% of all vehicles in the 7 alleys studied parked for 30 minutes or less. Given the imperative to move alley traffic quickly, vehicles that need more parking time must be moved out of the alleys and onto the curb where they don’t block others.
  2. 15% of alleys’ pavement condition is so poor that delivery workers can’t pass through with loaded hand carts.  Although trucks can drive over fairly uneven pavement without difficulty, it is not the case for delivery people walking with fully loaded handcarts.  The alley pavement rating was done with a qualitative visual inspection to identify obvious problems; more detailed measurements would be needed to fully assess conditions.
  3. 73% of Center City area alleys contain entrances to passenger parking facilities. Placing garage entrances in alleys has been a city policy goal for years. But it increases the frequency of cars in alleys and adds demands on alley use. Understanding why cars are queuing for passenger garages located off alleys, and providing incentives and disincentives to reduce that, would help make alleys more productive.
  4. Alleys are vacant about half of the time during the business day. While at first blush this suggests ample capacity, the fact that an alley can only hold one-to-two parked trucks at a time means alleys are limited operationally and therefore are not a viable alternative to replace the use of curb CVLZs on city streets.

These findings indicate that, due to the fixed alley width constraint, load/unload space inside Seattle’s existing Center City area alleys is insufficient to meet additional future demand.

Recommended Citation:
Urban Freight Lab (2018). Seattle Center City: Alley Infrastructure Inventory and Occupancy Study.