Rainier Road-Diet: Amid Community Concerns, City Checks the Boxes of Due Diligence

by Tom James

After a string of accidents, many in South Seattle have greeted a recent city plan to put Rainier Avenue on a “road diet” – cutting the busy street from four travel lanes to two – with relief that finally something is being done.

Others are not so sure, characterizing the plan as at best confusing and at worst a plot to make Rainier safer by using traffic jams to force drivers to slow down. Carrying traffic equivalent to nearly a third of the population of Southeast Seattle every day, the street is one of the area’s largest, and a lifeline for many to jobs in the north. And at eight miles in length the corridor is both longer and more densely commercial than some of the case studies presented by the city at community meetings so far. But interviews with engineers and a review of documents by the Emerald found significant support for the city’s plan.

Ray Akers is one of the people who’s not convinced. A real estate agent and Southeast Seattle resident long active in neighborhood politics, Akers said he thought removing the lanes would choke the district, worsening traffic and hurting businesses on Rainier.

Especially on the busiest central avenue in the valley, Akers said he thought the plan would do irreversible harm, especially by driving shoppers away from the main street.

“It’s probably committing us to a future of economic stagnation,” Akers said.

Community activist Pat Murakami, head of the South Seattle Crime Prevention Council and founder of Action Seattle, put it even more bluntly.

“I think it’s going to be a hot mess,” Murakami said. “It’s a huge mistake.”

In separate interviews, Akers and Murakami voiced concerns similar to others contacted by the Emerald.

From traffic overflow onto Lake Washington Boulevard to drivers cutting through neighborhoods at peak times, to backups caused by buses stopping to load and unload, a common refrain was that the plan doesn’t take into account the nature of the long corridor, which sees almost 20,000 trips on an average day.

And while the particulars varied, most of the doubts revolved around the same general worry: that cutting the main Rainier Valley thoroughfare down to one lane each way will spike traffic and create problems that will ripple through the community.

City traffic engineer Dongho Chang agreed that the notion of one-lane being better than two seems counter-intuitive. But the heart of the idea, said Chang, is that one lane can actually be both more efficient and safer if you remove all the obstacles from it.

In a series of interviews, Chang explained the the thinking behind the road diet, answering many of the concerns raised by community members. A review of public documents also supported Chang’s statements.

On Rainier Avenue today, Chang said, obstacles can appear in either lane, such as a car turning left or right. Cars turning left have to wait longer to make a risky left turn across two oncoming lanes, and drivers behind often make sudden lane-changes to get around them.

On the ‘road-diet’ plan, Chang said, a dedicated center turn lane would get left-turning drivers out of the way, not only giving them a safe place to wait for an opening, but also only one lane to cross. Also, Chang said, every bus stop will have space for transit to pull completely off the road, and separate space for cyclists will get bikes out of the way of cars.

 

The numbers back Chang up. Although Rainier will be the longest Seattle road to go on a diet so far, it won’t be the busiest, either in the city or in the country. In documents made available by Chang, and others searchable online, previous road-diets are shown to have worked – even on busy main roads.

At community meetings, two examples Chang and other city representatives used were Stone Way in Wallingford, and Nickerson Street, which runs in the valley between Magnolia and Queen Ann neighborhoods.

But some community members raised the point that neither was as busy as Rainier, which handles an average of 19,700 trips per day, and neither handles both a high volume of through traffic in a business district.

Asked about the difference, Chang pointed to two other road-diet projects: on North 125th Street, and on North 75th Street.

North 75th sees 20,000 daily trips on average, more than Rainier. North 125th sees fewer on average – only 16,200 –  but runs through a business district and carries lots of buses and commuters, including people detouring around the toll bridge on SR-520.

Instead of choking up, average speeds on both were the same after the road diets, Chang said. Only maximum speeds went down, as would-be speeders got stuck behind law-abiding drivers. And the average number of daily trips actually increased – meaning both roads are actually carrying more traffic after the road diets than they were before.

The positive changes were confirmed, Chang said, by before-and-after measurements taken in nearby neighborhoods as well, which showed drivers weren’t skipping off of the newly slimmed streets.

Perhaps most convincing for Rainier Valley residents, though, are the changes in safety on both roads. According to documents online, including a survey of road diet results in the city by a private firm, 125th saw an eight percent decrease in serious collisions and a 69 percent reduction in speeding.

North 75th street saw similar changes, Chang said, although complete numbers for the 2013 project aren’t due out until next week.

 

The city is also following its own guidelines for when and where road diets are appropriate. In documents from 2013, traffic planners laid out criteria for determining whether a road diet would be a good fit for any given road. While smaller roads get basically automatic approval, bigger roads like Rainier have three criteria that need to be met, including specific traffic levels at stoplights on and around the roads, and months of data-gathering for a “Synchro” computer analysis.

Traffic at stoplights on and around Rainier meets the criteria, and the city performed not only the Synchro analysis, but also a second type of computer simulation, Chang said.

Neighborhood outreach is also a part of road diets, Chang said, noting that community meetings started last Fall, after requests  from the community for safety improvements on the corridor, and have included meetings with business owners along the route.

Chang admitted that the effect of road diets on nearby businesses haven’t been studied extensively, mostly because traffic planners have always seen the changes as matters of safety. To monitor the effects of the project on businesses in the area, Chang said, the project will include monitoring sales tax reports, to see if the project hurts businesses – a first for the city.

 

Still, all the data in the world so far hasn’t changed how some community members feel.

The fact that the project is the longest in the city – eight miles compared to a few blocks for some of the city’s other road diet projects – puts it in a different league, said Akers.

“I’m not buying it,” he said. As the biggest road in the Valley, Rainier is the artery of the community, he added. “We lose that if we lose the lane.”

For her part, Murakami said she was skeptical if nothing else of why simpler methods weren’t being tried, not only on Rainier but throughout the community.

One tactic both Murakami and Akers agreed would help traffic and improve the neighborhood in other ways: more police.

“When the patrol cars are looking for speeders, they catch people with outstanding warrants,” said Murakami.

Without prompting, Akers in a separate interview seconded the view.

“It’s obvious the simplest and quickest fix is enforcement,” he said.

Looking at neighborhood like Greenwood, he said, it’s hard not to feel like they get improvements – but when Southeast Seattle has a problem, the city just wants to take something away.

Photo Credit: Matthew Rutledge (Creative Commons License)

12 thoughts on “Rainier Road-Diet: Amid Community Concerns, City Checks the Boxes of Due Diligence”

  1. Just think of all those jobs will be harmed by improving the safety of Rainier: collision repair specialists, used car salespeople, ER surgeons and nurses, physical therapists, ambulance drivers, personal injury lawyers, insurance agents, construction workers to repair destroyed facades, inspectors to condemn damaged buildings- it goes on and on. All those wheel chair curb ramps the city is paying so much to install will be that much more underutilized. The police will be twiddling their thumbs if they don’t have a crash a day on Rainier to cordon off and direct traffic around until the wreckage is scraped off the road/sidewalk/business interior, because there is nothing else going on in SE Seattle worthy of their attention.

  2. I think the road diet is the best way to calm traffic in this area. Improvements like center turn lanes will have a huge positive impact on the flow of traffic and calming drivers, eliminating abrupt and last-minute lane changes. This isn’t just about speeding, more police won’t fix traffic flow. With the opening of PCC, I could only see driver frustration increasing if we didn’t find a way to facilitate turns and keep the rest of the traffic flowing. As for concerns for local businesses? I don’t buy it. I think we’ll find the area more pedestrian-friendly as a result. That concern seems to assume that drivers are the only ones supporting these businesses.

  3. The re-channelization and changes to MLK Jr Way South necessitated a full-blown EIS. The result of the study was a $50 million-dollar mitigation fund to buffer the impact of permanently lost access to businesses on MLK. How is eliminating two lanes on Rainier different? In fact, Rainier has 10 times the number of businesses compared to MLK. Logic says that the impact of reduced access on Rainier is greater than the impact to MLK. Where is the analysis? Where is the mitigation? Why is an agency that fills pot holes put in charge of the economic future of the Rainier Valley? “Knock, knock…Mayor Murray…is anybody home?”

    1. Just a guess here, but I think the difference is that, while the Link tracks made it harder to make left turns at most intersections along MLK, the Rainier Ave road diet makes left turns easier and prevents left turners from causing backups. The result is easier access to businesses, rather than more difficult access to businesses. That plus heavier pedestrian use equals positive economic impact for the neighborhood. I would also be curious to see an analysis or economic impact statement though.

  4. How is Rainier, if it has 2 primary lanes, a center left turn lane, parking, access to all cross-streets and turn-offs for buses different from MLK with 4 primary lanes, a blocked light rail median, limited cross-street access and almost no parking? The two lane situation was during massive construction years ago. Apples and oranges are being compared here. BTW, how about Rainier between Rainier Beach and Renton. It has a ‘road diet.’ Seems to work okay.

  5. Obvious Ray Akers has drank a little too much of the Kar Kulture Koolaid. It is very transparent that his only real objection is the perceived inconvenience of a few extra minutes driving through the corridor. Lucky for him he is wrong anyway, and like the rest of us, will benefit greatly from these changes.

    Road diets are no longer a new concept, they are a proven and effective solution to increase safety with little impact to capacity or travel times. Selfish individuals like Akers refuse to accept the findings from other successful road diet implementations and prefer to stick to their outmoded car-only world view.

  6. From the article: “Chang admitted that the effect of road diets on nearby businesses haven’t been studied extensively, mostly because traffic planners have always seen the changes as matters of safety. To monitor the effects of the project on businesses in the area, Chang said, the project will include monitoring sales tax reports, to see if the project hurts businesses – a first for the city.”

    The city admits they do not know the economic impact of the road-diet. Raise your hand if think it’s okay for the city to experiment with our businesses? What will be accomplished by monitoring receipts AFTER the road-diet? What about some analysis before the road diet for sake of comparison? No, apparently SDOT knows best. We’re gonna get a road-diet, FIRST. Brilliant. What happens when businesses fail?

    Why not slow down this rushed process? Why not increase enforcement, which is the #1 method of improving safety? Why not start with smaller changes, tailored to the uniqueness of Rainier? A one-size-fits-all road-diet is just plain dumb.

  7. Why not slow down this rushed process?

    That’s the point, we want to slow down the cars. Rainier Ave. has been one of the most dangerous routes in Seattle for YEARS. You need to reassess your priorities. A few profits could be at stake and you think the city needs to know the exact effect, down to the dollar, of any changes before work should begin. Yet its acceptable to keep things at the status quo while people continue to die because of unsafe infrastructure?

    I’d rather take our chances with the profits than the people myself.

    You are being intentionally misleading when you characterize the process as untested. From the article,

    “While smaller roads get basically automatic approval, bigger roads like Rainier have three criteria that need to be met, including specific traffic levels at stoplights on and around the roads, and months of data-gathering for a “Synchro” computer analysis.

    Traffic at stoplights on and around Rainier meets the criteria, and the city performed not only the Synchro analysis, but also a second type of computer simulation, Chang said.”

    As for enforcement, I think we can all agree that increased enforcement would be a good thing. Increased enforcement and improved infrastructure do not have to be mutually exclusive.

    1. Let’s all agree that enforcement should be a priority. It’s proved to be the best method to improve safety.

      I’m all for new and better infrastructure. That means concrete, not paint. I’d like to see a dedicated bike viaduct or bike path for the 8-mile length of Rainier. Let’s stop the rushed plan to re-channel traffic, and shift to a bigger, better plan.

      Does anyone know why the Mayor committed $23 million for Rainier? How many folks know what the money will be used for? Is $23 million enough? Why don’t we engage more neighbors in the process and undertake a better and more thoughtful planning process.

      (P.S. A road- diet is on my list of potential ‘fixes’ for Rainier….but there are a dozen steps ahead of a road-diet that are being skipped.)

      1. Wait, “it’s proved to be the best method to improve safety?” What proof are you citing?

        It’s seems like common sense that counting on even regular enforcement to calm traffic is less effective than measures that are essentially in force 24 hours a day. And slowing maximum speeds and reducing the number of sources of simultaneous potential hazards (by reducing the number of lanes) will calm traffic and save lives.

  8. Ironically, slower traffic moves more people than fast traffic. Why? The number of passengers moved is traffic density times speed. But safe following distance increases with the square of speed. So density falls faster than speed increases.

    At 20 mph a road can carry about twice as many vehicles as at 50 mph. Road diets decrese speed, but they do not cause jams because low speeds are optimal at peak times anyway.