By Stephen Hegg (This article originally appeared on kcts9.org and has been reprinted with permission)
What is the most dangerous road in Seattle, perhaps in all of Washington State? One might guess Aurora Avenue, especially after last fall’s deadly collision of a Ride the Ducks tour vehicle and a bus. But it’s not. It’s Rainier Avenue South, which runs 8.5 miles through Rainier Valley in South Seattle.
Rainier Avenue has one-fourth the vehicle volume of Aurora, but twice the accidents per mile — over one a day. Part of the problem is that Rainier used to be part of State Highway 167, and it still acts like a freeway.
“So, it was very much a state route where people were going excessively fast through the corridor, and the design really encouraged those higher speeds,” says Jim Curtin, a Seattle Deptartment of Transportation (SDOT) traffic manager.
“I’ve seen so many car crashes, people coming through speeding, you know,” says Hikeem Stewart, who works in Columbia City. In the last three years, there have been over 1,200 accidents, 600 injuries and two fatalities on Rainier.
Phyllis Porter was just exiting a Columbia City restaurant on Rainier when an SUV crashed into the Carol Cobb Salon.
“I turned around and I saw [it] careening into the salon and into the restaurant that I had just got out of,” Porter says. Adds Curtin, “We had eight buildings hit on Rainier in this area in a ten-month period last year, which is absolutely unacceptable.”
Luckily, no one was killed, but the Carol Cobb Salon accident was a tipping point for the neighborhood and the city.
In Spring 2015, at the same time Rainier community groups rallied for changes to the troubled avenue, SDOT was implementing citywide Vision Zero, an aggressive campaign to eliminate traffic fatalities and injuries by speed reduction and safety design. Rainier was the perfect target, and SDOT had been collecting extensive data on every intersection for months. Just days after the last community intake meeting, SDOT started re-striping a one-mile pilot project on Rainier through the busy neighborhoods of Hillman City and Columbia City.
Rainier was put on a road diet to slow and slim it down.
The pilot project lowers the speed limit to 25 miles per hour, and takes busy Rainier from four directional lanes to two, with a center turn lane to eliminate the deadly left-hook crashes. The street now has enhanced traffic signals, longer pedestrian crossing times and more turn restrictions.
The reduction to two lanes has been controversial. No one denies that it’s safer, but in congestion-prone Seattle, there is now the perception that Rainier, a prime arterial, is slower. Side street residents complain that their traffic has increased as drivers bypass the pilot project on Rainier. (Full disclosure: I live on Seward Park Avenue South, a well-known bypass channel.)
Says Hikeem Stewart, “You can still have safety without taking away lanes to get through this part of town. It’s so congested.”
Curtin argues that some of that congestion is caused by Rainier’s collisions. “It takes an average of 47 minutes to clear each crash,” he says.
For Porter, it’s a simple conclusion: “Congestion or injuries. Congestion or collisions. Congestion or fatalities.”
Will the road diet work? It’s a work in progress, says Curtin. The city has seen success — fewer collisions and injuries and increased mobility — with previous revisions on Nickerson, Northeast 75th Avenue and Northeast 125th Avenue. Data will be collected throughout the next year, and it seems likely that the project will be extended in 2016 to Rainier Beach.