By Erica C. Barnett
Less than an hour after Mayor Ed Murray wrapped up a press conference to announce new pedestrian-safety improvements along Rainier Avenue South, a collision between a car and a semi shut down the intersection of Rainier and South Alaska St. — an in-your-face reminder that whatever the city has done to calm what is frequently referred to as “the most dangerous street in Seattle”, there’s still plenty of room for improvement.
Last year, council transportation committee chair Mike O’Brien noted, there were about 10,000 crashes in the city. Of those, fewer than 7 percent involved cyclists or pedestrians, but that 7 percent accounted for about 62 percent of the fatalities from crashes in the city. Although Seattle remains one of the safest cities in the country for pedestrians, progress toward actually achieving “Vision Zero” — the city’s goal of zero serious injuries or deaths from crashes by 2030 — has stagnated.
Murray chose Martin Luther King, Jr. Elementary School in Brighton to announce new investments in pedestrian safety not only because the school won a $300,000 grant from the city to improve sidewalks in the area, but to highlight the city’s new emphasis on creating safe routes between schools and transit stops. In the next year, Murray said, the city will build 50 new blocks of sidewalks at a cost of $22 million; by 2024, the city plans to add an additional 200 blocks.
The plan announced yesterday would also accelerate by one year the extension of new pavement markings and crosswalks that have been added along Rainier from Hillman City to Alaska Street — improvements Murray credited with limiting “off-roading” by speeding cars like the one that plowed through the Carol Cobb Salon in 2014 — further south, at a cost of $2.25 million. Over the next two years, seven more streets across the city will get the Rainier Avenue treatment. The funding for all the new projects will come from the $930 million Move Seattle levy voters passed in 2015.
Less flashy and expensive, but potentially more impactful, were some of the small changes Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) Director Scott Kubly said the city was making to improve pedestrian safety at individual intersections — and the process the city will use to determine which intersections get upgrades. Instead of reacting to incidents after they happen — say, by reducing the speed limit and width of a road where cars have a habit of jumping through windows — the city will use modeling to figure out intersections that are likely to be problems before accidents occur.
For example, Kubly said, “we have seen a fair number of crashes with left turning vehicles where they have permissive left turns” — a regular green light without a left-turn arrow — “particularly in places like Northeast 65th Street,” where several serious crashes have resulted when a driver speeding down the hill has turned left into an oncoming cyclist or pedestrian. At intersections where the city knows accidents are likely, SDOT will preemptively add what Murray called “pedestrian-friendly signals” — walk signs that allow pedestrians into an intersection before drivers’ light turns green, giving walkers greater visibility — and traffic lights with left turn signals, which reduces conflicts between left-turning cars and pedestrians (or trucks) heading straight through an intersection. By adding leading pedestrian signals at 40 intersections citywide, Kubly said, the city expected to reduce crashes by 50 percent at those intersections.
Pedestrian safety, Murray said, “is an equity issue,” and that’s certainly been true in the Valley, where, neighbors have been requesting pedestrian safety improvements along Rainier for the past 40 years. Historically, Rainier has had more crashes per mile than arterial streets that carry more than twice as much traffic. Further east, surface-running light rail trains pose a particular challenge to pedestrians, who must traverse unprotected light rail tracks to cross Martin Luther King, Jr. Way; earlier this year, a pedestrian was struck and killed while crossing the tracks in a crosswalk.
Asked whether SDOT planned to follow danger “indicators” wherever its traffic engineers found them, even at the risk of abandoning its commitment to geographic equity, Kubly responded, “the mayor has made it abundantly clear to me and the department that we need to be equitable in our work… One of the things that is true in Seattle and a lot of other cities is that the incidents of serious and fatal crashes, and just collisions in general, tend to be in areas that also present more need for equitable investment” — that is, poorer and historically neglected areas like Southeast Seattle — “so I would anticipate that by following the data we’ll be investing more in neighborhoods like the Rainier Valley”.
Featured image: Erica C Barnett