by Lizz Giordano
A car crash in SODO took the life of a pedestrian just over three weeks into 2021. Days later, another traffic death occurred within the same block. Two months after that, a semi-truck collided with a bicyclist on the industrial streets of Georgetown, marking another fatality in the South End, where traffic deaths were quickly outpacing other areas of the city.
In April, a driver fled the scene of a deadly crash with a bicyclist near Seward Park. Early one morning in June, another person died after an SUV hit a man walking along Airport Way South. Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) and police blogs show yet another pedestrian was killed near the Columbia City light rail station a few days later.
Six months into 2021, more than half of all Seattle traffic fatalities have occurred in Council District 2, which includes Rainier Valley, SODO, and parts of Chinatown/International District.
District 2 is more neglected than other areas, according to KL Shannon, a community organizer with bicycle and pedestrian advocacy group Seattle Neighborhood Greenways.
“I feel that a lot of it has to do with it being mostly a BIPOC community. SDOT has done some improvement, but not a lot of improvement,” Shannon said. “We could do better: adding crosswalks, eliminating the center turn lane, and pushing for more protected bike lanes.”
Six years ago, the city adopted Vision Zero — a nationwide campaign to end traffic deaths and serious injuries by 2030. Since that time, the volume of traffic deaths hasn’t budged as fatalities increase for people on foot and bicycle but decrease among people inside vehicles.
A South Seattle Emerald analysis of police-reported collision data shows that on average 1.5 to 3.5 people die from injuries sustained in crashes in each of the other seven districts during a typical year. That number doubles in District 2.
When Robert Getch moved south to Beacon Hill a few years ago, after living on Capitol Hill and Fremont, he immediately noticed a difference in the roads.
“It seemed like the quality of the streets, the speed people drove, and the width of the roads were vastly different from other parts of town,” said Getch, who co-chairs Beacon Hill Safe Streets, a hyper-local branch of Seattle Neighborhood Greenways (SNG).
According to crash data, two of the city’s four most dangerous roads traverse District 2: Rainier Avenue South and Martin Luther King Jr. Way South. In the past decade and a half, about a third of traffic fatalities and a quarter of collisions in the South End occurred along these two streets.
“It doesn’t surprise me, and I don’t think it should surprise people that some of our busiest, high-volume streets, where we see more serious and fatal crashes, also bisect communities of color,” said Allison Schwartz, the Vision Zero Coordinator at SDOT. “A lot of that ties back to a lot of urban planning and institutional racism that goes back decades.”
SNG and SDOT agree reducing speeds is key to decreasing injuries and deaths. Both point to a AAA study that found the likelihood of fatality increases dramatically as vehicle speed rises.
“Well over 90% of our arterials in Seattle are signed at 25 mph, as a direct correlation to that survivability,” Schwartz said.
SDOT spent the last year and half changing out signs on high-volume streets to reflect a lowered speed limit of 25 mph. The new policy, according to SDOT, will apply to most of the city’s thoroughfares and also reduce speeds to 20 mph on smaller streets.
“We’ve seen positive gains with the citywide speed limit reductions. Putting in new signs is the first of many steps at managing speeds,” Schwartz added.
SDOT has also added crosswalks and slimmed down sections of Rainier Avenue South from Columbia City to Rainier Beach. In giving the former state highway a “road diet” by eliminating a travel lane, SDOT hoped to make the roadway feel smaller — another approach to slowing drivers down. In many areas, the extra traffic lane became a lane for vehicles turning right and for buses.
SDOT claims these safety projects are reducing speeds, pointing to early results in data collected. Shannon, the organizer for SNG, disagrees.
“Drivers are not slowing down,” Shannon said. “If you go stand along Rainier Avenue, you are going to see drivers going at least 40 to 45 mph,” Shannon said. “It hasn’t changed; it hasn’t changed at all.”
She wants to see Rainier Avenue redesigned to give more space to bicyclists and pedestrians.
Pedestrians continue to carry the brunt of traffic deaths in the city. The Emerald’s analysis of SDOT data shows people on foot account for nearly 40% of fatalities, although they’re involved in fewer than 5% of all collisions.
“If we are really talking about no more fatalities — no more pedestrians getting hurt — then there needs to be more money put into Vision Zero,” Shannon said.
📸 Featured Image: In the past decade and half, about a third of traffic fatalities and a quarter of collisions in the South End occurred along Rainier Avenue South or Martin Luther King Jr Way South. Pictured here where they intersect, these are two of the city’s busiest streets. (Photo: Lizz Giordano)
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