Photo depicting pedestrians waiting at a crosswalk on Martin Luther King Jr. Way South as cars speed in front of them and a light rail train takes off behind them.

Funding ‘Solutions Not Studies’ to End Seattle Traffic Deaths

by Lizz Giordano

In the seven years Seattle has worked toward achieving Vision Zero, the goal of eliminating traffic deaths has never been so out of reach for the city. Especially in the South End, which absorbed more than half of the fatalities on the city’s streets last year

In 2021, fatalities hit a 15-year high in Seattle with 30 people dying in vehicle collisions — the majority of whom were on foot or bicycle. And this year is proving nearly as deadly with 10 traffic deaths so far, averaging out to about one person being killed every other week on Seattle streets.

The rising trend in pedestrian and bicyclist deaths is unacceptable and completely avoidable, said Councilmember Tammy Morales, who represents the South End district which spans Rainier Valley, SoDo, and parts of Chinatown-International District.

She is pushing for the City to shift more of its road space and funding to bicyclists and pedestrians. 

“I’m looking for solutions, I‘m not looking for any more studies,” Morales said in an interview with the Emerald last week. “As long as we have neighbors regularly getting hit by cars, we need to get serious about doing this differently.” 

And for her that means acting on the bike and pedestrian master plans the City has developed. 

“We already put the resources into creating, on paper, a network of ways for people to get around more safely,” Morales said. “We just haven’t actually built them out. I want us to start to build out the things we have said are priorities.”

Citywide, less than 1% of roads have a protected bike lane and nearly a quarter of streets are missing sidewalks, Morales said, with Districts 2 and 5 feeling the brunt of this missing infrastructure. 

Of the 19 deaths last year and so far this year in District 2, nearly 75% involved a pedestrian or bicyclist. Two of the fatalities this year in the South End occurred just blocks from each other near Holgate Avenue and Fourth Avenue in SoDo. Both were biking through the area. Last week at least two people on foot or bike were hit on District 2 streets, including a 10-year-old child. 

It is very expensive to build sidewalks, Morales said. “But that doesn’t mean we sit on our hands and say we can’t do it. It means we have to be creative about making streets safer.”

Data sourced from the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT).

The only safe north-south routes through the Rainier Valley are for people in cars, said Morales. “If you can’t drive, if you’re in a wheelchair, if you use a cane because of a visual impairment, if you’re on a bike and trying to get your kids to childcare, it’s a dangerous place to be.” 

Bicycle groups have been advocating for years for a protected bike lane from the South End to downtown. 

The bicycle and pedestrian master plans are blueprints for a 20-year vision to improve walkability and safety on streets, according to Allison Schwartz, Vision Zero program coordinator for Seatle’s Department of Transportation (SDOT). 

And to implement requires planning along with community engagement and support, Schwartz added. “It requires design and funding to go from what is a line on a map in the 20-year plan to an on the ground reality.”

Morales wants to see more safety projects like the ones SDOT installed along Rainier Avenue which included crosswalks, flashing beacons, hardened left lane lines to slow turning drivers, and leading pedestrian intervals which give people on foot a head start at traffic signals. 

These safety improvements are showing results, Schwartz said. SDOT is nearly halfway to its goal of changing traffic signal timing at all signalized intersections to give pedestrians a head start over vehicles.

That three to seven seconds of time can really make a huge difference, Schwartz said. “We are finding they are working very well; they’ve reduced turning collisions and fatal and serious crashes where they have been installed.” 

SDOT has plans to add bus-only lanes to Rainier Avenue from Columbia City to Mount Baker, extending the transit lanes that were added further south in recent years. But bike lanes aren’t in the plan for this section, to the disappointment of bike and pedestrian safety advocates. 

To achieve Vision Zero in District 2 also means addressing light rail safety, the only area in Seattle where light rail runs on the street rather than elevated or underground. 

Since the line opened in 2009, 10 people have been killed in collisions with light rail trains with 8 of those fatalities occurring in the Rainier Valley. More recently, on May 19 a woman was hit by a train at the Othello Station. She remained in serious condition in Harborview’s intensive care unit for several days, according to a hospital spokesperson. 

At the Othello Station, light rail trains have collided with five vehicles and five people on foot, with one resulting in a fatality since the line began operating, according to Sound Transit data. Last year two people lost their lives at the Columbia City Station after failing to see an oncoming train. 

More frequently, cars and light rail trains collide, which, according to collision data between 2009 and 2020, happened roughly about every month and half. 

Over the years, Sound Transit added more signs along the at-grade corridor in an effort to make crossings more visible to drivers and pedestrians. Studies of at-grade light rail crossings and crash reports have also recommended reducing train speeds and installing crossing gates or arms. 

Installing crossing arms or gates and lowering train speeds is still under study, according to John Gallagher, spokesperson for Sound Transit. “No final decisions have been made yet.” 

Agency documents show a speed reduction pilot was discontinued because trains no longer matched the traffic signal timing at the lower speed. Another found that reducing the trains’ speeds from 35 mph to 25 mph added 2 minutes and 27 seconds to the travel time through the MLK corridor.

Part of Vision Zero acknowledges that people will inevitably make mistakes so roads should be designed with multiple levels of safety protection to ensure a misstep does not result in a severe injury or death. 

“Gates could provide one of those redundancies,” Schwartz said, “and reduce the instances when a mistake leads to a fatal or serious injury.”

Morales wants a monetary commitment for active safety measures such as gates or crossing arms. Sound Transit is trying to prevent these safety concerns in future extensions by planning to avoid building train routes at-grade, as was done in the Rainier Valley. 

“Sound Transit really needs to shift their priorities away from merely getting their trains through a neighborhood quickly and include a priority around safety,” Morales said. “Because they learned all those lessons on the back of South End people.”

Lizz Giordano is a freelance multimedia journalist based in Seattle’s Rainier Valley focusing on transit and housing. She can be reached on Twitter @lizzgior, and more of her work can be found on her website.

📸 Featured Image: Trains and cars whiz by as people wait to cross Martin Luther King Jr. Way at the Othello Station. Pedestrians, cyclists, and motorists navigate these crossings along the 4.5-mile light rail stretch through the South End. (Photo: Lizz Giordano)

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