by Phil Manzano
Content Warning: This article includes video and discussion of a vehicle-pedestrian collision.
Taken from a camera mounted above the intersection of Rainier Avenue and Graham Street South, the high-angle traffic video has a grainy, gray quality but still reveals much. The streets are dry. It’s about 1:30 p.m. on Jan. 25, and an eastbound silver Lexus coupe is turning left as three people — a mother and her two children — are walking across Rainier.
The family is unaware of the approaching car until it is literally upon them. Its right front fender sweeps into them, lifting them off their feet, sending them tumbling like rag dolls onto the pavement.
The first time Antonia Martinez-Ruiz watched the video, she cried and cried. She’s in the video along with her two children, Mateo, 10, and Ruth, 17, and saw how helpless and vulnerable they were while doing something as ordinary as crossing a street.
“She said she’s been very restless since that day,” said Ruth, who translated her mom’s Spanish. “She feels like it could happen again. Every time she’s crossing the street, and particularly that street, she says she feels like she got some type of trauma. She said she’s always in fear that something like that can happen again.”
It’s a crossing and fear that Martinez-Ruiz and her children still confront and face daily. The first time she crossed Rainier after the collision, she had to overcome deep fear before she could make her way through the intersection. “Yes, I actually did not want to go walking,” Martinez-Ruiz said, “but I have no type of transportation, and I still have to go pick up my son.”
The video was posted on Twitter by WestCoast SafetyVid (@WestCoastSafety) in a tweet that so far has had nearly 363,000 views.
The collision and almost daily reports of other collisions in the South End are feeding increasing urgency to make streets safer for pedestrians, bicyclists, and motorists.
Martinez-Ruiz’s experience in many ways mirrors what City data shows and what South End safe street advocates are saying: Lack of pedestrian and bike infrastructure continues to make streets unsafe. And People of Color and Communities of Color are the ones who suffer disproportionately from unsafe streets.
According to Seattle Councilmember Tammy Morales (District 2, which encompasses South Seattle), in 2020 and 2021, more than a third of fatal collisions in the city involved a pedestrian or cyclist, and of those fatalities more than half — 56% — happened in the South End.
Recently, she met with staff and parents from South Shore PK–8 and Dunlap Elementary schools in Rainier Beach, and they stood at a crosswalk with a crossing guard to see how fast people drove through the school zone. It stunned Morales to see drivers slow roll through a crosswalk, sometimes honking, even as children were still crossing it, and to hear that the crossing guard had recently been hit by a driver.
“I don’t know what else to say except that my office will be working on safe streets policy this year,” Morales said at a recent council meeting. “I can’t not do that. We can’t keep shrugging our shoulders as a city, waiting for the next levy or the next study or the next step in the Seattle process.
“My constituents are demanding that we act now to change the way we make decisions about safety when it comes to our roads, because what we’re doing now is not working: Focusing on throughput of traffic rather than the safety of people who aren’t in cars can’t stand anymore.”
Seattle’s major pedestrian safety effort has run through its Vision Zero program, which the City instituted in 2015 with the goal of ending traffic deaths and injuries on city streets by 2030.
“It’s also an international street safety movement, a shift in thinking and in how we approach transportation safety — pushing us toward the most effective ways to reduce harm and move toward a culture of care and dignity for everyone who uses Seattle’s streets,” the Seattle Department of Transportation’s (SDOT) website reads.
Still, Seattle’s streets typically see more than 10,000 collisions a year, according to the just released Vision Zero Top-to-Bottom Review commissioned by newly hired SDOT Director Greg Spotts.
On average, 28 people are killed and 180 people seriously injured each year, according to the report, and despite efforts to reduce traffic collisions, injuries, and deaths, all have been on the rise from 2020 through 2022, especially pedestrian fatalities.
The Vision Zero review says data shows that the city’s arterial roads have the most serious and fatal collisions compared to neighborhood streets; 93% of pedestrian deaths occur on arterials and 80% on roads that have traffic moving in more than one lane in each direction.
The main contributing factors to pedestrian deaths were high speeds and drivers’ failure to yield to pedestrians. The report also stated that “80% of people killed while biking were riding where no bike facility was available.”
The Vision Zero review issued recommendations that could be implemented quickly for safer streets including:
- Phase in additional No Turn on Red signs downtown in time for tourist season and the MLB All-Star Game in July. Those signals reduce vehicle-pedestrian collisions by 92% and vehicle-vehicle collisions by 97%.
- Expand use of Leading Pedestrian Interval signals, which give pedestrians a head start on crossing a street before cars are signaled to move forward. LPI’s have reduced pedestrian-involved collisions overall by 48% and serious or fatal pedestrian collisions by 34%.
- Partner with Sound Transit to implement increased warning signals along the light rail line on Martin Luther King Jr. Way South.
- Explore use of automated enforcement cameras to address equity concerns around traffic enforcement.
At a meeting on Tuesday, March 8, of the City Council’s Transportation & Seattle Public Utilities Committee, Morales acknowledged SDOT’s efforts to implement Vision Zero, but she was critical of the review’s priorities and lack of focus on the South End, in particular the first recommendation for safety improvements for downtown tourists and the summer MLB All-Star Game.
Those priorities are insensitive to the fact that 56% of Seattle’s traffic fatalities last year were in the South End, Morales said, noting that that statistic wasn’t mentioned in the report.
Speakers during the public comment time echoed those sentiments, expressing impatience and frustration with unsafe streets and asking for Vision Zero projects to have higher priority and visibility.
Moving toward a goal of safer streets will mean transforming a cultural mindset that puts the car first, said Yes Segura, founder of Smash the Box, a multidisciplinary and community-driven design and planning firm based in Beacon Hill.
“The movement that we’re part of is redesigning streets for people and not cars,” said Segura, a first-generation El Salvadorean and transgender man. “All our staff use other modes of transportation versus a car. And we’re really working towards essentially making healthier and safer communities, because where we’re at right now is, when it comes to transportation, just looking at better quality of life, we’re not on a good trajectory.”
Segura said that the car-culture trajectory has led to an unhealthy environment through air pollution, unhealthy bodies due to a lack of exercise, and undeveloped streets that make it risky to walk even as vehicles continue getting larger and heavier.
The need to create safe streets where pedestrians are prioritized over cars is coming at a crucial time in South Seattle as it emerges from the pandemic and becomes denser, with apartment buildings sprouting along Rainier Avenue and more people moving to the South End.
“I think that’s the hardest piece,” Morales said. “We’re a country that was built for the last 60 years on prioritizing cars. Everything about the way our society and our communities were built was for that. Trying to think about a public street as also meant for other people is a hard thing to do.
“But the reality is, it’s called a public right of way, it’s not called a car’s right of way,” Morales said. “Everybody should be able to be safe on a public street, and that’s a hard shift for a lot of people.”
Critical to that shift is City decision-makers listening to Communities of Color and wrestling with the fact that South Seattle, featuring some of the most diverse neighborhoods in the city, have a history of divestment or underinvestment in areas like sidewalks and bicycle lanes.
Dangerous by Design, a 2022 report by Smart Growth America, a nonprofit focusing on climate change and resilience, advancing racial equity, and creating healthy communities, found that pedestrian deaths nationally rose in 2020 and 2021, despite less driving.
It also found that the pandemic exacerbated existing disparities with older people and people in low-income neighborhoods being struck and killed at higher rates than other populations.
“Although everyone is affected by dangerous street design in some way, this burden is not shared equally. Despite other changes, the pandemic perpetuated existing disparities in who is being killed at the highest rates: Black and Native Americans,” the report said.
Ed Ewing, executive director of Bike Works in Columbia City, a “social justice minded organization that centers on racial equity,” said bicycle safety and pedestrian safety are deeply intertwined, and traffic fatalities and injuries for pedestrians and cyclists are greatest in areas that have the least biking infrastructure.
“(In) South Seattle you have the most fatalities, you have the most injuries, you have the most car accidents and then you have the least amount of bicycle infrastructure,” Ewing said. “There’s a direct correlation, and again that lines up with our intention of focusing on the South End because we know that there is a huge need for safety improvements.”
Local groups like Bike Works, Smash the Box, and Seattle Neighborhood Greenways have been reaching out to and meeting with SDOT officials to advocate for safe streets in South Seattle in light of historic racism and discrimination in governmental decision-making, Ewing said.
“There’s history. There is a tremendous history of divestment, of underinvestment in the South End and pretty much any city that has a Community of Color,” Ewing said. “Our goal is to really amplify and increase the awareness of those folks who are making those decisions. Here’s the cumulative effect of divestment in this area, here are the opportunities, and now that we know, let’s do something about it … But if there is reluctance and a desire to stay in the same place, then we have a problem. We have a problem.”
Designing and planning safe streets originally designed to move vehicle traffic as quickly as possible is difficult given the car-oriented design, said SDOT Project Development Division Director Jim Curtin, admitting there is a long way to go to achieve Vision Zero’s goals.
But where they’ve been able to implement a “safe systems approach,” Curtin said, they’ve seen encouraging results.
An example of that approach is the “rechanneling” of Rainier Avenue South, initially through Columbia City and Hillman City and currently south to Rainier Beach. What once was four lanes was reduced to a single lane traveling in each direction with a dedicated center turn lane.
Dedicated bus lanes between the sidewalk and the traffic lanes with hardened center lines were also added, and turn signals were reset to allow pedestrians a few seconds head start crossing the street before vehicles are given a green light to proceed.
Curtin, whose division includes the Vision Zero program, said that along the stretch of Rainier Avenue where the City has made improvements, there has been a 30% reduction in serious injury incidents and a 40% reduction in collisions involving pedestrians and cyclists.
“We’ve been emboldened by the positive results that we have seen in the areas where we’ve been able to intervene. We just, unfortunately, are fighting 100 years’ worth of car-oriented street designs throughout the City of Seattle and really throughout the country,” Curtin said. “We have a lot more work to do to redesign our streets so that they’re much more friendly for folks who are outside of vehicles: people who want to get to the bus, people who want to walk to school, people who want to bike to whatever their destination may be.”
Curtin said they are looking at additional changes not just to Rainier Avenue but streets like South Henderson that have a high concentration of schools, or streets around community gathering spaces, implementing measures to slow traffic and improve the pedestrian environment.
Curtin acknowledged the need to build better bike infrastructure in the South End and cited SDOT’s breaking ground on bike facilities leading to the Mount Baker Link light rail station. Improvements include protected bike lanes and pedestrian safety improvements such as shortening crossings and slowing traffic. Other projects include building out bike facilities on Beacon Hill over the next few years.
“It will take some time, but we are absolutely 100% in agreement that bike facilities need improvement out there, and our director, Greg Spotts, has made South End bike projects one of his top priorities moving forward. We have a lot of momentum from leadership,” Curtin said.
The video of Antonia Martinez-Ruiz and her children being struck crossing Rainier stung the SDOT staff who watched it.
“We saw the video, too, and there were tears in the eyes of the staff at SDOT as well,” Curtin said. “Nobody wants to see that; [it] brings chills just talking about it. We are absolutely 100% dedicated to bringing safety and a much higher level of safety to folks on the South End and everyone throughout the City of Seattle.
“We want to make sure that whatever we’re doing, we are thinking about the mother and her two children crossing the street there and ensure that they can do so without having to worry about what’s going to happen.”
Martinez-Ruiz still nurses pain on her side from the accident. After the accident, the family spent 10 hours at Harborview before they were released.
“I wish there were to be more safety for others,” she says to City officials. “I was not very worried about myself when the accident happened, but about my kids … I wish on no one what happened to me.”
Phil Manzano is a South Seattle writer, editor with more than 30 years of experience in daily journalism, and is the interim news editor for the Emerald.
📸 Featured Image: A screenshot from a video posted to Twitter by WestCoast SafetyVid moments before pedestrians were struck by a vehicle at Rainier Avenue and Graham Street South. (Image courtesy of WestCoast SafetyVid.)
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