Rosa Lopez, of Reconnect South Park, speaks at the Mobility Justice event at Centilia Cultural Center from behind a podium and next to a projector screen that reads "Reconnect South Park"

Activists Call For Structural Changes to Create Safer Streets in the South End

by Alison Smith

On a balmy night in late July, the Centilia Cultural Center was packed for Mobility Justice, a live panel hosted by Seattle Neighborhood Greenways. As audience members munched on pita bread, presenters called for radically transforming Seattle’s streets to be safer for pedestrians, cyclists, and drivers alike.

The night kicked off with a sobering presentation from Whose Streets? Our Streets! (WSOS), a BIPOC workshop formed in 2020 as an offshoot of Seattle Neighborhood Greenways. WSOS staffer Ethan Campbell put up a photo of Rainier Avenue South, asking, “What speed would you drive on this road?” Without fail, responses were well above the actual speed limit of 25 miles per hour. But when Ethan showed a mock-up of Rainier with a center median creating narrower lanes and asked, “What about this road?” This time, the answers were far lower. His point: Design dictates how people will drive.

When confronted with speeding on Rainier, a natural response is to call for traffic cameras, and WSOS readily acknowledges that cameras change drivers’ behavior. Most traffic cameras are located in poorer neighborhoods with more People of Color and immigrants, according to a Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) presentation. But WSOS favors structural solutions that don’t punish individuals. WSOS considers fines an “unjust tax on the poor” and argues that their contribution to the City budget makes us dependent on speeders. As Campbell asked, “Why not speed bumps before cameras?”

Annie Johnson, an avid cyclist who lives in Columbia City, recalls a number of cars crashing into buildings on Rainier, including a hair salon. The City has since lowered the speed limit, but “no one drives the speed limit on Rainier. Or if you do, you’re gonna get honked at, tailgated, [and] passed in the bus lane.” To prevent passing in both the center turn lane and the bus lane, she suggests center medians, which already exist on some stretches of Rainier.

Recently, SDOT added curb bulbs, which make crosswalks more prominent, shorter, and faster to cross, and leading pedestrian intervals, which allow pedestrians to cross before the light turns green for drivers. But Johnson pointed out a flaw: “There’s a lot of red light runners. I find when I’m crossing Rainier there, I really have to pause for a second once the walk sign comes on, because there very well might be someone running that light.” 

SDOT is currently extending the bus lane on Rainier, but there are no plans to add a bike lane. According to an SDOT representative, the agency considered adding bike lanes to Rainier Avenue South in 2017 as part of Phase 3 of the Vision Zero project, but it found community input favored improving crosswalks and more frequent and reliable public transit. 

It’s not uncommon to see people cycling on the sidewalk on Rainier, a telltale sign that it’s unsafe to do so on the road. As Annie Johnson points out, the Rainier Valley Neighborhood Greenway is “great,” but it takes you away from Rainier, with its library, supermarket, and bustling businesses. It’s also not a direct route to downtown, and it doesn’t tie into the I-90 trail.

The Fight to Urbanize Industrial Seattle

Next up was a presentation from former City Councilmember and current Legislative Director for the ACLU of Washington Lorena Gonzalez, about reforming non-safety-related traffic laws around registration and broken taillights to be less punitive.

Audience members then heard from Reconnect South Park organizer Rosa Lopez. As she sees it, State Route 99 is like a scar running through the neighborhood, severing it in two. After Interstate 5 was built in the 1960s, the road was reduced to a state route, yet its impacts linger. An elevated bridge connects the two sides of the neighborhood, but Lopez characterizes it as unlit and generally uninviting.

Reconnect South Park’s long-term vision is to remove the highway altogether, mending the neighborhood and making space for green space and community-gathering areas. While the idea may sound far-fetched, there’s actually growing momentum behind “urban highway renewal.” Reconnect South Park was one of just 45 organizations to receive a grant from the federal government as part of the Connecting Communities Pilot Program.

Additionally, industrial Seattle can be dangerous for walking or biking. Amy Kate Horn, who works in diversity marketing at Amazon, documents her bicycling adventures on Instagram (most recently, the Seattle to Portland ride). She moved to Georgetown five years ago from Capitol Hill, where she walked everywhere. It was a rude awakening.

“It’s extremely challenging because of freight, railroad tracks, poor condition of the roads,” she said. “The sidewalks are intermittent. So some blocks and streets have nice sidewalks that are actually pretty great for biking, and then they’ll just end. People can’t believe that I bike in Georgetown, but I do.”

Every day, she bikes to South Lake Union for work, passing through the danger zone that is SoDo. Horn takes the sidewalks where she can, since there’s hardly anyone walking on them, until she can link up with the haven of protected bike lanes downtown. Horn cites the multiple cyclists killed in SoDo in the past few years.

“SoDo is actually the scariest place, I think, in the entire city for cycling,” Horn said. “Because not only are the roads bad, but you have heavy freight, commuters, and these really wide right-of-ways. So there is room to ride in the street, but nobody’s expecting you to be there because there’s no bicycle infrastructure, no stripes and no arrows and no signage.”

SDOT recently released its 60% plan for a Georgetown to Downtown partially protected bike lane linking Airport Way South to the existing SoDo bike trail, with construction set to begin in 2024. A future Georgetown to South Park Connection is planned, too. For Horn and others, though, the plans are insufficient and disappointing. As SDOT acknowledges, the route traverses the freight-heavy, poorly lit thoroughfare of 6th Avenue South, rather than the safer locations at 1st Avenue South or 4th Avenue South. 

Said Horn, “It’s totally ridiculous to call it ‘Georgetown to Downtown’ because it’s actually the north tip of Georgetown — really SoDo — to Royal Brougham, which is where the problem begins. Around the stadiums and into downtown, it’s super scary. And they’re not solving that at all.”

For SDOT, which receives funding for one leg of a project at a time, the incentive is to build what it can now. Horn continued, “They’re building it in piecemeal, and not really thinking about if the continuous route, once it’s done, is going to make any sense. Because if it’s not direct and it’s not discoverable, people aren’t going to use it.” 

That said, those who love to bike will likely keep doing it. Horn cites cycling

organizations in the neighborhood, like Bike Works, a bike shop that also hosts rides, camps, and the BikeMobile; Dead Baby Downhill, a carnival-style annual race; and Cyclefab, a custom repair shop known for its imaginative designs.

Georgetown’s transition to a vibrant, mixed-use neighborhood has come with growing pains. One solution is “smart parking” for freight vehicles, which the Washington State Transportation Center (TRAC) is currently exploring. Yinhai Wang, the director of TRAC, says trucks’ search for parking contributes to congestion, pollution, and fatigue driving. Confusion around parking then leads to trucks (and other vehicles) blocking pedestrian and bike pathways, as documented by the Twitter account Cars in Bike Lanes Seattle. The Washington State Patrol even organized a task force to address this parking issue because it’s been such a point of friction.

Wang’s current project uses sensors located at the entrance and exit of truck parking lots to detect the flow of vehicles, then predict the future availability of parking using artificial intelligence. After a successful pilot program, Wang’s team received funding from the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. The long-term goal is to create an app covering the majority of parking lots. With this, SDOT could change parking rates to encourage trucks to park at off hours, when fewer pedestrians and cyclists are around.

“The benefit of the project is more than just congestion mitigation,” Wang explained. “It’s also safety — safety for the truck driver, and safety for other road users.”

Wins for Cycling Advocates in Beacon Hill

Right outside the Centilia Cultural Center’s doors, Beacon Hill residents like Jimmie Willis have also been pushing back against an “auto-centric mindset.” Willis teaches at a middle school in the area and is active with Beacon Hill Safe Streets (BHSS). “It’s really frustrating, because Beacon Avene, for good or for bad, it’s changing quite a bit,” he stated. “There’s tons of businesses trying to come in there. It’s really pedestrian and family-friendly. Right now, it feels like a highway going right through the heart of our neighborhood. I just wish people could reimagine that.”

In 2019, recognizing residents’ safety concerns, SDOT began planning a bike lane along stretches of 15th Avenue South and Beacon Avenue South to connect to existing bike lanes near the neighborhood. In July, the project reached the 60% design milestone. As Willis describes it, the project has been mired in the “Seattle process” of endless community meetings with the same people airing the same complaints. In addition to the perennial issue of parking, the project has been dogged with debates over such issues as a two-way bike path versus a one-way bike path on each side of the road. Some businesses are taking sides based on whether the two-way path would be on their side of the road. 

Recently, SDOT delivered key action items, like curb bulbs and “speed humps,” which drivers seem to be treating more like acceleration ramps, as Charles Mudede commented in The Stranger.

Still, BHSS is celebrating the better-implemented safety measures, and Willis senses that more Seattleites are calling out unsafe conditions. “How do we transform our streets, so that when I am driving, I’m as safe as possible, and the people around me are as safe as possible?” He continued, “I think the way that we win people over is to blame the City, and say this isn’t working for anyone. So let’s force the City to make it better for all of us.”

Such was the rallying cry of Mobility Justice: to stop the delays and treat street safety with the urgency it deserves. These three presentations suggest that, rather than raging against speeding and illegal parking, the City should design our streets so that such behavior is rare in the first place.

Alison Jean Smith is a programming intern at Northwest Film Forum, a member of the TeenTix Alumni Advisory Board, and a contributor to REDEFINE, an online magazine where she interviews both emerging and established filmmakers. She has also had her writing published in The Stranger and on the doubleXposure podcast website. She is currently studying communication at the University of Washington.

📸 Featured Image: Rosa Lopez, of Reconnect South Park, speaks at the Mobility Justice event at Centilia Cultural Center about the group’s long-term effort to unify the community by replacing SR 99 with green space and community gathering areas. (Photo courtesy of Seattle Neighborhood Greenways.)

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