Seattle's One of the Safest Cities for Pedestrians. But are We Doing Enough?

Critics say the city isn't acting quick enough to prevent pedestrian deaths.
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SDOT calls Rainier Avenue South "Seattle's most dangerous street."

Two years after Seattle launched Vision Zero—an audacious plan to calm traffic, prioritize pedestrians, and reengineer city streets with the goal of zero pedestrian deaths by 2030—Seattle is safer for pedestrians than virtually any other U.S. city. It even stacks up well against Sweden, which is widely regarded as having the world’s safest roads.

But some advocates say we could do better, pointing out that so far this year Seattle’s pedestrian death toll is moving in the wrong direction. In the first five months of 2017, three pedestrians have died in traffic collisions, and seven people have died in traffic overall—two more than the average for the previous three years.

“I think there is a lack of urgency,” says Janine Blaeloch, founder of Lake City Greenways and a member of the city’s Pedestrian Advisory Board. “It seems like the city has sort of given up. From my experience as a pedestrian, I don’t feel like I’m living in Sweden. I feel like I’m taking my life in my hands when I’m crossing the street.”

Defining “Seattle’s most dangerous street” is tricky business. But the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) uses the term generically to describe Rainier Avenue South, where a dozen people have been struck and killed over the last decade, and until recently there was an average of one collision a day. In 2015, SDOT found that the typical driver drove between 7 and 9 miles an hour over the 30 mph speed limit, and more than 12 percent of northbound traffic exceeded the limit by at least 10 miles per hour. That year, SDOT announced plans to calm Rainier traffic by removing one lane in each direction, adding crosswalks and other pedestrian improvements, and lowering the speed limit to 25 mph—which later became the default speed limit on arterial streets throughout the city.

The two other most “crash-prone” streets for pedestrians, according to SDOT, include 35th Avenue Southwest and Southwest Roxbury Street, both in West Seattle. Pedestrian advocates would add to that list the intersection of Northeast 65th Street and Roosevelt Way Northeast, where two pedestrians have been killed by cars in the past year alone. “65th is not happening as fast as people would like,” Blaeloch says. “It’s a real challenge to get the city [to] speed up some of the investments on the streets that we know are unsafe by design. We’re not even studying safety improvements on those streets for three or four years, and then it takes two or four more years” to fix them.

SDOT director Scott Kubly counters that the agency has started implementing some low-cost pedestrian safety measures where it knows pedestrian safety is an issue. But if the agency only acts in response to accidents, they’ll end up “chasing crashes” instead of predicting them.

“One of the things that’s tough with pedestrian collisions is to identify spots that are high-risk, because the numbers are so small and there’s thousands of miles of roadway,” Kubly says. “We’re trying to do a better job of being predictive about what type of streets we see crashes on, and piloting some technologies in the future that are going to help us evaluate near-misses as a way to determine where we’re making safety investments.”

Skeptics of this study-first, implement-later approach say there’s plenty of data to justify lowering speed limits to 25 miles per hour throughout the city. At a meeting earlier this month, City Councilmember Rob Johnson questioned why the city doesn’t even plan to analyze safety issues on the northern portion of Rainier Avenue South—where there are few crossings and drivers frequently exceed the 30 mph speed limit—until 2021. “We know folks are going to lose their lives on that corridor in the next four years, before we have even completed the evaluation,” Johnson said. Why not lower the speed limit now, before that happens?”

“Our challenge is that if we go into a place like Rainier and we just change out the signs, we usually see almost no effect,” SDOT project development division director Darby Watson responded. “They just ignore the signs.”

Seattle Neighborhood Greenways director Gordon Padelford says Vision Zero should be more than just aspirational. “No one would say, ‘We can have five deaths a year from our water system,’” he argues. “We expect to have all these other government systems that are completely safe.” Why should Seattle’s roads and sidewalks be any different?

“Seattle really is so close to being a completely safe city,” Padelford says. “Maybe we can be the first ones to get there.”

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