In February 2015, Seattle launched Vision Zero—an audacious plan to calm traffic, prioritize pedestrians, and reengineer city streets so that by 2030, the number of pedestrians killed or seriously injured in traffic crashes will be zero.
More than two years later, Seattle is closer to that goal than other US cities—literally all of them. Seattle transportation officials tout the fact that our rate of pedestrian fatalities, per capita, is lower than in Boston and Portland and is just a hair behind Sweden—the result, Seattle Department of Transportation director Scott Kubly says, of “decades of investing in neighborhood infrastructure,” like traffic circles, bike lanes, and road diets.
But some advocates point, instead, to the fact that pedestrian deaths have been inching upward; so far this year, 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. With just 13 years to go until 2030, they argue that Seattle should—and could—be doing better.
Two weeks ago, as the city council’s transportation committee prepared to adopt a new Pedestrian Master Plan (the document that prioritizes pedestrian projects for city spending), pedestrian advocates lined up in council chambers to register their disappointment that the plan didn’t come with more funding for basics like sidewalks, marked and signaled crosswalks, and other traffic calming measures. (The committee also got a Vision Zero update from SDOT, which attributed the rise in traffic collisions to distracted driving and an uptick in vehicle miles traveled, a measure of how much people are driving.)
“Many of who do a lot of walking really feel like it’s not our city, and it doesn’t welcome us, and it really does not care about our safety and dignity,” Janine Blaeloch, the founder of Lake City Greenways and a member of the city’s Pedestrian Advisory Board, told the council.
“I think there is a lack of urgency,” Blaeloch said after the meeting. “The Pedestrian Master Plan talks about making Seattle the most walkable city in the nation, but there’s so little imagination or vision. 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.”
Kubly says he understands why an advocate like Blaeloch are frustrated—“any fatality over zero is one too many”—but he points to investments the city has already made on corridors like Rainier Ave. S, where the city has reduced the number of car lanes and lowered speeds to slow traffic, and NE 65th Street and Roosevelt near Roosevelt High School, where two pedestrian deaths this year have fast-tracked plans to make the 65th Street corridor safer. (One of those pedestrians was crossing with the light; the other, against it.)
SDOT, as I’ve reported, has already started implementing some low-cost pedestrian-safety fixes in crash-prone locations—like “walk” signs that give pedestrians extra time to enter an crosswalk at the beginning of a light cycle, making them more visible to turning cars—and has plans in place to use modeling to identify dangerous intersections before accidents occur.
“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. “If you’re not being strategic and using data to drive investments, you end up chasing crashes” after they’ve already happened.
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 the meeting earlier this month, council member Rob Johnson questioned why the city doesn’t even plan to analyze safety issues on the northern portion of Rainier Avenue S, where there are few crossings and drivers frequently travel well above the 30mph 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.”
SDOT senior transportation planner Jim Curtin says the city plans to make major design changes on Rainier anyway, and doesn’t want to futz with the speed limits before that happens. (The same goes for streets like 65th, where the city is considering a long menu of traffic-calming options). “There’s a whole bunch of places in the city where, if we just drop the speed limit, drivers will go as fast as they feel comfortable with, based on the geometry of the street, Curtin says. In other words, if drivers can round a corner going 35 miles an hour, it’s safe to assume that they will round the corner at that speed, and the real solution is not just to lower the speed limit but to engineer the road so that even if a pedestrian wanders out into traffic, drivers will be going slow enough to stop before striking her.
Blaeloch, the pedestrian board member, says there’s an easy way to make sure people don’t ignore the signs—send cops out to catch them. “How about if you put the signs up and enforce the speed limit? You could do that next week,” she says. “But that just didn’t seem to be in [SDOT’s] tool box.
“It’s easy for them to say ‘We’re engineers; we know who this stuff works,” Blaeloch adds. “Well, I’m a pedestrian. I know how this stuff works too.”
Council member Johnson, along with his colleague Mike O’Brien, want SDOT to accelerate the Pedestrian Master plan and prioritize projects on a list that could, depending on whether you believe the optimistic estimate from Seattle Greenways or the pessimistic estimate from the pedestrian advocacy group Feet First, take between 200 and 300 years to implement in its entirety.
“Are we making progress? I can point to policy decisions and say, ‘That’s progress,’ but if you look at the outcomes and the data, it appears that we’re losing ground,” O’Brien says.
Johnson adds: “I’m all for more study and more analysis, but I’m also for bold action, and this feels like one of those times when we need to listen to the community.”
Seattle Greenways staffer Gordon Padelford, one of the community members who spoke at the transportation committee earlier this month, says Vision Zero should be more than just aspirational. “No one would say, ‘We can have five deaths a year from our water system.’ 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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