By Erica C. Barnett
Last July, incoming Seattle Department of Transportation director Greg Spotts promised a “top-to-bottom review” of the city’s Vision Zero program—a set of strategies, adopted in 2015, that are supposed to eliminate traffic deaths and serious injuries by 2030. Six months later, that review—titled, rather unimaginatively, “SDOT Vision Zero Top to Bottom Review”—is here. The diagnosis: Seattle is doing lots of great stuff, but if it wants to do better, it needs to do even more of the same—but only to the extent that it can, given all the obstacles that are outside the city’s control.
The review, a 37-page report supplemented by a graphics-heavy 22-page “overview,” includes exactly 100 recommendations—a nice round number that suggests padding. And indeed, almost a quarter of the strategies the report suggests are things SDOT is already doing—for example, “[c]ontinue to clarify and measure desired outcomes of educational programs. Many others are vague to the point of abstraction. What does it mean, for example, for a road engineering department to “[b]e willing to reduce vehicle travel speeds and convenience to improve safety,” or to “[b]uild SDOT Senior Team capacity as ambassadors for Vision Zero”? It’s understandable that this review doesn’t include specific project recommendations for specific streets; what’s perplexing is how few of the recommendations involve quantifiable results: Improve how? Build capacity in what sense? Accelerate how much, and by when?
The overview that accompanies the report does is a bit more specific, highlighting five “momentum-building actions” for 2023. This year, the report says, SDOT should phase in more No Turn on Red signs in downtown Seattle “in time for tourist season and the MLB All-Star Game”; add more leading pedestrian intervals—crosswalk signs that switch to “walk” before cars start moving—”where existing signal systems can support” the change; continue working with Sound Transit to improve safety along light rail in Southeast Seattle; address equity concerns about automatic traffic cameras; and change the role and title of SDOT’s chief engineer to include a focus on safety.
All these goals are limited in scope, either explicitly (protecting downtown tourists but not the rest of the city) or by caveats; they also fail to incorporate measurable goals or milestones that might allow Seattle residents to determine, at the end of the year, whether SDOT did what it said it would do. How many new no-right-turn signs is “more”? Who decides how many pedestrianized intersections are possible, and where? How will we know if the city has addressed equity concerns and is ready to move on to installing cameras to stop people from speeding through school zones?
Lowering the speed limit to 25 mph is fairly meaningless if you design roads to function like highways—as anyone who has tried to cross the street on Rainier Ave. South, where traffic lights are frequently more than a quarter-mile apart, can attest.
The report also fails to address safety on the broadest level, emphasizing individual behavior over the systems that enable and encourage dangerous driving. This echoes Seattle’s previous reports on Vision Zero, including a June 2022 presentation that contains many of the same graphics and recommendations as the new “Top To Bottom Review.” The 2022 report, presented just before Spotts arrived in Seattle, was actually more explicit than the new report in calling out road design as a central issue in traffic deaths, but it also suggested drivers just need to act differently: “We need people driving to slow down,” it implored.
Careless driving does involve individual choice, but being a “safe driver” is much easier in a system that doesn’t encourage going 60 mph in a 25 mph zone. Lowering the speed limit to 25 mph, for that matter, is fairly meaningless if you design roads to function like highways—as anyone who has tried to cross the street on Rainier Ave. South, where traffic lights are frequently more than a quarter-mile apart, can attest.
To its credit, the report does note that traffic deaths happen most often on big, busy arterial roads, and acknowledges that crashes “often occur as a result of the way our transportation system has been designed.” However, it fails to recommend meaningful, immediate changes that might reverse bad past design decisions, such as narrowing streets and slowing down traffic to make collisions between cars and other road users less frequent and less deadly.
“One safety treatment is to analyze a street and see if reconfiguring lanes could improve safety and keep people and goods moving,” the report says, referring to the once-controversial idea of restriping roads to reduce the number of lanes. But the “safety treatment,” in reality, isn’t “analyzing” and “seeing if” highway-style city roads would benefit from conversion to slower streets; more than 12 years after the city’s first “road diet,” the concept is proven and does not need more study and analysis. We could just do it!
And even the recommendations that gesture at future changes to road design focus on the need to educate drivers on what they’ll lose, presenting a reduction in “convenience” (speed) as a negative result of greater safety. If SDOT is going to make roads safer, the report says, it has to let drivers know about the “expected impacts” to their “travel.” It also says that any changes to streets, such as restriping, must “maintain[…] transit and freight networks.” That could be a problem on dangerous arterials like Rainier Ave. S., which serves as a major transit and freight corridor (and is one of the most deadly streets in the city.) Pitting “convenience” against safety is also a false choice; there’s nothing convenient about shutting down a road because another driver has struck and killed another pedestrian.
Besides focusing on driver behavior, the review often uses old data to reach conclusions that may be less applicable in a post-lockdown world. For example, the report concludes that reducing speed limits on arterial streets to 25 mph is a Vision Zero success story, using data from 2018 and 2019 data to show that “lowering speed limits and increasing sign density alone—without any marketing campaigns, additional enforcement, re-timed signals, or engineering changes to the street—resulted in lower speeds and fewer crashes.” But that date all comes from before the pandemic, when fatalities spiked nationwide as people drove faster on emptier streets, disregarding speed limits and driving impaired more frequently.
City Councilmember Tammy Morales represents Southeast Seattle, where roughly half the traffic deaths in the city occur. Last week, she expressed dismay that the city’s Vision Zero report failed to call for “dramatic or swift action to combat the unprecedented number of collisions, injuries, and fatalities on our streets, particularly in District 2. Changing signal timing and adding leading pedestrian intervals will not change the geometry of our streets, and as a result, will likely not change the behavior of users on these dangerous stretches of roadway. These actions are a start, but we need to fundamentally change our streets to address this crisis.”
The Vision Zero Top To Bottom Review indicates that, at an unspecified point in the future, the department will be releasing a formal Vision Zero Action Plan to implement concrete steps to reduce traffic deaths and injuries. For those impacted directly or indirectly by traffic violence, the time for action was years ago.