Tag: vision zero

Anti-Election Reform Campaign Emerges, Next Year’s Election Starts Shaping Up, New SDOT Director Says He’ll Take Vision Zero Down to the Studs

Map of fatal and serious crashes in Seattle from June 2022 SDOT presentation.
Map of fatal and serious crashes in Seattle from June 2022 SDOT presentation.

1. Next year, all seven district-based city council positions will be on the ballot, and several names have already begun to circulate as potential contenders.

In District 1 (West Seattle), Meta (and former Microsoft) attorney Rob Saka, who served on the King County Council redistricting committee, is reportedly considering a bid against incumbent Lisa Herbold if she runs again next year.

Saka told PubliCola he hasn’t decided yet whether he will run, but confirmed he has met with Harrell as well as “fellow daycare and public school parents, early childhood education providers, leaders in the Black community I used to work with when I served on the boards of the Urban League and the Loren Miller Bar Association (civil rights organization of Black lawyers in Washington State), through my work in policing and legal reforms, and with current and former elected leaders throughout the region.

“I have nothing to announce or confirm, and I remain 100% focused on current obligations — from my legal practice in a new role in my ‘day job’ to the Police Chief search, to helping my kids get back to school,” Saka continued. “That said, I am grateful for the initial discussions—and strong encouragement—from so many as I think about potential longer term next steps in my career and public service.”

In District 2, Tammy Morales (who filled Harrell’s council position when he declined to run for reelection in 2019) could see a challenge from community advocate Chukundi Salisbury, who ran for state representative in the 37th District and was defeated by Kirsten Harris-Talley in 2020; Salisbury did not return an email seeking comment.

In District 3 (Central Seattle), represented since 2015 by socialist Kshama Sawant, cannabis entrepreneur and Jackson Place Community Council leader Alex Cooley told PubliCola he’s “strongly considering” a run against Sawant, who he says has “never been interested in so the problems of the district or the city.” Cooley owns the SoDo-based company Solstice, which grows and processes cannabis that’s sold in stores across the region; he said that it’s “kind of a neighborhood joke [in the district] that you will never hear back from Councilmember Sawant.”

“The city has been on a pretty long decline for at least the past five years—really about 10—and I don’t see Councilmember Sawant solving the problems that the city’s dealing with, [and] is actually part of that decline and lack of progress,” Cooley said.

As a business owner in SoDo, Cooley said he’s seen his share of half-implemented solutions to the problem of homelessness, which in industrial areas often means people living in RVs. Seattle has “fits and starts of good ideas” but fails to commit to them, Cooley said. “We  tried to do the experiment of an RV safe lot, which I’m a huge proponent of, but no one managed it, no one ran it, and so it evolved into chaos.”

Cooley said he’ll take the next few months to make a decision before filing for council races starts in January. Including her first citywide race in 2013, Sawant has won three elections by increasingly narrow margins; she narrowly beat back a recall effort last year.

This item has been corrected to reflect the fact that Chukundi Salisbury lives in District 2, not District 3, and updated with comments from Rob Saka.

2. In November, voters will get to decide whether and how to replace the city’s current first-past-the-post primary elections by saying yes to ranked choice voting or approval voting or no to both. Ranked-choice voting gives voters the option to rank candidates in order of preference, while approval voting allows voters to “approve” as many candidates that they like, with the top two candidates moving forward to the general election.

Advocates for both proposals say their system would result in elected officials who better represent the views and interests of voters, by allowing them to choose a whole slate of acceptable candidates instead of betting their entire vote on a single person. Advocates for the status quo say the alternatives are confusing and open the system to new forms of gamemanship.

Now, a group of business owners, organized as Seattle for Election Simplicity, has formed to make the case for the status quo. Campaign filings show the group has raised around $35,000 in contributions, all of it (so far) from people who represent business and banking interests in and around Seattle. Among the contributors are HomeStreet Bank and its CEO, Mark Mason ($5,000 total), Costco co-founder and former CEO Jim Sinegal ($5,000), telecom billionaire and Mariners co-owner John Stanton ($5,000), developer Jon Runstad ($5,000), Space Needle chairman Jeffrey Wright ($5,000), and former Starbucks president Howard Behar ($2,500).

So far, almost half of the contributions to Seattle for Election Simplicity, over $15,000, come from outside Seattle. This actually compares favorably to Seattle Approves, which has obtained 87 percent of its almost $500,000 in contributions from outside city limits. The campaign for ranked-choice voting has only reported one contribution so far.

Spotts said he would start work on Vision Zero by doing a detailed assessment of which “interventions” (a category that might include protected and unprotected bike lanes, bus bulbs, road diets, and pedestrian-first stop lights) are working to reduce casualties and which ones aren’t. “We know we have some corridors that are very vehicular-oriented,” Spotts said.

3. The city council’s transportation committee unanimously recommended approving Mayor Bruce Harrell’s nominee to direct the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) on Tuesday, after a brief volley of questions focusing on issues like pedestrian safety and tree canopy in South Seattle, bridge maintenance, and Seattle’s lack of progress on Vision Zero, a plan to end all traffic deaths and serious injuries by 2030.

Spotts said he would start work on Vision Zero by doing a detailed assessment of which “interventions” (a category that might include protected and unprotected bike lanes, bus bulbs, road diets, and pedestrian-first stop lights) are working to reduce casualties and which ones aren’t. “We know we have some corridors that are very vehicular-oriented,” Spotts said.

Later, after District 2 Councilmember Tammy Morales noted that 56 percent of traffic fatalities happened in Southeast Seattle, Spotts added, “I want to spend some more time out on Rainier. I did do some walking and there are places where there’s a very wide crossing distance to get across unsignalized freeway on-ramps and off-ramps, which is a scary thing to get across.”

The safety problems with areas like Aurora Ave. N and Rainier Ave. S have been well-documented for decades (hell, I’ve been covering them myself since at least 2006), and the solutions that will work to address them are no mystery, either: When the city narrowed a portion of Rainier that runs through now-chichi Columbia City, people stopped driving their cars into businesses and there were fewer traffic collisions, because people could no longer drive at freeway speeds through the neighborhood.

North of Columbia City, where Seattle has continued to do almost nothing to slow traffic or provide opportunities for pedestrian to cross the street safely, the crashes, injuries, and deaths continued. Notably, the city has made almost no major changes to calm traffic along the speed-inducing corridor since approving the “road diet” (after almost a decade of opposition, including from then-council member Harrell) in 2015. Cutesy signs, “empowering” billboards, and slightly lower speed limits won’t cut it; more stoplights, signaled crosswalks, and a narrower travel path for people in cars can and will.

LA Transportation Veteran Tapped to Lead SDOT Says He’ll Do “Top to Bottom Review” of Vision Zero Efforts

By Erica C. Barnett

Standing in the 85-degree heat at Roberto Maestas Plaza across the street from the Beacon Hill light rail station on Wednesday, Mayor Bruce Harrell announced his appointment of Greg Spotts, the sustainability director for Los Angeles’ street services bureau, as the new head of the Seattle Department of Transportations. A veteran of the LA department, recently rebranded StreetsLA, Spotts advocated for the installation of solar reflective coating on pavement, street trees, and shade structures to combat the urban heat island effect, in which pavement and buildings increase temperatures in urban areas.

Each of the past four elected mayors (not counting Tim Burgess, who served temporarily after Ed Murray’s 2017 ouster) has appointed their own transportation director, although each mayor has had varying levels of interest in the department. The last transportation director, Sam Zimbabwe, oversaw the closure and repair of the West Seattle Bridge as well as the transfer of about 100 parking enforcement officers and supervisors from the Seattle Police Department into SDOT.

As head of SDOT, Spotts will be responsible for crafting the new Seattle Transportation Plan, overseeing the renewal of the Move Seattle Levy, and addressing the city’s failure to achieve the goals of Vision Zero, a plan for eliminating traffic deaths and serious injuries by 2030.

“I’ve heard loud and clear from stakeholders that there’s a need to do a top to bottom review of Vision Zero and really try to dig into the data and figure out which of our interventions are saving lives, using data to identify the path to make our streets safer.”—SDOT director nominee Greg Spotts

Since 2015, when the city adopted this goal, more than 175 people have been killed by vehicle collisions and more than 1,200 have been seriously injured, a trend that accelerated in the last several years and is by far the worst in Southeast Seattle, which encompasses many of the city’s most diverse neighborhoods as well as some of its most dangerous arterial streets.

Asked Wednesday what he would do to get Seattle’s Vision Zero plan back on track, Stotts said, “I’ve heard loud and clear from stakeholders that there’s a need to do a top to bottom review of Vision Zero and really try to dig into the data and figure out which of our interventions are saving lives or offer the best chance of saving lives, on a go-forward basis, using data to identify the path to make our streets safer.”

PubliCola also asked Stotts about the proliferation of “eco-blocks”—huge, heavy blocks made out of waste material from concrete production—in areas where the city has swept RVs, vehicles, and tents. As PublICola first reported a year ago, it is illegal to place these blocks in the public right-of-way, but SDOT, which answers to the mayor, has not enforced the law.

Stotts said there’s a similar thing happening in LA, where an estimated 48,000 people are living unsheltered and businesses have been placing boulders in the street to prevent unsheltered people from occupying public spaces. However, he said LA has only removed these obstructions on occasion, and added that he has no plan “yet” to respond to their proliferation here.

“Our administration is being praised for the work to get people out of this heat wave and into the cooling centers, and getting them treatment and housing—that’s what we’re doing.”—Mayor Bruce Harrell, on removing encampments and RVs during this week’s heat wave

“There are occasions where we remove some of those obstacles from the public right of way, on a case by case basis,” Stotts said, “so I’ll  bring some of those experiences to complex discussions about how to handle it” in Seattle.

As the temperatures rose into the high 80s during the press conference, Harrell was asked about his decision to continue removing encampments and RV sites—impounding at least seven vehicles on Tuesday, according to SDOT—in the middle of a historic heat wave.

“Our administration is being praised for the work to get people out of this heat wave and into the cooling centers, and getting them treatment and housing—that’s what we’re doing,” Harrell said. “For me, doing nothing is the wrong thing to do. … And so we are aggressively finding housing and housing alternatives and getting people into cooling centers. I take ownership for what we’re doing, and I’m pretty proud of the work we’re doing, and quite frankly, a day doesn’t go by without people saying ‘thank you.'”

According to the mayor’s office, 20 people out of the dozens living at a longstanding RV encampment in SoDo accepted offers of shelter, which is not housing and does not include “treatment,” which itself is not something unsheltered people automatically want or need.

Advocates, Council Members Say Urgency Lacking on Vision Zero

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.”

If you enjoy the work I do here at The C Is for Crank, please consider becoming a sustaining supporter of the site! For just $5, $10, or $20 a month (or whatever you can give), you can help keep this site going, and help me continue to dedicate the many hours it takes to bring you stories like this one every week. This site is funded entirely by contributions from readers, which pay for the substantial time I put into reporting and writing for this blog and on social media, as well as costs like transportation, equipment, travel costs, website maintenance, and other expenses associated with my reporting. Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support!

Morning Crank: In a Timely Manner

vision-zero-seattle

1. In yesterday’s Morning Crank, I reported that the city lacks some basic information that would help it evaluate its progress on “Vision Zero”—the Seattle Department of Transportation’s plan to eliminate serious injuries and deaths due to traffic collisions by 2030. The city’s annual traffic report, which includes detailed information on traffic injuries and death, hasn’t been updated since 2015. That means the most recent stats on cyclist and pedestrian injuries and deaths available to the public date back to 2014—before many of the policies in Vision Zero were even implemented.

Yesterday, SDOT responded to my request for some basic facts about the people killed or injured by traffic incidents in the past two years, including specific information about pedestrian and cyclist injuries and deaths. The numbers suggest that while Seattle is still much safer for pedestrians and cyclists than most other big cities, we’ve made only minimal progress toward reducing the number of people killed or injured in traffic, and that bicyclist and pedestrian deaths have stayed stable or inched up since the most recent traffic report.

According to the information provided by SDOT, there were 212 collisions that resulted in serious injuries or death in 2015 and 206 in 2016, compared to 186 in 2014.  Seven people walking and one cyclist were killed in crashes in 2015; in 2016, those numbers were six and three, respectively. Both years represent an increase over 2014, when six pedestrians and one cyclist were killed by vehicles.

These numbers would seem to confirm the concerns council member Mike O’Brien raised last month, when he noted that Seattle should be “a city where, whether you’re walking to work or biking to go to the park or walking across the street to get groceries or go get a cup of coffee, that’s not an act of bravery but an act of daily living.” In a conversation Monday, O’Brien expressed frustration with the slow drip of traffic information from SDOT; two pedestrians who were killed by drivers in January, he noted, won’t even show up in SDOT’s numbers for another two years.

At a briefing on Vision Zero yesterday, SDOT staffer Darby Watson told the council’s transportation committee that the reason it takes so long for SDOT to release its annual traffic report is that the stats come from the Seattle Police Department’s Traffic Collision Investigation Squad, which “write[s] up a very detailed report that tells us everything about [each] collision. … And there’s a limited number of people that they’re willing to share it with, so it’s sometimes difficult to get those reports in a timely manner.” O’Brien responded, “I’m sure the police department has very good reasons for the thoroughness of their data,” but asked Watson to come back with recommendations for getting basic collision statistics to the city in a more timely manner.

2. A bill in the state legislature that would bar Seattle and King County from opening several planned supervised drug-consumption sites (rebranded last year as Community Health Engagement Locations, or CHELs) appears to be dead. The bill, sponsored by Federal Way Republican Mark Miloscia, came in response to a county opiate addiction task force recommendation for two safe-consumption sites, one in Seattle and one elsewhere in King County.

3. One of the democratizing things about the move to electronic records among state and local government agencies is that reporters and citizens no longer have to pay photocopying charges to access public records. (Another benefit is that electronic records don’t kill trees). Electronic copies are generally available for free or at a nominal charge, making information accessible to those of us without company credit cards or expense account.

But two bills in the state legislature, which passed out of the House on Friday and are now in the Senate’s state government committee, would increase the cost of electronic records and put information off-limits for those who can’t afford to pay the new charges. The proposed legislation would allow agencies such as the Seattle Police Department to charge up to ten cents per minute for audio and video files, and would allow “customized service charges” for “exceptionally large requests” that require extra staff time or expertise. Electronic scans would cost up to 10 cents a page, which is comparable to what many agencies currently charge for paper records.

The bills also gives agencies the power to deny requests from bots designed to file multiple requests per day, and would allow agencies to force requesters into potentially costly mediation to settle disputes over requests.

4. Mayor Ed Murray plans to reveal the details of his $55 million ballot measure for homelessness services and housing today at 1pm. Supporters plan to qualify the measure for the ballot by gathering signatures, rather than submitting the proposal to the city council, which would almost certainly tinker with the proposal.

If you enjoy the work I do here at The C Is for Crank, please consider becoming a sustaining supporter of the site! For just $5, $10, or $20 a month (or whatever you can give), you can help keep this site going, and help me continue to dedicate the many hours it takes to bring you stories like this one every week. This site is funded entirely by contributions from readers, which pay for the substantial time I put into reporting and writing for this blog and on social media, as well as costs like transportation, equipment, travel costs, website maintenance, and other expenses associated with my reporting. Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support.

Morning Crank: Not an Act of Bravery

mike-o-brien-feb-10

1. City council member Rob Johnson caught flak last week from anti-density activists like John Fox, of the Seattle Displacement Coalition, after questioning self-identified liberals who say they welcome immigrants and refugees and oppose zoning changes that would create more housing. Speaking at a forum sponsored by the Transportation Choices Coalition, which Johnson directed prior to his election in 2015, Johnson said, “[I]t’s really disturbing for me when I hear … somebody talking about how glad they were to see the neighborhood district councils stand up for single-family zoning and then, in the next breath, disparage the president for wanting to build a wall between the US and Mexico. I see those two things as actually linked.”

Fox, along with fellow activist Carolee Coulter, wrote that Johnson’s comments were “intensely insulting and polarizing, not to mention wrong. He should be ashamed of himself.” Fox and Coulter compared Johnson to Trump; others who emailed me or made comments on my original post have complained that Johnson is comparing them to Trump supporters, the kind of people who chant “Build the wall!” at his Nuremberg-style election rallies. One Johnson constituent who wrote me called his comments “outrageously inflammatory and insulting”; another called it “a divisive and totally clumsy comparison coming from a white man of considerable privilege.”

I called Johnson Friday to see if he wanted to elaborate or clarify what he said last week. Speaking from a crowded bus on his way home to Northeast Seattle, Johnson doubled down. “We are a city that wants to welcome people of all races, all different economic statuses, and all different immigration statuses,” Johnson said. “If we’re truly going to be welcoming to all those different folks, we need to create more housing.”

Does he regret using the metaphor of Trump’s border wall? Not at all: “When we talk about zoning, we need to recognize that zoning is a metaphorical wall around communities. We need to talk about that. We also need to make sure that we understand the ramifications of the decisions that we make—when we choose to either rezone areas or not rezone areas, both of those decisions have real impacts.”

2. The Seattle Department of Transportation came to week’s transportation committee meeting armed with charts and stats showing that the city has made huge strides toward increasing the number of people who bike, walk, and take the bus to jobs downtown; a report from Commute Seattle last week showed that while the city added 45,000 jobs downtown, the number of car trips only increased by about 2,400 per day.

But SDOT staffers were confronted, first, by a disturbing litany of pedestrian injuries and deaths from Johnson and committee chair Mike O’Brien, who noted that even as the city has reduced the number of people who drive to work alone, it has not made similar strides toward eliminating pedestrian fatalities and serious injuries. In the past five weeks, O’Brien noted, six pedestrians have been seriously injured or killed by drivers. If that many people had been killed in the same period by gunshots, O’Brien said, “we would be convening task forces and committees to figure out what we need to do. And yet somehow, when it’s folks walking across the street or biking between jobs, it gets kind of buried in the news and we just go on about life.”

Noting that the city has committed to “Vision Zero”—that is, zero pedestrian deaths or serious injuries—O’Brien said he was asking SDOT to come back to the council in early March with a list of specific short- and long-term recommendations to address the city’s lack of progress. “We should have a city where, whether you’re walking to work or biking to go to the park or walking across the street to get groceries or go get a cup of coffee, that’s not an act of bravery but an act of daily living.”

3. Another number that jumped out at Friday’s briefing: 11 percent. That’s the percentage of Seattle residents who are eligible for a low-income transit pass, known as ORCA Lift, who have actually taken advantage of the program. In our conversation Friday, Johnson said the city should consider enrolling people in the ORCA Lift program when they sign up for other income-limited programs, the way the Seattle Housing Authority now enrolls tenants in the city utility discount program when they rent SHA apartments—or the way King County signed people up for the program when they signed up for the Affordable Care Act last year. “It just goes to show that we have a lot of work to do, not just in our marketing program—as I’m staring the side of the bus, there’s a huge ad for ORCA Lift—but in making sure that that marketing is getting through to the folks that need it most.”