When the billboards and bus-stop ads started appearing along Rainier Ave. South, pedestrian and bicycling safety advocates took notice. “Best place to wear neon: Rainier Ave. S,” the billboards blared. “Rainier Ave. S averages more crashes per day than anywhere else in Seattle.” “BE ALERT. BE AWARE. BE SAFE.”
The signs are visually striking, featuring real members of the Rainier Valley community—black and brown, young and old, gay and straight and trans—decked out in arresting neon colors as they strike poses and cross the street. The intent of the ad campaign, according to the Seattle Department of Transportation, was to “encourage and empower pedestrians and bicyclists to wear bright-colored clothing that stands out” to avoid being hit.
Hundreds of pedestrians are hit by drivers on Rainier Ave. S. every year, many of them trying to cross a street where you can walk almost half a mile without coming upon a signaled crosswalk—and dozens have been killed. No other street in Seattle is nearly as dangerous—Aurora Ave. N., the runner-up, has less than half the collisions per mile, a statistic that has held steady for years despite urgent calls for the city to take action.
Safe-streets advocates resented the implication that driver-pedestrian crashes on Rainier—a city street whose highway-like design contributes massively to speeding and collisions—were somehow the fault of the people being hit.
“You do not need special clothes to walk around your neighborhood, and we should stand up against a public agency trying to say otherwise,” Seattle Bike Blog wrote. “And if someone wearing a black jacket is hit while crossing a street with a long history of speeding and collisions, that person’s fashion choice is not the problem. The street with a long history of speeding and collisions is the problem.”
“I’m not sure that’s the way I would have started [a safety campaign] if it had been up to me. But if that’s the mandate, getting folks in the community to be sharing this message of their own volition is the most effective way to message.” —Natasha Marin, NONWHITEWORKS
Ethan Bergerson, a spokesman with SDOT, says the campaign wasn’t just billboards—it also included a series of community events featuring messages about safe driving habits (along with an art project aimed at getting kids to stop staring at their phones while crossing the street). As for the billboards, he said they came out of a process of “community engagement” with “historically underrepresented communities who live near Rainier Valley. This engagement effort resulted in the advertisement you inquired about.”
But Natasha Marin, the anti-racism marketing consultant whose firm NONWHITEWORKS designed the ads and ran the outreach events, says the decision to target safety messaging at pedestrians, rather than drivers, was “SDOT’s call” and came long before she got involved in the project. When she suggested that the campaign might want to target people driving through the Rainier Valley, rather than the community members being hit and sometimes killed by those drivers, “the response I got back was, ‘No, we want to educate, not implicate.'”
“I’m not sure that’s the way I would have started [a safety campaign] if it had been up to me,” Marin says. “But if that’s the mandate, getting folks in the community to be sharing this message of their own volition is the most effective way to message. … Frankly, I don’t recall a time where I saw SDOT put up billboards on Rainier featuring black and POC and gay and trans people. That’s awesome, and definitely the direction we need to go in terms of visual marketing.”
“I don’t know that everybody in Seattle realizes that Rainier Ave. S is the worst place to be” for pedestrians and cyclists, Marin says. “I think if that were more commonly known, probably it would affect people’s driving and attention spans.”
Although SDOT stands by the focus of the “Don’t Blend In” campaign, Bergerson says that after hearing “feedback that the audience for billboards is more commonly people driving, the city hopes to do a second phase of the campaign, which would focus on “drivers’ role in contributing factors to collision[s]. We will develop appropriate messaging to educate drivers on the dangers of excessive speed and its role in traffic fatalities.” Bergerson says there is no current timeline for that second phase.
SDOT’s Bergerson says that after hearing “feedback that the audience for billboards is more commonly people driving, the city hopes to do a second phase of the campaign, which would focus on “drivers’ role in contributing factors to collision[s].
In a way, though, individual driver behavior is sort of beside the point. Yes, people should pay better attention when driving, and yes, they should stay off their phones and drive more slowly and look out for people crossing the street midblock. When they don’t, there should be consequences. But the reason a street like Rainier is so dangerous while another street with equally heavy traffic—say, 45th Ave. NE—feels slower and safer isn’t because drivers are just more reckless in the South End. It’s because streets like Rainier are dangerous by design. Build a road as wide as a highway, give drivers nearly half a mile between stoplights, and exclude any infrastructure that might slow cars down, such as bike lanes, bus lanes, or crosswalks, and collisions are the inevitable result.
Bergerson provided a list of spot improvements that being added south of Columbia City, such as new crosswalk paint, “dedicated bus lanes in two locations” and signals that let pedestrians start crossing before cars can move. Unfortunately, spot solutions address spot problems. A systemic fix will require reimagining all of Rainier Ave. S as a place for people, not cars. Neon clothing may be eye-catching, but without systemic improvements up and down the corridor, campaigns for pedestrian visibility are window dressing, not a solution.