Pedestrian Safety and Equity in the Rainier Valley

This post, a more detailed account of the pedestrian-safety announcement I reported on in yesterday’s Morning Crank, originally ran in the South Seattle Emerald.

Less than an hour after Mayor Ed Murray wrapped up a press conference to announce new pedestrian-safety improvements along Rainier Avenue South, a collision between a car and a semi shut down the intersection of Rainier and South Alaska St. — an in-your-face reminder that whatever the city has done to calm what is frequently referred to as “the most dangerous street in Seattle”, there’s still plenty of room for improvement. 

Last year, council transportation committee chair Mike O’Brien noted, there were about 10,000 crashes in the city. Of those, fewer than 7 percent involved cyclists or pedestrians, but that 7 percent accounted for about 62 percent of the fatalities from crashes in the city. Although Seattle remains one of the safest cities in the country for pedestrians, progress toward actually achieving “Vision Zero” — the city’s goal of zero serious injuries or deaths from crashes by 2030 — has stagnated.

Murray chose Martin Luther King, Jr. Elementary School in Brighton to announce new investments in pedestrian safety not only because the school won a $300,000 grant from the city to improve sidewalks in the area, but to highlight the city’s new emphasis on creating safe routes between schools and transit stops. In the next year, Murray said, the city will build 50 new blocks of sidewalks at a cost of $22 million; by 2024, the city plans to add an additional 200 blocks.

The plan announced yesterday would also accelerate by one year the extension of new pavement markings and crosswalks that have been added along Rainier from Hillman City to Alaska Street — improvements Murray credited with limiting “off-roading” by speeding cars like the one that plowed through the Carol Cobb Salon in 2014 — further south, at a cost of $2.25 million. Over the next two years, seven more streets across the city will get the Rainier Avenue treatment. The funding for all the new projects will come from the $930 million Move Seattle levy voters passed in 2015.

Less flashy and expensive, but potentially more impactful, were some of the small changes Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) Director Scott Kubly said the city was making to improve pedestrian safety at individual intersections — and the process the city will use to determine which intersections get upgrades. Instead of reacting to incidents after they happen — say, by reducing the speed limit and width of a road where cars have a habit of jumping through windows — the city will use modeling to figure out intersections that are likely to be problems before accidents occur.

SDOT-Director-Scott-Kubly-Speaking-About-Planned-Rainier-Ave-S-Improvements-at-March-2017-Conference-at-Brighton-School
SDOT Director Scott Kubly speaks about planned improvements to Rainier Avenue South in front of Brighton Elementary School (Photo: Erica C. Barnett)

For example, Kubly said, “we have seen a fair number of crashes with left turning vehicles where they have permissive left turns” — a regular green light without a left-turn arrow — “particularly in places like Northeast 65th Street,” where several serious crashes have resulted when a driver speeding down the hill has turned left into an oncoming cyclist or pedestrian. At intersections where the city knows accidents are likely, SDOT will preemptively add what Murray called “pedestrian-friendly signals” — walk signs that allow pedestrians into an intersection before drivers’ light turns green, giving walkers greater visibility — and traffic lights with left turn signals, which reduces conflicts between left-turning cars and pedestrians (or trucks) heading straight through an intersection. By adding leading pedestrian signals at 40 intersections citywide, Kubly said, the city expected to reduce crashes by 50 percent at those intersections.

Pedestrian safety, Murray said, “is an equity issue,” and that’s certainly been true in the Valley, where, neighbors have been requesting pedestrian safety improvements along Rainier for the past 40 years. Historically, Rainier has had more crashes per mile than arterial streets that carry more than twice as much traffic. Further east, surface-running light rail trains pose a particular challenge to pedestrians, who must traverse unprotected light rail tracks to cross Martin Luther King, Jr. Way; earlier this year, a pedestrian was struck and killed while crossing the tracks in a crosswalk.

Asked whether SDOT planned to follow danger “indicators” wherever its traffic engineers found them, even at the risk of abandoning its commitment to geographic equity, Kubly responded, “the mayor has made it abundantly clear to me and the department that we need to be equitable in our work… One of the things that is true in Seattle and a lot of other cities is that the incidents of serious and fatal crashes, and just collisions in general, tend to be in areas that also present more need for equitable investment” — that is, poorer and historically neglected areas like Southeast Seattle — “so I would anticipate that by following the data we’ll be investing more in neighborhoods like the Rainier Valley.”

Morning Crank: The Right Side of History

Peter Rogoff

In the spirit of last Friday’s Morning Crank, here are five things I heard at the Transportation Choices Coalition’s New Year’s transportation forum, held last Wednesday at City Hall. I moderated the panel, which included city council member Rob Johnson, TCC advocacy director Abigail Doerr, King County Council member Claudia Balducci, and Sound Transit CEO Peter Rogoff. In truth, the statements I’m quoting are from Rogoff and Johnson, whose comments dealt specifically with the political situation in Seattle; this is not an attempt to silence Doerr or Balducci, the two other women on the panel, whose thoughts on Metro, transit on the Eastside, and the future of transportation advocacy were cogent and valuable. For my Seattle politics site, though, I’ve focused on the remarks specific to Seattle politics, and encourage you to watch the whole event yourself on the Seattle Channel website; the whole thing runs about an hour.

1. Johnson, on what it will take to ensure that Metro’s expansion of Rapid Ride bus service throughout the city will be true bus rapid transit, not just express buses stuck in traffic: “We need to connect with individuals on the ground about the rationale for why [we’re building Rapid Ride]. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had a conversation with somebody who articulates their strong environmental values and in the same breath talks to me about how important it is for people to have more parking spaces in the city. We need to do a much better job connecting the values of our city around sustainability, the environment, and race and social justice with the importance of capital facilities like bus-only lanes.

“The 44 is a critical bus route that runs, basically, from the very tail end of Ballard all the way through Fremont, Wallingford, and the University of Washington, and I believe we should be expanding that as a Rapid Ride corridor and running it all the way to University Village. When we do, we’re going to receive opposition not just from the community but from business owners who will say, ‘Taking away a parking space hurts my business. My argument would be that everyone who gets on and off a bus has a wallet too, and they could be spending money in your business.”

“It’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.” – City Council member Rob Johnson

2Rogoff, on the long history of collisions, many of them fatal,  between light rail trains and pedestrians in the Rainier Valley—a lower-income area, populated largely by people of color, that is the only part of the regional system where light rail runs primarily at street level: “This is not just a light or rail grade crossing safety risk. It is also, quite frankly, more prominently a pedestrian safety risk. There’s a tendency for people to be walking on the streets looking at their devices with earbuds in their ears and it’s killed a whole bunch of people. It already did. There’s only so much we can do, frankly, for someone who insists on walking singularly focused on their device, with music playing in their ears, when our warnings, our available warnings, in addition to putting down gates to actually block [the crossing] is lights and alarms.” (Rail crossings in the Rainier Valley, it’s worth noting, do not include physical barriers between pedestrian areas and the tracks.)

3. Johnson, on the possibility that the city and county will lose federal funds in retaliation for remaining “sanctuary” jurisdictions that refuse to cooperate with federal immigration crackdowns: “We will fight back against those cuts. There is a strong argument that we can make that says you can’t cut our transportation dollars because of a decision that we make on immigration, but we also are prepared to lose every single penny of those federal funds to make sure that we are a welcoming city.

“The biggest concern for me is watching the appropriation process on an annual basis, making sure that the federal funds that have been allocated to us as a region actually get appropriated to us.”

4. Rogoff, on the possibility that the Trump Administration could cut federal funding, to Sound Transit (Trump is reportedly taking its cues on transportation from the Heritage Foundation, which advocates eliminating federal funding for public transit, and his transportation secretary, Elaine Chao, is a GOP insider who is closely affiliated with the foundation):  “[Trump] said a lot of things, actually throughout the campaign. … There’s a lot of upticks that come with [transportation budget] proposals in some administrations and downticks that come with proposals [in] other administrations, but often Congress levels out the upticks and downticks quite a bit. Congress is going to have to consent to the budget presented by the White House. … I would just say, watch this space and see if their proposals will be as draconian as expected.”

Rob Johnson

5. Finally, Johnson, bringing down the transit-loving, density-friendly house on the contentious University District upzone, which Johnson’s Planning, Land Use and Zoning Committee will discuss tomorrow morning:  “This is about making sure that the council members that represent those districts where we’re going to see long-term investments are also going to be willing to stand up to single-family homeowners who are saying,  ‘Don’t turn my single-family home into a place where you can build a duplex or a triplex.’

“I feel, as the chair of the committee, that it’s my responsibility to make sure that we’re a welcoming city for everybody, and it’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. I see us, as a city, really needing to build more housing for more people, because we’re adding 40 people per day but we’re only building 12 housing units per day, and that’s creating an economic circumstance where lower-income people and middle-income people are being forced out of the city, and I think we need the political will for folks to step in that space and create change for more density around those stations. I firmly believe that. It may result in me only having this job for four years, but if that’s the case, I feel like I’ll have gone down on the right side of history.”