by Lizz Giordano
In the seven years Seattle has worked to achieve Vision Zero, the goal of eliminating road deaths has never been so out of reach for the city. Especially in the South End, which absorbed more than half of the city’s street deaths last year.
In 2021, deaths hit 15-year high in Seattle with 30 people killed in vehicle collisions – the majority of which were on foot or on bicycles. And this year is proving nearly as deadly with 10 road deaths so far, an average of about one person killed every two weeks on the streets of Seattle.
The upward trend in pedestrian and cyclist fatalities is unacceptable and totally preventable, said council member Tammy Morales, who represents the South End district which spans Rainier Valley, SoDo and parts of Chinatown-International. District.
She is pushing for the City to transfer more of its road space and funding to cyclists and pedestrians.
“I’m looking for solutions, I’m not looking for more studies,” Morales said in an interview with the emerald Last week. “As long as our neighbors are regularly hit by cars, we seriously need to do things differently.”
And for her, this means acting on the bicycle and pedestrian master plans that the City has drawn up.
“We have already invested resources in creating, on paper, a network of ways for people to get around more safely,” Morales said. “We just didn’t build them. I want us to start building the things that we said were priorities.
Citywide, less than 1% of roads have a protected bike lane and nearly a quarter of streets lack sidewalks, Morales said, with Districts 2 and 5 feeling the brunt of that missing infrastructure.
Of the 19 deaths last year and so far this year in District 2, almost 75% involved a pedestrian or cyclist. Two of this year’s South End deaths occurred within a few blocks of each other near Holgate Avenue and Fourth Avenue in SoDo. The two were cycling in the area. Last week, at least two people on foot or on bicycles were rammed into the streets of District 2, including a 10-year-old child.
It’s very expensive to build sidewalks, Morales said. “But that doesn’t mean we sit on our hands and say we can’t do it. It means we have to get creative to make the streets safer.
The only safe north-south routes through the Rainier Valley are for people with cars, Morales said. “If you can’t drive, if you’re in a wheelchair, if you’re using a cane because of visual impairment, if you’re on a bike and trying to get your kids to daycare, it’s a dangerous place . ”
Cycling groups have been advocating for a protected cycle route from the South End to the city center for years.
The bicycle and pedestrian master plans are blueprints for a 20-year vision to improve walking and safety on the streets, according to Allison Schwartz, Vision Zero program coordinator for Seatle’s Department of Transportation (SDOT).
And implementation requires planning and community engagement and support, Schwartz added. “It requires design and funding to move from what is a line on a map in the 20-year plan to a reality on the ground.”
Morales wants to see more safety projects like the ones SDOT installed along Rainier Avenue, which included crosswalks, flashing beacons, hardened left lane lines for slow-turning drivers, and main pedestrian intervals that give pedestrians a head start at traffic lights.
These security improvements are delivering results, Schwartz said. SDOT is nearly halfway to its goal of changing the timing of traffic lights at all signalized intersections to give pedestrians a head start on vehicles.
That three to seven seconds of time can really make a huge difference, Schwartz said. “We find that they work very well; they reduced cornering collisions and fatal and serious accidents where they were installed.
SDOT plans to add dedicated bus lanes on Rainier Avenue from Columbia City to Mount Baker, extending the transit lanes that have been added further south in recent years. But bike lanes are not provided for this section, to the disappointment of cyclist and pedestrian safety advocates.
Achieving Vision Zero in District 2 also means addressing light rail safety, the only district in Seattle where light rail runs on the street rather than overhead or underground.
Since the line opened in 2009, 10 people have been killed in collisions with light rail trains, including 8 in the Rainier Valley. More recently, on May 19, a woman was hit by a train at Othello station. She remained in serious condition in the Harborview intensive care unit for several days, according to a hospital spokesperson.
At Othello station, light rail trains have collided with five vehicles and five people on foot, one of whom has been killed since the line opened, according to data from Sound Transit. Last year, two people lost their lives at the Columbia City train station after failing to see an oncoming train.
More frequently, cars and light rail vehicles collide, which according to collision data between 2009 and 2020 occurred approximately every month and a half.
Over the years, Sound Transit has added more signs along the at-grade hallway in an effort to make crossings more visible to drivers and pedestrians. Studies of level crossings and accident reports have also recommended reducing train speeds and installing barriers or arms at crossings.
Installing crossing arms or barriers and reducing train speeds are still under consideration, according to John Gallagher, spokesman for Sound Transit. “No final decision has been made yet.”
Agency documents show that a speed reduction driver was aborted because the trains no longer matched the traffic light timing at the lower speed. Another found that reduce train speed from 35 mph to 25 mph added 2 minutes and 27 seconds to the course time in the MLK lane.
Part of Vision Zero recognizes that people will inevitably make mistakes. Roads must therefore be designed with multiple levels of safety protection to ensure that one misstep does not result in serious injury or death.
“Gates could provide one of those layoffs,” Schwartz said, “and reduce the instances where a mistake results in a fatal or serious injury.”
Morales wants a monetary commitment for active security measures such as barriers or idlings. Sound Transit is trying to prevent these safety issues in future expansions by planning to avoid building at-grade train routes, as has been done in Rainier Valley.
“Sound Transit really needs to change its priorities from just getting its trains through a neighborhood quickly and to include a priority around safety,” Morales said. “Because they learned all those lessons on the backs of the people of the South End.”
Lizz Giordano is a freelance multimedia journalist based in Seattle’s Rainier Valley, specializing in public transportation and housing. She can be reached on Twitter @lizzgiorand more of his work can be found at his website.
📸 Featured Image: Trains and cars speed past as people wait to cross Martin Luther King Jr. Way at Othello Station. Pedestrians, cyclists and motorists navigate these crossings along the 4.5 mile light rail section through the South End. (Photo: Lizz Giordano)
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