One more street in Seattle is safer thanks to the city’s complete streets remake of NE 125th Street in Lake City. What used to be a dangerous, four-lane highway-style road dividing the neighborhood has been redesigned to meet the needs of all road users and improve safety for everyone.
When the city proposed changes to NE 125th St last year, some people in the neighborhood were wary, while others welcomed the changes. Other people used the project to attack the mayor politically, saying the changes were evidence that the mayor only cares about bicycling. SDOT released studies and research, showing that their plans were sound, but it seemed to do little to stop attacks on the project.
The fight that ensued was painful to everyone involved.
SDOT, with the mayor’s approval, went ahead with the project, and NE 125th is now a calmer, safer street.
I spent an hour riding around the street during rush hour a few weeks ago, observing traffic and how people in the neighborhood use the street. Even though I was there between 4:30 and 5:30 on a Thursday evening (the height of rush hour), traffic flow was smooth. I did not see a single backup the entire length of the changes. The stoplight at 15th Ave NE is long, but every car waiting for the light was able to make it through before the signal cycle turned red again (a fear I had heard from concerned citizens).
Here is a little video I shot:
So, what can we learn from the NE 125th St debate? Clearly, advocates of road diets did not learn from previous, very similar, drawn-out debates on Stone Way and Nickerson. In the face of the NE 125th St debate, David Hiller (still with Cascade) asked, “What are we doing wrong?” Seattle Likes Bikes (which formed in part during the Stone Way debate) even made the claim that safe streets advocates were winning battles but “losing the war” (this was before the whole “war on cars” meme derailed city conversation for several months for no reason).
The problem is that major media and the mayor’s political opponents successfully framed the projects as “bikes vs. cars.” They are not, but many advocates (myself included) played into this false “us vs. them” mentality that hurts the cause. The projects make streets safer for everyone, including people riding bicycles. But to people doubtful of the projects (and the city’s altruistic intentions behind them), I am guessing this line sounds like B.S. After all, the promised (and actual) results of the projects are almost too good to be true, and some choose to simply not believe it.
I am going to make a similar claim that I made in the aftermath of the deep bore tunnel vote: We need to present a vision of a neighborhood that is no longer divided by a dangerously-designed road with rampant speeding and a high number of traffic injuries. Or better yet, we need to highlight the incredible success stories all around our city. Look at Greenwood Ave, for example. Or N 45th Street in Wallingford, one of the first road diets in the city.
Would you believe me if I told you Rainier Ave S through Othello and Rainier Beach carries almost identical traffic to N 45th St in Wallingford? That’s what SDOT traffic flow data shows. Yet Rainier is one of the deadliest streets in the city, while N 45th saw zero fatalities between 2005 and 2010.
There was one fatality on NE 45th St in the U-District, but the road is a dangerous four-lane highway at that point. In fact, almost none of the fatal collisions in our city during those five years occurred on streets that had been road dieted since the city started doing them in the 70s. This is not mere coincidence, it is sound design.
Safe streets are the key to a thriving neighborhood, and residents constantly ask the city to cut down on speeding and to install crosswalks near their homes. Road diets are one of the best complete streets design tools we have to increase walkability and bikeability while drastically reducing injury-causing traffic collisions.
In light of what appears to be yet another successful project, what should safe streets advocates and the city do next time to prevent another repeat of the same old, divisive debate? How can we get more momentum behind the call for safer neighborhood streets?
UPDATE: I asked SDOT if there had been any studies of traffic flow on NE 125th since the changes. Their response:
At this point, it is too early to conduct any studies of the newly reconfigured roadway. Our traffic engineers have observed NE 125th since the changes and, unsurprisingly, found that the reconfiguration is operating as expected.
For NE 125th, we plan to conduct a six month review which will cover speeds and volumes. After the reconfigured roadway has been in place at least one year, we will study it in greater detail. From that will come a report that covers a full battery of data, including pedestrian crossings, intersection levels of service, vehicular speeds and volumes, bike volumes and neighborhood diversions.