Alan Durning wrote a column for the Seattle Times earlier this week arguing that, in light of Mike Wang’s death and other senseless traffic fatalities in our state, Washington should follow nearby states and provinces by allowing municipalities to lower their speed limits.
Sightline has since published a longer version of the column on their site. From Sightline:
In almost all of these deaths, traffic speed is a critical variable. Some 91 percent of 2009 Northwest traffic deaths occurred on streets with speed limits of 30 mph, like Dexter, or higher. That’s a big number. Let’s make it more real: A new mapping tool allows you to pinpoint the exact locations, with street-view photos, of every scene where a motor vehicle killed an American pedestrian in the last decade. The map is harrowing. In a few short minutes of clicking and zooming, for example, I saw the death scenes of an 89-year-old man, a 73-year-old man, a 16-year-old boy, and a 1-year-old boy in Spokane; a 75-year-old woman and a 37-year-old man in Federal Way, Washington; and a 13-year-old girl in Sumner, Washington. Every one of these deaths was on a local street, the speed limit of which is dictated by state law at either 25 or 30 mph.
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For all that cities try to improve street safety, with cross walks, signals, and traffic circles, state law binds them in red tape if they want to lower these speed limits. Localities cannot lower speeds on their streets without first doing extensive and expensive speed and engineering studies. That’s right: costly studies are required just to make commonsense safety improvements.
The rest of the Northwest trusts its localities more than we do. In June, Oregon passed HB 3150, giving more discretion to localities to reduce speed limits on low-traffic residential roadways. From the current standard of 25 mph, they will be allowed to drop the limit to 20 mph. The City of Portland hopes to use this authority to strengthen its network of Bicycle Boulevards, which are similar to what Seattle calls Greenways.
We wrote about Rep. Cindy Ryu’s attempt to pass HB 1217, which would have removed the state-mandated red tape required for a municipality to lower a street’s speed limit to 20 mph. The 20’s Plenty Bill passed the House, but died in the Senate as leaders decided to prioritize other transportation legislation, said Ryu.
Is the speed limit the problem on Dexter? Not really. The stretch on which Wang was struck has four general purpose travel lanes with no center turn lane and very minimal traffic volumes (I don’t have the exact figures because it not even significant enough for SDOT to list on their city-wide traffic volume map). It is a massively over-designed street that encourages speeding and, yes, rushed turns while under pressure. I would even say that lowering the speed limit on Dexter without changing the road’s design is unfair to people driving, whose likely complaints that the street is a “speed trap” would be founded.
Changing the speed limit signs (if there even are any) on Dexter would not change the fact that it feels comfortable to drive 40+ on the highway-style roadway. You can bring out police to try to ticket people until they slow down, but it won’t really work, either.
Another idea, presented by people who work near Dexter and Thomas, is to install a traffic signal. For one, signals are extremely costly (as much as six figures). But once it is in, what about Dexter and Republican? Dexter and John? The project is already beyond $.25 million.
The solution is a change of road design. A rechannelization. A road diet. Adding a center turn lane would give people riding bikes and driving the time and space they need to comfortably turn where they need to. Adding wider bike lanes (buffered, parking-separated, whatever) would give people riding bikes on this extremely busy bicycle route more room to maneuver and increase their visibility. Removing the excess general traffic lane in each direction would reduce actual speeds to a point closer to the desired speed limit of 30 mph while also removing the stress of turning across two lanes of traffic.
And, at the city’s rate of about $100,000 per mile, it would cost about $50,000 for the entire stretch from Roy (where the current Dexter construction will end) to Denny Way.
Then, on top of having a safer street for bicycling and driving, Dexter would not be terrifying to walk across. All this for half the cost of one signal. That’s a pretty good deal.
However, this is not all to say that lowering speed limits is useless. Allowing cities to lower speed limits gives each municipality the chance to more clearly voice its traffic behavior desires. For example, a street with a speed limit of 20 should look a whole lot different than one with a limit of 30 or even 25 (the current minimum on nearly all residential streets in the city). And it just so happens Seattle is getting ready to transform certain residential streets into a new kind of street: a “neighborhood greenway.”
Just like Dexter should be designed for travel at 30 mph or lower, a neighborhood greenway should be designed for speeds less than 20 mph. Being able to lower speed limits would increase the fines and liability of any speeding drivers, giving those struck by negligent or reckless drivers a better shot at justice in the courts. But perhaps more importantly, it gives cities the chance to redefine speed expectations and design better roads accordingly.
As Durning concludes:
A 25-mph speed limit on Dexter might or might not have saved Mike Wang’s life. The hit-and-run driver of the brown SUV that killed him could well have been oblivious to posted speeds, and Dexter is so wide that it almost invites speeding. We cannot know. What we can know, and what the spontaneous memorial that has emerged at Dexter and Thomas reminds us, is that it’s time for Olympia to get out of the way and let us make our streets safer. In Seattle, no one should die for riding his bike.