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Is lowering speed limits the key to increased safety on Dexter?

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.

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22 responses to “Is lowering speed limits the key to increased safety on Dexter?”

  1. Gary

    I rode by this intersection the other day and I can totally see how Mr. Wang didn’t foresee the car turning into him. The left hand turn lane is 3 lanes away from the bicycle lane going North. The driver headed South to East has a long way to go and even if there isn’t any on coming traffic, it’s design makes a driver want to go for it and not dawdle while traversing the lane.

    A road diet which narrowed the whole thing would help. Or add a road diet and a cycle track on each side, with parking along the car side. There appears to be plenty of pavement for it.

  2. joshuadf

    For what it’s worth, the SLU Neighborhood Plan has a “high priority” goal “Investigate the feasibility of a European- style boulevard design for Dexter Ave. N from Denny Way to at least Galer Street, with wide sidewalks, medians, storefronts and trees. Implement the design if feasible.” The biggest issue is the cost of course, so I’d definitely support a re-channelization in the meantime.

    Also by the way, the reason Dexter is so wide at that point was that is was going to be part of the grand civic center in the 1911 Bogue Plan. The plan was rejected, but the city had already acquired some of the property.

    1. Tom Fucoloro

      Wow, I didn’t know the Bogue Plan was why Dexter got so wide. That’s fascinating. Thanks for the info!

  3. Doug Bostrom

    Near Dexter is another river of pavement desperately in need of “rechannelization,” Westlake Ave N.

    Take a look:


    That sort of waste of space is yet another legacy of old days in Seattle, when Lake Union was an industrial facility. What’s truly horrible is the area where Dexter and Westlake eventually converge. Like a fresh lava flow– denuded of life– but instead of fresh basalt it’s asphalt and stripes, parking for cars. What a mess.

  4. dhoogest

    A bit off topic…does anyone know if there are efforts to limit or eliminate window tinting (or what the existing regulations are)? This aspect of the Dexter case struck a chord with me as many of the close calls I’ve had through the years have involved my own inability to judge whether a driver is being attentive. Seems an unnecessary hazard in my opinion.

    1. kaycee

      Good point… Its a hazard to cyclists and other drivers!

  5. Larry

    The brilliant city minds are back at it eliminating the center turn lane on Dexter as we speak. The result? Likely more deaths to bikers. I’m still unclear why Westlake wasn’t the better option for the bike thoroughfare. Flat, plenty of room for protected bike lanes through the wide parking areas, connects to Burke Gilman and street car….why Dexter? We seem to have the worst functionality in our city planning compared to other cities. If all of us have reasonable thoughts on how to make things better why can’t the person who is trained in this field figure it out?

  6. kaycee

    No, how about the fact that over half of the bikers in this city FAIL to adhere to the traffic laws? Running stop signs, darting across traffic or worse…. We hear all the time… bikers, biking, et al… You know what? Take a trip to Seward Park area and watch one after another REFUSE to obey the law!

    It’s time the Seattle Police started upping their patrol on these individuals to make ALL transportation safe in this city!

    1. jeff

      kaycee: cyclists do sometimes run stop signs, and break other traffic laws. So do people driving cars and other vehicles. Pedestrians jaywalk. Why single out cyclists? Do you have evidence they break laws more often than people using other transportation modes?

      1. kaycee

        Jeff, I could take picture after picture standing at stop sign after stop sign here in Seward Park and pictures downtown of cyclists and I wonder if that would even satisfy you.

        I am quite fine with anyone riding their bike, but I am not fine with them cutting in front of me while driving or failing to adhere to the rules of the road. They are just as required to obey the laws as I am.

        Evidence that they break the laws more often?

        Here are some facts (a few from overseas as well):

        In Queensland, AU… over 6000 plus bikers were ticked alone for failure to use helments last year. 200 of those had the added bonus of running a red light (The Courier-Mail, Queensland, AU, 2010)

        National Highway Traffic Safety Administration data report notes that 60% of bicycle fatalities between 1999 and 2006 occurred in urban areas. The locations and actions of bicyclists in those fatalities are charted, but without assessing whether the motorist or bicycle rider was at fault.

        Actions of bicyclists in fatalities

        Crossing roadway – 35%
        Riding with traffic – 27%
        Riding against traffic – 11%
        Cyclist turned into path of vehicle – 10%
        Fell into traffic – 1%
        All other actions – 7%
        Unknown – 9%


        I’m not saying that other vehicle drivers are not or never at fault but the fact remains sir, that not on education of all is important but the fact that cyclists have a responsiblity to obey the law just as much as the driver of any other vehicle.

      2. erik

        i am a bicyclist and i ride with two things in mind at ALL times:
        1. i am a vehicle and am responsible to follow the rules of the road HOWEVER
        2. no matter whose fault it is, i will die.
        this is not saying that all bicyclist ride smart or safe or sane, but it is saying that some who are fudging (or breaking) the letter of the law have a reason to do so. if a police officer pulls me over for coasting through a stop sign, i will tell him that i felt unsafe coming to a complete stop because the vehicle behind me was tailgating or harassing me (which is the only reason i would coast through a stop sign). considering the consequences for killing a bicyclist are so minimal for drivers, even when they are 100% at fault, i have ZERO sympathy for drivers complaining about the average bicyclist who follows the rules of the road, especially when the bicyclist takes the brunt (read: bumper/windshield) of any mistake made by either party.
        yes, some bicyclists don’t follow the rules and some drivers don’t follow the rules, but it is hard for me to see why drivers get so mad about it until bicyclists fudging the rules start killing occupants of cars.

    2. kaycee

      Erik… I am not demanding that people stop riding bikes. I am aware that many people are not aware of the distance that they are not supposed to be with regards to a bike or move around them properly.

      What I am addressing is the fact that we have many bikers in this city who believe that they are above following the rules of the road. If you were to come down to Seward Park and watch the cyclists, groups of cyclists in their gear and with their clubs knowingly and willfully failing to obey the rules of the road even when there are NO cars around them, it’s appalling!

      Riding a bike or driving a car gives NO ONE a special privilege or an entitlement.

      Its my opinion only but cyclists should be licensed just as much as a person who owns a vehicle.

      And, with regards to injuries. A cyclist can do a good amount of damage to a pedestrian as well as to other cyclists. Responsiblity is responsibility, not just one sided for either type of conveyance.

      1. erik

        i guess an easier way to boil down my argument would be that bicyclists are usually conscious of the fact that they are breaking the rules (NOT that that’s okay) and drivers are usually oblivious to the fact they are passing a bicycle too fast or turning right into a bicyclist riding in their lane, etc. not that ignoring the rules of the road are okay, but convincing someone who is aware they are breaking the rules is much easier than someone who is unaware they are threatening more vulnerable users.

        in terms of licensing, there is no reason to license or tax bicyclists or pedestrians to use our roads. why? if you pave a road today and only allow bicyclists/rollerbladers/skateboarders/pedestrians on the road, that road won’t need to be paved for another 1000 years. the wear an average non-vehicle adds to the road surface is nominal to the point of a joke.

      2. kaycee


        Now there is where I will disagree. If cyclists are using the streets, then they should pay a ‘nominal’ licensing fee to do so. They are vehicles, classified under state law, and as such should contribute to transporation maintenance and anyone does who owns another type of conveyance.

        The problem I see, is that the drivers handbook for this state (and every state) fails to add information with regards to cyclists, laws, etc so that little information is known to them. We have a great influx of citizens immigrating or visiting our area. They rent transportation for their visit or move here and buy and then drive with only the information they’ve garnered outside of our country with regards to cyclists, et al.

        I won’t deny that the issue you brought up there is very valid.

        The problem is that those cyclists that are conscious of the fact that they are breaking the law and rules of the road generally don’t give a rat’s hind end if they do. Many feel they are above it because they are riding bikes.

        I am taken back to the many times I’ve seen these ‘bike drops’ in the middle of downtown where there have been attempts to get attention of bikers. The problem is that many of those individuals have been the problems within the city who fail to act responsibly. Bike messengers (now a dying breed) were notorious in this city for years causing near fatalities with their antics. They have in many major cities.

        My God, there is a show on Travel Channel called “Triple Rush” that actually GLORIFIES this type of behaviour.

        Is that acceptable? Not in my humble opinion!

        It just pushes people, young people, to say, “Hell… screw it! I’m on a bike and I’m special.” Well, you’re not. Your just like us all. We have to obey the rules. You don’t, you get caught, you pay the fine or you lose your privilege.. IE: You lose your license!

        It’s about responsibility.

      3. Tom Fucoloro


        Please note that people who ride bicycles do pay for the roads already. Practically none of SDOT’s funds come from gas taxes, and the majority of people who ride bikes also own cars (though, certainly, some do not).

        Here is a breakdown of SDOT’s funding sources. Note that most are from property taxes, which all of us pay: http://publicola.com/2010/08/31/we-all-pay-for-the-roads/

        Also, bicycling promotes local investment. While almost all the money spent on a motor vehicle leaves the city, money spent by people bicycling stays here (including local sales taxes, etc). http://www.grist.org/biking/2011-02-28-how-bicycling-will-save-the-economy

        Once you include the immense cost on cities from car crashes and other negative health consequences of motor vehicle operation every year: http://www.grist.org/biking/2011-03-28-pedaling-away-from-the-health-care-crisis you begin to see that choosing to ride a bicycle saves cities an enormous amount of money: http://bikeportland.org/2011/02/04/research-by-2040-portlands-bikeway-investments-could-save-us-800-million-in-health-care-fuel-costs-47392

        Driving is an extremely subsidized activity, and much of that subsidy comes from people who ride bicycles. For example, parking is extremely expensive to install and maintain. When I ride my bike to the grocery store, I pay a premium on my purchase to cover that store’s investment in “free” parking, which I did not use.

        Cars weigh two tons and my bike weighs 30 lbs (and that’s a pretty heavy bike). My bike is not heavy enough to crush asphalt or concrete. A car is. Bike paths last decades, even with constant use. Motor vehicles demolish far more expensive roads within a few years. The only way for the city to pay for them is either through the ever-shrinking general fund or by raising revenue through gas taxes, vehicle license fees or yet more property levies.

        It makes no sense to license bicycling because bicycling saves the city an immense amount of money, and cities should do whatever they can to get more tax payers out of cars and onto two wheels (or walking). From a purely financial standpoint, cities would have to spend money to do something that prevents citizens from saving the city money. That does not make sense.

        As for people on bicycles breaking laws, what can we say? Do you want me to sit at a stop sign and count the number of drivers chatting on a cell phone, texting, rolling through stop signs, not stopping for people trying to cross in a crosswalk, etc? Or how about counting the people driving cars faster than the posted speed limit?

        I’m not saying it’s great that people on bicycles break laws, but people using all modes of transportation behave in semi-legal ways that make the most sense for them (do you ever jay walk?). Some people follow all the rules, some only follow the ones they feels they need to, others just don’t care and try to get away with whatever they can. It’s not about mode. It’s just how people behave in a city.

        However, you must admit that a 2-ton vehicle rolling a stop sign is about 2 tons more dangerous than a bicycle doing the same, right? In terms of public safety priorities, motor vehicles kill at least one person per day in Washington: http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/localnews/2014641661_apwatrafficfatalities2ndldwritethru.html?syndication=rss Bicycles do not. While being struck by a person on a bike can hurt or even cause death in some extremely rare cases, the danger posed by each mode is not comparable. Apples and oranges.

  7. Writer Tom Vanderbilt [Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us)] has written a very good description in his book about the strategy of using creative street-scape design to control speed rather than signs. In an ideal world this would be a great improvement.

    As noted by “dhoogest”, window tinting is a huge problem for pedestrians and bicycle riders at almost every encounter when crossing in front of a vehicle. Drivers are never going to understand how completely they have become invisible within their car, because their view is not affected. In the case of a car turning across several lanes of traffic, the window tinting may not be the key to the bicycle rider’s ability to guess what the driver is going to do.

  8. Jim Ewins

    It should be obvious to the most casual observer, that bikes and cars cannot co-exist. Although I like Dexter, I say give the whole da** street to them. Have the city spend more money it doesn’t have and convert motor vehicle roads to bike paths. See if bikers will pay to park.

  9. ODB

    What is even more obvious to the casual observer is that the quality of the comments declines when a blog post (like this one) gets linked from the Seattle Times’ website.

    1. kaycee

      The “Quality of Comments” ODB… Exactly what do you mean by quality. These are very valid statements brought forth by everyone; not just my observations but by all those who have taken the time to put forth equitable and fair responses to give both pros and cons on their points.

      Calling that a ‘Decline in Quality’ is a slap to those who actually care enough about this issue to discuss in a proper, ethical and forthright manner.

      1. ODB

        That’s big of you, kaycee, to undertake the defense of all of the comments (except mine, presumably) as “proper, ethical and forthright.” I wonder what you mean by these terms, not to mention “very valid statements” and “equitable and fair responses.” Since you asked what I meant by a decline in quality, would it be “equitable and fair” to ask what you mean by these terms?

        In any event, I’ll take the bait and explain what I was thinking when I noted the decline in quality. The comment to which mine was an immediate response is an excellent example of a poor quality comment.

        First there is a blatantly false generalization: “It should be obvious to the most casual observer, that bikes and cars cannot co-exist.” This is not at all obvious (to the “most casual observer” whatever that means), as the debate in this forum should make clear.

        The next sentence is very hard to parse because the referent of the pronoun “them” is unclear. It could be either bikes or cars, but in context, I think it is probably cars. “Although I like Dexter, I say give the whole da** street to them [i.e., cars? bikes?].”

        Next, the author for some reason attacks his own apparent proposal (converting streets to bikes-only) as financially unfeasible. “Have the city spend more money it doesn’t have and convert motor vehicle roads to bike paths.” If this is a bad idea, why did the author propose it in the first place?

        The author concludes with an apparent non sequitur about bicycles paying for parking: “See if bikers will pay to park.” The connection between this statement and the preceding discussion is left completely unexplained. Is this a proposed funding mechanism for bicycle-only streets? How would paid bicycle parking work? With separate meters? On its face, the proposal seems completely impracticable and unlikely to even pay for itself.

        Comments like these are so poorly written and badly reasoned that they are barely comprehensible. They add nothing to the forum. This is what I mean by a decline in quality.

        I would say that your comments, kaycee, are better. But I question this unsupported assertion: “No, how about the fact that over half of the bikers in this city FAIL to adhere to the traffic laws?” Where do you get this “over half” statistic?

        It is not supported by your citation of 1) a study of helmet use from Queensland, Australia, 2) bike fatality statistics where no fault was assigned, or 3) the fact that a TV show allegedly glorifying bicycle law-breaking exists. In fact, these data don’t really tell us anything about purported bicyclist misconduct in Seattle.

        The actual topic of the post was proposed legislation that would give cities more discretion in deciding to lower speed limits. For what it’s worth, I think the legislation is probably a good idea. I guess I would prefer solutions to car-bicycle conflicts that are not an inconvenience to cars and I fear that proposals like this tend to reinforce a zero-sum-game mentality (i.e., what’s good for bikes is bad for cars and vice versa). I don’t think there’s any particular virtue in making cars a less efficient mode of transportation by slowing them down, making them stop, “calming” them, etc. But if cities deem that inefficiency (which is also an environmental cost) to be a worthy trade-off for increased safety for all users, then I think they are best positioned to know local conditions and therefore should have the discretion to make that judgment.

  10. Mark Petry

    I started riding 35 years ago when drivers were a lot less accomodating to cyclists than they are now. Traffic volumes notwithstanding, I think cycling in the city is a lot safer than it was “back in the day”.

    However – I wonder if this fatality, and the one on Juanita drive last week, were in any way caused by driver texting. Man, everybody is doing it. Driver inattention is a whole new dimension of danger in my opinion, and I don’t know what to do about it except… stay off the roads. Busy ones at least.

  11. Todd Holman

    I’m in agreement with Kaycee. Everyone in the biking community has a responsibility to follow the laws as well and stop pointing fingers. I see bikers ALL THE TIME do their own thing and don’t obey the laws. I don’t claim to be a saint in this area either but I understand that I get no special treatment. I’m in favor of police cracking down on us because until they do, people — the majority in my view — won’t take it seriously. Trust me, I’m not minimizing automobile drivers at all — their negligence and “entitlement” is well documented. I just think our side needs to clean up it’s act before we start pointing fingers — and there’s a lot to do.

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