What started as a couple deaths after a long stretch with very few has turned into a devastating couple weeks on our city’s streets. After the third death on Seattle streets since July, one question has been on the minds of city residents and various media outlets this week:
What the hell is going on?
Nobody can really answer that question, and it is probably a combination of a lot of things: Bad luck, more people biking, holes in the bicycle facility network (and sub-par facilities), traffic errors, and on and on.
But we know for sure that something must change.
Tuesday morning, I was standing with friends of Brian Fairbrother at the spot where he crashed down a staircase at the end of a city-designed “bike trail” that had no warning signs. Brian’s friends held a beautiful memorial for him, creating art, telling stories and supporting each other through the loss of a friend who had touched so many people’s lives.
Meanwhile, car traffic trickled by on the five-lane Fairview Ave N above at a rate of a couple vehicles per minute.
At some point, sadness and mourning turns to anger. First, you might ask, “Why was there no sign in place warning of a staircase at the end of this bike trail?” But the more important question is, “Why is our city encouraging people to bike on the sidewalk when the street is full of unutilized space?” Why does a road that has three general traffic lanes as it crosses the bridge where Brian crashed need five lanes just a block further south?
It doesn’t. There’s no reason why this street does not have a safe bike facility.
The chances of avoiding Mike Wang’s death could have been higher if he were not squeezed into a tiny bike lane at the far edge of an extremely wide Dexter Ave with four underutilized general traffic lanes. The city told the Times they are now considering adding some buffer area to the bike lanes.
For a neighborhood with such high density and high numbers of people biking, the University District has almost no good bicycle facilities for people traveling north and south. The intersection of University Way and Campus Parkway, where Robert Townsend died, does have an uphill bike lane. But he was traveling downhill. Nobody, regardless of their chosen transportation mode, likes that intersection, which is big and confusing. Can’t we do better?
We can and we must. The Stranger wrote a stirring piece in this week’s issue that suggests the city go ahead and wage that “war on cars” that some people around town like to accuse the city of waging. I appreciate the Stranger’s excitement and energy, but we don’t even need a war. All we need vision and courage from our leaders.
448 people died in traffic collisions in the state of Washington in 2010. Many of those people were in cars when they died. That’s more than one person for every day of the year. That’s 448 networks of friends and family members whose lives are changed forever, who have to deal with the fact that someone they loved has died for ostensibly no real reason.
Making our streets safer is not an “us vs them” situation. All road users are in this together. Even Joni Balter at the Times, who the Stranger points to as one of the promoters of the “war on cars” idea, wrote a piece this week calling the recent deaths “preventable” and urging the city to find a solution, saying, “we really have to find ways to do better.”
We have a complete streets ordinance on the books mandating that the city design our streets to meet the needs of all road users. Complete streets save the lives of people in cars, on foot and on wheels (whether its a bicycle, wheelchair, walker, etc).
We have bicycle and pedestrian master plans that list vital changes that need to be made.
We have a Department of Transportation that is knowledgeable about traffic flow, modern road design and our city’s unique transportation needs with regards to its challenging geography. Seattle is also a member of NACTO, which has worked hard in recent years to create updated road design standards with tried and true designs for modern streets.
The pieces are all in place, and we have done the hard work of finding a better way. All we need now is for our city’s leaders (I’m looking at you, members of the City Council Transportation Committee) to give SDOT the go-ahead to make our streets safe for everyone. In several off-the-record talks with various people in and around SDOT, people have said they do not feel like the council has given them the signal they need to carry out projects they know are needed. Leaving the department out to dry on projects like NE 125th St did not leave them with the confidence that the council would have their backs on future projects.
No more public meetings for projects based on SDOT’s sound traffic analysis and experience. Every dangerous four lane road in the city that SDOT deems a viable candidate for a rechannelization based on experience and analysis should be given the go-ahead. 30 years of experience and study is sufficient. Waiting for more people to die has proven to be a devastating strategy.
We need to set a deadline for protected bicycle facilities downtown. Both Councilmembers Mike O’Brien and Sally Bagshaw have mentioned this need recently. Who is going to make it happen? My suggestion for a deadline is next summer, an extremely easy goal to meet.
We could be at turning point in our city’s transportation history. After a series of bicycle deaths in 2007, Portland rallied, demanded changes and made the choice to invest in a bicycle network that has reduced deaths and increased ridership dramatically. Is Seattle going to take these tragedies as a wake-up call and invest in public health and transportation diversity, or are we going to shrug it off, say we can’t do anything and allow it to happen again?
Seattle is a safer city for biking than it has been for decades. Unreleased data from the 2010 bike count shows that the number of people commuting downtown by bicycle increased 21 percent compared to 2009, which was 17 percent higher than 2007.
And, from what I can tell (official reports are not yet out), nobody died in Seattle while cycling in 2010. Even with the recent rash of deaths on our streets, the collision rate is still likely falling (we won’t see 2011 data until 2013 at the city and state’s current rate of reporting).
We know that, as the number of people biking a city rises, the rate of collisions with motor vehicles plummets. This has been tested around the world and vetted locally by our own numbers. Our bicycle master plan has the goal of reducing the total number of collisions by one third by 2017 while dramatically increasing the number of people biking.
The residents of Seattle are leading the way by choosing to bike even with huge gaps in our bicycle facility network, and the sporadic investments we have made in safe infrastructure are more than paying off.
Our city’s safe streets plans are working. It’s time to give it full funding so we can transform our streets into enjoyable, efficient and healthy places for everyone to get from one place to another.
Approving TBD Proposition 1 is a good way to add a little funding to complete streets projects, investing over $4 million annually in projects to make biking and walking safer. But we are going to need more. Come budget season, the council and the mayor will have a chance to decide where our transportation priorities lie.
Cascade Bicycle Club is holding a press conference Thursday morning to call for safer roads. Transportation Committee Chair Tom Rasmussen will be one of the speakers. This is a chance for him to explain how his committee is going to increase funding for road safety and reaffirm his trust in SDOT’s ability to do good work.
You also have two opportunities in the next week or so to get involved with the city’s exciting neighborhood greenways movement, where you can help make a difference near your own home.
Press conference details:
More and more people are walking, biking and using transit to navigate the streets of Seattle. In our dense, urban environment, the public right-of-way is shared by all of us — drivers, pedestrians and bicyclists. It is our shared responsibility to create a safe environment and to look out for each other. No traffic fatality is acceptable. We can do better.
Our call to action to you is to tackle these problems in two ways: through better behavior and through better infrastructure. Please join us.
PRESS CONFERENCE DETAILS:
Date: Thursday, Sept. 15
Time: 9:30 a.m. – 10:30 a.m. Speakers 9:45
Location: The public space located on the median of NE Campus Parkway, located between 15th Ave NE and University Way N