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Walking in Seattle: These 28 Seattleites died walking on road diet candidate streets last decade

The road diet battles in Seattle have a tendency to get nasty, and they are far from over. Even though the Federal Highway Administration has officially (finally) named the road diet as a “proven safety countermeasure,” the projects can be controversial regardless of past successes or engineering analyses.

But while we argue over every mile of proposed road diet, Walking in Seattle ran through pedestrian fatality data and found that of the 101 pedestrians who died between 2001 and 2009, 28 people died on over-designed Seattle roads that seem (at least at first glance) to be potential candidates for road diets:

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“What’s a candidate for a road diet?” you ask. Well — depending on the road of course — most roads can carry up to 25,000 vehicles per day with a three-lane configuration before people start to see significant delays. Current four-lane roads with traffic below 20,000 vehicles per day will likely see no real delays (minimal vehicle time increases are often due to reduced speeding, which is the desired effect). Beyond 20,000, they can still work, especially if other improvements are made along the street to make things flow more smoothly. Plus, small delays in travel times are worth saving lives and preventing serious injury.

Not every fatality on the map above occurred on a road the city is going to be super eager to make changes to. Some have highway ramp issues. Others occurred on roads that have since seen changes. Some also happened on roads where the “road diet” solutions could be different than the typical four-to-three-lane conversions we’re used to in Seattle (for example, the downtown locations). But it is a strong illustration of the importance of complete streets and the risks we run by delaying these cost-effective projects that are nearly guaranteed to work.

Road diets significantly reduce the number of traffic collisions for all road users, making them better for driving as well as biking and walking. For example, Seattle’s Stone Way road diet reduced collisions by 14 percent, injury crashes by 33 percent, dangerous angle crashes by 56 percent and pedestrian crashes by 80 percent. Meanwhile, vehicle volumes stayed roughly the same and all it cost was a little paint (typically, they cost about $50,000 per mile, though costs increase amid controversy due to requested studies and increased public meetings). Biking increased by 35 percent.

Road diets also open doors for other roadway benefits, such as increased safe crosswalks. They typically make room for bike lanes, which increase bicycle access to businesses and complete valuable connections in the bicycle network. Sometimes they even add on-street parking (though this is rarely my preferred option) or medians.

Road diets also make neighborhood greenways cheaper and safer by increasing the options for safe road crossings at busy intersections. For example, the Wallingford neighborhood greenway on 44th/43rd Streets will cross Stone Way with just a concrete median island (updated details on that soon), an option that costs many times less than a traffic signal.

So it’s important to remember that much of the excitement of neighborhood greenways today is building on the hard (and sometimes unpopular and painful) work of past road diet efforts. And there are still many more projects yet to come. But it’s all worth it to prevent senseless traffic deaths and promote walking and biking in our communities.

It’s time for the city leadership to empower SDOT to carry out road diets in all situations where SDOT engineers determine there will be minimal impacts on traffic volumes. The department should be empowered to carry them out without painful, expensive and time-consuming public review processes so that we can make a serious dent in the number of Seattle lives senselessly cut short or changed forever.

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8 responses to “Walking in Seattle: These 28 Seattleites died walking on road diet candidate streets last decade”

  1. Doug Bostrom

    At the risk of sounding like a spindoctor (let alone a hectoring nag), why say “road diet” when “road modernization” or “road improvement” is actually more accurately descriptive?

    A casual count found the term “road diet” employed eleven times in this article, so there are eleven verbal shots wide of the mark, eleven missed opportunities to better familiarize readers with beneficial innovations in roadway engineering.

    Another quibble: “over-designed road” might actually be better expressed as “under-designed road,” in the sense that if roadway engineering ignores data such as reproducible findings that needlessly wide roadways cost lives, such obsolescent engineering is producing under-designed roads and needs to be modernized, brought up to date..

    1. Tom Fucoloro

      Yeah, I don’t know. I go back and forth. “Road diet” is the term used all over the country. “Rechannelization” is ok. Accurate, uninspiring. “Road changes” is not specific enough. I once tried to get people use the term “road tailoring,” which would imply there is too much road for the existing traffic, and we just need to fit it better. I still kinda like it, but the last thing we really need is more names for the same thing.

      The term “road diet” is not going away, so we should probably just own it. Road diets are good. I am totally happy and proud to be a road diet supporter. In the end, it’s harder to get your point across when you have to type “rechannelization” eleven times in a story. It sounds like you’re trying to hide something. And there is nothing to hide.

      1. Doug Bostrom

        It’s a toughie; “diet” in this context is a heavily freighted word, implying that somebody is left hungry for something they want, yet as you say the objectives redistributing road space are more narrowly specific than “improvement,” “modernization” or other generalities.

        I’m a subscriber to the notion that our cognition is inextricably related to our semantics, that our precision of understanding is dependent on our choice of words. It is conceivable that I could be wrong. :-)

      2. Tom Fucoloro

        You’re probably right. But “diet” is often used as a positive in society, too. People buy tons of “diet” soda because they think it will help make them healthier or skinnier. Soft drink companies simply sold the public on the idea that 20 oz of aspartame a day is good for your health because too much sugar is bad.

        Well, too much excess road capacity is much worse for your health, and we have a solution. And the best part: It doesn’t taste like crap like aspartame! (okay, the analogy has fallen apart, but you get the idea)

        I guess my point is that we are trying to sell these plans without suggesting that excess road capacity is bad. We use non-specific terms to avoid saying something as controversial as: “Streets with too many lanes that are too wide are bad.” But they are! No point in trying not to say it. We need to cut excess road capacity out of our city if we want it to be healthy.

  2. Todd

    Sweet map Tom. Very effective.

    1. Tom Fucoloro

      Not my map! Troy from Walking in Seattle made it.

  3. Very informative, Tom. Thank you.

    I like Doug’s point regarding the traffic engineering language. I can say from experience that traditional engineer-speak leads people to believe that “over-designing” is a good thing. If 2 lanes is safe, then 4 lanes MUST be safer.

    Now that attorneys across the country are becoming more aware of the dramatic safety benefits of improvements like road diets & roundabouts, it will be interesting to see how the planning & engineering professionals respond. I’m optimistic. I think we’ll see more raw emotion and anger at the staggering number of lives lost every year on our roads–emotion that leads to professionals speaking out even when they’re a lone voice.

  4. Kevin Carrabine

    Interesting discussion of semantics…which are so important to making a point, and to deflecting and accepting critique.

    Why not call these ‘roadway improvements’, acknowledging that ‘mistakes were made’?

    And I disagree…diet is freighted with too much baggage. Of course diet cola is popular because people don’t want the calories, but to suggest that ‘diet’ anything is viewed positively is, I suspect, wrong (you should go on a diet – I’m on a diet – what ‘diet’ are you on? – I really like the ‘xxx’ diet!)
    Diet implies denial of something that we crave, and who wants to be reminded of that? No one, I would posit.

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