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We are failing our kids: A look at Seattle’s terrifyingly normal streets

Screen Shot 2013-06-08 at 11.43.54 AMI was poking around Google Maps over the weekend when I stumbled on a Street View scene that made me stop in my tracks. This group of kids, holding hands, escorted by two adults have to run to make sure they can get across the five lanes of Fauntleroy Way SW at SW Alaska Street in West Seattle.

The red hand is already flashing, the countdown at 12 and the first kids have not even reached the double yellow line yet. There’s no way to know how many of them make it across in the first signal. Are the stragglers still in the street when the light turns green? Are the drivers waiting patient, or do they give a little engine rev to tell them to hurry up? We don’t know because this is the last image from this day in July 2011 that Street View shows.

But that’s beside the point, because this image is incredibly, frustratingly and terrifyingly normal.

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By default, streets in Seattle completely fail our children. When Fauntleroy was engineered some time ago to have five lanes where it crosses Alaska, the child crossing the street was forgotten at best or ignored at worst. Same goes for many, many busy intersections across the city. From curb to far distant curb, there is no safe space for people. You hold-your-breath, cross your fingers and hope every single person at the intersection is both sober and paying attention.

In fact, there is a reason this scene jumped out at me: A Greenwood seven-year-old girl’s dance with death was fresh on my mind. She was walking to school at Broadview-Thomson K-8 with her mom Friday morning when an apparently reckless man behind the wheel struck her and her mother while they crossed the street in a crosswalk at 130th and Greenwood.

After the man struck her, he continued driving, carrying the child 30 feet on the hood of the car before throwing her another 15 feet to the ground, bleeding and bruised. He kept driving and left the scene, but police were able to locate him. Amazingly, the girl did not appear to have serious injuries beyond nasty bumps and scrapes. Her mother was also not seriously injured.

So what does the street look like at 130th and Greenwood? Terrifyingly normal:Screen Shot 2013-06-10 at 10.56.14 AMSeattle’s children deserve better.

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36 responses to “We are failing our kids: A look at Seattle’s terrifyingly normal streets”

  1. Rachel

    I don’t have kids, but I do have an old dog- who walks slowly across streets. I always worry that she is going to get clipped from an impatient driver. Especially in my neighborhood of Ravenna. Crossing Roosevelt up by 68th St is frustrating and dangerous. You must trust that 2 lanes of one way traffic will decide to obey the Pedestrian right of way sign as you scramble to cross. Most of the time, they completely ignore you as stand under the bright yellow pedestrian sign.

    1. Tom Fucoloro

      That’s a good point, Rachel. There are many reasons why somebody might not be able to cross a street quickly. If our streets were designed with the safety of our slowest and more vulnerable residents in mind, they would look much different.

      A few months ago, I was biking slowly uphill on Union when I saw a man crossing the street with his dog at 15th. A truck was barreling down the street and apparently did not see the dog on the leash lagging behind the man. In a panic response, the man yanked the leash so hard that his dog yelped and flew through the air and barely out of the way of the truck. The man driving just sort of shrugged and kept driving.

      When the man and his dog finally made it to the sidewalk, I watched him sit down on the ground and hug his dog tightly to his chest. I will probably never get that image out of my head.

      1. Rachel

        What?!? That is horrifying.

      2. Tom Fucoloro

        Horrifyingly normal…

      3. Or maybe the dude driving the truck did it on purpose. I was recently in Europe (suburbs of Luxembourg) and a driver actually accelerated at me while I was crossing in a crosswalk. Had she maintained her initial speed I’d have had time to cross at a brisk walk without her slowing down (which is my usual practice) but she hit it so hard I had to break into a run. I think it was a 40 km/h road (a minor arterial with no center-line… might have been 50, but it was near a school so I’d guess not) and she probably got up over 60.

    2. Chris

      It’s as if the folks who designed those lights are so car-centric, they think pedestrians should travel as quickly as a car to cross within the legal time-limit. Does S-DOT think pedestrians should be placed in an illegal position so that any form of travel besides driving is viewed as unacceptable, even illegal? Does anyone who puts these timers into motion consider how absurd it is to expect someone to cross two to four lanes of traffic in under five seconds? We non-drivers pay for half of the funds from taxes on those highways and freeways too, yet our representatives are falling short on promises to make our city more liveable for us.

      1. Probably those lights are so old that when they were designed, the pedestrian didn’t even exist; the crosswalk lights were installed just because that’s what you do.

  2. biliruben

    Completely agree. And 130th and Greenwood has had fairly substantial improvements recently just to make it this level of terrifyingly dangerous. 130th has buffered bike lanes and Greenwood has an automated camera, snapping photos and mailing speeding tickets.

    One of the best intersections, with library on one corner and school on the other, is still really awful.

  3. Glen

    You are completely right Tom. Seattle and all cities across our state have to up-end their priorities and draw a line in the sand saying that safety of all road users is the #1 priority for all road projects and that nothing will compromise road user safety in order to improve traffic speed or throughput.

    How about a Mayoral candidate that will step up and say that?

  4. Matthew

    Maybe we could make it a kid of “blog project” to follow that hit-and-run story involving the little girl on Greenwood. Make sure charges are filed against the driver for, at the absolute minimum, leaving the scene. These are the kinds of cases that just seem to vanish unless there’s some activism around them.

    What’s additionally frustrating is that sometimes, even when the city recognizes poor safety conditions and announces plans to fix them, it’s months before anything is done. For example, the mayor proposed some upgrades to the pedestrian and bike safety environment connecting the Burke-Gilman to downtown Ballard as an interim step while the missing link saga continues. Months have passed since the press conference, but literally nothing of what was announced has been accomplished (or even started). I know this is not really a route to school for most people, but it’s symbolic of a larger issue of opaque project prioritization by the city.

    1. It would be shocking if the driver wasn’t charged for fleeing the scene.

      But it needs to be more than that. The driver committed a crime before leaving the scene, and our legislature just passed a law essentially reminding the justice system that those are crimes, too.

      1. Matthew

        I know I sound like a broken record sometimes, but:

        No charges filed against the driver who struck the little girl biking on the sidewalk in Kent, dragged her into the street, and fled the scene.

        No charges filed against the driver of the Car2Go vehicle who struck a pedestrian in Capitol Hill and fled the scene.

        I hope you’re right, but I’m not holding my breath. I think a little bit of agitation is called for around this issue.

      2. Ugh. That’s depressing, particularly the Renton, case, particularly when the VUL is hardly even punitive.

  5. Breckenridge

    Stop de Kindermoord.

    It was the death of children that lead to the Dutch getting what we now consider cycling “utopia”.

    Time to bring this slogan back, but here in the USA.

  6. Anthony

    The sad reality of this comes down to the fact that drivers don’t care enough about someone else’s children or dog, and we have a city and nationwide admin. that likes to only give lip service to cyclists and give lenient sentences to drivers.

    Fix that and we are good to go in so many ways. So, Seattle will get another lip-service mayor promising improvements, but heck, the best solution would be to take the mayor’s and the city councils cars away, MAKE them ride to work and then we will see changes.

    In Cd. Chihuahua the crosswalk light is set for I think 50 seconds, minimum. Works great there, and drivers in downtown Chihuahua are much more respectful than Seattle drivers.

  7. peter

    When I was a bike messenger downtown, we had a more direct approach to being threatened by a car: cryptonite lock applied to the tail light. The issue is that the car drivers have no skin in the game; they are protected by legally mandated safety features like bumpers, rollover sidewall framing, shatter proof glass. The non-motorized participants in the people moving experiment have none of those, is it any wonder drivers have an exageratted sense of entitlement, a flase sense of security?

    I say, take away bumpers and seatbelts, make the car driver an equal with the most vulnerable of our fellow commutors. Transit planning is as the mercy of the technology it has been given, no wonder it has stalled in planning more safe streets, as long as up armoured SUVs roam our streets, there will be casualties.

    1. Tom Fucoloro

      Everyone is a pedestrian at some point, including people who drive.

  8. Ellie

    This is even true of reaidential streets. My eyes were really opened to this after talking to a coworker who recently had a baby. He told me about an uncontrolled intersection in his neighborhood (no traffic circle or signs), where he had witnessed many accidents. Having kid safety on the brain now, he tried reporting it to the city. Even after looking up collision records and admitting that it had a bad track record, they were unwilling to do anything unless the neighbors funded the traffic study via a property tax levy and they got written permission from all the property owners nearby. Needless to say that didn’t happen; he’s just a regular guy trying to improve his neighborhood, not a full time grassroots organizer.

    I had always wondered why we have so many uncontrolled intersections but now I know why.

  9. Greg

    They don’t just fail kids. I’ve noticed many intersections downtown and on arterials near Green Lake that have crazily short crossing times for pedestrians. Many of the ones I cross to and from work every day will start flashing the hand after just a couple of seconds.

    Then I got a Seattle PD officer threatening me with a jaywalking ticket one day because I started crossing when the hand had just started flashing. Can’t win.

    1. Matthew

      If you’re not already doing so, report these kinds of phase timing issues to SDOT. Sometimes I think they just don’t realize there’s a problem. A great example of this is at the intersection of Stone Way and the Burke-Gilman trail, which is a choke-point for bike and pedestrian traffic, and can be a veritable bike traffic jam during peak commute times. The walk phase for bikers and peds on the trail crossing Stone is comically short at 4 or 4.5 seconds, which is not nearly long enough to legally clear all of the bikes that pile up. I reported this problem a few times to SDOT, and recently they wrote back saying that they had decided to increase the walk phase to 15 seconds — not quite the 20+ seconds I think would be safe, but better than the current situation anyway. They said this change would happen in the next two weeks.

      1. josh

        Late to the thread, hope this is still helpful to someone — put [email protected] in your phone’s address book now, then take a picture of problems and send it to them while you’re still thinking of it. If you wait to report it until you get home, something else will come up and you’ll forget.

  10. LMBikes

    As a parent, a cyclist and as someone with an aging parent, I am constantly frustrated by the short length of crossing cycles, or the lack of any infrastructure to help vulnerable users safely navigate crossings or intersections. There is no doubt that the city is built for cars, with paint slapped on to create ‘infrastructure’ for all other road users.

    Thank you for posting this Tom; it’s in everyone’s interest to keep people safe and moving.

  11. Peri Hartman

    One thing that could help for the Fauntleroy intersection and other wide intersections is to move the crosswalk back from the intersection. This is a trade-off: on the one hand, by pulling the crosswalk back, say 50′, allows for more lane space near the intersection and the span of the crosswalk can be shorter where lanes can be more constrained. On the other hand, it means going a bit out of the way to cross the street.

    I’ve seen this in numerous places in Europe. It isn’t ideal but it seems better than putting peds in the most dangerous spot.

  12. Agreed that the intersection in the photo is not so good for pedestrians. What is worse: if you follow that intersection west on Alaska, there is not another crosswalk until you get to 42nd Ave. And there are pedestrians everywhere. I can sit in my office and watch people almost get hit trying to cross Alaska or the roads intersecting Alaska (none of which have any crosswalks at all) every few minutes, all day long.

    1. datamuse

      The increased development along that corridor–which I’m generally in favor of, for what that’s worth–is going to make the crossing issue worse. Plus drivers are so impatient with the lane rechannelization along Alaska…I really wonder if there’s going to be any thought to walkers’ safety with all the new housing going in.

  13. […] The sad thing is, this scary scene isn't all that unusual, writes Tom Fucoloro. Image: Seattle Bike Blog/Google Street View […]

  14. A

    Agree with those pointing out it isn’t just the children who are being failed, the current attitudes around automobile usage in this country are unacceptable. Inhospitable living environments, wasted resources and thirty thousand Americans dead annually. If this were happening from an outside source we would have gone to war already. Instead it’s our own creation and it’s the status quo.

    1. Gary

      Amen brother.

      And it used to be closer to 50,000 dead, I haven’t seen the numbers of injuries but I would expect that it’s in the 100’s of thousands, that the lost work/productivity is in the millions. Funny thing is that a wrecked car contributes to the GDP, because it’s replaced, dead people open up jobs, don’t collect social security, widows remarry, so collisions appear as a net postive to economists.

  15. The signal timing is very likely too short, the crosswalk has not been maintained, there is no advance stop bar for the crosswalk, and the street environment is unwelcoming to pedestrians. There is no justification for this kind of street infrastructure.

    However, students should be learning in school and from their parents about safe street crossing so that they can reduce their risk in these situations. Safe crossing includes: picking the best places to cross; stopping at the edge; looking left, looking right, and looking left again (even if there is a pedestrian signal or green light) and continuing to look all the way across; everyone looks for themselves; and everyone makes their own independent decision about whether it is safe to cross. It looks as though the children are following one another into the crosswalk, however, they should not be entering the crosswalk after the flashing red hand starts and countdown starts. I don’t say this to justify in any way poor infrastructure or bad driver behavior, just to say that we can help children protect themselves through pedestrian education. Is there any more important topic we can be teaching them in school?

    1. Looking both ways three or twenty times does nothing to stop a drunk/reckless/inattentive/selfish driver from careening out of the street and onto a sidewalk, into a house, over a guardrail, etc. I live in NYC where in the last 7 or so days, two children (babies) have been maimed or killed by driver in SUVs that mounted sidewalks, an older couple were seriously injured when a car drove into the porch of their (outer-borough) home, where they were sitting, and an SUV t-boned an ambulance that had the right of way. No amount of exercising caution on the part of those folks would have prevented those crashes.

      No one — child, senior, anyone — should have to run through a 12-item checklist to cross a street safely. You would simply not be able to get anywhere. It’s absurd, and it needs to change now. Maybe instead the most important thing we can teach each other, kids included, is how to stay on electeds and other policy makers to make complete streets that prioritize the most vulnerable users and increase mobility options.

    2. Plus, you can set up some great logic problems for the children when you realize that there are only two adults, all children must be accompanied by an adult at all times, and the walk signal is only long enough for one-third of the class to cross safely on each cycle. Nothing like tying math puzzles to everyday tasks to promote learning!

      (The solution involves the two teachers meeting in the middle of the crosswalk to exchange the fox for the bag of grain, while the farmer takes the chicken in the canoe the long way around from the ferry terminal.)

      1. Tom Fucoloro

        Haha! Yeah, I was wondering that, too. The class essentially MUST “break the law”* in order to get across safely.

        * I put “break the law” in quotes because this is a ridiculous law, and I’m pretty sure very few people, let alone police officers, even know it’s illegal to start crossing once the hand starts flashing. We’ve all seen those signals where the walk sign essentially just flashes for a second before the red hand starts blinking. It’s nearly impossible to cross legally when that happens, especially if it takes you longer to get going, like if you’re in a wheelchair or walking a stubborn dog.

      2. If the kids are crossing the street en masse that way they should cork it, Critical Mass style.

  16. […] in turn to articles from Akron and Seattle. I commented on the Seattle Bike Blog post “We are failing our kids: A look at Seattle’s terrifyingly normal streets,” but I’d like to amplify my comments and specifically talk about pedestrian […]

  17. yup – and those same kids (& teens) can produce their own solutions
    great timing for Youth Engagement Training in Seattle next thursday June 19th as a pre-conference workshop for Bicycle Urbanism Symposium

  18. Breadbaker

    Poorly timed crosswalks create an environment like you have in many cities where no one bothers even to look at the lights, they just cross when they want to. An example here is the light at Fifth and Pine next to Nordstrom. It is not unusual that there is not a single vehicle on Fifth Avenue as far as the eye can see, yet the light goes on and on because it’s apparently timed all day to accommodate rush hour. You get the same thing at Second Ave. and Pike. The result is that people just start crossing and when cars finally do come, there is chaos and no respect for the law.

    I find that pedestrians on Dexter simply don’t believe that I’m going to stop for them on my bike to let them cross when they reach the crosswalk, which has the absurd result that instead of them going so I can time my crossing the crosswalk after they go, I have to come to a complete stop, signal to them to walk and then start from a standing stop again after they have crossed. But I’d rather do that and give them an experience where they think, “Nice to see a cyclist giving us the right of way” than to plough through the intersection and leave their assumptions about cyclists confirmed.

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