The intersection of Rainier Ave and MLK Way is big, dangerous and works poorly for everyone. Running next to a high school, a light rail station and a growing number of other destinations, the city and neighborhood have been studying solutions for at least 15 years.
Well, the city’s latest plan will be different, according to presenters at a recent open house. Not only does the city have a bold new idea for a long-term redesign, they have also identified short-term and mid-term improvements that could finally add some high-demand crosswalks and shorten signal cycles for everyone.
The project — which has the extremely non-descriptive name “Accessible Mount Baker” — does not have funding for any large changes yet, but it could have a good shot at funding if voters approve the Move Seattle levy in November.
First, let’s rewind.
How did this intersection get so terrible?
A historic Olmsted boulevard connection between Cheasty and Mt. Baker Boulevards was severed during the 20th Century as traffic engineers from the city and state widened Rainier Ave and MLK (then “Empire Way”) to carry more and more cars. Spots where people could walk or bike across the street were scrubbed to better facilitate traffic flow. But it could have been worse. Empire Way was even slated to become an elevated freeway until neighbors fought and stopped the R.H. Thomson Expressway.
The park-like boulevard that defined the area was cut off from Cheasty Boulevard and lost most of its luster, at least in this part of the neighborhood. To “maintain” that walking connection, a long elevated walkway with steep approaches was constructed. The steep spiral ramps to access the walkway are too steep for easy biking or for people with mobility issues, and many others (like many Franklin High School students) choose to run across the street rather than climb the walkway.
And the intersection they have to cross is terrifying. It’s huge and on an obtuse angle that allows turning cars to pick up a fair amount of speed. Here’s what it looks like today, via Google Street View:
Having two streets of this size intersecting in the middle of the neighborhood doesn’t even work well for people driving. To facilitate all the turns, there are three signal cycles rather than just two. This adds time to everyone’s trips.
Worse, it’s very dangerous. There were more than 250 collisions reported in just this couple-block area between 2010 and 2013. That’s a crash every four days. Many of these collisions involve people on foot.
But it doesn’t need to be this way. The city’s latest plans would attempt to make the intersection safer, reduce delay at the traffic signal and make it easier to walk across the street without the elevated walkway.
And eventually, the plan could even restore Mt. Baker Boulevard to its former glory as a walkable, bikeable neighborhood centerpiece.
Small changes that can happen now
But first, here’s a look at what the city could do as soon as this year 0r next:
It may not look like much on the map, but it’s the start of the new vision. Today, Mt Baker Boulevard has two ridiculously wide lanes separated by a planted median. The lanes are so wide that the city could put both directions of general purpose travel on the south side of the median, then use the north side of the median to create a new protected bikeway and expand the walking space.
The city can also repurpose an unused bus lane on Rainier to widen the sidewalks and increase the space at corners for the crowds of people waiting to cross the street.
But with more funding, they can do all that and more:
The most exciting part of the “near term” project list is a new, badly-needed crosswalk from the Franklin High School field across Rainier Ave (marked #3 in the map). While the elevated walkway would remain, this crosswalk should allow people to safely make this crossing at-grade.
This is the essence of the newer, smarter SDOT approach: Rather than create unrealistic pedestrian pathways, then get angry at (or even punch) people who don’t follow the intended path, the city should observe how people actually want to use the space and make it safer for them to do so. Traffic engineers, especially in the era this walkway was created, had a history of trying to fight people’s natural desire lines through a public space. That style of engineering can have devastating consequences, as all the people injured crossing this street know all too well.
The city would also extend the south triangle of the intersection to make all the crosswalk distances shorter. These changes are thanks to eliminating all left turns from MLK, which would also allow the city to cut an entire signal cycle, reducing wait times for everyone. People turning left from MLK to Rainier would have to do so at a different intersection or would reroute to take MLK rather than Rainier if possible for their trip.
This phase of the project is also an opportunity to add a bike lane on Rainier Ave between Mt Baker Boulevard and MLK, which the Bike Master Plan identifies for protected bike lanes some day.
The big, long-term vision
But to truly restore the neighborhood center, create comfortable walking and biking connections and ease traffic headaches, the city hopes to dramatically redesign the intersection by, well, getting rid of it entirely. Southbound Rainier Ave would turn into southbound MLK, and vice versa.
The changes would allow the city to reconnect Mt Baker Boulevard for people walking, biking and taking transit (private cars would not be able to make the connection, but Metro’s high-performing Route 7 bus would, as would emergency vehicles and people biking and walking). This means lots of new public space for the area, which will see a lot of higher-density redevelopment in coming years and decades.
By reconnecting Mt Baker Boulevard, the city would also be reconnecting the Olmsted-designed route from Beacon Hill to Lake Washington, a beautiful vision for the area.
These changes would not only revolutionize the Mt Baker neighborhood, but they would forever shift traffic patterns in Rainier Valley.
MLK north of this intersection is fairly low-traffic. Rainier Ave south of this intersection carries lots of regional traffic and goes through the heart of Rainier Valley, passing through many neighborhood business districts. By routing most regional and freight traffic to MLK south of Mt Baker, Rainier Ave could be more focused on safely serving local traffic and people going to area businesses. MLK, meanwhile, was rebuilt when light rail was installed to handle more traffic than it carries today.
Planners think these changes would be especially good for freight movement, which does not really work well on Rainier Ave today.
Bike lanes on MLK and Rainier
These changes would also free up space to add bike lanes to both MLK and Rainier Ave. This is a huge, bold vision for a bikeable Rainier Valley and the Mt Baker neighborhood. Most of the traffic congestion in the area has less to do with road width and more to do with this poorly-performing intersection. By removing the choke point, the city could also more easily add bike lanes to both these vital corridors. Simply put, this would change everything for bike access in south Seattle.
It’s not hard to see how this project could connect into bike lanes created as part of the current Rainier Ave Road Safety Corridor Project that starts just south of Mt Baker.