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As traffic deaths and injuries increase, Mayor will reduce speed limits to 25, add red light and speed cameras, and give walk signals a head start

Mayor Jenny Durkan made her boldest safe streets stand yet when she unveiled a 25 mph speed limit sign on Rainier Ave S, the first of several thousand sign changes coming in the next year and a half. But that’s just part of her effort to get Vision Zero back on track in the second half of her term.

The city will also add more red light cameras, add speed zone cameras to five more school zones and have SPD conduct more crosswalk yielding enforcement. A new Major Crash Review Task Force “will convene a panel of experts to analyze every serious and fatal collision in our City and provide recommendations to prevent similar incidents from happening again,” according to an SDOT Blog post. It’s rather amazing such an effort doesn’t already exist, so this is a welcome effort. It could be especially effective if the task force is empowered to direct major street safety changes.

And one of the biggest improvements may be among the most difficult to see: A major increase in the number of traffic signals across the city that give people walking a short head start. In fact, the city has already been quietly implementing these “leading pedestrian intervals,” which are very easy and cheap to do. Essentially, you simply program the signal to show the walk sign a few seconds before the green light. That way people on foot are well-established and visible before people turning their cars start to move. This StreetFilms video explains the concept well:

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Seattle has dramatically increased the number of these walking head starts in the past couple years, going from just a couple a few years ago to 125 today. And the city now plans to double that total by the end of 2020.

Graph shwoing the number of LPI signals in Seattle by year. The line increases in 2017 and steeply climbs to 125 by 2019. A dotted line shows the projection for 2020 doubling the total.
From SDOT (UPDATED 12/11 to add the 2020 projection).

There are very few opportunities in traffic engineering to simply turn a couple knobs and get significant increases in safety. Walking head starts, providing walk signals on every cycle (#GivePedsTheGreen) and providing immediate walk signal activation are a few such changes. Very few people who drive will even notice that anything has changed, yet safety for people on foot will be significantly better. And SDOT says they are working on all these ideas:

We’ll also be taking a look at how we use push-buttons to address frustrations we’ve heardWe don’t want to make you press a button if you don’t need to, and there are also some places where giving pedestrians control to stop car traffic makes the most sense. So we want to make sure that we’re programming these buttons consistently with a pedestrian’s perspective in mind.  

Map of existing LPI signals in Seattle.
Map of the Leading Pedestrian Intervals in Seattle, from SDOT. Most were installed in the past year. I bet you didn’t even notice.

Of course, the walking head starts would be even more effective if we also banned right turns on red, but that’s the topic for another post…

Some longtime readers may be wondering, Didn’t we lower speed limits across the city a few years ago? Yes, sort of. In 2016, Seattle lowered speed limits downtown and as the default arterial speed limit citywide. So basically, any street that is busy enough to have a line down the middle has a speed limit of 25 unless marked otherwise. But many of the busiest and most deadly streets in our city have signs listing higher speed limits, sometimes as high as 45. That will change this year as SDOT lowers those speed limits as well, installing new 25 mph signs in their place.

SDOT says downtown and South Lake Union saw a 10% reduction in collisions and a 20% reduction in serious injuries and deaths after lowering the speed limits there.

These changes will only apply to streets the city controls, so state highways like Aurora and Lake City Way will require WSDOT to take action. So it’s great news that the mayor also said she would work with the state to change those speed limits, as well:

Aurora specifically has seen a major increase in deaths this year. It was already very bad even before the devastating collision two weeks ago that killed two people and seriously injured another. It is going to take a lot more than some speed limit signs to fix that street’s problems, though lowering limits is a start.

All of this is in addition to the city’s recently-approved 2020-21 budget, which adds millions for building sidewalks, improving accessibility, increasing walking safety and building south end bike lanes and trails.

Mayor Durkan got off to a very tough start on street safety, delaying or outright cancelling safety projects across the city, especially in her first year and a half as mayor. This culminated in her spring 2019 decision to scrap the 35th Ave NE bike lanes at the last minute, setting off a major backlash and protest. So it is great to see her taking a leadership role here, and it is encouraging that many major projects are now moving ahead like the incredible recently-completed south downtown bike connection (stay tuned for more on that). It feels like she has turned a corner on safe streets. I hope she keeps this momentum going, because there is a ton of work to do.

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17 responses to “As traffic deaths and injuries increase, Mayor will reduce speed limits to 25, add red light and speed cameras, and give walk signals a head start”

  1. Richard

    I’m confused… Did someone kidnap the mayor and replace her with a reasonable robot?

    1. Richard

      Also, “…more crosswalk enforcement…” – Basically they could write a single ticket and proclaim success: “We’ve increase crosswalk enforcement by eleventy-billion percent!”

      In all seriousness, I’m extremely (and pleasantly) shocked by this. Dammit what am I going to do with all this snark?!? :)

    2. Matt

      I thought the same thing but then the cynical thought occurred: we just had an election. Is it possible that the mayor has realized that she had previously misread the room?

  2. (Another) Tom

    Importantly, we also reduced the default non-arterial speed limit to 20MPH in 2016. Disappointed to not see that called out here. General awareness is nonexistent.

  3. Nick

    Another pedestrian-friendly change I’d like to see is for Walk lights to turn on automatically when the pedestrian has the right-of-way, instead of remaining as Don’t Walk unless a pedestrian has pushed the Walk button. I can’t think of any downside to this change, since vehicles can still turn on a Walk sign unless there’s a pedestrian in the crosswalk.

    1. Richard

      That’s the #GivePedsTheGreen mentioned about halfway through the article, and *apparently* is part of what this project encompasses… There’s so much good here… Of course, part of my mind is screaming “They’re lying! No way the city will actually do it!” But I’m trying really, really hard to tell that part of my brain to shut up and be optimistic for once :P

  4. bill

    Yeah, the 2016 speed reductions… lots of trump-style winning there. Traffic on 15th in Interbay still goes 50. Ditto on Admiral. Speeds on the West Seattle bridge are edging toward 60.

    1. Ballard Biker

      Was going to post this exact comment. Try driving down 15th Ave at 30 MPH. You’ll get run off the road. Also confusing were the discrepancies in speed limits: why was 15th 30 MPH while Westlake was 35 MPH? I really hope SDOT and the Mayor follow through on this.

      But, until there’s any semblance of enforcement, this is all a bunch of warm fuzzy press releases that accomplishes nothing while pedestrians and cyclists continue to be injured by speeding drivers.

      I just hope our City leadership doesn’t pull a muscle patting themselves on the back for this.

  5. Most of this is good news, and the LPI recently installed near me has definitely crossing that intersection less stressful. But I’m concerned about leading with a speed limit reduction on Rainier Ave and so much talk about enforcement (in SDOT’s press release even more so than this blog post). Is anything going to be done to the parts of Rainier skipped by recent safety projects to actually encourage people to drive more slowly? Or are we just going to pile on a load more police interactions to the still unaddressed traffic hazard that that road puts through Seattle’s most diverse neighborhoods?

    I can’t tell if this is the personal baggage of a mayor who was a prosecutor for years, or more of an institutional problem with SDOT leaning on enforcement because it’s politically easier than reconfiguring lanes, but either way they seem to be leading with the tactic that should be the last resort.

  6. Joseph Singer

    I was under the impression that speed limits were lowered a couple months ago from 30 MPH to 25 MPH on arteries and lowered from 25 MPH to 20 MPH in neighborhood side streets.

  7. Greg

    Jan 2019 the speed limit on Lk Wa Blvd between Seward Pk and Leshi was reduced to 25. No enforcement. Now maybe the most dangerous place to ride your bike in the city. Frustrated drivers that still want to drive 40 tailgate and pass recklessly. No enough cops in the city already and they say the will enforce. This will lead to more dangerous routes for bikes

    1. NickS

      Lk WA Blvd has drivers using it as a morning/evening commute option — it has beautiful views, no traffic lights, few pedestrian crossings, and only a couple of stop signs at the north end. Sure, there are plenty of pesky bicyclists and a few dawdling drivers observing the speed limit, but apparently that’s nothing leaning on the horn and passing at 50mph on a curve won’t solve. There’s even a charming jacked up white pickup truck that rolls coal on bicyclists during the evening commute (seriously).

      Get ready for more vehicle traffic on Lk WA Blvd as the road diet and 25mph speed limit on Rainier on the southern section of Rainier Ave S. is diverting more car traffic from Rainier Ave S. onto 4-way stop controlled Seward Park Ave S., which leads to Lk. WA Blvd. The only mitigation done on Seward Park Ave S. was adding a couple of 25 mph signs between Rainier & Kenyon.

      Heavy northbound vehicle traffic on Rainier from Upper Rainier Beach, Renton, Bryn Mawr and Skyway needs to be steered towards SR900/MLK Jr. Way S. instead of diverted onto residential Seward Park Ave S., something that SDOT desires and acknowledges. Unfortunaetly, it’s clear that SDOT has no idea how to accomplish this. I’ve met with SDOT and suggested eliminating the right on red onto Seward Park Ave S., adding speed cushions, and other traffic calming measures, but there’s zero interest and/or will.

  8. Jonathan Pryce

    Good news. Hopefully there will be a strong enforcement component with fiones that make a statement. Also–how about doing away with that weird American right turn at a red light? Stand on the NW corner of NW Market and 15th Ave NW, for example, and imagine you want to cross to the east, say from the new Bartells to the new Target. Hang out and watch for a few iterations. Drivers are looking east for westbound traffic, with nary a glance to the hapless peds on the NW corner.

    Jonathan Pryce

  9. Speed limits in Seattle don’t matter, no one pays any attention to them. If the streets are still designed like highways, people will drive at highway speeds regardless of the ‘speed limit’

  10. ChamoisDavisJr.

    Interesting how Durkan s trying to unring that bell she rung with the crass politicking of her 35th AV NE fiasco.

  11. That was the 2016 change that was mentioned in the article. It was “unless otherwise posted” and most arterials kept their 30-35 MPH posted limits.

    1. bill

      15th in Interbay was 40 (old Google Street View). Now it’s 30 with no effect and no enforcement.

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