People are injured and killed in preventable traffic collisions on Denny Way every year, yet Seattle is planning to invest more than $5 million in the street without addressing its dangerous street design. Instead, the project is moving forward without regard for the city’s Vision Zero goals and without addressing needs specifically called for in the city’s Pedestrian and Transit Master Plans.
The project has strayed from Seattle’s existing transportation policy and needs a reset so it can be brought in line with the city’s safety and transit mobility goals.
If you had not heard about this project until this post or Ryan Packer’s recent story in the Urbanist, that’s part of the problem. While projects investing to improve safety get bogged down in enormous amounts of public process and delay, projects investing to maintain dangerous streets like Denny Way seem to get a free pass from the Seattle Process. Had there been a proper public process earlier, the team would have heard loud and clear from residents that we expect safety and transit improvements to be included. There’s even a whole community-led campaign to Fix the L8 that is focused largely on making improvements to this section of Denny Way so that the packed and unreliable Route 8 bus can better serve its 5,000+ daily riders (a count that would surely be higher if the thing ran on time). Now the city is left with the frustrating decision of pausing a project that is already in the design phase, sending it back to project development so safety and transit mobility are included. This could mean that it would not be ready for paving in 2024 as currently planned and that the budget may change, but pausing it is the right thing to do.
Denny Way is listed in Seattle’s Pedestrian Master Plan (PDF) as part of the “priority investment network,” noting that much of the project area scores a “high” safety prioritization, meaning it is in the top 20% of all streets in the city in need to safety improvements. Denny Way is also one of eight “priority bus corridors” highlighted in Seattle’s Transit Master Plan (corridors section PDF), which notes that “investments in the corridors identified through the TMP have the highest potential benefits to Seattle and its residents.” The plan specifically recommends:
- TSP [Transit Signal Priority] (requires fiber installation)
- Multimodal Projects
- Pedestrian enhancements are needed along and across Denny Way
- The Denny Way Streetscape Concept Plan provides guidance for pedestrian realm improvements along this busy corridor
A “multimodal project” could include improvements like safety upgrades and bus lanes.
SDOT also recently completed a Vision Zero review that found that 80% of people killed in traffic while walking occurred on streets with more than one general purpose traffic lane in the same direction. Denny Way is designed with two general purpose lanes in each direction for most of its length.
What’s worse, the Vision Zero Program recommended a safety redesign. “There is a large opportunity to transition this area which is quickly densifying from a through route into something more that fits in with our big picture for Vision Zero,” the Vision Zero team wrote in the project’s Complete Streets Checklist (PDF). “Think of designing for how we want our city to operate, not accommodating how it currently operates. A road diet could provide potential for bus lanes and/or medians that would could create some ped friendly crossings at the unsignalized locations and slow traffic speeds.”
But the Traffic Operations Division rejected their recommendation, offering a frankly nonsense answer that they needed to “monitor the effect/improvement of the Denny Way ITS project.” The so-called “Intelligent Transportation System” project is just an expensive signal timing computer program like the one already in failed operation on nearby Mercer Street (you know, those signals that are so “intelligent” they still haven’t been able to figure out this obvious fix to reduce crosswalk and bike lane blockages), and it is not designed to address any of the issues the Vision Zero recommendation noted. The Traffic Operations Division then notes, “No funding currently identified.” This is again nonsense because if we don’t have funding to build a safe project, then we don’t have funding to build the project. The relevant plans and public policies directing SDOT to make streets like Denny Way safer were all in place long before this project got its budget, so that’s not an acceptable excuse. Moving forward, maybe SDOT needs to change their processes so that Vision Zero is integrated earlier and safety can be properly budgeted. Or maybe the Traffic Operations Division needs to also care about Vision Zero rather than waiting until it’s “too late” to include safety fixes.
The Traffic Operations Division also notes many times that the street is a “Tier 1 Emergency Response Route,” which they use as reasoning for why crosswalks and intersections can’t be raised to make them safer and more accessible. Yet installing a bus lane would be great for emergency response since emergency vehicles could use them to get around traffic. So it seems odd that emergency access can be an excuse not to improve safety, yet doesn’t seem to be a factor when deciding about bus lanes.
This whole fiasco is somehow made even more frustrating by the fact that SDOT does have a safety team that assesses needs and opportunities for these big paving projects, yet they can be ignored so easily. Disregarding a safety suggestion should be considered a really big deal. Imagine if a bridge engineer waved away someone trying to tell them that their design includes features that are known to kill and injure people. It would be a major scandal. Traffic engineering is no different, and the profession needs to be held to the same ethical standards. Our city should not build a street in a manor we know will cause injury and death.
If Seattle is going to get Vision Zero back on track, fixing streets like Denny Way are at the top of the to-do list. This project is an incredible opportunity for our city, allowing us to address one of the biggest barriers to walkability between downtown and South Lake Union while also greatly improving a vital cross-town transit route. Let’s do it right.