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New Transportation Chair Rob Saka: Street safety is ‘a responsibility I am not taking lightly’

Rob Saka has an enormous task ahead of him in his first year as a City Councilmember. In addition to the usual challenges, like hiring a legislative team and getting everyone up to speed on how work gets done inside City Hall, he will also chair the Transportation Committee during what will likely be the most important year for Seattle transportation this decade. The city needs to complete the Seattle Transportation Plan—an attempt to combine all the various plans including the Bicycle Master Plan into one—and it needs to develop, promote and gain voter approval for a funding measure to replace the expiring Most Seattle Levy.

In an interview with Seattle Bike Blog, Saka made the case that he is energized and enthusiastic about taking on all this work, and he was honest about his need to catch up on some of the issues facing SDOT.

“I’m a first time councilmember,” he said in his new 2nd floor office at City Hall. “I’m new, so I’m going to learn and grow.” Saka won his seat by one of the widest margins of any of the seven district-based councilmembers elected in November, defeating Maren Costa by nearly 9 percentage points. Costa received the endorsements of most of the transportation-focused organizations including Washington Bikes, Transportation for Washington, the Urbanist and the Transit Riders Union.

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Though biking was not a top issue during the campaign, Saka has a history with biking. In law school at UC Hastings (now called UC Law San Francisco), he helped found the school’s intercollegiate cycling team. For a while he did not have a car and biked from his home to school.

Group photo of six people wearing US Hastings Cycling jerseys.
From the UC Hastings Cycling Club blog, circa 2013. Saka is on the left.

Saka said that aside from a ride he did while campaigning, he has not ridden a bike in ten years. He has three kids and though he sees people biking around with kids on their bikes, “That will never be me,” he said. I didn’t say this during the interview, but as one of those biking parents I was thinking, We’ll see about that.

“I understand the importance that bikes play to our community and our economy,” he said. “It is one important, but not the only, mode we need to expand.”

Saka also said he understands what happens when streets aren’t safe.

“I know what ghost bikes mean,” he said. “I’ve been on tribute rides personally.” He also said he understood that his committee plays a big role in making streets safer. “It’s a responsibility I am not taking lightly—keeping everybody safe,” he said. “We have this bold, ambitious and doable vision zero goal.”

When it came to safety, several times he brought the conversation back to the problem of missing sidewalks. “The single most important thing we can do” to improve pedestrian safety, he said, “is add more sidewalk infrastructure.” He said when he was out knocking on doors (he personally knocked on thousands during the campaign), he kept encountering missing sidewalks while trying to get to people’s houses. He also heard from people that missing sidewalks prevent them from wanting to take transit, he said. He acknowledged that Councilmember Tammy Morales “has led great work” on this issue, and he said wanted to build on that work. Morales is no longer a member of the Transportation Committee.

But despite his history of cycling, Saka did seem hesitant to present himself as an all-in champion for cycling issues. Instead, he would talk about cycling being one of many modes. When I presented a hypothetical scenario where an SDOT bike lane project was facing pushback from neighbors, he said, “I think we need to listen to all impacted communities…especially and including cyclists and people who live around there.” “I refuse to believe it’s ever one thing or the other,” he said, later adding that he wants to create a “culture where decisions are transparent and voices are heard.”

This point helps put into context an email that Publicola dug up from 2021–22 in which Saka compared a short centerline barrier on Delridge Way SW to the Trump border wall. That comparison understandably turned some heads. Were these the rantings of an unhinged NIMBY driver upset that a safety project prevented him from turning left? I wasn’t originally planning on focusing this story on these old emails, but the full story paints a useful illustration of how SDOT has failed in the past and how Saka says he wants to lead differently.

He said he wrote the emails while representing pro bono the Refugee and Immigrant Family Center (“RIFC”), where his kids attended daycare, because the center was having no success getting their concerns through to SDOT regarding the Rapidride H project on Delridge Way SW. He said he was “trying to get attention for an equity issue” and had sent notes to media organizations, including the South Seattle Emerald who ran a story about it a few months later.

Choice of border wall metaphor aside, the RIFC’s experience of a project developed during the Jenny Durkan years may sound very familiar to safe streets advocates. The Durkan Administration made it very difficult or sometimes impossible for community members to have meaningful input on projects like the Delridge project (as well as many other parts of city government). This is why there is a bike lane in only one direction on Delridge, a design choice that absolutely nobody wanted. Seattle Bike Blog wrote a post about the project in 2019, at least two years before Saka’s emails, expressing dismay at the absurdity of a bike route that only goes in one direction. We called the Delridge plans “one of the most disappointing so-called ‘multi-modal’ improvement projects in the city.” We also suggested solutions. Community group West Seattle Bicycle Connections had been advocating for a safe bike route on Delridge since at least 2017. Yet nothing was done to fix it, and so SDOT built the compromised-beyond-sensible version we have now. The predictable result is that many people headed northbound now ride the wrong way in the southbound bike lane because the city failed to provide a quality option for them.

The centerline barrier makes it so people cannot make a left turn into or out of the RIFC parking area, and there are no good turnaround options nearby. This isn’t a city grid where people can easily circle the block. The purpose of the the barrier is to prevent people from illegally passing buses stopped at the new bus stops, which is a good safety goal. However, this safety benefit is undercut by the fact that there are two lanes heading southbound, one bus only and one for general traffic. SDOT had an entire extra lane of space to work with to find a solution here. They could make it one lane in each direction with a center turn lane. Or maybe instead of a standard center turn lane, maybe they could add hard-lined turn pockets that would allow for legal turns but not illegal passing. Or maybe they could simplify the roadway to one lane in each direction (with bike lanes in both directions so people who want to bike their kids to daycare have a safe route to do so), which would encourage slower speeds, improve crosswalk safety and allow safer turning movements. There were options, but the community never had a real chance to come up with a workable solution together. Or as Saka put it during our interview, “I don’t think what happened there was transparent.”

By contrast, he presented himself and his office as a “being ready, willing and able to listen to impacted communities.” He encouraged people to reach out about any transportation-related issues.

He joked, as he did during the swearing-in ceremony, that “I aspire to be the king of potholes.” But he said he is using “potholes as a catch-all for all broader transportation problems.” He said he read about the sorry state of the Discovery Park parking lot in the Times’ Rants and Raves section, then contacted SDOT and Parks about it. “Lo and behold, Parks let us know that the Discovery Park parking lot was repaired,” he said. It’s a small early win in his first weeks on the Council.

Saka does not yet know if he will be the chair of the select committee that the Council will likely form this year in order to craft the next transportation funding measure, though the Transportation Committee Chair had held that role in the past. But in general he said he supports “the Biden Administration’s ‘fix it first’ approach.” He said Seattle needs to prioritize bridge maintenance and repairs, though “that doesn’t mean we won’t build new shiny things.” Saka represents West Seattle, so his constituents experienced recently what happens when major bridges close.

Saka is the Council’s appointee to the Move Seattle Levy Oversight Committee, but he admitted that he has some catching up to do when I asked him how he thinks the levy has gone since voters passed it in 2015. “I’m not in the best position to talk about that on a historical perspective,” he said.

I asked him how he plans to run the Transportation Committee. Would he be hands-on, getting into the weeds on projects with SDOT staff, or would he focus on higher-level issues like policy and funding while leaving the day-to-day to the Mayor’s Office. Saka said he would probably do a “hybrid” of these. “I don’t hesitate to dive into the weeds,” he said, but he would work “in close partnership with the Mayor’s Office” since “they’re closer to the operational level.”

As a first-month councilmember, Saka’s vision of an office responsive to the community that hopes to hear everyone out and find solutions is great. The hard part, of course, will be putting that vision into action.

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9 responses to “New Transportation Chair Rob Saka: Street safety is ‘a responsibility I am not taking lightly’”

  1. saka sucks

    “It is one important, but not the only, mode we need to expand”

    Christ. Yes – it actually is. What a horrible start.

    1. Daigoro Toyama

      My hopeful being says Saka may mean public transit as well as cycling. Let’s see.

  2. Mark Rose

    I met Rob in 2014 on the memorial ride for Sher Kung. He was wearing his kit from UC Hastings, which caused me to ask him about Sher, who I believe he said was a couple years ahead of him at UC Hastings. He seemed deeply saddened by her death, as were all who were there. I believe him when he says that he takes seriously the need to keep us all safe on the streets.

    1. Breadbaker

      Going to be ten years? Wow, that triggers a memory. I was biking along 35th St. on my way to that memorial ride when I wiped out on gravel along N. 35th St., cutting open all the skin on the left side of my left leg. The next day was the MS 150 in Mt. Vernon, and somehow I was able to bike to the first rest stop and back. But I always regret not making Sher’s ride.

  3. Jenna

    He doesn’t give a shit about any other modes of travel other than cars, and that explanation of getting mad because people ‘couldn’t turn left out of the parking lot’ was an example of him thinking about himself and the extra minutes it takes him in his four-ton killing machine rather than thinking about contact points with cyclists and pedestrians. Spending money fixing potholes in parking lots, is this a joke? I really hope he doesn’t any influence on SDOT, otherwise, we’re screwed.

  4. Bob Anderton

    Thank you for interviewing Councilmember Saka.

    As a daily bike commuting West Seattle resident, a board member of Seattle Neighborhood Greenways, and as a lawyer representing people injured on Seattle streets, I know how important it is for him to support safer streets. I did not know about Councilmember Saka’s bicycling background.

    I hope that as he speaks with those who are most affected by traffic violence he will help our city take action BEFORE more people are seriously injured or killed. Attorney Sher Kung’s death prompted faster action to make the second avenue bike lane safer, but safety should not require such sacrifices.

    It’s true that building safer infrastructure is the best way to achieve Vision Zero, but it’s also true that this takes money and time. I hope that Councilmember Saka will help Seattle lead the country by introducing legislation creating a rebuttable presumption of civil liability for drivers involved in collisions with people walking or rolling. More on what that would mean here: https://www.washingtonbikelaw.com/blog/legislation.html

    1. Al Dimond

      I’m not a lawyer, so maybe my understanding is wrong, but… isn’t this state-law stuff? Even if it could be done locally, aren’t most of the unclear traffic laws (especially around crosswalks) that could cause problems under a presumption of liability state laws that can’t be locally overridden?

      I read through your page on the matter, and as someone that was injured in a bike crash with someone that ran out in front of me, I take issue with your notion of extending a similar presumption against cyclists that collide with pedestrians. I think there’s a fundamental issue of fairness in presuming liability without any proof of negligence, but that’s mitigated for drivers because they’re required to carry insurance. Judgments that are individually unfair (i.e. where a driver hasn’t really done anything wrong but can’t prove anything against the other person because proving things is hard) wouldn’t be very consequential for insured drivers; on the whole they’d shift more of the burden for the dangers of motordom onto motordom itself, maybe even increasing incentives for insurers and drivers to advocate for real safety improvements. Cyclists don’t carry insurance. We should, of course, be held responsible if we ride negligently (or worse) and hurt people! But we shouldn’t be held individually liable, or responsible for hiring lawyers and investigators to make a case against someone else, if we were riding responsibly and got unlucky. If we were we’d all be crazy not to get insurance, which opens up a whole other can of worms. Cycling has mostly stayed free of the kinds of regulations and surveillance that affect driving because it doesn’t cause so much damage, but if insurance got regularly involved could cycling stay free?

  5. Mickymse

    Not liking the outcome doesn’t mean that one wasn’t “heard” or that decisions weren’t “transparent.” The Delridge Way project was the culmination of over 10 years of advocacy by the neighborhood — not a project imposed by SDOT out of nowhere. While the arrival of Metro’s Rapid Ride H brought needed funding and additional planning compromises, this is what NEIGHBORS wanted. And there were a number of community meetings right here in Delridge for people to attend. And concern about impacts to the preschool were brought up at those meetings.

    So is this an example of an important stakeholder, and one deserving of an equity focus, not being considered regarding impacts to its business, which Saka hopes to champion? Or is this an example of how he will override decisions made by City staff or feedback from community when it suits the needs of his particular supporters?

  6. Robert

    Quite honestly, his response still seems quite unhinged to me. I don’t think this is justification at all for the way he handled himself or what he wanted to say. this seems like rewriting history to me and trying to justify his poor choices and actions and statements. The turn that people made there was *already* illegal and likely dangerous.

    Parents make many illegal and dangerous choices in attempting to drop their kids off near many schools and daycares and the comparison is still quite concerning and weird.

    it sounds no different than the people in my neighborhood who argue against safe Street infrastructure through a variety of conspiratorial allegations.

    I reread Erica’s article and it appears that there is plenty of context and understanding there for people to read and I don’t think anything was taken out of place. I think that Saka’s reinventing history and you’re rolling with it.

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