On the day after Thanksgiving, a car speeding up Aurora Ave tried to take a turn too fast, hit a curb, and vaulted onto the sidewalk. It struck four pedestrians. Two people were injured, one died on the scene, and another died later in the hospital. The driver tried to flee, but was detained by police and then booked in the King County jail. In total, six people have died on Aurora Avenue in 2019 alone.
"Everyone talks about Vision Zero but no one acts on Vision Zero," said Lee Bruch, a retired architect and weary Aurora Avenue safety advocate, referring to the international goal to end traffic fatalities. "It makes everyone feel good and it’s absolutely worthless."
But, on Tuesday, Mayor Jenny Durkan shocked the city when she announced tangible and immediate changes to city streets that will make them safer for pedestrians.
Arterial streets across the city will have their speed limits lowered to 25 mph, there will be emphasis patrols to monitor pedestrian safety at crosswalks, crosswalk signals will be improved to give people more time to walk, and more. Seattle has aimed to reach Vision Zero by 2030. Many critics have pointed out that the city was not on pace to meet that goal, with averages of traffic-related deaths and injuries not improving in a decade.
I have heard that many residents in our City are afraid to walk or bike to get where they need to go. And the data backs it up: This has been the least safe year for pedestrians in over a decade. That's why today we are announcing four key steps to help make pedestrians safer. pic.twitter.com/m4DgNDiwE4
— Mayor Jenny Durkan (@MayorJenny) December 10, 2019
The biggest and most significant change is lowering the speed on arterials. Durkan and the city will save lives by doing this. Studies show that nine out of 10 pedestrians survive when struck by a vehicle going 20 mph. On the other hand, when a car strikes a pedestrian while going 40 mph—the speed at the fastest parts of Aurora—only one out of 10 survives. New 25 mph signs were installed on Rainier Ave S during the mayor's press conference. This is huge, and the other things Durkan has announced are huge too.
When I talked to Bruch in the aftermath of the Aurora crash, I asked how we could truly fix street safety in Seattle.
"That's a huge question," He laughed. "A whole lot of people including SDOT are trying to answer that. I don’t have an answer specifically, but I do know that there are three things that are absolute—no, four things."
First, Bruch said, "the city has a will to actually, actively do something." Then, he cited the "three E's:" better engineering, better enforcement, and better education.
"Those are all very big issues," Bruch said, "but without enforcement, especially, there’s nothing that can be done quickly."
The city is following these suggestions. It's adding Leading Pedestrian Intervals that allow pedestrians to start crossing before the light changes for drivers; the emphasis patrols will have Seattle Police Department officers dressed in plain clothes and, while crossing crosswalks, they'll ticket any driver who is not yielding to pedestrians (which will tick the enforcement box); and lastly, Durkan said that the city will have "street teams" that will educate all types of commuters, but "most importantly, drivers."
For a long time, it seemed like nothing would be done to fix these high-frequency collision zones, areas like Rainier Avenue (where it was easier to tell pedestrians to wear neon than it was to slow the speed limit down), or like Aurora Avenue. Many activists had soured on Durkan's administration and her non-action when it came to traffic deaths.
They'd even talked about organizing a March on Aurora because they were so certain that nothing was going to get done. When I asked Seattle Neighborhood Greenways on Tuesday if the march was still being planned they said it was "TBD."
While there's still a ways to go in a city where citizens have to get cars out of bus-only lanes themselves, this is definitely a step forward. And, can I just say how wild it is to see actual visible changes (hello, new speed limit signs!) the day of an announcement?!? Seattle Process? I barely know her.
PS: I will still definitely attend a March on Aurora if that materializes and I would like to dress as a traffic cone or in a red outfit that matches the freshly-painted, bus-only lanes downtown.