On Feb. 23, the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) released a long-awaited draft of its “top-to-bottom” review of the Vision Zero program, the city’s goal to eliminate deadly or serious traffic collisions in the city by 2030. The report highlighted the department’s plans to invest in traffic safety, including using a recently awarded $25.6 million federal Safe Streets grant to install more bike lanes and sidewalks as well as ongoing initiatives to increase walkability throughout the city.
However, some advocates were disappointed with the report, saying that it lacked ambition or detailed plans for how to actually fulfill the Vision Zero mission.
SDOT Director Greg Spotts commissioned the review soon after he took office in September 2022 in response to growing outrage from traffic safety advocates, who said that the city had been going backward on pedestrian and cyclist safety since the pandemic started.
Spotts initially promised that the review would be completed by January but delayed it by more than a month after SDOT found out that it received the Safe Streets grant.
According to the report, pedestrian fatalities have increased sharply since Vision Zero was adopted in 2015, rising from seven to 16 in 2022. Biking fatalities have also increased, while vehicular and motorcycle deaths actually declined slightly. This mirrors a national trend of increased traffic fatalities and collisions since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.
The review also documented that arterials that run through neighborhoods designated as higher risk according to the city’s race and social equity metrics — such as Rainier Avenue, Martin Luther King Jr. Way, Aurora Avenue and Lake City Way — were more likely to experience serious injuries and deaths.
Unhoused people are also disproportionately affected by traffic safety issues. According to the report, 27 percent of people killed in collisions on Seattle streets in 2021 were unhoused, despite making up only a small fraction of the total population.
SDOT found that the failures of Vision Zero could be in part due to the accommodation of competing interests within communities. For example, while some people may advocate for smaller streets, protected bike lanes and wider sidewalks, others may prioritize driver convenience and street parking availability.
Some proposed solutions would be easier for SDOT to implement, such as turning on the walk signal for pedestrians a few seconds before the light goes green for cars, giving pedestrians a head start. This change — called “leading pedestrian intervals” — is relatively inexpensive, and the city has made rapid progress, adjusting the timing at more than half of eligible intersections since 2018.
Other changes, such as shrinking roads to encourage slower speeds, will be far more costly and politically contentious.
The report also did not mention the impact of a reduction in speed limits. In 2020, the city reduced limits to 25 miles per hour on arterial roads and 20 miles per hour on residential streets and in school zones, based on research indicating that vehicle speed inversely correlates with pedestrian survival rates and reductions in collisions. However, the uptick in pedestrian fatalities in the past few years suggests that drivers are ignoring the new speed limit signs or otherwise declining in driving behavior.
In a press release, Seattle City Councilmember Tammy Morales reacted to the SDOT report, writing that she was happy that under Spotts’ leadership, the department is working to shift the culture toward prioritizing people’s safety rather than convenience for cars. Morales also criticized the report, saying that more ambitious action to change the geometry of Seattle streets was needed.
“Changing signal timing and adding leading pedestrian intervals will not change the geometry of our streets, and as a result, will likely not change the behavior of users on these dangerous stretches of roadway,” Morales wrote. “These actions are a start, but we need to fundamentally change our streets to address this crisis.”
Read more of the Mar. 1-7, 2023 issue.