I will never forget Seattle City Councilmember Bruce Harrell’s leadership that summer evening at the Rainier Community Center gymnasium when he stood up before a skeptical crowd and told them that the Rainier Avenue South safety redesign would slow down drivers, but that saving their fellow citizens’ lives was worth it. That was a moment of courage, and his decision undoubtedly saved lives. We need that same kind of leadership from Mayor Harrell now.
Last year was the deadliest year on Seattle’s streets since 2006, with 30 lives lost. This year is shaping up to be just as tragic. These deadly accidents disproportionately claim the lives of Black, elderly and homeless Seattleites, according to Seattle’s Department of Transportation (SDOT). These deaths are preventable with proven solutions that his administration can implement now.
The single most important thing the city can do is redesign our most dangerous streets, starting with Aurora Avenue North, Lake City Way Northeast, Martin Luther King Jr. Way South, Rainier Avenue South and Sodo streets in south Seattle. These kinds of poorly designed streets are where 80% of pedestrian fatalities happen.
Adding bus lanes, protected bike lanes, marked crosswalks and traffic calming are proven strategies to make these kinds of streets safer for everyone. The Harrell administration can champion and accelerate these types of projects by insisting SDOT fight for state and federal funding, prioritize safety over speeding and streamline the infamous “Seattle Process.”
The transportation department’s data also shines a spotlight on how to improve safety at Seattle intersections — where 59% of all pedestrian fatalities occur — using three proven strategies. First, SDOT’s laudable “pedestrian head start signal” program, which reduces serious collisions by 35%, needs to be expanded to the entire city. Second, SDOT should give drivers designated times to turn by adding left turn signals and banning right-hand turns on red lights at every intersection. Third, we need to improve the 66% of arterial intersections that lack a crosswalk by creating raised crosswalks, which reduce crashes by 45%.
Physically redesigning our streets is the most effective and equitable way to keep people safe. While enforcement can play a role, it should only be considered as a last resort. To make enforcement more effective and equitable, Seattle should shift the enforcement of traffic laws from Seattle Police Department to civilians within SDOT — something 73% of Seattle voters supported in a 2021 poll. This would create a focus on solving root causes of traffic safety issues, reduce the likelihood of deadly escalation and allow SPD to focus on other priorities. And wherever possible, the odds for human bias should be reduced by installing automated enforcement cameras. Furthermore, these cameras could use progressively tiered tickets and ticket alternatives, so that we can keep the focus on changing behavior, not on raising revenue.
The good news is that these changes won’t simply address the safety crisis on our streets; they will improve the quality of our lives by creating a city where kids can get to school safely, elders can maintain their independence, people with disabilities can have equal access to jobs and so much more. There are many problems that are outside of Mayor Harrell’s control. This is not one of them — we need his leadership again.