In April, a car seriously injured a bicyclist at the intersection of 24th Ave E and E Madison. A few months later, a driver was severely hurt in a crash just a couple of hundred feet up the street, on the intersection of 23rd Ave E and E John St.
The locations of these two crashes don’t just point to the places where lives were wrecked. They also offer a first glimpse into the traffic pain points on Capitol Hill, which have clustered on and near Madison in the first six months of 2019, data from the Seattle Department of Transportation show. The Seattle Times first reported on the data.
The two crashes are among the 98 serious or fatal collisions that happened in the first half of 2019. Ten people were killed in traffic. 88 were seriously injured, of which six on Capitol Hill, four on First Hill and eight in the Central District (including a sliver south of I-90). The dataset showed no fatalities in these neighborhoods in the first half of this year.
One important caveat, per SDOT: The data the department provided are preliminary. Usually, there’s a “pretty rigorous auditing process” in which SDOT works with officials from the Seattle Police Department, Washington State Department of Transportation, Washington State Patrol and hospitals to review and filter out discrepancies for a report that comes out at year-end, SDOT said.
Still, the data provides a glimpse into Seattle’s long road to Vision Zero, its plan to end traffic deaths and serious injuries on city streets by 2030, and problem zones for Capitol Hill, the Central District and First Hill, particularly on or near arterials.
Though arterials are generally hotspots for crashes, the total number of serious crashes on major arterials in the Capitol Hill/CD/First Hill area (plus a sliver of the ID) — Boren, Broadway, 12th, 23rd, Rainier, Pike/Pine, Madison and Jackson — is already higher than last year’s total and hovering near the totals for 2017 and 2015. City-wide, there have been more crashes in the first half of this year than during the same period in the previous four years.
Most Capitol Hill/CD/First Hill area 2019 crashes happened on E Madison, 23rd, a stretch of Rainier going north from I-90 and just below (though the famously treacherous street is more deadly and dangerous in the Southend), as well as S Jackson in the CD/ID. Another cluster of crashes is concentrated near Swedish hospital, with one crash on Boren and three within a two-block radius.
SDOT is already working to address some of the issues this year and next with smaller interventions such as installing “Leading Pedestrian Intervals” systems allowing pedestrians a 3-7 second head start in the crosswalk before drivers get the green light across the city, as well as major redesigns of corridors such as Madison Ave E BRT project.
The redesign of Madison is needed, 2019 data suggests. Just in the past six months, three crashes happened on the street, one involving a cyclist.
Some slightly better news among the tragedies: No crashes were reported on Pine or Pike East of I-5, continuing a decrease since 2016. Broadway has seen less serious crashes since that year as well, with one exception involving two cars in 2018. Another serious crash at the same location seriously injuring a pedestrian this year suggests the busy intersection can still be dangerous.
Though generally, traffic deaths and serious injuries have trended slightly downward between 2016 and 2018, this year’s data for the Capitol Hill/CD/First Hill area as well as the total number of 2019 crashes suggest Seattle is far from reaching goals laid out in “Vision Zero.”
“I think our track record is great and we’ve had obviously a population that’s increased significantly over the last few years,” said Jim Curtin, Director of Project Development at SDOT. “So while the absolute numbers are of concern to us, we don’t feel like Vision Zero is out of reach.”
But, Curtin said, “We have a lot of work to do to get to Vision Zero.”
With multiple road and safety improvement projects underway in Capitol Hill and the Central District, the city has its work cut out for the next couple of years.
That work includes outfitting many more traffic lights with LPI’s. SDOT wants to install them in 150 locations across the city by 2021. There are currently 60 systems installed, including, most recently, on a 2.3 mile stretch on Rainier Avenue South in the Rainier Valley. Though most tend to cluster near downtown, there’s also one at 17th Avenue and East Madison Street — the first one ever installed in the city.
Madison will get more LPI’s in the next couple of years, Curtin said, even before the Madison Bus Rapid Transit corridor project (which includes a major overhaul of the street from downtown to the Madison Valley and the addition of a RapidTransit line) projected finish date in 2022.
“We’re looking at a few things,” including LPI’s, “we can do sooner rather than later,” Curtin said.
The Madison BRT corridor overhaul, slated to start in June of next year, should also tackle some problem zones near Madison intersections with 23rd and 24th. “We have some pretty well-documented collision patterns out there involving turning vehicles and pedestrians,” Curtin said, adding that the signaling system there today is “ancient and needs to be replaced.”
This will happen through making crosswalks across the street shorter, as well as bike and pedestrian improvements at key intersections in including 12th Ave and 24th Ave.
The Madison BRT project will also include a new protected bike lane on E Union.
Curtin said protected bike lanes, by organizing the roadway, increase safety for everyone on the road by increasing structure, predictability and protecting turns at all intersections and shorter distances for crossing pedestrians, and added that SDOT is working on getting “those protected bike lanes up to Capitol Hill via Pike and Pine,” part of the work SDOT is doing on the Center City Bike Network.
“We’re still working out the details, but we are going to go to construction on that in late September,” he said.
That should be good news for pedestrians as well. Nearly half of all 2019 incidents in the area comprising Capitol Hill, First Hill and the Central District involve pedestrians (a little more than the city-wide 2019 average of 40%).
Another early 2019 hotspot, 23rd, will also see upgrades, part of the 23rd Ave Corridor Improvements project. Between John St and SR 520, SDOT will add new protected eastbound left-turn signal phase at 23rd Ave E/E John St., curb ramps, and crossing improvements. Work is slated to start in the spring of 2020.
In the South, the 23rd Ave changes are more significant. While planned to be ready earlier this spring, construction— including sidewalk, curb ramp and signal pole work — is still underway.
Safety in the Rainier/23rd area near I-90 will be critical, as the two arterials will be the main access points to new Judkins Park light rail station slated to open in 2023. Sound Transit projects at least 45% of riders will be coming and going on foot or by bicycle, 42% by bus.
But, Curtin suggested, physical street improvements alone won’t get the city all the way to Vision Zero. Out of 97 severe crashes in early 2019 (SDOT said it would likely filter the carjacking and shooting incident in Lake City earlier this spring out of the dataset) nearly one fifth involved someone under influence, and in over 10% of cases, Police noted “inattention indicators.” In eight cases, failure to yield was a factor, and in nine, speeding.
Curtin said SDOT would work with the Police Department later this year to do “emphasis patrols” for drivers who fail to yield to pedestrians.
“We want to engineer our streets for slower speeds so that pedestrians and bicyclists are less exposed to traffic,” he said. “But we also need people who are out there to be sober and paying attention.”
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