Source: http://fireline.seattle.gov/2014/08/28/off-duty-firefighter-assists-in-heavy-rescue-in-columbia-city/

(Image: Seattle Fire Department)

It’s been a bad year for Rainier Avenue South. There are the usually numerous car crashes, sure, but that’s normal. The same goes for the pedestrian collisions–regrettable, but normal. An unfortunate but inevitable side effect of the automobile, and are generally accepted with little comment.

But in April, a car slammed into a nail salon on the corner of Edmunds and Rainier, after hitting a truck making a turn. Speed was a factor, unsurprisingly, as were both vehicles attempting to beat the light. Residents grumbled; tensions rose. A temporary wall was built to replace the one torn away so suddenly, and life continued.

And then it happened again in August, when a speeding SUV lost control and crashed into the hair salon just one block south of the first such incident–this time in the middle of the day. Seven people were injured, including a family of three who found themselves pinned between the offending car and a counter at the restaurant next to the salon. The SUV was eventually dragged from its resting place, with hydraulic jacks holding the roof of the now-uninhabitable structure aloft.

Residents did more than grumble, this time. Leaders in Columbia City organized a “walk-in” rally where protestors crossed Rainier repeatedly, showing how inadequate the crossing time given was while reminding drivers to slow down. Online conversations swirled around, and it wasn’t long until SDOT amended the agenda for the already-scheduled Neighborhood Traffic Safety Meeting to include “Safety on Rainier”.

A Rainier Ave Road Diet: Proposed since 1999 1976

It’s a welcome addition to the conversation, and a needed one, but you’d be forgiven for recalling the sound of a broken record: we’ve been here before. The dangerous nature of Rainier is hardly new, and recent events aren’t the first to bring it to a head. Columbia City’s most recent neighborhood plan (circa 1999) envisions curtailing the road’s lanes from 4 to 2, with a center turn lane–a configuration commonly referred to as a “Road Diet”, or rechannelization in traffic engineer speak–and according to the 2008 South East Transportation Study, road diets have been “explicitly and repeatedly recommended since 1976” for various sections of Rainier.

Source: Matthew Johnson

(Source: Columbia City Neighborhood Plan, Section 3 – Markup by Matthew Johnson) 

Reducing a road’s travel lanes by half generally brings about apocalyptic predictions of gridlock and chaos, but the data shows they work. When SDOT put Stone Way on a road diet in 2007, for example, the number of cars speeding by 10 MPH or more dropped by 75%. Concerns about drivers simply going down nearby neighborhood streets proved unfounded as well: traffic on nearby streets actually dropped 12-17% post-diet. Collisions decreased too, by an average of 14%, while collisions causing injuries dropped by 33%. A later road diet on Nickerson showed even better results, with excessive speeding dropping by as much as 96%, and collisions dropping by 23%.

This isn’t to say that road diets are a magical solution to traffic woes–they have their limits. Studies by the Federal Highway Administration have shown that they work best on roads with daily traffic counts of about 20,000 or less. Above that number, and traffic can get excessively congested during peak periods, as anyone who has driven along N 45th St (one of Seattle’s first road diets) during rush hour can attest to.

Still, a cursory dig through the SDOT archives shows that a Rainier road diet has come up many times. Each time, including in the 2008 study (the most recent), such actions have been recommended against because they would have massively negative affects on traffic. The 2008 report was especially apocalyptic, predicting that by 2030 a road diet would cause southbound transit to run 30% slower during the evening rush hours, with car traffic running a whopping 100% slower. Despite this, SDOT’s own scoring system, along with the “Core community team” of business and community groups ranked a Rainier road diet as the most important project.

Looking at the Data

Reading into the 2008 study, though, reveals a few problems. For example, the study assumed “Only modest traffic growth on Rainier due to reduced capacity,” but in reality traffic in Seattle has been dropping drastically: SDOT’s 2012 Traffic Report (the most recent available) “notes a decreasing trend [in Average Daily Traffic] to the lowest levels this century, despite a steadily increasing population…”, mirroring national trends. Traffic levels on Rainier Ave have likewise dropped since 2008, with average daily traffic between S Alaska St and S Othello St measuring at about 19,700 cars a day according to SDOT’s Traffic Flow Maps from last year–numbers low enough to make a road diet feasible.

Source: http://www.seattle.gov/transportation/docs/2012TrafficReportfinalv3.pdf

(Source: Seattle Annual Traffic Report, 2012)

Additionally, the study used outdated mode choice data from the year 2000, which showed a transit mode share of only ~3%, a walk/bike mode share of only ~10%, and a driving mode share of ~87%. Such numbers are drastically out of step with the apparent mode share split in Seattle, and completely fail to take into account the massive success of Link Light Rail with regard to transit ridership, or the growth of bicycling in the city.

I’d also argue that the 2008 study failed to properly account for MLK Way and it’s reconstruction around Link. Despite being massively rebuilt with wide lanes, coordinated signals, limited turns with turn pockets where turns are allowed, and a 35 MPH speed limit, the study only assumed a “5% traffic ‘migration’ to Martin Luther King Jr. Way S. and other streets” after a Rainier road diet. Given the above characteristics, and the possibility of re-configuring the MLK Way/Rainer Ave intersection in Mount Baker to funnel traffic southbound onto MLK rather than Rainier, such a low number seems unrealistic.

Conclusion

Ultimately, though, the question of how to fix Rainier largely comes down to community values, and politics. While the data might hint at a road diet being successful between S Alaska St and at least S Othello St (if not S Henderson St), it will only happen if the community gets behind the idea, and if political leaders are willing to accept the risk of angry backlash from inconvenienced drivers. Here at The Urbanist, we think the massive benefits to safety, public health, quality of life, and socio-economic justice more than outweigh the costs–but it’s not up to us, it’s up to you.

SDOT will be hosting a Neighborhood Traffic Safety Meeting at the Rainier Valley Cultural Center on Wednesday, September 17th, starting at 6:30pm. Safety on Rainier Ave is a part of the agenda, and many expect it to be the primary topic of conversation. Join us, and add your voice!

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23 COMMENTS

  1. The Ships’s Voyages

    I believe know-how just causes it to be worse. Now there’s a channel to hardly ever care, now there will not likely be considered a opportunity for them to find.

  2. There are 500+ units of housing, and 30,000sf+ of retail going in on or very near Rainier in the next 1-2 years. Pedestrian traffic in that area is about to grow massively. This has to factor in.

    Also, much of this problem can be traced back to the intersection of Rainier and MLK, a couple miles north. The timing of the lights and the routing of the lanes encourages drivers to use Rainier, and discourages use of MLK – even though MLK was recently completely updated, with better, wider sidewalks, modern signaling, and a speed limit that is 5mph higher than Rainier’s (not that anyone, apparently, pays attention to that at all).

  3. I live in North Seattle – where NE 125th was put on a “road diet” – and everyone FREAKED out beforehand – but actually – it is SO MUCH BETTER NOW and rarely any traffic back up – it is easier to safely cross the street and to safely make left and right turns off of what had been a 4 lane aterial (more like a highway).

  4. Well done! As you know I completely agree.

    A couple of points, I didn’t actually mark that up, Scott Amick on Facebook did, I’ve just been sharing it like crazy. Also, I invited Bruce Harrell to tomorrow’s meeting and he accepted. Make sure to hit him up demanding a road diet if you come out!

  5. I live near Nickerson, the last street to have a major road diet. The political force against the diet was very, very strong, but it was somehow pushed through anyway. The result? I don’t think the effects have been studied yet, but anecdotally from someone that uses that road frequently including the occasional rush hour: I think it actually improved traffic flow. The outrage continued for the first few months after the diet as people became used to it, and I haven’t heard a thing about it since. A street where I wouldn’t dream of biking or walking now has people in both modes. I could imagine it as a retail area someday.

    I don’t know much about the potential impact on traffic flow of a road diet on Rainier, but it does seem like a freeway that runs inches from sidewalks. That doesn’t make for comfortable street life, which drives away pedestrian-based business and dampens a feeling of community. The area is paying a high price in the name of fast traffic.

    • Nickerson was studied, actually – and I cite some of the results above. The full report is at http://www.seattle.gov/transportation/docs/Nickerson%20before%20and%20after%20study_FINAL.pdf

      The big thing about road diets that people often overlook is that, while you’re loosing two travel lanes, you’re gaining a massive amount of efficiency though adding a center turn lane. That means turning cars don’t block through traffic, which means cars don’t have to weave between lanes to avoid turning vehicles in the first place. *That* means you have better, more consistent traffic flow, less accidents, and more predictable car speeds. If the road can accommodate one, it’s a win-win.

      • Resorting to 1 lane and a turning lane to slow down traffic on Rainier through Columbia City will put a band aid on the situation. What will happen is ,cars will zip down Angeline or other sides streets and make things way more dangerous. I have never seen a cop with a radar gun on Rainier,I purposely haul ass to see if I will ever be pulled over,,,it’s been 11 yrs.
        Time the lights better, put in speed bumps, have cops ticketing, less post shops, and add cameras.Problem solved

        • A highly unlikely situation. People rarely deviate off of arterials, even when their speeds are reduced. Your “solution” isn’t a solution. It sounds like you just want to keep “hauling ass”.

          • Thanks for the passive slam in your last sentence, very clever and shows your age. This was a reminder of why I never post on these things. Too many over educated know it all’s that have all the answers.

          • Sorry, but you’re setting up strawmen arguments just so you don’t have to deal with the “inconvenience” of slower traffic. People don’t mention things like hauling ass just to test the waters unless they do it all the time intentionally and have a vested interest in their commute habits exclusively. You clearly have no genuine concern about your neighbourhood’s safety. And you only mention the other “solutions” to act like you do. A road diet is cheap to implement and is by far the easiest and most natural solution for Rainier. Please don’t insult people here by trying to appeal through supposed ignorance while we’re all elitist know-it-alls. Calling it like it is.

          • Wow relax and save your assumptions Mr. Angry.
            Living a block away for 11 yrs and nearly being taken out in the cross walk with my son 7 yrs ago, as some yahoo ran a very red light on Rainier and edmunds . I rarely drive, so the ‘so called inconvenience” of slower traffic really has no effect on my commute to my shop downtown. As moderator take a breath and calmly share ideas and quit being so agro. Your losing credibility. I’ve lived here long enough to have seen your face a few times, so chill.

        • Very doubtful that traffic would “zip” down any of the side streets. Having lived on one of them for the past 5 years, the roundabouts, narrow streets and two-sided parking ensure Seattle Polite and massive inefficiency.
          I like your idea of speed bumps and cameras (way too much running of red lights), but adding dedicated turn lanes (with dedicated signals) would have the greatest impact on accident prevention.
          Eventually (100-200 years from now) there will be a subway line running Under all this mess and the issue will be moot.

          • If you’re going to invest in speed bumps, just go with chokers or traffic circles, at least the street will be more attractive–unless you’re going to do speed bumps which double as a mid-block crosswalk. It depends what kind of cameras though, redlight cameras aren’t effective. The data suggests that they induce more accidents and increase speeds, they don’t reduce them. People are afraid of getting tickets and speed up as a result. That invariably puts pedestrians and cyclists at increased risk–not to mention other drivers. Speed cameras do work though. Center turning lanes can work, but the automobile-oriented right-of-way width should be reduced wherever possible.

Comments are closed.