Leary Way looking northwestward with the intersection of Vernon Place and 20th Avenue.
Leary Way looking northwestward with the intersection of Vernon Place and 20th Avenue.

On Saturday morning, I met up with a few friends in Ballard to talk urban issues. Most of the discussion naturally centered on the neighborhood itself. We decided to take a walk around Ballard to see what has changed, the challenges that it faces, and ways we thought it could be improved. One place on this walk stuck out: the corner of Leary Way NW and 20th Avenue NW. We immediately noted how dangerous the street was for all users.

For those unfamiliar, Leary Way forms a diagonal street (a northwest-southeast street) that is bisected by 20th Avenue NW (a north-south street) and NW Vernon Place (a southwest-northeast street). This creates a situation of the five-way intersection. Leary Way is the largest of these streets with a right-of-way in excess of 100 feet while NW Vernon Place and 20th Avenue NW are 50 feet and 66 feet in width respectively. 20th Avenue NW effectively acts as a secondary street while NW Vernon Place is much more local in nature. Speeds on Leary Way are relatively high since it has four wide travel lanes, limited vehicles parked on-street, and effectively no singnalization between 15th Avenue NW and NW Market Street (a half-mile stretch) to slow traffic.

Because of the five-way nature of the intersection, the turning radius for most block corners are quite wide, which impedes the safety of pedestrians and increases the distances that they must walk. At the same time, vehicular traffic must traverse long distances within the intersection to cross Leary Way to any point off of the arterial.

The pedestrian problem

For this half-mile stretch of Leary Way between the signalized intersections, only two marked crosswalks are located on the street; one at the junction of Leary Way, 20th Avenue, and Vernon Place (this being located on the north side of the intersection) and a second crosswalk just northwest of the first. Per state law, every intersection of streets is a legal crossing point for pedestrians, but it’s clear that pedestrians are discouraged by design from crossing Leary at most points despite ADA ramps from the curbs.

In the instance of the five-way intersection, it has been revised recently. In the image below, the crosswalk used to be placed toward the middle of the intersection. However, SDOT has relocated it to the northwest. Pedestrians are effectively encouraged to walk around the whole intersection as opposed to crossing it in the most direct way possible. So, if someone wanted walk from Senor Moose Cafe to the Olympic Athletic Club, they would be wise to walk across 20th Avenue, Leary Way, and then Vernon Place to reach the gym. Crossing the shortest distance is a treacherous option at best (and you can see one gentleman in the video below who brazenly darted across the intersection).

Aerial view of the intersection, the crosswalk has since been moved northwesterly.
Aerial view of the intersection, the crosswalk has since been moved northwesterly.

The driver problem

It’s not just pedestrians that suffer from this street design, drivers have their own challenges, too. Wide lanes, minimal traffic control devices, and a confusing intersection lead to poor results. Leary Way’s layout inherently induces speed, and that perhaps was the most significant issue for drivers. Near collisions with cars and pedestrians was a common sight at the intersection for two reasons.

On the one hand, drivers would proceed quickly in both directions of Leary Way up to the crosswalk only to slow or stop abruptly when a pedestrian appeared in the intersection or any of the adjacent intersections. On the other, drivers would dart across Leary Way from the bisecting streets whenever a rare opportunity was presented. In the process, these cars were often short of clipping–or being clipped by–another car. As noted before, Leary is a wide street and traversing it quickly is important in order to avoid oncoming or crossing traffic.

The placement of advisory stripping and the location of signage doesn’t create a very clear situation for drivers. It was evident that most drivers either ignored, didn’t see, or didn’t understand the layout and features of the intersection. Some would yield in the middle of the street, some would stop at advisory strips like an all-way stop, some would stop at advisory strips only when a pedestrian was present.

One awkward circumstance for drivers was the crossing from Vernon Place to the northern section of 20th Avenue. Watching drivers attempt this crossing was fascinating because it almost seemed as if there were an invisible roundabout in the middle of the street. Instead of driving straight across the intersection, drivers had to deviate south and right across the street in order to avoid drivers on the opposing side of the intersection, and then proceed north and left.

Summing it up

As you’ll see in the video, the intersection isn’t working. It’s a safety hazard to both drivers and pedestrians. And, if it’s dangerous for both of these groups, it has to be even worse for bicyclists. I asked staff from the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) to take a look at the footage of the intersection. Staff indicated that SDOT is already in the process of exploring solutions for this intersection as part of the Ballard Greenway on 17th Avenue NW.

One potential outcome of the Ballard Greenway project would be the rechannelization of Leary Way. Hopefully this would be more than just paint on the ground–that’s already been done and it isn’t much of an improvement. A menu of options should be considered like creating a roundabout, extending curbs to choke traffic, adding more crosswalks, signalization, and removing a travel lane in each direction. What are your ideas?

Note: I did speed up most of the film to double speed, but you can get the jist of my three minutes on Leary in just under two minutes.

14 COMMENTS

  1. Yes, thank you for posting this. My wife and I frequently discuss what an absolute disaster free-for-all this stretch of Leary is for all modes. It’s surprising and disappointing that it’s taken this long to even begin talking about fixing this.

  2. Excellent post. I completely agree — Leary is a mess for both drivers and pedestrians.

    I would start by putting the street on a road diet. Generally speaking, four lane roads don’t make sense unless there are very few intersections. Otherwise, you can get pretty much the same throughput with three lanes (one each direction and a turn lane). I would start with that, because Leary has plenty of intersections (17th, Dock, Ione, Vernon, etc.).

    Once you do that, you are half way there, although I’m not sure how exactly you improve things after that. But a turn lane would benefit drivers as well as pedestrians. You can also add pedestrian islands in the middle.

    Generally speaking, roads like this are a mess. Diagonal streets are bad for vehicles and pedestrians, as they screw up a grid. In this case, the diagonal street (Leary) is the main street, and the other streets (e. g. 20th) are the problem. 20th through this section of Ballard is terrible. Drivers are either lost, trolling for parking or they plan on making a right turn on Leary. This suggests a more radical approach. For example:

    1) Close the south end of 20th at Leary. This would make 20th, from Ballard Avenue to Leary, a dead end street. It is very easy to get to this street (easier than crossing Leary at 20th) by using one of the perpendicular streets (Vernon, Dock or Ione). So, for example, someone heading northwesterly on Leary (towards Market) will take a left on Ione (using a turn lane) cross one lane of traffic, then take a right on Ballard Avenue. I don’t see much harm for drivers in doing this — my guess the majority of drivers (who are trolling for parking) would actually appreciate this change.

    2) Close the southbound part of 20th at Leary, but allow Leary drivers to take a right onto 20th. This is a compromise for drivers. 20th is a fairly major street, with (complete with a traffic light at Market). For those on Leary heading towards the middle of Ballard (e. g. NW 60th) from Leary, this is a very logical right turn. Mark this intersection with bold pedestrian signage (“Yield to Pedestrians”). I’m not thrilled with this idea, since this would be a 45 degree turn, and thus likely to be taken fairly fast. But with proper “bulbage” you could minimize the crossing, and force drivers to make a 90 degree turn, then straighten out again. Since you are closing southbound traffic, you have enough room to do this.

    An alternative would be to just add traffic lights (for pedestrians and cars) along here. If the connection between 20th and Leary is considered important enough, then this would be the way to go. I’m not convinced it is, because heading from southbound from 20th to Leary is terrible (for a driver). I would rather take a right on Market, then a left on Leary.

    In any event, after the road diet, I would add a crosswalk on the other side of 20th. It is silly that this street lacks them. These should be big, visible sidewalks (similar to what Lake City added).

    In summary, Ballard has changed, but Leary hasn’t kept up. There are plenty of pedestrians here, but you wouldn’t guess it by looking at the street layout. There are plenty more coming as well, with all the new construction around there. My guess is it is only a matter of time before the city experts (the guys and gals who know how to handle these complex problems) come up with a sensible solution. The best thing we can do is tell them that it is a problem, and that it needs work.

  3. I envision extending the sidewalks on the NE corner of Leary and 20th Ave to make 20th meet up with Vernon Pl and adding a signal at the straightened intersection. Do a similar treatment on the SW corner of Leary and 20th Ave to make another right angled intersection on the south side of Leary, but give that one right turn only access to/from SE-bound Leary. Install a protected bike lane too while the Burke Gilman’s shilshole plans languish.

  4. I live in the building right at that corner. I’m pretty close to the intersection – I can see Senior Moose from my living room. I hear people laying on horns and screeching tires all the time. Leary is too much road for the amount of pedestrian traffic at this intersection. It seems sometimes like drivers have a philosophy of this is such a big road that the crosswalk right of way rules don’t apply. I know when I first moved here I would find myself zipping down Leary and forgetting that I was quickly approaching a high foot traffic area. I’ve also noticed that if you’re traveling on 20th on the NE side of this intersection, it can be hard to see around the corner. This causes a lot of people to go way past the stop sign – you pretty much have to in order to see – and a lot of oncoming traffic sees this and lays on the horn, thinking the turning driver is pulling out in front of them (and likely distracting them from the ped that just walked out into the crosswalk). And I’ll admit that I didn’t even realize that there was that advisory line there by Senior Moose and that was where you’re supposed to stop for peds in the crosswalk – I do what most other people do, and go right up to the crosswalk and stop, blocking anyone from turning off 20th in the process.

    It’s not just this intersection either. With Leary being so wide and thus the speeds so high, combined with the fact that there are always cars parked in the curb lane, turning onto Leary from any cross street between the intersection in question and the bike shop closer to the bridge basically becomes a gun it out there and hope nobody is coming situation.

  5. I contacted the city about this intersection in the past as well. I have witnessed a nasty car collision at this location and have seen many close calls with pedestrian crossings. I would like to either have the block of Vernon attached to Leary closed or the south end of 20th attached to Leary closed. Also, I’m not sure if the road really needs 4 lanes with the amount of traffic it has, but I could be wrong.

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