As a commuter moving up and down Olive Way every day, I always notice when something changes on the street. And on the morning of February 29th, what I saw was admittedly anticlimactic: a missing pedestrian sign and signal at the on-ramp to Interstate 5. I tweeted the problem to local government agencies, expecting a quick fix, but what followed was a blame-shedding game of hot potato and a disappointing look into the bureaucratic agencies that manage our safety on the streets. Urbanists expect better from our local transportation departments.
The signals in question are technically known as Rapid Flashing Beacons (RFB). In combination with high visibility signs, they catch drivers’ attention with button-activated LED lights that flash in a staccato pattern similar to emergency vehicle lights. And at capital cost of $10,000 to $15,000 per pair, they are cheaper than the $250,000 to $500,00 price for a traditional traffic signal. Introduced within the last decade, they are a new tool for improving pedestrian and bicyclist visibility at roadway crossings, and are frequently used at midblock crosswalks, roundabout entries, and even regular uncontrolled intersections (oftentimes near schools).
A blog post from the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) highlights the safety benefits of RFBs:
“…going from a no-beacon arrangement to a two-beacon system…[increases driver] yielding from 18 to 81 percent! The report sponsored by the Federal Highway Administration…evaluated sites over a one-year period and found that there was little to no decrease on yielding behavior over time.”
The location on Olive Way, just west of the Melrose Avenue intersection, is a pedestrian crosswalk on a two lane on-ramp to northbound Interstate 5. One of the lanes is a queue jump for high-occupancy-vehicles and sees frequent bus use. With the Olive Way overpass being a strong connection between Capitol Hill residents and Downtown jobs, the crosswalk is one of the busiest at a freeway interchange in King County.
In July 2013, the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT), recognizing an opportunity for improvement and having jurisdiction over the on-ramp, moved the crosswalk, built curb ramps, and installed the RFBs. WSDOT noted this was the first installation of an RFB system in Seattle. Seattle and other municipalities have begun installing RFBs on local streets within the last few years. Below are two examples.
Around 3am on February 29, 2016, a driver under the influence sped off the Olive Way on-ramp, hit multiple sign poles and parked cars, and crashed into a nearby apartment building.
Not knowing any of this background information, on my morning commute that day I discovered the right-hand RFB knocked from its mount and laying in the grass, along with a freeway sign hanging on one leg and bent parking signs at the Melrose intersection.
The first tweet that started the epic saga included the above pictures and pinged SDOT and the Seattle Police Department. Dongho Chang, SDOT’s Chief Traffic Engineer, helpfully replied and looped in WSDOT Traffic.
— Dongho Chang (@dongho_chang) February 28, 2016
And then: nothing: After two weeks of radio silence, I repeated the inquiry and got replies from both agencies. SDOT claimed it would have its sign crews replace the RFB.
— seattledot (@seattledot) March 15, 2016
But WSDOT chimed in too:
— WSDOT Traffic (@wsdot_traffic) March 15, 2016
Not seeing any progress, beginning on April 1st, I e-mailed both WSDOT and SDOT over the course of three months. Including the tweets, the ball passing is summarized below:
- February 28 – Dongho Chang’s tweet implies this is WSDOT’s jurisdiction
- March 15 – SDOT tweet claims responsibility
- April 4 – Email from WSDOT employee Danielle Holstein says this is SDOT’s job: “I spoke to WSDOT’s traffic engineer responsible for this area—he confirmed that this sign/jurisdiction belongs to SDOT. Our engineer roped in SDOT’s team and gave them a nudge about addressing this.”
- May 31 – Still seeing no progress, I emailed several top Seattle officials:
It has now been three months since the sign was hit and there is still no sign of replacement. This makes the crosswalk dangerous and unpredictable, as there is a flashing beacon and warning sign remaining on only one side of a curved on-ramp where motorists are accelerating to freeway speeds. With two operating beacons motorists stop about 90% of the time, but with only one beacon remaining functional the compliance rate has dropped and the risk of a person being hit and seriously injured or killed has gone up.
I urge you to replace the pedestrian sign and flashing beacon signal as soon as possible.
- May 31 – Reply from SDOT Director Scott Kubly: “I will make sure that we investigate the issue and resolve it as quickly as possible.”
- June 27 – Email from SDOT employee Mark Bandy: “The sign in question is WSDOT’s to maintain as it’s at the I-5 on ramp”
- June 30 – Update from Bandy: “What’s happened is that [WSDOT] needed to order materials from a supplier as they didn’t have them on hand. Those materials are now enroute to them”
- July 8 – Finally, a more complete answer from Karen McKenzie, WSDOT Superintendent of Signal and Lighting:
I would like to fill in the blanks that are missing. This was a test area for a piece of equipment that we have never used before and we were testing it. The product that was deployed at this location is no longer available to purchase and you can’t mix manufacturer’s products together because they don’t work together. We needed to research for a replacement manufacturer for this location and to assure that the new product is reliable and performs as expected and that it will be supported in the future. Once we found a replacement, we had to order the whole unit and we have not received it yet. Since this was a new product that we are testing, we do not carry spares at this time until we adopt it as a standard as this would be very costly especially if the product did not perform as expected in the field. As soon as the new unit comes in, we will test it in the shop first then it will be installed in the field.
I’m sorry that this is taking so long but the situation is unusual. From your input, it sounds like this is an effective tool for pedestrians and I will pass along that information to the engineers.
As of Tuesday this week, the RFB has still not been replaced, but it would seem that WSDOT has committed to doing so as soon as the parts are delivered and tested at their shop. In the future, it would be ideal if the agency formally adopted this safety device and deployed them more widely across Seattle and the state, necessitating a stockpile for eventual repairs. Granted, these devices are more expensive than typical signs and will rarely be damaged by errant drivers. But that doesn’t make up for the slow response time and blame-passing between the state and city governments.
As of this posting, the right-hand RFB has been missing for more than five months, an unacceptable wait that has resulted in noticeably lower driver compliance at the crosswalk. A lack of information sharing and willingness to take responsibility seems to have significantly increased the delay in replacement. There’s a good chance that if I had not prodded the agencies, the bureaucratic gears would still be grinding or even come to a halt.
The lesson is that Vision Zero advocates must be ready and willing to engage their local transportation departments as soon as they find an unsafe situation. And as demonstrated by the state and city staff I talked to, those agencies must reply promptly and professionally. Beyond being reactionary, advocates also must be proactive and demand long term changes to our streets. Earlier this year, I made a proposal to fix Olive Way and reconfigure the I-5 on-ramp, resulting in the RFBs discussed here actually becoming unnecessary. We must work together to ensure our streets are safe for all.