The busiest City-controlled corridor for vehicle traffic in Seattle is the West Seattle bridge, which carried over 108,000 cars on an average day in 2016. For people on bikes, the busiest place in the city is the Fremont bridge, which saw an average of 2,600 cyclists per day that year. And the most bustling pedestrian thoroughfare in Seattle is Broadway. In 2016, pedestrian counters adjacent to Seattle Central Community College recorded an average daily traffic at Broadway and E Olive Street of 22,539 people. Previous to that year, the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) had recorded Broadway and E Pine Street as the busiest pedestrian intersection in the city for many years, with 23,998 per day recorded on average. Despite the heavy amount of pedestrian traffic downtown around Pike Place Market and the retail core, Capitol Hill concentrates the most walkers through a single corridor on Broadway.

The place where the most vehicle traffic comes into contact with people using Broadway on foot is the corner of Broadway E and E Olive Way. Around 16,000 cars per day use E Olive Way, with around equal numbers using Broadway E north of the intersection. Unlike lower traffic intersections like Broadway and Pine, there are no left turn signals in any of the four directions, so drivers turning must choose when to make their turns around pedestrian traffic.

This intersection has essentially remained unchanged since the day Sound Transit opened a light rail station at the corner in March of 2016: Sound Transit expects 14,000 people per day to use the station by 2030: as of the first quarter of 2018 that number is 7,500. SDOT did install a leading pedestrian interval (LPI) last year which provides pedestrians with an extra several seconds of “walk” signal prior to the signal turning green for vehicles. Right on red is still permitted at all of the corners, but LPIs have been proven to increase pedestrian visibility and by extension reduce collisions. The National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) states that “LPIs have been shown to reduce pedestrian-vehicle collisions as much as 60% at treated intersections.”

Crosswalks are often jam-packed at E John St and Broadway, with people spiling out from Capitol Hill Station. (Photo by author)

But the issue of conflicts between left-turning vehicles and pedestrians using the crosswalk remains a huge problem at this intersection, and after responding to community concerns around pedestrian safety here, SDOT made the decision to install left-turn signals to the traffic lanes heading east/west, on E Olive Way and E John St. This improvement was to be included in a comprehensive corridor improvement to the E John Street corridor east of Broadway that was awarded a Neighborhood Street Fund (NSF) grant in 2016 from a proposal submitted by Central Seattle Greenways volunteer (and current Pedestrian Advisory Board chair) David Seater: it was not funded by the NSF grant but would be treated as part of it.

Now the department is scaling back plans for the signal replacement needed to add left turn arrows, saying that adding them would be cost prohibitive. Instead they propose simply rechannelizing the lanes on the roadway, which are poorly defined currently. According to the department, turn pockets for east-west travel will treat the dominant collision pattern at the intersection: there were 14 collisions involving left turning vehicles over a three-year study period. The only problem is that the lane lines will not dramatically change how the intersection operates now. Vehicle traffic already separates into de facto turn lanes and through lanes, with drivers from the east and the west frequently chosing to turn in between groups of crossing pedestrians, a move that is actually illegal under Washington law (drivers are required to leave one lane width between their vehicle and a crossing pedestrian).

Replacing full signal poles is indeed much more expensive than simply repainting: $250,000 compared to $15,000. But will we need to learn that we were being penny wise and pound foolish when someone is seriously injured or worse?

SDOT’s proposed plan for Broadway and Olive Way, keeping signals the same. (City of Seattle)

Seattle has begun to systematically improve safety around people on bikes by ensuring that any new bicycle facility includes fully separated turn cycles so that conflicts are reduced between people driving across a protected bike lane and people biking on it. When the city studied nine years of collision data involving people on bikes, they found that 21.5% of serious and fatal injuries were caused by left hooks, and that data informed the decision making around how protected bike lanes are constructed on such important corridors as 2nd Avenue and 7th Avenue. Restrictions on right-turn-on-red has also become a systematic improvement to corridors with protected bike lanes added to them. These features both have the benefit of making things safer for pedestrians.

Top collision types, pedestrian: from the 9 year bike and pedestrian safety analysis. (City of Seattle)

That same study also showed that 20.7% of pedestrian-involved collisions were left-hooks. But there does not appear to be the same type of systematic implementation of improvements around pedestrian safety that there is around bike facility upgrades. If separating people walking from left-turning vehicles to improve safety is not something we’re doing proactively at the busiest place in the city where people are walking, that doesn’t seem to be a good sign for our approach to reducing serious and fatal collisions for vulnerable users in our streets. There doesn’t appear to be a minimum level of service around providing safety features across heavily used pedestrian corridors. We should change that and start with the obviously needed improvements directly outside Capitol Hill Station.

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16 COMMENTS

  1. I can understand why the city decided to save money and not add new signalling. But there is a cheap way to both improve traffic flow and safety at the intersection: Ban left turns.

    There are four left turns:

    1) Eastbound Olive: This is easy to ban. Someone can take three right turns. Someone who came from the other side of the freeway (or just a few blocks to the west) can just use Denny Way. Denny Way already has turn signals, as eastbound Denny Way becomes a dead end at Broadway (https://goo.gl/maps/JmbavXyb2ov). There are no buses there, either, making it an ideal places to funnel cars. It will take a while to get used to, but drivers adapt quickly. At a minimum, this should be changed.

    2) Westbound Olive: Not quite as easy, but still fairly simple. Again, three right turns is an easy way to make a left (onto Broadway). John is not a through street (it does a dogleg on 15th) which means that no one drives westbound on John for very long. The only problem is that people might want to turn left on 10th instead. Like Denny Way west of the freeway, there should be several “No Left Turn” signs on John. People will adapt fairly quickly, and realize that simply staying on 15th or 12th is the way to go. The handful of people who are on John westbound but want to head south on Broadway will take three right turns.

    3) Northbound Broadway: This is where left turn signals make sense. There already are lanes for turning. Furthermore, you can’t turn left onto Denny from Broadway (either direction). Asking people to make three right turns is reasonable, but not ideal.

    4) Southbound Broadway: Very similar to the last one. I suppose you could take a left at Aloha (assuming you started north of there) but you are basically asking most people to take three right turns. You would have to add lots of “No Left Turn” signs along Broadway to make it work, and a lot of people would be confused for a while.

    I would start with the first couple. That is what makes sense for the long run. It means that you would only have one extra left turn phase, not two. It is also simple, although it takes a while for people to get the hang of it. Eventually you want the new traffic signal for the other direction, but adding in two left turn lights instead of four should save some money. Until then, you put up with the risk (unfortunately). My guess is that folks turning off of Broadway are generally safer than those turning off of Olive. By the time you are on Broadway you should be well aware of the fact that there are lots and lots of people walking around there. But if you drove up the hill, you might think you are “out of downtown”, and with Olive being seemingly built for speed (with a gentle curve and few traffic lights) I think a driver is more likely to be focused on fellow cars, not pedestrians.

  2. I don’t recall hearing anything about an SDOT director, so maybe it’s going to be Sparrman for the duration. (Fresh from a revolving door deal with a big transit engineering construction firm – that does sound like a Durkan move.) Just wondering if we might be looking forward to more “resets”, or if we’re stabilizing on a more conservative, cost/benefit aware policy.

  3. SDOT’s recommended plan shows only one lane eastbound after the intersection. So eastbound buses have to stop in the only eastbound traffic lane? Backing up all other eastbound vehicles? We should be glad this “improvement” isn’t happening.

      • What are the City’s expectations for eastbound traffic when buses stop at Capitol Hill Station? The plan above shows all eastbound traffic coming to a halt every time a bus stops for loading and unloading.

        • They get to wait. This will be the case at Olive Way and Summit Avenue as well, with the installation of a curb bulb at that bus stop for in-lane stops for eastbound buses this October.

          • If the queue is more than 2 – 3 vehicles behind the parked bus, the backup will extend across Broadway. Of course motorists have to be careful to not “block the box,” in which case the queue begins again on the west side of Broadway — behind the green signal light.

            Seems clear the Seattle’s War on Cars isn’t just a meme anymore….

          • Good. The city should be focused on safety and managing traffic on one of the busiest pedestrian intersections in the city to keep people from dying is well worth a few seconds delay for car commuters.

          • Designing an intersection to encourage motorists to Block The Box doesn’t seem like good policy. Those vehicles will also be blocking crosswalks. And it’s not just those bad old cars that get inconvenienced; those queues also include buses.

          • It’s already illegal to block the box. No one is encouraging them to do so. Follow the traffic laws and you’ll be fine. I’m 100% for stronger enforcement of that bullshit, it slows everyone down.

          • I hope dseater’s comment below is correct, that they will move the bus stop farther east to a spot where through traffic can move around stopped buses, thereby eliminating the problem. I maintain my original point however — traffic engineers should design streets so they operate safely and logically for all users. And having buses block the only traffic lane immediately farside a very busy intersection, that’s not good design practice.

          • “traffic engineers should design streets so they operate safely and logically for all users. ”

            Agreed. We should stop prioritizing cars so disproportionately.

            I like that the bus stop is so close to the light rail entrance. There’s also a curb cut to the east, presumably to accommodate parking in the planned building adjacent to the station. So buses are either gonna block eastbound traffic on John, or block the entrance to the parking structure.

            I think it’s a shame they aren’t moving forward with signal improvements. You could have two lanes in both directions with the right signal management.

        • I’ve been told that the bus stop will be sliding east (closer to 10th) where there will still be two eastbound lanes.

          • OK, that makes sense. Basically the bus stop will be the beginning of the new lane (ready to be turned into a bus lane if the city wants).

            I still think it is the wrong approach. It would be simpler to just ban left turns onto Broadway there. That would mean you could keep two eastbound lanes, one for the bus, one for general purpose traffic.

            Banning left turns also means that you can have a right turn lane westbound on Olive. Not that many people do that, but it would basically come for free (either you are going straight or turning right). Right turns also take time, and can slow everyone down (in an area like this with lots of pedestrians).

            Overall though, it looks like traffic (especially bus traffic) will flow more smoothly.

  4. The penny-wise, pound-foolish approach of Durkan’s SDOT has been disappointing so far. Do we have reason to believe this is because of her base in the Democratic Party establishment, or is it just a policy blindspot for her?

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