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The Rainier Ave. Problem

Looking southbound on Rainier Ave S from a pedestrian footbridge. Credit: Photo: Oran Viriyincy

Rainier Avenue S is one of Seattle’s most dangerous streets. On Halloween this year, a man driving a pickup truck at over 65 mph near 52nd Ave lost control, slammed into 10 cars and injured 10 people before hitting a tree and coming to a stop. In August, seven people were injured when an SUV crashed into a salon in downtown Columbia City. From January 2011 through September 2014, the street saw 1,243 total collisions, 630 injuries and two fatalities.

“There’s nothing we can compare Rainier to in the City of Seattle,” said Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) Community Traffic Liaison Jim Curtin, referring to its traffic volume and high rate of crashes.

For anyone who has driven, walked or biked the road, the high collision rate is likely no surprise. The wide, four-lane arterial allows cars to drive fast. Its curves and “skewed” intersections (non 90-degree turns), obscure driver’s sightlines and allow for high-speed cornering.

There’s heavy vehicle traffic — an average of 19,700 to 26,600 vehicles per weekday. And the road connects many of the Rainier Valley’s main business districts, adding lots of people on foot and bike to the mix. High speeds plus heavy traffic plus vulnerable people is a recipe for tragedy.

It’s an issue the city of Seattle is finally taking to heart. Earlier this month, SDOT launched the Rainier Avenue South Safety Corridor Project, a multi-year effort to improve street safety on Rainier from Letitia Ave S. to Seward Park Ave S. by modifying the road design and increasing enforcement and education. SDOT held two meetings in November to gather input from community members about safety concerns, share road statistics and discuss the possibility of reducing vehicle speeds on the arterial.

The second of the meetings was held on Nov. 18 at the Ethiopian Community Center in Rainier Beach. Approximately 60 community members sat in on the presentation by SDOT’s Curtin and Traffic Engineer DongHo Chang and voiced their concerns about Rainier’s dangerous road conditions. Mayor Ed Murray and Councilmember Bruce Harrell attended as well.

“We’re here to listen, to work with you on a plan to make Rainier a corridor that works for people, bikes, businesses and also for cars,” said Murray.

In his presentation, SDOT’s Curtin said one of their major goals is to slow down speeding drivers. According to him, over 1,000 vehicles per day drive 40 mph or over through Columbia City and Hillman City and over 2,000 vehicles per day drive that fast through Rainier Beach.

Those high speeds have fatal consequences for pedestrians. Just 1 in 10 pedestrians hit by a car driving 40 survives. Survival rates jump to 50 percent at 30 mph and 90 percent at 20 mph.

Slowing things down though will require design changes and enforcement.

“Whatever design we come up with is not going to be a magic bullet that solves all our problems. We need enforcement too,” said Curtin.

The Rainier Safety Project has $500,000 to make quick and easy changes this spring and summer. These will likely include education materials, new signage and new paint to reconfigure lanes. SDOT will present preliminary designs in February for public feedback, finalize designs in March or April, then begin construction implementation as soon as the weather permits. Chang said they will also consider seeking funding for bigger, capital construction projects if the community identifies problem areas that require it.

Long before the latest round of high-speed crashes and SDOT’s Rainier Project, a University of Washington School of Public Health study helped raise the profile of one of the route’s major safety issues: crossing signal timing.

The 2013 study compared pedestrian crossing signal timing on Rainier Ave S in Rainier Beach and Columbia City with comparable crossings on Market Street in Ballard. Ballard crosswalks, it found, gave more time for pedestrians to cross. Pedestrians crossing Rainier were less likely to be able to finish crossing before the signal turned red. They also had to wait longer for the pedestrian signal to turn green, which leads to higher rates of jaywalking, and in turn more people getting hit by cars.

It turned out the Rainier signals were not up to date with the latest Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD) crossing standard, which gives pedestrians one second to cross each 3.5 feet of crosswalk. Rainier Ave’s signals were still timed to the old standard – one second to cross 4 feet of crosswalk.

In March of this year, SDOT announced they would retime 30 traffic signals to the new MUTCD standard on Rainier Ave S between I90 and Seward Park Ave S by the end of the year. According to SDOT Communications Director Rick Sheridan, the department began work on that retiming three weeks ago, and hopes to have the project finished by mid December. He explained they need to complete all of the retiming work along the corridor before we will see timing improvements at any one specific intersection.

Rainier Valley Greenways member Phyllis Porter lives in Renton and works at Bikes Works just off Rainier Ave in Columbia City. She was standing on the sidewalk, just feet from the Carol Cobb Salon in Columbia City, when that SUV slammed into it this summer.

She's hoping the Rainier Safety Project isn’t just lip service from the city. “I want to see action. We need to see more than talk.”

Porter believes that if SDOT is going to work on Rainier Ave S., they should do as much as they can. For her, that would mean setting 20 mph speed limits through Columbia City and Hillman City, putting in a protected bike lane on Rainier, adding red light cameras, and doing more in the way of education and community outreach.

“I just want to see it safe.”

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