On foot in Seattle: How risky is it?

We're safer than pedestrians in Portland and San Francisco - but you might want to avoid Third and Pike.
We're safer than pedestrians in Portland and San Francisco - but you might want to avoid Third and Pike.

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The intersection of Rainier Avenue South and Bayview Street had the most vehicle-pedestrian collisions in 2013. Credit: Bill Lucia

Jourdan Keith had just left work. She was crossing Rainier Avenue at South Edmonds Street in Columbia City, heading for the bus stop. It was about five o'clock on a November evening.

"Suddenly," said Keith, "I was on the hood of the car and on the ground. It happened really fast."

The driver had run a red light. The car struck the inside of Keith's right leg, cracking a bone below her knee and damaging ligaments around her ankle. Her foot got caught and dragged under the car's front end. She remembers looking down and seeing a hole scraped into the side of her shoe.

Crosscut archive image.The incident happened in 2011, but the effects of her injuries linger. Keith (left) is the founder and director of the Urban Wilderness Project, a Seattle-based nonprofit, which runs outdoor and environmental restoration programs, including backpacking trips to the North Cascades. She has not led a trip since that November evening. "I can't carry a 50 pound backpack right now," she said.

There are also ongoing medical bills, which can still amount to about $200 each month; the muscle loss and weight gain she experienced while her leg was in a brace; the strain that the recovery process put on her spouse and co-workers; and the fear she still battles whenever she crosses a street. "It's just been a lot of time trying to recover physically and financially and emotionally," said Keith.

Vehicles hit 415 pedestrians on Seattle's streets in 2013, according to data from the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT). That number has remained relatively consistent in recent years — 487 in 2012 and 398 in 2011.

Most victims are not killed or badly hurt. But dozens are seriously injured each year.

The most hazardous intersections and streets tend to change from year to year, ranging from bustling downtown corners to major north-south thoroughfares. In late July, a garbage truck struck and killed a woman who was walking near Eighth Avenue and James Street on First Hill.

415 pedestrians were struck by cars or trucks in Seattle in 2013. Green dots indicate one collision. Pink dots show where two incidents occurred; yellow where there were three or four. Source: SDOT. Map: Bill Lucia

The city's average pedestrian fatality rate from 2008 to 2011 was about 1.2 per 100,000 people. Based on that number, walking in Seattle during that time period was safer than strolling through Portland, Oregon, San Francisco and Vancouver, B.C. Among those three cities, San Francisco had the highest pedestrian fatality rate, about 1.9 deaths per 100,000.

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These rates reflect a four-year average for 2008-2011 and are based on accident data from local transportation and law enforcement agencies, and 2010 population estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau and B.C. Stats. Chart: Bill Lucia

Seattle's City Traffic Engineer Dongho Chang said that Seattle is currently the second safest big city in the nation for pedestrians. "That's something remarkable when you think about what we're seeing in Seattle," said Chang. "We have huge, tremendous growth."

That said, 60 Seattle pedestrians did sustain serious injuries in 2013, according to SDOT statistics. The serious classification refers to injuries bad enough to leave the victim unable to walk or drive after the collision, and includes broken bones, severe cuts and head wounds. Last year's total was in line with the three-year average for 2011-2013 — about 57.

Vehicle-pedestrian collisions that caused serious injuries happened all over the city last year. Three took place on the same two mile stretch of Greenwood Avenue North, which runs between North 90th Street and North 130th Street. Seven people were seriously injured in three collisions along Rainier Avenue. Four were seriously injured when they were struck by vehicles in the five-block section of Third Avenue that runs between University Street and Stewart Street in downtown.

SDOT recently reviewed three years of data, from 2010 through 2012, and counted eight vehicle-pedestrian collisions at Third Avenue and Pike Street, the most of any city intersection. Brooklyn Avenue Northeast and NE 45th Street in the University District and the corner of Fifth Avenue and Spring Street were close behind with seven each. Not all of these incidents resulted in serious injuries.

Like many dangerous intersections, downtown's Third and Pike poses a unique set of challenges. Chang notes the bus traffic on Third Avenue and that Pike is a popular route for pedestrians heading to the Pike Place Market, which is about four blocks west. "Pike Street is a very pedestrian heavy area," he said.

In an attempt to improve safety, SDOT has re-timed traffic lights in the area so that they stay yellow longer. That gives drivers more time to slow down before signals turn red. The department also added walk signs with countdown timers so pedestrians can better gauge how long they have to safely cross the street. "Long term," Chang said, "we're looking at how to make that corridor better accommodate pedestrians."

But there are limits to what SDOT can do. Chang recalled a recent episode where he saw two people running back and forth across Third Avenue, arguing as they went. "We need to have a little bit more enforcement activity [in that area]," he said.

Other kinds of distracted behavior, like drivers or pedestrians talking on cellphones, may increase the risk of collisions. But it is hard to measure how often distractions are to blame. "It's something we don't have a lot of data to provide a good analysis on," Chang said.

Lisa Quinn is the executive director of Feet First, an advocacy organization focused on improving pedestrian safety throughout Washington. She acknowledged that it is partly up to pedestrians to keep themselves safe by, for example, not listening to headphones or wearing dark clothing. "You're equally or more responsible for your safety out on the street," said Quinn. But she added that driver education efforts and better street designs would also improve pedestrian safety.

Asked for an example of an especially safe Seattle intersection, SDOT's Chang points to Western Avenue and Virginia Street, which is between Pike Place Market and Victor Steinbrueck Park. Chang said that even with the high volume of people and about 11,000 vehicles passing through the intersection each day, there hasn't been a pedestrian-vehicle collision in the last 10 years. "It's incredible," he said. "People are looking out for each other. They see that it's a location where pedestrians have priority."

Traffic engineers have a number of options when it comes to improving pedestrian safety. In addition to the signs and re-timed stoplights SDOT used at Third and Pike, lowering vehicle speeds is a critical safety measure. If a car is moving slower, both driver and pedestrian have more time to react, and if the pedestrian does get hit, the consequences aren't usually as dire.

The U.S. Department of Transportation's Federal Highway Administration refers to studies that show the chance of a pedestrian fatality increasing from five to 85 percent as the speed of the vehicle that strikes that pedestrian escalates from 20 to 40 m.p.h.

According to SDOT's 2012 figures, about 85 percent of the vehicles driving on Rainier Avenue near South Holly Street were traveling between 37 and 38 m.p.h. The speed limit there is 30 m.p.h. Jourdan Keith was hit about one mile further north.

SDOT tries to dampen speed in several ways: electronic signs that show drivers how fast they are going, sidewalks that bulge slightly into the street at crosswalks, even adding roadside trees, which can signal to drivers that there are people in an area. "It creates an anticipation for the driver that this is not just a facility for vehicles," Chang said.

Left hand turn lanes can also improve safety. Of the 415 vehicles that hit pedestrians in Seattle in 2013, 142 — roughly 34 percent — were making left hand turns. "If someone is turning left and there isn't a left turn arrow, they're looking for the gaps [in] the opposing traffic," Chang said. "They may not be paying attention to the pedestrian. If we put in the left turn arrow, we pretty much eliminate that type of conflict."

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Over a third of pedestrian collisions in 2013 involved left-turning vehicles. Source: SDOT. Chart: Bill Lucia

But sometimes reconfiguring a street for pedestrian safety can cause other types of conflicts. The so-called "road diet" on NE 125th Street in Lake City caused a stir when it was completed in 2011. Some residents opposed the city's plans to re-stripe and re-partition the roadway, eliminating two of the four driving lanes and adding a center turn lane and bike lanes. Critics believed the traffic pattern change would cause congestion.

"That was highly controversial," said Janine Blaeloch, a pedestrian safety activist in Lake City and 13-year resident of the neighborhood. "It's proved to be a great project."

SDOT has found that since the change, speeding and accidents have declined on NE 125th Street. But the blocks north and south of NE 125 Street on Lake City Way continue to pose safety challenges. Vehicles hit 12 people between NE 110th Street and NE 145 Street on the busy north-south roadway in 2012. Two were seriously injured along that stretch of Lake City Way in 2013. "It's an incredibly important pedestrian area that's been treated as a highway," Blaeloch said. "It's not just a commuter route."

Crosscut archive image.She added that SDOT, and specifically Chang, have made an exceptional effort to improve pedestrian safety in the neighborhood and that police have also stepped up speeding patrols.

Just south of NE 125th Street on Lake City Way is a mid-block crosswalk (shown at left) with fluorescent green pedestrian signs on either side. LED lights are also affixed to the signposts, and they flash brightly when a pedestrian hits the walk button to cross. SDOT tried a few different systems at the crossing before finally settling on the current technology.

"I walk across here a lot," said Barbara Zepeda, who, since the 1980s, has worked as a bookkeeper at Pioneer Woodworks, which is on the west side of the crosswalk. "You have to look. The pedestrians are walking around with a cell phone to their ear." The owner of the woodworking shop said he knew of at least three people who were hit by vehicles at or near the crossing in the last 10 years.

Busy north-south thoroughfares like Lake City, Aurora Avenue North and Rainier Avenue force traffic engineers to strike a balance between transit, freight and commuter traffic. "There's all these competing needs, but you have to realize that those routes go through a vibrant community," Chang said. "You really have to think about serving the community as well as serving the mobility of that corridor."

Satisfying all of those needs can be difficult. The intersection with the most collisions last year was Rainier Avenue and South Bayview Street, at the north end of the Rainier Valley. Four people were hit there, though none was seriously injured.

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Four pedestrians were hit by vehicles at Rainier Avenue South and South Bayview Street last year. Photo: Bill Lucia

The day Jourdan Keith was struck by that car, she received an invitation in the mail from then-mayor Mike McGinn, asking her to attend a pedestrian safety talk. "I can't," wrote Keith in her letter of reply. "I got hit by a car."

She would like to see more crosswalk signs posted around the city that say, "Stop for me, it's the law," as well as lower speed limits and re-timed traffic signals. Noting that the grandmother of an Urban Wilderness Project participant was hit and killed by a truck on Rainier Avenue, she said: "People go down that street too fast, and they run the lights." 

Although Keith's recovery is almost complete, she is not sure she will lead a backpacking trip again anytime soon. And she still avoids the area in Columbia City where the accident happened. "I don't go to the post office, I don't want to be around there, and that's where I have to get my mail," she said. "You get hit by a car, your trust in people is impacted."

She is also reluctant to put a price on how much the accident cost her. The medical expenses, she said, exceeded the driver's insurance and that did not include her lost wages and other costs that are harder to quantify.

"There's not really any amount of money that replaces not being afraid to cross the street and not having pain from doing what you love," Keith said. "It will continue to impact me forever.


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