Seattle's new plan to eliminate traffic deaths

Josh Cohen
Crosscut archive image.
Josh Cohen

Seattle officials launched a new program today to eliminate all traffic deaths and serious injuries in the city by 2030. Vision Zero — a collaboration between the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) and Seattle Police Department (SPD) — will focus on modifying street design and increasing enforcement and education.

The program centers on reducing speed limits, re-engineering roads to slow down traffic speeds, building new bicycle and pedestrian improvements, installing speed cameras in school zones, increasing education and increasing police enforcement.

Mayor Ed Murray announced the program at a press conference in the Lake City library branch this afternoon. He was joined by Council Transportation Chair Tom Rasmussen, SDOT Director Scott Kubly, SPD Chief Kathleen O’Toole, as well as family and friends of traffic victims.

Crosscut archive image.
Ed Murray announces his Vision Zero campaign

In 2013, there were 10,310 police-reported collisions in Seattle. 155 people were seriously injured and 23 people were killed (10 pedestrians, two people on bikes, six on motorcycles and five in cars). In the past three years, over 600 people have been hit while walking downtown.

But SDOT says that despite Seattle’s fast-growing population, they’ve seen a 30 percent drop in traffic fatalities over the last decade. In 2014, Liberty Mutual Insurance ranked Seattle the safest big U.S. city for walking.

“Even though Seattle's a really safe city to bike in, drive in and walk in, we really needed to do more,” said SDOT’s Kubly. “Every DOT’s number one priority is, or should be, safety for all users.”

Crosscut archive image.Vision Zero is an internationally recognized concept used in Europe, the U.K. and the U.S. The program originated in 1997 in Sweden, which has since seen a 30 percent reduction in traffic fatalities. Seattle is the fourth U.S. city to adopt a program. San Francisco and New York City launched Vision Zero programs in January 2014 and Portland launched theirs earlier this week.

SDOT has a laundry list of projects in their Vision Zero plan they intend to complete by the end of 2015. Noteworthy projects include:

  • Reducing speed limits to 20 MPH on residential streets with a high collision history and those near schools or parks. SDOT aims to reduce speeds in 5-10 “zones” throughout the city this year.
  • Reducing arterial speed limits to 30 MPH on high-risk arterials, including MLK Way S, Rainier Ave S, 35th Ave SW, Greenwood Ave N, 15th Ave NE and others.
  • Reducing speed limits on downtown streets to 25 MPH starting with Pike, Pine and James.
  • Eliminating right turns on red at intersections with heavy foot traffic including 5th Ave at Union, University, Spring and Seneca; 6th Ave at Pike, Spring, Cherry, James and University; and 7th at Olive Way.
  • Installing traffic calming measures, modified signal phasing, protected turn phases in Urban Centers including Lake City, White Center, Columbia City and Hillman City.
  • Installing seven miles of protected bike lanes, 12 miles of neighborhood greenways, 40 crossing improvements, 14 blocks of new sidewalk, and re-marking 500 crosswalks as stipulated by the city’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Master Plans.

The Vision Zero document also calls for transit safety improvements, corridor safety projects on the city's most dangerous roads such as Rainier Ave; new education and outreach efforts in schools, public events and elsewhere; and increased patrol and enforcement by SPD.

SDOT staff did not have a cost estimate for their 2015 Vision Zero projects, but said they are mostly low-cost changes.

“It's more about focusing our activities around our goals,” said Kubly. “Safety doesn't have to be expensive. We can use paint and delineators, create temporary curb bulb-outs, bike facilities, install new signage that’s reflective. It's built into our budget.”

The new Vision Zero program is in many ways an evolution from the city’s Be Super Safe campaign launched under former Mayor Mike McGinn in 2012. Be Super Safe also established a goal of eliminating traffic deaths and serious injuries by 2030, but did not have the road re-engineering component of Vision Zero. SDOT Community Traffic Liaison Jim Curtin explained that road engineering is critical for controlling speed.

“On arterial corridors like Delridge, we want to drop the speed limit down to 30, but we also want drivers to actually go 30 mph or less,” Curtin said. “We’re thinking about tightening up the lane lines out there so that the design of the street actually dictates the speed people drive.”

Will Target Zero go the way of King County's Ten-Year Plan to End Homelessness? Curtin doesn't think so. "We had 23 fatalities in 2013, 15 fatalities in 2014. We're trending in the right direction," he said. "We have a very realistic chance of getting to zero. I think we're actually going to break the mold in Seattle."

The Washington Department of Transportation has a similar statewide goal to reduce traffic fatalities called Target Zero. Since its launch in 2000, it has reduced traffic fatalities in Washington by 40 percent.

Kubly is also very confident in Seattle’s plan. “My gut tells me Seattle’s is probably the most comprehensive Vision Zero program in the country. I haven’t looked at every city’s plan, but I would put us up against anybody.”

“With so few fatalities already, I think we'll actually be the first city to get there.”

Kubly says he started thinking about a Vision Zero plan for Seattle because of a rash of traffic fatalities that happened right when he arrived to the city last summer.

“In my first month on the job there were three or four fatalities. One of my employees got seriously hurt. A young girl got hit by a car on MLK and went into a coma,” he explained. “If we had a rash of homicides people would be up in arms about a crime wave … we need to treat [traffic safety] with the same level of seriousness.”

When asked if he thinks Vision Zero will be met with cries of “war on cars,” Kubly reiterated that the plan is about making roads safer for all.

“Making streets safe for everybody regardless of what mode you're in is not about a war on cars or being pro ped or pro bike. We're pro life. We want people to feel safe on our city streets.”


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