SDOT plans a safer Rainier Ave. - for cars and pedestrians, not bikes

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The SUV that drove into the Carol Cobb Beauty Salon on Rainier Ave. was one of four cars that crashed into Columbia City buildings last year.

They “never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity,” the Israeli diplomat Abba Eban quipped about his country’s neighbors following their 1973 peace conference. The same can seem true of Seattle, at least when it comes to transportation planning.

Again and again this city has muffed the chance to install much-needed transportation infrastructure when it could be done cheaply and easily — only to play catch-up years later at much greater cost and trouble. Or never to catch up at all. The most notorious case is the $440 million Forward Thrust bond issue in 1970, which (with a 2-to-1 federal match) would have built 49 miles of urban rail and a regional bus system. Boeing Busted voters rejected it. Absent such federal largesse (and Senator Warren Magnuson to snag it), and building in current conditions, that price tag has risen by an order of magnitude — in constant dollars.

Thirty-six years later, Seattle’s first urban rail line began running from downtown to Sea-Tac, via MLK Way through Southeast Seattle, a milestone that marked two more missed opportunities. When Sound Transit got into budget trouble, it eliminated a planned station at MLK Way and Graham St., an omission I’ve harped on LINK so often in the past, I’ll spare you the details. Worse yet, no one thought to cheaply, painlessly insert bikeways along the new, wider, radically rebuilt MLK Way. Everyone was fixated on trains and cars.

Here’s hoping the city doesn’t repeat that mistake now, as it plans a major makeover of Southeast Seattle’s other, and even more essential, through corridor, Rainier Avenue. On paper, at least, it’s setting out to do just that.

Late this spring, the Seattle Department of Transportation plans to put Rainier Avenue S. from Columbia City to the city limit on a “road diet” — to squeeze it down from a four- to two-lane arterial, with a center turn lane serving left-turning vehicles going both ways. SDOT has presented three alternative schemes for doing this, all with the same traffic configuration. Only one of them includes any provision for bicycles, and that’s just 0.9 miles of separated bikeway from Hillman City to a little north of Columbia City, the stretch of Rainier with the most commercial and pedestrian activity.

This redesign will make notoriously perilous Rainier safer and more convenient for pedestrians and safer if somewhat less convenient for motorists. But unless it’s amended, it may actually make this notoriously perilous avenue less safe for cyclists, squandering an even better opportunity to bring a safe, widely accessible through cycle route to the most under-served quadrant of the city.

Before considering how that’s come to be and what can be done about it, it’s important to credit the need and motives driving the push for a Rainier safety fix. There’s no questioning the need. Rainier is far from Seattle’s busiest arterial, and, at 8 miles, it accounts for only about 1/200th of the city's arterial miles, and 1/500th of total street miles. But Rainier claims 1/30th of the city’s traffic collisions, and an even larger share of traffic fatalities — two in the last three years, 11 in the last 10. On Rainier, as opposed to other hotspots, the victims are mostly pedestrians.

Correcting this is a matter of urgency for SDOT director Scott Kubly and his boss, Mayor Ed Murray. For Murray especially, it’s personal. “I was hit by a speeding car [in Lacey] when I was 14 years old,” he told me last week. “I was laid up for months, and I still haven’t fully recovered. My life experience would have been very different if that car had been going 20 miles an hour.” Murray later staffed the Seattle City Council’s transportation committee and chaired the Washington House Transportation Committee. He seems to relish picking up those issues again now that he has more power to influence them: “Transportation," says the mayor, "is something I care deeply about.”

Kubly has a different personal touchstone. He recalls the most sensational of no fewer than four occasions when cars crashed into buildings in Columbia City last year (along with four more on nearby stretches of Rainier). In August, a speeding SUV plowed through the Carol Cobb Salon and Grecian Delight deli, very nearly killing a family of three. “I’d gone to eat at the sidewalk café across the street shortly before that,” says Kubly.

Not long after, he and Murray announced their “Vision Zero” mission: to eliminate traffic fatalities and serious injuries in Seattle by 2030. This vision has passionate support in Southeast Seattle, support that has been building for years. As SDOT noted in its 2008 Southeast Transportation Study, the idea of reducing traffic lanes in Columbia and Hillman Cities has “been explicitly and repeatedly recommended since 1976.” In the 1990s it was a top priority in those districts’ much-praised (and subsequently much-ignored) neighborhood plan.

At the show-and-tell I attended at the Ethiopian Community Center, resident after resident spoke up to support the vision and attest to what they’d seen, and in some cases suffered, on Rainier Ave. The big applause came when one young guy declared, “I’m a biker and a walker and a driver, and I don’t mind a couple minutes’ delays to save lives.”

A couple, as in two, minutes, is all a road diet would add to peak-hour travel times on Rainier, according to SDOT. That’s a marked upgrade from the 2008 study, when SDOT concluded that a “three-lane conversion would result in very high levels of traffic congestion,” doubling southbound driving times.

So what’s changed?

Transit ridership, for starters: It’s grown by 40 percent citywide in the last decade, probably more in Southeast Seattle with the advent of light rail. Traffic is down somewhat: Volume has dropped below 20,000 a day in Columbia-Hillman, the point at which, the Urbanist reports, road diets work best. (Volume is still higher farther north and south on Rainier Ave.)

And, as Jim Curtin, SDOT’s affable Rainier Ave. project manager, noted at the Ethiopian Center meeting, the agency got different results when it crunched the numbers this time; a lane reduction that seemed impossible five or 10 years ago suddenly seemed feasible. He acknowledged that his department had only done a rough cut so far, and needed to run the plan through a finer-grained traffic model. Nevertheless, Rainier Ave. remains in the department’s “Urgent” box, and SDOT is moving fast to implement the plan. Director Scott Kubly doesn't like calling it a “rush” schedule: “That implies spur-of-the-moment, which this isn’t,” he says. Kubly prefers to call it “urgent.”

Whatever you call it, the speed worries Ray Akers, a longtime local realtor who played a big part in Columbia City’s revival but has grown disenchanted with city policies thereabouts. In letters to Curtin, he’s urged the city to “slow down” and first study the prospective impact of a road diet on that district’s “fragile micro-economy,” as it did when it conducted an EIS before renovating MLK Way for light rail.

Before trimming lanes, Akers and other commenters have urged the city to try less-drastic measures: repaint cross stripes and lane markings, install reflective “turtles” to mark lanes visually and tactically and, especially, enforce traffic laws. These traffic-calming measures used to be taken for granted, back before the term “traffic calming” got coined. But it seems wishful to count on them now.

In 2007 the city laid out a plan of targeted traffic enforcement along Rainier, but the only enforcement I’ve seen in subsequent years is the red-light camera at Orcas Street — unless you count the time I flagged down and chastised a Seattle Police officer rushing through a pedestrian-occupied crosswalk. No, he didn’t take it well.

I’ve seen plenty of police on Rainier, however — often with sirens wailing and blue lights flashing, on the way to shootings, accidents or other more urgent matters. The South Precinct has too much to do without chasing speeders, weavers and jaywalkers, and occasional visits from SPD’s traffic division aren’t likely to have lasting impact.

SDOT does talk of switching to the more resilient reflective paint used on state highways for its faded crosswalk and land markings (it’s been using an environmentally friendly alternative that wears off quickly). Sounds like a good idea, but it’s not going to make much difference with drivers who don’t care where the markings are.

Akers predicts the lane reduction will be a disaster for Southeast businesses, most of which lie along Rainier, and for property owners there. “How many Safeways can you find located on a two-lane road?" he asks. "How about 7-Elevens or McDonald’s? Any major chain will seek a major arterial, and that means four lanes. Secondary and tertiary arterials do not command the attention or the value of a four-lane arterial. Real estate fronting on a four-lane arterial is always more valuable.”

Kubly and Murray contend that far from road diets starving retail, there is “a lot of data showing that when you do these kinds of facilities [road diets], retail does better," says Kubly. "It’s only going to make this a more attractive place to be.” And anyway, he adds, “Most of the people using these retail businesses are using transit to get there.”

Really? Try parking in Columbia City.

I asked both Akers and Kubly and SDOT spokesman Richard Sheridan if they could send me their data. I didn’t hear back from SDOT. Akers replied that his data was “anecdotal,” with one notable example very close at hand: Many retailers closed when only two traffic lanes continued operating on MLK during light rail construction. Indeed, but that project caused (and continues to cause) much more disruption than a road diet, which would be speedily implemented.

I suspect that Akers and City Hall are both right to a degree: Fewer traffic lanes will be one more factor dissuading the sort of national retailers that Akers has tried for frustrating decades to lure to Southeast Seattle. But smaller, locally-owned, more pedestrian-oriented businesses may fare better in calmer traffic conditions (and be glad not to have SUVs crashing through their walls). Southeast Seattleites will continue to miss the convenience of Trader Joe’s and Target nearby, but Columbia and Hillman Cities will retain their distinctive, nearly all-local characters. Some residents would call that a fair trade.

The neglect of bicycles in the Rainier plans is more worrisome, and not just for the missed opportunity. Paring lanes may actually make Rainier Ave. more scary for cyclists. That’s because impatient motorists will no longer have another traffic lane for passing them. Asked about this, Jim Curtin said drivers could still use the center turn lane for passing. But that’s dangerous too — and illegal.

From Curtin on up to the mayor, transportation officials say they recognize the need for bikeways and will do something about it sometime. “That’s the sort of thing we’ll be looking at as we go forward,” says Kubly. “A lot of folks [at the public meetings] are asking for those.” He notes that bike lanes are “easy to add later — you just lay down some paint, unless you pour a lot of concrete.”

But concrete or some other secure physical separation is just what Seattle’s 2014 Bicycle Master Plan prescribes for arterials such as Rainier carrying more than 15,000 vehicles a day. SDOT now recognizes that painting stripes and sharrow symbols won’t get the great mass of families, novice bikers and other cautious types pedaling on busy streets like Rainier.

Or at least it recognizes that when it writes bicycle plans. Getting a viable bikeway through Southeast Seattle falls into the gap between past and future realities on Rainier. For years SDOT debated how to achieve it, and mostly kicked the can down the road. Its 2007 bicycle plan proposed “further study” of a Rainier Avenue bikeway.

Trouble was, the four traffic lanes that were then deemed essential left no room for bikes unless parking was eliminated on one side of the avenue, a real retail killer. So the new bike plan scratched that idea. It instead focuses on MLK Way, which has already been built out at enormous cost. SDOT has marked an alternative Rainier Valley route zigzagging along side streets, but this effort collides with geography: Hitt’s Hill and the other steep ridges that make MLK and, especially, Rainier the only relatively level routes.

In transportation, a scheme delayed is a scheme deferred, sometimes forever. The cityscape is littered with good ideas that got deferred to death: the light rail station at MLK Way and Graham St., replacing the Waterfront Streetcar’s trolley barn after the Olympic Sculpture Park appropriated the old one and extending the line to Interbay. Doing things by half measures makes them more costly and less likely later, especially if, on Rainier, new curb bulbs and other new improvements will have to be jackhammered.

Mayor Murray understands all this. “I’m very interested in how we go back to Graham Street,” he says, with an eye to finally bringing light rail there. He speaks eloquently of the need for multimodal thinking and an “integrated approach to transportation,” to “not just fund one item, but to integrate them.”

Rainier Avenue is a test case for putting that principle into action.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Eric Scigliano

Eric Scigliano

Eric Scigliano's reporting on social and environmental issues for The Weekly (later Seattle Weekly) won Livingston, Kennedy, American Association for the Advancement of Science, and other honors. He has also written for Harper's, New Scientist, and many other publications. One of his books, Michelangelo's Mountain, was a finalist for the Washington Book Award. His other books include Puget SoundLove, War, and Circuses (aka Seeing the Elephant); and, with Curtis E. Ebbesmeyer, Flotsametrics.