Is Seattle a walkable city? Pedestrian death rates show otherwise

Washington was the first state to commit to zero traffic fatalities. But 24 years later, deaths are at an all-time high and officials are reevaluating.

A photo of red light streaks from a passing car in front of the intersection of North 45th and Aurora Avenue North.

The intersection of North 45th Street and Aurora Avenue North, where a pedestrian was hit, in a Thursday, March 16, 2023 photo. (Amanda Snyder/Cascade PBS)

Twenty-four years after Washington became the first state to commit to decreasing pedestrian traffic deaths to zero, the numbers continue to move in the wrong direction. Last year was one of the worst years ever for Washington traffic deaths, including pedestrians.

Accounting for a full 20% of traffic deaths in Seattle is Aurora Avenue North, aka State Highway 99, Seattle’s north-south alternative to Interstate 5, according to Elisabeth Wooton, Seattle Department of Transportation senior capital projects coordinator. 

This major arterial is known as the city’s High Injury Network; many drivers speed down the not-very-pedestrian-friendly highway. A skinny concrete median is the only thing separating wide northbound and southbound lanes. But it’s more than a highway; it’s also a busy commercial route with lots of foot traffic associated with local businesses and restaurants in some parts. 

And that’s a big part of the problem: A highway with foot traffic and minimal protections for pedestrians has meant deaths have been scattered along the route, from Westlake north to just past Bitter Lake. “In terms of reaching our Vision Zero goals and providing safety, Aurora is critical,” said Wooton. 

Vision Zero is the city’s plan to end all traffic deaths and serious injuries by 2030

Anne Vernez Moudon, University of Washington urban design and planning professor emeritus, has studied pedestrian safety for 25 years. She explains that a majority of Seattle traffic deaths are on or around arterial roads like Aurora, where cars go faster and there are fewer pedestrian crossings.

Moudon says one dataset explains the danger: The chances of a person dying when hit by a car going 20 mph is 5%. At 30 mph, it’s 45% and at 40 mph, chances of death are 85%. If struck at 50 mph, there is a 100% chance of death for pedestrians, she said.

Seeking solutions 

The Seattle Department of Transportation began the Aurora Ave Project in 2021 to address those safety concerns. It splits the corridor, more than seven and a half miles long, into five segments between Harrison and North 145th Streets. The goal is to make the area safer for all road users and to create a pedestrian-friendly area with walkable boulevards, wider sidewalks, safer crossings, appropriate infrastructure and greenery. The city wants to add bus-only lanes, bike lanes, pedestrian crossing signals, center medians and dividers and more. 

This effort comes as city data shows that pedestrian deaths have been at an all-time high since 2021, despite the city’s Vision Zero goals.

“We’re looking at every part of this corridor knowing that there have been fatalities within every one of these segments,” Wooton said. 

The construction start date has not been set, but SDOT said they received a $1.5 million grant from the WSDOT Pedestrian and Bicycle program; and Wooton said they have spent roughly $2.5 million to date for community engagement, analyzing existing conditions, concept development and evaluation as well as interim spot safety improvement design, like pedestrian-first signals and “No Turn on Red” signs. 

It is unclear how long the project will take and what further costs there might be, according to Wooton. 

A pedestrian crosses the intersection of North 45th Street and Aurora Avenue North on Thursday, March 16, 2023. A pedestrian was involved in a hit-and-run in this intersection. (Amanda Snyder/Cascade PBS)

What the numbers show 

Data from the Washington Traffic Safety Commission’s fatalities dashboard shows pedestrian deaths began rising in 2017 and since then have stayed above 100 per year across the state. The numbers peaked in 2021, when 146 pedestrians died across Washington; 2022 was the second highest, at 134. 

Pedestrian death tolls in 2023 are expected to beat 2021 or be a close second, said Mark McKechnie, external relations director for the Washington Traffic Safety Commission. 

Compared to other states, McKechnie said Washington fares pretty well when it comes to fatalities. Pedestrian fatalities increased 14% nationally between 2019 and 2023, according to the Governors Highway Safety Commission. In Washington, pedestrian deaths increased 25% during that time period, but the numbers are still well below those of the worst states like California, Florida and Texas. 

From 2020 to 2022, the national fatality rate for pedestrians and bicyclists combined was 2.5 deaths per 100,000 people. McKechnie said that the state’s fatality rate for pedestrians and bicyclists in this same period was 1.83 per 100,000. 

There is a discrepancy between the two data sets because of reporting delays. McKechnie said numbers from the Commission are preliminary and could change, since causes of death are still after investigation. 

“But if you look at it from the perspective of no pedestrian fatality is acceptable, then we’re very troubled by seeing our numbers increase when our goal is to get them to zero,” McKechnie said. 

In Seattle, pedestrian deaths also rose steadily over the past few years according to the SDOT: 16 in 2019, 14 in 2020, 20 in 2021 and 26 in 2022. McKechnie says key factors include city design, time of day, speeding and distracted driving. Seattle and King County have the most pedestrian traffic deaths in the state, because these deaths are usually closely correlated with population, but the next highest county, Yakima, does not have the next highest population. 

“We don’t do enough,” said Moudon, when asked why pedestrian death tolls aren’t decreasing significantly. “You don’t have to deal with the whole city, you can just deal with these areas … these hotspots where a lot of people are walking and the same old problems of speed, lack of safe crossings.” 

Seattle's approach to Vision Zero

Seattle has adopted the U.S. Department of Transportation Safe Systems Approach, according to Venu Nemani, Seattle Department of Transportation safety officer and city traffic engineer. The focus is on preventing crashes, but also minimizing their harm and making places safer for all road users. 

“Safety is a shared responsibility,” Nemani said. “I want to emphasize the responsibility that the Safe Systems Approach recognizes is the shared responsibility between ourselves.”

Seattle has not released its updated 2024 Vision Zero Action Plan.

Nemani said the number of pedestrian deaths have fluctuated in recent years, which allows SDOT to understand which approaches have worked and which haven’t. Through these projects, they’re able to see which direct actions have decreased pedestrian deaths. 

Two actions Nemani cited were installing no-turn-on-red restrictions and pedestrian headstart signals along Aurora. 

Nemani said they have installed around 675 pedestrian head start signals, which support 70% of all intersections. Since testing no-turn-on-red signals at specific intersections in the city, they have expanded to around 200 locations in the city, or 20% of all signalized intersections. 

“So we have projects across the city that promote safer pedestrian infrastructure and contribute to overall safer outcomes,” said Nemani. He said some of these additions, which the city added prior to directly following the Safety Systems Approach, are also backed at the national level by the Federal Highway Administration. 

Another approach that seems to be making a difference in Seattle is lowering the speed limit on most arterial streets in the city to 25 mph from 30-35 mph, Nemani said. 

Other approaches that have been proven to increase pedestrian safety are adding sidewalks and curb ramps; accessible push buttons or separating pedestrians and vehicles at signalized intersections; and predicting where cars often turn. This includes unprotected left turns or places where cars turn right on red. City officials believe these changes will help keep pedestrians safe without making traffic worse.

As part of the Aurora Ave Project, the city added pedestrian headstart signals to let people walk before cars start moving and put up no-turn-on-red signs at some intersections. Other projects in the area include upgrading sidewalks and preserving trees and identifying neighborhood streets

These changes are slowly coming along after community groups have pushed to improve the area on and around Aurora

“We’re trying to make sure we have everything, all the ideas on the table before we go into this next phase of planning where we’ll be evaluating and stitching them together for a more cohesive design,” SDOT’s Wooton said. 

What people on the street are saying

Other parts of the city that Moudon considers good candidates for improving pedestrian safety include Lake City, Fourth Avenue in Downtown, Martin Luther King South from Seattle to Skyway and South Rainier. A Rainier Improvements project started with community outreach and planning in 2015 and construction began in 2019. 

Gordon Padelford, executive director of Seattle Neighborhood Greenways, agrees that the city needs to do more since the numbers aren’t improving. 

“I often think about both ends of the age spectrum, as an 8-year-old and an 80-year-old. If we design a city that works for both of those age groups, it’s a really bright city for all of us,” Padelford said.

Seattle Neighborhood Greenways is a grassroots organization that pushes to make streets safer for people to bike, walk and roll. Padelford thinks it is possible to reach Vision Zero. An example he gave is Jersey City, New Jersey, which accomplished going a full year without a single traffic fatality. In neighboring Hoboken, there hasn’t been a single traffic death for seven years. Both are cities with sidewalks on every street and a well-established and well-used public transit system.

“That’s a really hard truth, that we are not on track to keep people safe as they’re walking, biking or rolling, driving or taking transit on our streets,” Padelford said.


CORRECTION: This story has been updated with pedestrian fatality death counts in Seattle from the Seattle Department of Transportation rather than the Washington State Traffic Commission. This story has been updated with correct numbers and to clarify that Aurora Avenue North accounts for 20% of traffic deaths in Seattle, not all Washington state traffic deaths. 

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