Looking west across the current 15th/Columbia intersection.
What a Mercer student needing to catch a 107 bus sees today. Image from Google Maps.

[Update: Beacon Hill Safe Streets has this form to contact your representatives.]

A project to improve safety at the confusing and pedestrian-hostile intersection of 15th Avenue South and South Columbian Way in Beacon Hill, adjacent to Mercer Middle School, has been on SDOT’s radar for many years. (UPDATE: Seattle Neighborhood Greenways’ Gordon Padelford correctly points out in comments that Beacon Hill Safe Streets has played the lead role supporting and organizing for the project throughout.)  SDOT data shows an average of five injury collisions annually over the last decade at this intersection. But Mercer students must cross the intersection to access Metro routes 60 and 107, which are the primary transit connections to most of Beacon Hill. The project finally received funding through 2016’s Move Seattle levy, as one of twelve safety projects added to the city’s Neighborhood Street Fund program. Last year, SDOT published a draft design that would simplify the intersection, add marked and signalized crosswalks on all sides, and make the wide and dangerous slip lane into a pedestrian plaza, as shown below:

Map of SDOT's initial proposed design
SDOT’s initial proposed design for 15th/Columbian.

This design won praise from safety advocates, but some drivers in the community vehemently objected to the lack of a separate signal for eastbound drivers on S Oregon St (as exists today).  Drivers feared that they would be subject to long delays trying to turn left from S Oregon onto 15th Ave S.  But when SDOT studied adding the S Oregon signal back, its modeling suggested that cars crossing the intersection would be subject to delays of two to three minutes.

To accommodate these concerned drivers without delay, SDOT on Tuesday proposed a compromise design, which would add the S Oregon signal back, but remove the crosswalk on the north side of the 15th/Columbian intersection:

A map of SDOT's compromise design for 15th/Columbian, with no crosswalk on the north side of the intersection and the S Oregon signal.
SDOT’s “compromise” design for 15th/Columbian.

To be blunt, the compromise is insane.  It sacrifices the safety of middle school kids who walk and ride transit—children between ages 12 and 14!—for a very slight improvement in driver convenience.

Students accessing the southbound bus stop for routes 60 and 107, or walking to homes west of 15th, have no choice but to cross this intersection. The original SDOT design allows them to cross once, in the most logical place—the north side of the intersection. The compromise requires them to cross twice, zigzagging out of their way.  Some will inevitably cross at the north side anyway, despite the lack of a crosswalk, risking collisions with drivers not looking for pedestrians. Even those who use the SDOT-prescribed path will see double the risk of collisions, as they will be crossing twice.

This is not what Vision Zero should be. Vision Zero, to which Seattle is in theory committed, is intended to prevent traffic deaths and injuries by adapting street design to human behavior. A major part of that is accommodating pedestrian desire lines ($)—the paths pedestrians would use most naturally.  The desire line for many students crossing this intersection will be across its north side; that is the shortest way across, and it is where both transit and public space will be.

Drivers, for their part, have other good options without the S Oregon signal. The project will be adding a new signal at 15th Ave S/S Dakota St, two blocks north, where northbound drivers can easily turn left onto 15th Ave S without adding any distance to their trips. As another option, drivers can drive one block south, where there is an easier turn onto 15th Ave S from S Angeline St. By using these alternate paths, drivers will not see any significant delay compared with current use of S Oregon St.

But that hasn’t stopped them from complaining. Safe streets advocate Shirley Savel attended and livetweeted a public meeting on the project last night at the Jefferson Community Center. Savel documented vitriolic opposition to both SDOT designs and to the project as a whole, along with some support for the original SDOT design. Opponents barely acknowledged the safety concerns driving the project in the first place, despite the collision data. Some argued implausibly that the intersection is safe as is, while others ignored the issue altogether.

SDOT should not prioritize this sort of largely meritless driver complaint over Vision Zero safety improvements.  Agency leadership—and the mayor’s office—should follow guidelines that make pedestrian safety, and especially child safety, a non-negotiable criterion for intersection and street redesigns. It should be OK to create minor inconvenience for drivers where pedestrian safety requires it. For this project, SDOT should return to its original design proposal, and educate drivers about alternative access to 15 Ave S on S Dakota St and S Angeline St.

To provide SDOT with feedback, you can email them at the project-specific address.

51 Replies to “School Safety Takes a Back Seat in Beacon Hill”

  1. How about a cc to the City Attorney on every contact? Because this kind of thinking is going to cost Seattle voters a lot of tax money for settlements. Their choice. Incidentally: who chairs the responsible committee on the City Council? And whose side is The Seattle Times on?

    Mark Dublin

  2. One other thing that would help, though we are King County Metro’s mercy on it, is shortening average wait time for buses. Routes 60 and 107 ought to be timed like two tails on the same trunk for the portion of their routes between Georgetown and Beacon Hill Station.

    The two routes are basically anti-timed so that they come through one right after another, and then not for awhile until another two come together.

    Interline their schedules, and the kids will have a little less incentive to jayrun (as well as much better odds of finding a seat, which also reduces the odds of injuries on the bus). Yes, that might necessitate more investment in route 107 frequency some times of day, but many times of day, especially most of the evening, the two routes have the same frequency, but are scheduled painfully poorly, having one follow right behind the other so that one bus is mostly full and the other mostly empty.

    Better scheduling between routes 60 and 107 would mean shorter average wait times. Shorter wait times means safer waiting and less panicky jayrunning. The fact that it can’t be done universally (that is to say 24/7) is not a valid argument against interlining the routes during the long stretches of time when the routes do have the same frequency. Roughly 15-minute interlined headway could easily be achieved on evenings and weekends. Instead, routes 60 and 107 are scheduled about as poorly as possible during those periods.

    1. The 107 schedule is probably more or less fixed because of timed transfers in Renton, but I don’t know any reason why the 60 schedule couldn’t be adjusted to match it. I don’t believe the 60 has any timed transfers or staggered scheduling anywhere along its length.

      1. Out of curiosity, is the technology in place to enforce waiting for the timed transfers?

        I know of no timed transfers anywhere along route 60. It seems to pulse in South Park, giving me a couple options for heading northbound every half hour, instead of having an option roughly every 15 minutes (evenings and weekends). I would be overjoyed by a retiming of route 60.

        I’d shed no tears if route 132 were also retimed, but I see no evidence their schedules were considered against each other.

      2. Metro schedules timed transfers at a number of transit centers, but almost never asks for drivers to wait. They can put instructions on the run card like “wait for northbound route 169 coach to arrive” but very rarely do so. Sometimes a driver running late will call and if the coordinator has spare time he may make an all call asking other buses to wait, but that’s very ad hoc.

      3. One thing drivers at BHS could do to reduce jayrunning is for southbound buses to always glance over at BHS and see if someone(s) is/are running toward them or trying to get their attention. If you are one of the southbound bus drivers, waving an acknowledgement at the potential jayrunner(s) could avoid a crossing incident.

        It isn’t the fault of the passenger that the train arrived when it did, so don’t make someone wait in the rain/cold/smoke an extra 30 minutes for the next 60/107 pair when you see someone who is obviously trying to catch that bus. But most importantly, use visual cues to get that passenger to make their way to the bus safely, and talk to the passenger about safe practices for catching a bus there.

        Also, I wish the bus bay could move forward a length, not just so that a 36 and 60/107 could load simultaneously, but also to block the jackass drivers who try to squeeze around the front of the bus at breakneck speed.

        An additional shelter would be nice, too. It doesn’t have to have seats. Train departees will panic a little less when they know that their 30-minute wait for the next 60/107 pair doesn’t have to be standing in a downpour.

    2. And one more reason to move the southbound bus bay forward a length at BHS…

      If the second bus expects the first one to depart, moves into the block, and then has to wait while the first one is still dwelling, it can block the box, and the new walk sign, which as another commenter pointed out, HAS HELPED CAUSE SERIOUS PEDESTRIAN INJURIES ELSEWHERE.

  3. It is unfortunate to see SDOT prioritizing convenience of car traffic over safety of vulnerable groups (aka pedestrians and bicyclists) time and time again. They should rename it “Zero Vision”, because that is what it truly is.

  4. The trend for SDOT to roll out projects that reduce safety for the sake of saving automobiles a few seconds is disturbing.

    Installing signals next to Beacon Hill Station is one of the latest examples. Before, pedestrians had the right-of-way, and crossed Beacon Ave S freely. Cars moved slowly through the unsignalized intersection. As someone who makes that crossing several times a week, I felt about as safe as a pedestrian could feel crossing an arterial.

    As soon as the signals went in, cars sped up noticeably along that stretch. (Though, on average, the time drivers save is more than made up for by the time pedestrians wait to cross the street now.)

    I will have a hard time voting for any future city transportation levies when we get Anti-Vision Zero junk like this.

    1. The other issue with the new signal at Beacon Hill station is the timing. Even if it has not been used for some time, from the point you hit the button it’s a consistent 30 second wait before the signal changes. Which is an eternity when their are no cars coming, or when there is a 36 coming down the street. I can totally see requiring some gap between cycles, but if there has not been a pedestrian cycle the light should go yellow immediately.

      The end result is just people ignoring the signal and running across the street that now has a green light for drivers.

      1. I wish there were a cheap/easy way to turn beg buttons into non-beg buttons. Some sort of thing you could tape on the sensor?

      2. A couple blocks south, by the library, there was a beg-button crosswalk that lit up the crosswalk automatically, with no wait. It has also been replaced by automobile-priority signals.

        Having three of those along this stretch would have taken care of any need for a beg button, without ruining everything for pedestrians trying to catch buses.

        Now, the sunk-cost fallacy will make it really hard to remove these danger-causing signals.

      3. I attended a Feet First walk on Beacon Hill and I think the guide said the library-like pedestrian scanners never worked very well so they were being removed.

    2. So, the half signal at Lander was also about making it easier for sight-limited folks as well. Having an audible (and tactile) signal button that stops cars gives them a safer and assured crossing. Ideally SDOT would have other signal options that didn’t make it default cars, but they apparently don’t. FWIW, the signal is configured so that it gives a walk signal regularly automatically and if a person walks up and pushes the button and it’s been more than a certain amount of time since the last stop phase for cars, it gives cars a red light pretty quickly.

  5. Didn’t we learn in the 20th century that omitting crosswalks on sides of intersections was a bad idea? It certainly sounds contradictory to Vision Zero. It looks like Vision Zero is being thrown out the window in the face of driver inconvenience. If so, can we roll back the speed-limit reductions too? Or will they be the only remaining remnants of it?

    1. No, we haven’t learned. I can name several transit center rider internment camps that try to force riders to enter and exit the center from one direction, usually facing away from local businesses. It doesn’t work.

    2. And it’s likely that a significant portion of the cars passing through this intersection aren’t driven by Seattle residents. This is a frequent freeway escape route.

      1. One thing of interesting note is that leaving the North Crosswalk (and removing the “left turn signal” at Oregon) actually *reduces* delay over retaining that signal and Deleting the northern crosswalk per SDOT. So people who just travel through the area should likely support Option A over C.

  6. This is not what Vision Zero should be. Vision Zero, to which Seattle is in theory committed, is intended to prevent traffic deaths and injuries by adapting street design to human behavior.

    If this is what you’ve truly believed from the start of “Vision Zero”, you’ve been fooling yourself. It’s been clear from the beginning that “Vision Zero” is nothing more than a quarter-assed, knee-jerk reaction slush fund, where Councilmembers can have their photo ops, pat themselves on the back and sleep well at night, while pretending to mourn for the people that get injured or died due to their inaction

    Meanwhile, pedestrians are dying around the City because what we really need, proactive pedestrian safety solutions, are willfully ignored by SDOT, the Council and the mayor.

    Call it what it really is: Zero Vision. I can only hope our courageous leaders don’t hurt their hands from patting themselves on the back tool hard for this terrible solution.

    1. I’m not sure what role the council has in SDOT’s various small-scale decisions. I believe the Mayor is more in control of these decisions.

      But if you are looking for culprits who have opposed pedestrian safety projects, it has pretty much entirely been neighborhood associations. The anti-pedestrian and anti-bike cranks get to scream the loudest there, and nobody pushes back in those settings. Most of us don’t have the time to go to those meetings, and certainly can’t hop around the city attending every other neighborhood’s meetings to counter the screamers’ bad logic.

      Maybe the Beacon Hill neighborhood got to have SDOT’s ear about the new pedestrian-endangering signals at BHS, but bus riders were clearly not notified of any plans. Yeah, I know: process complaint. But my main point is the terrible outcome.

      I’d be very surprised if bus riders at 15th and Columbian have been notified of the double-secret only-neighborhood-associations-get-to-know process. The failure to notify bus riders stilted the outcome for the proposed bus lane we needed on 23rd Ave E, and now will not get.

      1. This is Bruce Harrell’s district and he is definitely not being a proactive champion of safety for his constituents here.

      2. It doesn’t help to have a Mayor who calls the new Lander Street Bridge a “pedestrian bridge” when the project removes the sidewalk on one side of the street and provides no new crosswalk to get across 4-5 lanes of arterial traffic to get to the one that’s left.

      3. Do SDOT meetings with neighborhood associations have public comment? If so, two effective countermeasures. One, in front of either cameras or smart-phones, commenter delivering a brief but complete accident report, leaving out only victims’ names.

        Any pushback…yield your time to Alex Tsimerman. In the name of democratic equality, it’s only right that the ST Board and the Seattle City Council should be compelled to share this priceless motivational resource. Shame if meetings are out of Transit Police jurisdiction.

        Some serious danger, though. In certain well-off neighborhoods, there may still be senior citizens who actually are either billionaire gangsters or Nazis, or both, who’ve always thought the Second Amendment protects both Lugers and Kalashnikovs. Because NRA says so.

        And also harbor an old historic grudge against Metro and Sound Transit that they can’t get boxcars coupled onto either the Sounder, FHS, SLU….and the Mayor careful about bad-mouthing the Connector. In their world, “Settling Accounts” isn’t done online.

        Mark

      4. But if you are looking for culprits who have opposed pedestrian safety projects, it has pretty much entirely been neighborhood associations. The anti-pedestrian and anti-bike cranks get to scream the loudest there, and nobody pushes back in those settings. Most of us don’t have the time to go to those meetings, and certainly can’t hop around the city attending every other neighborhood’s meetings to counter the screamers’ bad logic.

        Understood, but there is no codified law that SDOT, the Mayor or the Council is beholden to or even needs to acknowledge the extremely vocal, but tiny minority. By giving them an ear, to the detriment to the rest of Seattle residents, they are nothing more than cowards.

    2. It’s not just here but on 23rd where a lofty goal has been watered down for the sake of car thoroughput.

    3. Doesn’t “willful” mean that somebody goes to jail if somebody else dies? Doubt any SDOT policy maker, starting with the Mayor, qualifies for the leeway the law gives on-duty police.

      Mark

  7. Didn’t a bus that was stopped right in front of the intersection of Henderson and Rainier obscure the view of the girls who crossed against the light? Isn’t this setting up that same type of crossing?

    http://spdblotter.seattle.gov/2018/08/09/two-girls-seriously-injured-in-rainier-beach-collision/

    “The two girls were crossing the road on Rainier Avenue and South Henderson Street from east to west in the north crosswalk while facing a ‘don’t walk’ signal. A Metro bus was stopped just north of the intersection in the southbound turn lane, obscuring field of view for both pedestrians and motorists. A motorist driving a Hyundai sedan was travelling south on Rainier and struck the two girls while they were crossing against the signal.”

  8. Maybe SDOT’s logic is that if we could just nudge all pedestrians into cars, by definition, there would be zero pedestrian deaths. Vision Zero achieved.

    Seriously, crosswalks on just one side of the street should be a nonstarter. The fact that SDOT is even considering forcing pedestrians to wait multiple cycles to save turning drivers a few seconds means something is seriously wrong.

    This is the old school traffic engineer mentality, where the metric by which you judge streets is vehicular throughput, and pedestrians are an impediment because they get in the way of turning cars. Get rid of the pedestrians, problem solved.

    Everybody at SDOT who still subscribes to this philosophy needs to be replaced.

    1. It is a T intersection so it’s less disruptive than a four-way intersection.If you’re going from the northwest side to the northeast side, you only have to wait for two lights rather than three.

  9. I think there are some factors here which need to be discussed.

    1. The missing crosswalk does not tie in to an intersecting street. That makes its importance less.

    2. The location is on a curve in the middle of an intersection. That’s rather dangerous for sight distance that is needed for pedestrians.

    I can see why some get frustrated by the design change. However, I could see that pedestrians would be safer if they crossed at Nevada Street, where the is an existing bus stop southbound and a northbound stop could be moved — and a cross street exists. Getting pedestrian crossing treatments there appears to be safer and more direct for both bus riders and for students.

    1. “If only pedestrians would act the way I want they would be safer” is the exact antithesis of how Vision Zero should work.

      The bus stop is to the north. The way to get across without crossing two streets is to the north. The plaza is to the north. Pedestrians will want to go to the north, and they should be able to do so safely.

    2. Crossing at Nevada is not realistic for any students heading South. If we are discussing the fact that some people won’t bother to cross the intersection to use the crosswalk they definitely will not be walking a 1/2 block North in the wrong direction to use a crosswalk. The crosswalk should go where people naturally want to go.

      There needs to be crosswalks on both sides of this intersection because there are destinations pedestrians are trying to access on both sides of the intersection. There is new housing going up right there and pedestrian traffic will be increasing in the area.

      This is so ridiculous. We don’t even need to be pitting cars vs pedestrians this time. Just have the motorists trying to enter from S. Oregon go a couple blocks in either direction (ie not out of their way) to enter 15th at a less-choked point and everyone wins. The motorists will not encounter additional delay and pedestrians will have a safer intersection to traverse.

    3. I should have been clearer about Nevada — it could benefit from a pedestrian signal

      However, the revised plan adds a crosswalk across 15th on the south side of Oregon. That means that any pedestrian crossing from the middle school headed south of Oregon and west of 15th will have a shorter walk than the original plan if using the deleted crosswalk.

    4. The major flaw in the original concept is that it doesn’t create a safe and desirable path for Mercer students to cross 15th Avenue S. Any student that lives west of 15th Ave S will have to cross at an unprotected intersection (or mid-block) at least twice a day. Currently there is a signal and crosswalk that protects kids that need to cross 15th. In the original proposal, that feature disappeared and should be sufficient reason to abandon the proposal.

      The new proposal does lack a crosswalk on the north side of the intersection but there isn’t as much of a need for a crossing there compared to crossing 15th Ave S. A signalized crossing at Nevada Street would accommodate pedestrians from Jefferson Park and some of the Mercer students while the crosswalk on the south side of Oregon Street would protect the rest of the students from Mercer who need to cross 15th Ave S.

      Maybe the problem with both designs is the location of the southbound bus stop. If the bus stop were to be moved back to its original location, just south of Oregon Street, there would be zero reason for the north side crosswalk. I frequently pass through that intersection and from my perspective, the revised option would be much safer for pedestrians.

      1. It is too bad that the original concept doesn’t have a safer crossing at the south side of Oregon. But I have to disagree that the north side crossing is less important than the Oregon crossing, for several reasons. First, the bus stop is not moving, no matter what — I think the McPherson’s guy would literally make Metro contractors impale him with a bus stop sign before he’d give up the curbside parking south of Oregon. Second, the plaza is going to be an attractive place for students to socialize after school (which may be why some of the neighbors hate it so much), and kids will converge on it. Third, the north side remains the only way to get across the whole shebang with one arterial crosswalk, and so I think students living west of 15th and near or north of Oregon will prefer it to crossing Columbian and then crossing 15th at Oregon. Finally, for students living south of Oregon, there are other, more attractive marked and unmarked crosswalks across 15th to the south.

  10. To see an example of unaccommodated “desire lines”, stand at the Southbound D Line stop at 15th Ave NW & NW 65th St when Ballard High School lets out. Kids dart across the street well north of the crosswalk. I don’t know the safety statistics for that example, but it’s a perfect example of what WILL happen if you try to force pedestrians to go out of their way rather than providing reasonable accommodation.

  11. Hey David,

    Thanks for this great article. Would you mind including that the efforts to support the safety changes have been led by Seattle Neighborhood Greenways’ local chapter Beacon Hill Safe Streets? https://www.bhsafestreets.org/

    The project does indeed have broad support (as well as some very loud opposition), and it’s taken a lot of time and energy from Beacon Hill Safe Streets to make the case for change. These sort of projects rarely just happen, they almost always take concerted organizing, which is part of the story of how things change in Seattle.

    thanks for considering,

    1. Thank you, and I should have credited BH Safe Streets in the original version. I very much appreciate what they’ve done and their (and your) continued support for the project.

  12. Waiting for a timed transfer isn’t optional. And neither is Metro emphatically telling drivers not only to look at their run cards, but also a bulletin board posted for that purpose only.

    And a driver who leaves when he shouldn’t without clearing with control- talk with their Base Chief. First instance, with last in sight. And arriving driver obligated to report the miss. With Control aware of every scheduled meet.

    Enforced like this. Notice to passenger public to report missed meet- with a number or website. And public knowing and using contact info for their County Councilmember. Like with too many passenger-losers, cost-free missing item is somebody senior in Operations who both knows and care what’s supposed to happen.

    Mark

  13. >> he compromise requires them to cross twice, zigzagging out of their way.

    I’ll note that SDOT’s chart, with rows “Delay in seconds” and “Difference in time”, doesn’t have a row for pedestrian delays. We should insist that any data produced by the city look at impact to public infrastructure users of all modes.

  14. I live in the neighborhood that is being affected by the intersection update.
    This past Wendsday we had a meeting with the city and Sdot.
    60% of the community, the businesses, and the school don’t want the intersection changed.
    The city also admitted the intersection is SAFE and EFFECIENT.
    They only want to slow traffic.

    1. “the intersection is SAFE and EFFICIENT”

      No intersection that averages five injury collisions a year is safe.

      1. The SDOT representative stated and admitted several times during the meeting/presentation on 8/22 that the intersection is considered SAFE by the cities statistics. They also clearly stated several times that the current intersection does what it was designed to do.
        It moves traffic in the most efficient end effective manner! And that any and all of their redesigns for this intersection do not improve safety they only work to slow the traffic times through the intersection and create back ups longer and less efficient.
        Commuters hence will spend more time in their cars. Burning fossil fuels and polluting the environment. Also angry frustrated commuters are far mor likey to engage in driving that might endanger pedestrians and bicyclists as they try to avoid a bottlenecks intersection.
        The principal of Mercer School has also let the SDOT that the intersection is not his primary safety issue and that that are not concerned with it any longer! They have turned their attention to 16th.
        SDOT seemed to confess that the intersection is not broken.
        The majority of the community participants want to know then why are we “fixing” something that SDOT is now confessing (evidently their previous position or data was incorrect) that works? When the offered options are less effective and inefficient!
        SDOT failed too and could not answer that simple question!

      2. “It moves traffic in the most efficient end effective manner!”

        Does that traffic include pedestrians?

      3. Just because a neighborhood association doesn’t want to believe a street or intersection is unsafe doesn’t make it safe any more than some not wanting to believe in climate change makes the problem go away.

        Nor do neighborhood associations represent their own neighborhoods. They represent who shows up to the meeting. Historically, those who show up to such meetings tend to not give a darn about pedestrian safety (much less pedestrian travel time, which SDOT doesn’t seem to include in its calculations).

        Even if the association does represent the neighborhood, it doesn’t have the right to inflict unsafe conditions on those who pass through the neighborhood.

      4. “It moves traffic in the most efficient end effective manner” is precisely the problem. The most effective way to move cars, ignoring everything else, is to shove all the pedestrians out of the way, so that turning cars don’t have to be bothered to slow down or stop for them.

        I also seriously question SDOT’s analysis that a crosswalk on the north side of the street would cause as much vehicle delay as they claim it does. Unless a person is actually crossing the street, the vehicle delay is zero. And there’s not going to be people crossing there every single cycle. The 107 doesn’t run anywhere near that often. When it does come (at least in the morning direction), all the people getting off the bus are going to cross at once, followed by several cycles with no pedestrian activity at all, until the next bus comes.

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