[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:
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:
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.