With Washington traffic deaths on the rise, Democrats mull expanded ‘complete street’ design

Feb 23, 2022, 5:09 AM | Updated: 8:55 am
street design, Vision Zero...
Roosevelt bus island at Northeast 65th Street in Seattle. (Photo courtesy of SDOT)
(Photo courtesy of SDOT)

Washington state witnessed the highest number of car crash fatalities in 2021 since 2006, with 583 deaths in the state last year. Pedestrians and cyclists accounted for roughly a quarter of those fatalities. Accordingly, Democrats in the state Legislature have set their sights on rethinking Washington’s street design with “Move Ahead Washington,” a 16-year transportation funding proposal.

“What we’re hearing loud and clear is that the level of traffic fatalities in Washington is unacceptable; we’re on the wrong trend,” Sen. Marko Liias, chair of the state transportation committee, told MyNorthwest. “We’re actually trending up in terms of more people dying or becoming seriously injured on our transportation systems.”

Move Ahead Washington requires that infrastructure projects, upwards of $500,000, designed on or after July 1, 2022, incorporate the principles of “complete street” design.

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“Complete streets really is about creating streetscapes that benefit all users so that car users have the space they need to move efficiently,” Sen. Liias continued.

The engineering term refers to designing streets and highways to limit vehicle speeds, mitigate distracted driving, and promote safe car-alternative transportation options. It represents an evolution of street design out of the single-minded accommodation of automobiles.

More than that, it’s about creating spaces focused on safety for pedestrians.

“Many new cities in the southwest and south are built in ways that are essentially pedestrian hostile. They’re 55 miles an hour. They’re six and eight lanes wide, which makes the environment dangerous,” Mark Hallenbeck, director of Washington State Transportation Center at the University of Washington, told MyNorthwest.

Examples of the concept in practice include narrowing streets, removing parking spaces to allow additional room for pedestrians, adding in visual and auditory cues to alert drivers to pedestrian traffic, and adding in roundabouts that depress vehicle speeds.

“There’s an emerging national consensus among transportation experts and planners around a safe systems approach,” Sen. Liias continued. “We would love humans to change their behavior, would love people to not be distracted while they’re driving. … Reality says some people will be distracted. … Rather than resigning ourselves to fatality, how do we build a system that can … make sure that, even if someone is distracted, under the influence, or speeding, that that doesn’t automatically put vulnerable users in danger.”

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While traffic fatalities increased in Washington state in the past year, the total number of collisions trended downward to the lowest point in 15 years, according to the Washington State Department of Transportation. Hallenbeck speculated that the discrepancy is likely attributable to higher recorded vehicle speeds combined with lower traffic volumes when compared with pre-pandemic data.

He summarized that a pedestrian’s likelihood of death increases exponentially with the speed at which they’re struck by a vehicle: “Above 35 miles an hour, there’s roughly a 95% chance that whomever you hit dies. Below 20 miles an hour, there’s roughly a 20% chance that the person you hit dies.”

Complete streets accommodate variable conditions depending on the texture of the design project at hand. Suburban, urban, and rural communities will require design methods according to their needs.

A Seattle proving ground for street design

For Seattle, SR 99 along Aurora Avenue will be a litmus test for the success of the strategy in practice as it consistently records the highest number of pedestrian fatalities in the city. Move Ahead Washington allocates $50 million for pedestrian and cyclist safety improvement to SR 99. Hallenbeck disagrees with building bike lanes into the high-speed arterial, but sees potential for parallel trails that exclude vehicle traffic.

“Complete streets doesn’t have to be a bike lane,” Hallenbeck continued. “Because it’s suicidal — you can’t make a bike lane on Aurora work. But you can build this parallel facility. So the context-sensitive design says this road is a really big, high-speed arterial designed for high volume, and therefore we’re going to accommodate bikes and pedestrians in this entirely different fashion.”

A realized vision of complete streets can be found near the newly built Roosevelt light rail station. The City reworked Northeast 65th Street to include pedestrian warning signs, and removed vehicle lanes such that pedestrians and cyclists no longer need to cross the once four-lane arterial road.

“The result is calm traffic, it is no longer hostile to pedestrians crossing the street,” Hallenbeck said. “Even though the 65th volume remains quite high, it’s actually a much more pleasant and a much safer environment. It’s now a complete street. … We’re making the environment inviting for [pedestrians] without actually reducing the throughput.”

The idea of complete streets dovetails with Move Ahead Washington’s vision for changing the fabric of the state’s transportation culture with greater emphasis on a plurality of commute options.

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“Obviously, it benefits all of the users of our transportation system: people in cars and out of them. But for folks who can’t drive, or who don’t want to drive, this is the largest increase in transit funding in state history, as well as the largest increase in bicycle-pedestrian infrastructure in our state’s history,” Sen. Liias continued.

“I want to make sure that there’s safe and efficient infrastructure for Washingtonians. If they want to walk, or they want to ride a bike, or they want to take a bus or a light rail train, I want to make sure those options exist for them as well.”

Beyond complete streets, an illustrative example of how Move Ahead Washington seeks to change the conversation around transportation is with free youth transit fare: The package stipulates that children under the age of 18 must receive free transit fare in order for local municipalities to be funded under a grant system.

“For our youngest riders, we’re really beginning a paradigm shift and saying, ‘kids ride free’ to really get our youngest users of the transportation system to get comfortable with these multimodal systems … early in their lives, to build lifelong habits of better ways of moving around the state,” Sen. Liias added.

“I just kind of fundamentally believe that when we teach the new generation better ways of doing things, that creates that long-term change that we’re hoping for.”

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With Washington traffic deaths on the rise, Democrats mull expanded ‘complete street’ design