Safer Streets
9:18 am
Fri March 21, 2014

Seattle To Let Pedestrians Walk More Slowly

The city of Seattle is re-timing traffic signals throughout the city to make crosswalks safer for all pedestrians.

A study conducted by a group of graduate students at the University of Washington School of Public Health in 2013 found that traffic signals in Rainier Valley force pedestrians to cross faster than signals on Market Street in the wealthier and whiter neighborhood of Ballard.

The walk signal at the intersection of Rainier Avenue South and South 51st Street turned to a red hand fast enough that 73-year-old Dac Huynh had to rush to reach the far curb. She stopped on the sidewalk to rearrange her shopping bags after crossing the street.

"It's not enough time for me," she said. "I'm scared when I cross in there."

The study said pedestrians would have to walk, on average, 2.4 feet per second to make it across a crosswalk in Ballard before the signal turned to "don't walk," versus 3.7 feet per second at four Rainier Avenue intersections.

The Seattle Bike Blog called it "injustice enforced by a City of Seattle traffic signal."

City traffic engineer Dongho Chang disputed the UW study's conclusions.

"All the intersections are, in our opinion, safe to get across," Chang said. "It's exactly the same in Ballard as in Rainier Valley."

Chang said Seattle's crosswalks and signals follow federal standards. The Federal Highway Administration changed those standards in 2009 to give pedestrians an extra second or two to cross the road. The state Legislature adopted them in 2011, and Seattle started adjusting its traffic signals in 2012.

Seattle pedestrians will get up to two seconds more to cross at crosswalks, though they may have to wait five years for the change.
Credit KUOW Photo/John Ryan

Yet 90 percent of the city's intersections still require the faster walking (4 feet per second) that makes crosswalks scary or dangerous for people who move slowly. Under the latest, 5-year-old federal standard, pedestrians would only have to walk 3.5 feet per second to make it safely through crosswalks.

"They need more time, most people. More time," said Dahir Mohamud of Rainier Beach after using a cane to help him cross an intersection on his way to a bus stop on Rainier Avenue.

Chang said the Seattle Department of Transportation will need more time — about five more years — to update all of the city's 1,100 intersections.

He said the city is starting with its busiest corridors, including Lake City Way Northeast and Rainier Avenue South. Intersections on Rainier Avenue South are to be completed this summer.

Collisions injured more than 400 pedestrians in Seattle in 2012 and killed eight. Seattle's per-capita rate of pedestrian deaths is about one-fifth the statewide rate and less than one-eighth the national average, according to Chang.