Building a transportation network to support our Vision Zero goal of ending traffic deaths and serious injuries on city streets

Two children crossing a crosswalk holding hands. Photo credit SDOT Flickr

As we start the new year, we want to celebrate our key accomplishments from 2020 that elevate community safety and support Seattle’s long-term Vision Zero initiative to end traffic deaths and serious injuries on city streets by 2030, and also acknowledge there’s more work to be done. 


Summary: 

  • We worked hard throughout the past year to deliver on our commitments to make Seattle streets safer.   
  • We’ve now lowered speed limits on 72% of Seattle’s major streets to 25 mph or less, which has been proven to lower crashes and save lives.   
  • We’ve also added pedestrian-first walk signals to 30% of our signalized intersections, surpassing our goal for this critical safety improvement to protect people crossing the street.   
  • We’ve implemented improvements along Rainier Ave S, Seattle’s most crash prone, high-injury street.  
  • These significant accomplishments support Seattle’s Vision Zero goal to end traffic deaths and serious injuries on city streets, but we acknowledge there’s more work to be done.  
  • 2020 provided many opportunities for us to rethink what community safety looks like and examine new ways we can contribute to making Seattle safe for everyone, especially our Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) community members.  

Looking Back 

A year ago, Mayor Durkan announced significant actions in support of Vision Zero, including citywide changes to speed limits and additional investments to improve streets that have a history of high injury or deadly crashes. Despite the challenging year brought about by COVID-19, we’ve been able to deliver on a number of these efforts. 

SDOT crew members installing a new 25 MPH sign.
SDOT crew members installing a new 25 MPH sign. Photo credit SDOT Flickr.

Lowering Speed Limits Citywide 

Improving safety and saving lives does not always have to be complicated or expensive. One such effort – reducing speed limits – has proven capable of reducing crashes by 20% to 40%.  

Lowering vehicular speeds is a key piece of our Vision Zero efforts, because speed is the critical factor in the frequency and severity of crashes. When drivers slow down by just a few miles per hour, it has two main powerful impacts. First, it makes crashes less likely to occur in the first place. And second, a person who is hit by a driver traveling a lower speeds is much more likely to survive the incident.

These are not just abstract ideas. We took these actions and saw these results here in Seattle, as outlined below.  

graphic showing Nine out of 10 people walking survive when hit by a vehicle traveling at 20 MPH, but only five do when hit at 30 MPH and only one when hit at 40 MPH.
Nine out of 10 people walking survive when hit by a vehicle traveling at 20 MPH, but only five do when hit at 30 MPH and only one when hit at 40 MPH. US DOT NHSTA (1999) 

In 2020, we lowered speed limits on major streets throughout Seattle, creating a total of 335 miles of major roads with a 25 MPH speed limit or less.  

Those 335 miles are nearly three-quarters of the arterial streets in Seattle (there are about 465 miles of arterial/major streets total). We’ll continue lowering speed limits on the rest of Seattle’s major streets in 2021. You can check out our progress and see which streets have 25 MPH speed limits on our Seattle Speed Limit Map

We’re working with our partners at the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) and are anticipating lowering speed limits on state-owned streets in Seattle this year. We will be continuing our collaboration with WSDOT so that we achieve our shared safety goals.  

Seattle saw dramatic reductions in crashes and injuries after installing 25 MPH speed limit signs.  

Seattle is one of the first cities in the country to study how reducing speed limits and adding more speed limit signs improves safety for everyone. That study found powerful impacts, observing that there was a 20%- 40% drop in the number of crashes in locations with new 25 mph speed limit signs (this data was collected before the drop in traffic volumes due to the pandemic).   

This dramatic reduction in crashes and injuries has received national recognition from traffic safety officials. Earlier this year, the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO)  published traffic safety guidelines, highlighting Seattle’s approach to speed limits as a national best practice for other cities to follow.  

Pedestrian crossing 5th Ave.
Pedestrian crossing 5th Ave. Photo credit SDOT Flickr.

Putting Pedestrians First ia Proactive, Systemwide Approach 

To date, this pillar of our comprehensive Vision Zero efforts has nearly halved the number of people hit by vehicles while crossing the street.  

In mid 2019, we adopted a policy to re-program traffic signals to give people a few seconds head start to begin walking across the street before cars get the green light. These “leading pedestrian intervals” (which is their technical name in the transportation landscape) make people in the crosswalk much more visible to drivers and drastically reduces the risk of being hit by a car.  

At the end of 2019, Mayor Durkan announced a goal to create 250 of these pedestrian-first intersections in 2020. As the COVID-19 pandemic shifted travel patterns and our work, we achieved our goal six months early in June, and then kept going above and beyond. There are now 316 pedestrian-first intersections across Seattle – that is over 30% of all our traffic signals! 

Graph showing the number of pedestrian-first intersections by year.
Graph showing the number of pedestrian-first intersections by year.

Preliminary analysis shows that these pedestrian-first intersections are saving lives.  

We analyzed traffic data in the crosswalks where pedestrian-first intersections have been in place for at least a year and have seen a nearly 50% reduction in the number of people hit by cars while crossing the street. Serious injuries and fatalities in these locations fell by 33%.  

In 2021, we plan to make 60 more pedestrian-first intersections (thanks to WSDOT safety grants). We will continue to add pedestrian-first safety improvements when our engineers make changes to existing signals or install new signals.  

This past November, to further our work and understanding of these critical safety challenges, a couple of us (including SDOT Director Sam Zimbabwe) took a safe and distanced walk along Rainier Ave with a small group, led by Seattle Neighborhood Greenways. They created this great video highlighting the importance of this work.

Redesigning High Injury Streets 

Last fall, we implemented a second phase of improvements along Rainier Ave S – Seattle’s most crash prone, high-injury street.  

We redesigned Rainier Ave S from Hillman City to Rainier Beach with safety improvements to:  

  • Prioritize safety over speed by reducing the speed limit to 25 MPH, 
  • Support transit reliability by adding red bus lanes,  
  • Increase pedestrian safety by restriping crosswalks,  
  • Reduce turn-related crashes by adding protected left turn lanes.  

We expect to see reductions in speeding and serious injury collisions, as we did in the first phase of the project in Columbia City and Hillman City.  

Our work to increase safety along Rainier Ave S is far from done. In 2021, we’ll be putting in a new traffic signal at Rainier Ave S and Rose St, and thanks to a 2021 budget amendment, we’re able to restore funding to support sidewalk upgrades along Rainier Ave S.  

There Is More to Do 

Despite exceeding our 2020 goals of reducing speed limits across the city and making pedestrian-first intersections, we still have much work to do as we strive to reach our long-term Vision Zero goal to end traffic deaths and serious injuries on city streets by 2030.  

While 2020 brought with it significant changes in the frequency and ways people traveled Seattle streets, people were still injured and killed, and our fatality trend is not on the right path.  

In 2020, the total number of collisions was dramatically down. In fact, the average number of collisions by week was 115 crashes/week. That is down by half of the three-year average of 230 crashes/week. Also, the number of serious injury crashes declined. There were 144 serious injury crashes in 2020, down 15% from the three-year average (2017-2019) of 169.

Unfortunately, despite a drastic drop in travel and collisions, preliminary data indicate that 24 people died in a crash in 2020 in Seattle, making it one of the most deadly of recent years. Thirteen people were walking, one person was biking, one was riding a motorcycle, and nine people were in vehicles. They didn’t make it home, and that is not acceptable.

It takes time to verify and analyze crash data, so the preliminary 2020 data above will be final in December 2021. Initial collision reports do not always tell the full story, so it’s important to review data thoroughly. For example, further investigation might reveal an unknown medical condition or other important details that help us understand the nature and cause of the collision. 

Prioritizing the Most Vulnerable Travelers  

From 2017 to 2019, people walking, rolling, and biking were involved in 7% of total crashes and 70% of fatal crashes.  

While vehicle safety standards have improved over time, we’re seeing a disproportionate impact of fatal crashes on people walking and biking, which points to a greater need to continue redesigning our streets to prioritize the safety of people over the speed of vehicles. A recent study from the University of Colorado Denver found that building safe bike facilities is one of the biggest factors in reducing fatal crashes and increasing safety for all travelers.  

Over this same time span (2017-2019), the average age of people who died while walking is 56 years old (in 2020, the preliminary data shows the average age is 58 years old). As our communities age, we need to challenge ourselves to design for the most vulnerable amongst us – this includes our oldest and youngest travelers of all abilities.

Our hearts are heavy for each person killed and seriously injured in traffic crashes and for their loved ones.  

With this grief comes a shared affirmation of our support for safe streets and to our Vision Zero efforts – efforts that we know are long-term and require a collective, systems approach to change. These efforts have made an impact, but we have much further to go, together. 

Looking Ahead, Together 

[re-imagining community safety] 

As we kick off 2021 – a new year that we hope will bring light and positive change – we will not forget those who have lost their lives and the challenges we faced together in an unprecedented year.  

This includes not only those who have passed because of traffic violence nationwide, but also police violence and the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. The through line that connects many of these tragedies is the role systemic and institutional racism play in the disproportionate loss of life among BIPOC communities, and our role as a City and as a Department in addressing and undoing it together. 

We must design a safer transportation system that takes into account our shared imperfection as human beings so that if a bad crash does occur, it doesn’t result in death or serious injury. And we have big shifts to make in defining community safety – what it means to feel free, safe, and comfortable to move around in shared spaces like streets – and what it means to achieve it when we do not all have the same shared experiences, particularly in public spaces.  

We have a lot to learn about past harms, and we’re excited to envision the possibilities. We aim to do so by centering on and engaging with BIPOC communities who have been most harmed through traditional approaches. We’ll keep examining our approach and adjusting it to ensure we’re advancing racial equity and safer streets goals. We hope you’ll join us in this work. We can’t do it without community partnership.  

Some resources you can use to support continued learning about the intersections of race and mobility (and the unlearning of practices that uphold white supremacy), and daily steps you can take to make our streets safer for everyone, include: 

Here’s to a brighter, safer, and more just year as we actively pursue Seattle’s essential, long-term Vision Zero initiative to end traffic deaths and serious injuries on city streets by 2030.