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Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Crashes Cost More Than Congestion

posted by on April 2 at 15:18 PM

This week’s In the Hall column addresses the potential for conflicts of interest because of the close between a city council member (Nick Licata), his wife (Andrea Okomski), and Okomski’s fellow activist and close friend (Kate Martin). Okomski’s teenage son Joe is suing the city and county over injuries he suffered when a car hit him at a busy intersection in Greenwood; the suit says the city was negligent because it didn’t install a crosswalk at the intersection despite neighborhood residents’ repeated pleas.

You can read about all that here. What I didn’t have much time to touch on much in my column were the the fundamental questions at the heart of Joe’s lawsuit (and Martin’s and Okomski’s pedestrian-safety activism): How many car-pedestrian accidents should a city be willing to put up with before it does something to make the streets safer for people on foot? Are “accidents” really accidents when the city assumes a certain number of them will happen and fails to put measures in place to reduce them? And who do city planners assume our transportation system is for—cars, or people?

Right now, the primary goal of transportation planning in Seattle is to move cars as quickly as possible from one place to another. A few examples: Synchronized traffic lights that keep traffic speeds high and allow roads to move high volumes quickly; roads like Rainier Avenue South, where traffic lights (and intersections that allow pedestrians to cross safely) are few and far between, forcing pedestrians to either walk several blocks or dash across five lanes of traffic; streets with few or no crosswalks or where crosswalks are taken out; and Okomski’s pet issue, bus stops that don’t have a signal to allow pedestrians to access them safely. These are all decisions the city made, and they’re decisions that benefit cars at the expense of people on the street. Nearly 400 pedestrians are injured by cars in Seattle, and eight killed, every year.

The city accepts this as part of the price of doing business, but it doesn’t have to. City planners could install more traffic lights; desynchronize lights on busy streets to slow traffic; install more crosswalks with pedestrian signals in front of bus stops; and take many other steps to improve pedestrian safety.

Earlier today, a friend pointed me to a study that takes the wind out of one argument made by opponents of pedestrian improvements: That the increase in congestion resulting from safety improvements would cost cities more than we spend on preventable crashes. According to a recent study by the American Automobile Association, that’s just not true; in fact, crashes cost nearly two and a half times more than congestion.


According to the study,

Except for a very few places that manage snarled but not terribly deadly traffic, lowering crash costs is a much more promising strategy than striving for lower congestion costs. This is perhaps most striking in Seattle. Congestion dominates the traffic discussion in Seattle, even though congestion is not particularly bad. Conversely, Seattle’s streets are among the most dangerous, pushing overall traffic costs near the top in the US. If Seattle had crash costs as low as San Francisco, the city’s overall traffic costs would be the lowest of any major US city.

The city is just starting work on a Pedestrian Master Plan. If bike activists’ experience with the Bicycle Master Plan is any indication, pedestrian safety advocates will have to shout loud and insistently to ensure that whatever the city finally adopts doesn’t get watered down by concerns over congestion and economic impacts. The AAA study could be one tool to help them make their case.

RSS icon Comments


Nonsense intersections are also a problem; What the hell is up with there being a stop sign where NE 54th St, NE 55th St RAvenna Place NE, 22nd Ave NE and Ravenna Ave NE all intersect?

Posted by Bellevue Ave | April 2, 2008 3:21 PM

Like everything the problem is coast. Every dollar spent on a crosswalk is a dollar less for health care. Every minute wasted in traffic is a minute that cannot be spent doing something more productive fore the economy. We could make our roads so safe that no one ever dies, but the result might be that we have no money for anything else, so deaths increase form other preventable factors.

As for the chart, what it doesn't to show is the relative cost for improvements. It might cost 50 cents for every dollar reduction in congestion waste, but 1.50 for every reduction in accident waste.

8 deaths is tragic and it would be nice if they could not occur, but that does not mean it is an efficient allocation of resources to prevent them. By doing so, you will likely neglect another, more pressing need.

Posted by Giffy | April 2, 2008 3:26 PM

Giffy, don't try to talk about efficient allocation of resources with the people here.

Posted by Bellevue Ave | April 2, 2008 3:33 PM

Did ECB really just come out against kids with traumatic head injuries?

Posted by NapoleonXIV | April 2, 2008 3:33 PM

City planners could install more traffic lights; desynchronize lights on busy streets to slow traffic; install more crosswalks with pedestrian signals in front of bus stops; and take many other steps to improve pedestrian safety.

And conversely, maybe we need fewer bus stops on some arterials. (Added benefit would be that buses wouldn't have to stop as much)

Posted by Will/HA | April 2, 2008 3:36 PM

How many pedestrians have been injured or killed on the Viaduct in the last 57 years?

Posted by McG | April 2, 2008 3:38 PM

Congestion adds to Global Warming.

Worrying about some dumbass who jaywalks and get's hit by a car is a waste of time.

Streets are made for cars, that is why they are paved with asphalt. If they were meant for pedestrians, they would be 6 feet wide and made of gravel.

Posted by ecce homo | April 2, 2008 3:44 PM

Would that be crash costs of car on car? The study isn't about pedestrian crash costs, is it? Would the pedestrian improvements lower crash costs? Would cars speed to try to make lights or drive on side streets?

Posted by McG | April 2, 2008 3:46 PM

While crashes and congestion are both a bane upon modern existence, I feel that this post would have been much better if the graph listed the city sizes according to the Starbucks method; Short, Tall, Grande and Venti, and "Big Ass Vat of Joe" for the all cities category.

Posted by pissy mcslogbot | April 2, 2008 3:49 PM

When it takes the 26 bus heading along N 35th two lights to clear the intersection at Fremont Ave N and N 35th just to make a left turn ...

You have not just congestion, but a long line of cars waiting for the bus to get thru the intersection.

Since there are signals that respond to bus transponders, why can't they have a special signal there to make the traffic coming from the West stop until the bus clears the intersection?

But, as my barrista (a guy) says "We just need to double bus service in this city - Again!" - he gets a lot of comments from his customers, and they're starting to get angry about it ... (not me, I'm sweetness and light, right Fnarf?)

Posted by Will in Seattle | April 2, 2008 3:54 PM

@5 - we could just remove parking spots along the curb lane, and keep the bus stop, reserving the curb lane for bus and bike traffic only ...

Posted by Will in Seattle | April 2, 2008 3:56 PM

@8 Yes, the study includes costs of cars hitting pedestrians, as well as of cars hitting other cars, and cars hitting other things. These are all crash costs. It's an interesting study. I recommend reading it.

Posted by Erik Nilsson | April 2, 2008 4:03 PM

But what are the carbon costs? Surely you'd want to take that into consideration?

Posted by Greg | April 2, 2008 4:13 PM

@7 "Worrying about some dumbass who jaywalks and get's [sic] hit by a car is a waste of time."

The point is, if that dumbass misses work or needs expensive medical care, then worrying about said dumbass is probably not a waste of time. But a look at causes of injury-causing accidents shows that jaywalkers are a minor part of the economic cost of crashes. The largest single factor affecting the cost of a car-pedestrian crash is whether or not the car is speeding.

It's also not clear to me that congestion is a necessary driver of global warming. Cheap gas seems to have a much bigger effect. My Prius gets great gas mileage in a traffic jam. But if there was less congestion, people would use more gas driving around more.

Posted by Erik Nilsson | April 2, 2008 4:13 PM

Argh. Why don't we drop the speed limits to 25 mph too? That way driving a car wouldn't be any faster than riding a bike. After all, that's the speed most Seattle drivers drive anyway.

Posted by F | April 2, 2008 4:19 PM

@2 "Every dollar spent on a crosswalk is a dollar less for health care."

This is simply not true. The two items do not come out of the same budget. It would be more accurate to say, every dollar spent on crosswalks is one less dollar available for redundant traffic studies to appease Susie Burke.

Posted by Erik Nilsson | April 2, 2008 4:20 PM


OK. Then why are we wasting several million dollars building a barrier on the Aurora bridge -- saving four people per annum who want to die?

Posted by keshmeshi | April 2, 2008 4:23 PM

@15 "Argh. Why don't we drop the speed limits to 25 mph too?"

The speed limit is already 25mph or lower in most of the city. If people obeyed that speed limit, they'd get where they were going almost as fast as now, and fewer people would die or be permanently injured.

Posted by Erik Nilsson | April 2, 2008 4:24 PM

ECB, re: that study...

You do realize that PedInRoads = Andrea Okomski.


Posted by MoTown | April 2, 2008 4:42 PM

in the entire report I couldn't find one mention of pedestrian, crosswalk, bicycle etc. - this report is only about making car driving safer -

Posted by McG | April 2, 2008 4:55 PM

@20 "in the entire report I couldn't find one mention of pedestrian, crosswalk, bicycle etc."

The report is about crashes. Very, very rarely, a pedestrian will run into another pedestrian hard enough to cause injury. Consequently, most injury-causing crashes involve vehicles. Single-vehicle bicycle crashes are notoriously under-reported, so that is a methodological weakness of the study and all studies like it. But that's a minor issue. The vast majority of injury-causing crashes involve one or more cars. Consequently, this study should be able to accurately model the cost of car crashes. And yes, the goal is to make driving safer, for people in and around cars, which means all of us, all of the time.

Posted by Erik Nilsson | April 2, 2008 5:08 PM

put up more lights all over, stop having peds trying to cross without the benefit of a stoplight.

This will "keep traffic speeds high and allow roads to move high volumes quickly" -- AND help peds by clearly telling them they should only cross when the light is red.

Red lights make cars STOP. Nothing else does. Our current "system" in which " a ped has the right of way everywhere!" just doesn't work. Cars don't stop/don't know the rules/can't see the peds at night/see the ped but can't tell is that person trying to cross?

It's all ambiguous.

Red lights are not ambiguous.

They didn't even put up a light where that city council aide got killed -- all part of trying to build "country roads" everywhere....pretending we're not a major city.

Posted by unPC | April 2, 2008 6:58 PM

Fuckin' coma Erica. What happened to all the fireworks? Hugz.

Posted by Mr. Poe | April 2, 2008 7:08 PM

@16, but they come form the same source, taxpayers and taxpayers have a limit to how much they are willing to pay.

@17 Personally I think thats not a good use of funds. I would rather increase mental health services across the board.

Posted by Giffy | April 2, 2008 7:39 PM

@24 "but they come form [sic] the same source, taxpayers...." Most medical costs are not paid out of taxes, but even if they were, this is not a zero-sum game. Look at San Francisco, Portland, and Denver. These western cities, roughly our size, have significantly lower costs associated with crashes. Did they skimp on health care to get there? Of course not. So far as I know, none of these places did anything beyond make traffic safety a priority with the transportation resources they already had.

Posted by Erik Nilsson | April 2, 2008 8:13 PM

You use the "prosecution", but the subject case is a civil one. Robinson is the plainfiff suing the driver, the City of Seattle, and Metro Transit.

Posted by eddiew | April 2, 2008 11:55 PM

I was living at 85th and Linden when Andrea Okomski's son was hit. I am astounded to hear that anyone in the neighborhood had been agitating for a crosswalk. It's a clearly stupid place for a crosswalk, particularly since the fully crosswalked Aurora is one block away. (However, I also managed to jaywalk across 85th at Linden on a daily basis without getting hit by a car.)

Posted by giantladysquirrels | April 3, 2008 8:45 AM


For all my in-town trips, riding a bike is actually faster than driving. When there's heavy traffic, it's an order of magnitude faster. During certain times of day you could not pay me to drive from Fremont to downtown. Cars CAN go faster than us bikes, but not so much when they're stuck in traffic. Suckers!

Posted by BobHall | April 3, 2008 10:18 AM

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