City Crashes Cost More Than Congestion
posted by April 2 at 15:18 PMon
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.