Crosscut on the Rainier Road Diet: Not the Perfect Solution

Crosscut’s Eric Scigliano has a new piece on the proposed Rainier Road diet.

Unlike most of the recent coverage on SDOT’s three proposals (which has been primarily enthusiastic and approving),  Scigliano’s piece includes criticism of the road diet and limited bike lanes and reaches out to opponents (or at least those skeptical) of the plan. Vocal Columbia City neighbor, realtor, and long-time neighborhood activist, Ray Aykers (who dove into a lively discussion here on the same proposals), is included in the conversation

Late this spring, the Seattle Department of Transportation plans to put Rainier Avenue S.

Option 1b, showing protected bike lanes between Columbia and Hillman City

Option 1b, showing protected bike lanes between Columbia and Hillman City

from Columbia City to the city limit on a “road diet” — to squeeze it down from a four- to two-lane arterial, with a center turn lane serving left-turning vehicles going both ways. SDOT has presented three alternative schemes for doing this, all with the same traffic configuration. Only one of them includes any provision for bicycles, and that’s just 0.9 miles of separated bikeway from Hillman City to a little north of Columbia City, the stretch of Rainier with the most commercial and pedestrian activity.

This redesign will make notoriously perilous Rainier safer and more convenient for pedestrians and safer if somewhat less convenient for motorists. But unless it’s amended, it may actually make this notoriously perilous avenue less safe for cyclists, squandering an even better opportunity to bring a safe, widely accessible through cycle route to the most under-served quadrant of the city.

Before considering how that’s come to be and what can be done about it, it’s important to credit the need and motives driving the push for a Rainier safety fix. There’s no questioning the need. Rainier is far from Seattle’s busiest arterial, and, at 8 miles, it accounts for only about 1/200th of the city’s arterial miles, and 1/500th of total street miles. But Rainier claims 1/30th of the city’s traffic collisions, and an even larger share of traffic fatalities — two in the last three years, 11 in the last 10. On Rainier, as opposed to other hotspots, the victims are mostly pedestrians…

The piece goes on to include a number of areas of concern about the road diet’s lane reduction and offers some strong criticism of the limited bike-lanes:

[Ray] Akers predicts the lane reduction will be a disaster for Southeast businesses, most of which lie along Rainier, and for property owners there. “How many Safeways can you find located on a two-lane road?” he asks. “How about 7-Elevens or McDonald’s? Any major chain will seek a major arterial, and that means four lanes. Secondary and tertiary arterials do not command the attention or the value of a four-lane arterial. Real estate fronting on a four-lane arterial is always more valuable.”

[SDOT Director, Scott] Kubly and [Mayor] Murray contend that far from road diets starving retail, there is “a lot of data showing that when you do these kinds of facilities [road diets], retail does better,” says Kubly. “It’s only going to make this a more attractive place to be.” And anyway, he adds, “Most of the people using these retail businesses are using transit to get there.”

Really? Try parking in Columbia City.

I asked both Akers and Kubly and SDOT spokesman Richard Sheridan if they could send me their data. I didn’t hear back from SDOT. Akers replied that his data was “anecdotal,” with one notable example very close at hand: Many retailers closed when only two traffic lanes continued operating on MLK during light rail construction. Indeed, but that project caused (and continues to cause) much more disruption than a road diet, which would be speedily implemented.

I suspect that Akers and City Hall are both right to a degree: Fewer traffic lanes will be one more factor dissuading the sort of national retailers that Akers has tried for frustrating decades to lure to Southeast Seattle. But smaller, locally-owned, more pedestrian-oriented businesses may fare better in calmer traffic conditions (and be glad not to have SUVs crashing through their walls). Southeast Seattleites will continue to miss the convenience of Trader Joe’s and Target nearby, but Columbia and Hillman Cities will retain their distinctive, nearly all-local characters. Some residents would call that a fair trade.

The neglect of bicycles in the Rainier plans is more worrisome, and not just for the missed opportunity. Paring lanes may actually make Rainier Ave. more scary for cyclists. That’s because impatient motorists will no longer have another traffic lane for passing them. Asked about this, Jim Curtin said drivers could still use the center turn lane for passing. But that’s dangerous too — and illegal…

Be sure to read the whole piece here.

18 thoughts on “Crosscut on the Rainier Road Diet: Not the Perfect Solution

  1. Ray says:

    It’s hard to ignore these facts: Martin Luther King Jr. Way South underwent a road-diet in preparation for the construction of Central Link Light Rail. The lead agency was Sound Transit. Sound Transit had undertook a comprehensive study, preparing an Environmental Impact Statement to examine the impact to business, primarily. The EIS resulted in a $50 million-dollar mitigation fund being set aside to help businesses. The purpose of the fund was to mitigate construction impacts when traffic would be re-channeled from 4-lanes to 2-lanes, temporarily. The fund was also deemed necessary in the future because traffic patterns would be permanently altered in the future, with the loss of 57 cross streets, left turn eliminated, and more. These changes threatened access to businesses in the short term and in the future. Some businesses closed, others moved away. Long story short; Rainier has 10 or 20 times the number of businesses that may be impacted by the road-diet. In addition, SDOT is also moving ahead with the “ladder” road plan at Mt. Baker. This is yet another major traffic revision. The impact of these major changes is not understood, nor is anyone studying them, separately, or cumulatively. Rainier is unlike any other arterial in the city. It is certain SDOT’s actions will alter traffic patterns both short-term and long-term, and the outcomes could be devastating to businesses, property values, and quality of life. It’s just one grand experiment, and the city’s position amounts to crossing their fingers and hoping for success.

  2. Chris says:

    Comparing Rainier to MLK is faulty at best. Light rail will not run down the middle of Rainier and turning left will become easier. Do you have anything but this one bad example to back up your claims that a road diet on Rainier will be bad for business?

    • Ray says:

      Comparing MLK to Rainier is a better example than comparing Rainier to Nickerson or Stone Way, as SDOT has. In fact, there is no comparable arterial to Rainier. Our entire commercial district is one lot deep, the full length of Rainier. Rainier is 8 miles long. Rainier has the largest concentration of low-income housing and immigrant businesses. With our demographics, no wonder an EIS was required on MLK? The threat to our micro-economy is real. The proof you seek is in the $50 million-dollar fund which was a requirement for the light rail project. The information you seek for Rainier is the sort of information an EIS would provide. Without better data, SDOT is undertaking one big socio-economic experiment. It’s not a reasonable thing to do.

  3. Chris says:

    In the referenced article you brought up the number of Safeways on two lane roads, somehow implying that it will hurt their business. There are many Safeways on two lane roads in Seattle – there is even one on Greenwood Ave North that recently had its own road diet. How about the one on East John? I can send you a whole list if you would like. All of your evidence for being against the road diet on Rainier is anecdotal and most likely self serving in some way. Do you own a parking lot?

    • Ray says:

      I own zero commercial properties on Rainier Avenue, Chris. Please review the EIS for Martin Luther King Jr. Way South. The data and analysis are enlightening.

  4. Columbia City Fan says:

    This road diet is overdue and will make the Rainier Valley a much better, safer place. So much of the current congestion is from people trying to make left turns into oncoming traffic. This will elminate the need to swerve around turning cars. Remember that people, including us residents, come to shop and eat here because it’s a great place. We don’t all just want to speed through! Good riddance, four-lane Rainier!

  5. Scott (23 year resident of CC) says:

    This road diet will be a complete failure. It will make drivers frustrated and more aggressive. It will also cause more traffic to bleed onto the side streets in Columbia City making it less safe for families. What needs to be done is simple traffic enforcement! Cite people for speeding, driving while texting, talking on their phone, and other illegal activities being done while driving. Lower the speed limit and strictly enforce it. And for people who think every street needs to be bike friendly, reality check, some roads should not allow bikes!

    • Ray says:

      Scott, your logic gets in the way of the road-diet-feel-good-fix. I agree with you. And I’ll add my concerns for every neighborhood south of Columbia City: Businesses and home values will be negatively impacted. Convenience and easy access is an under-appreciated quality of life issue. Adding unnecessary minutes to every commute will hurt our community. Reducing speeds and increasing enforcement is proven to work.

  6. Hillman says:

    “Reducing speeds and increasing enforcement is proven to work”

    But, show me evidence where a comparable road diet hurt businesses and decreased home values.

    Scott: take a look at SDOT’s plans. Your concerns–aggression, traffic on side streets, family safety, etc.–are all addressed with plenty of data to back up it up.

  7. Scott (23 year resident of CC) says:

    Stats and data can be manipulated to serve those who want to use it for their argument.

    I have lived in the south end long enough to know that the city doesn’t treat us (south-enders) equal to those in the north end. I grew up in Ballard so I know what I am talking about. If they truly want to improve safety for Columbia City and all the other south end neighborhoods let’s spend money on COMPLETING sidewalks in all those neighborhoods. We could do that by using the revenue raised by citing drivers that are breaking the law.

    In the 23 years I have lived in the south Seattle area I have seen an increase in aggressive drivers and heavier usage of side streets. So, thinning down Rainier will only create more headaches. What they really need to do is eliminate all parking along Rainier, widen the street to allow for two lanes in both directions and a turn lane in the middle. Then, use some of the vacant land in the vicinity to build parking garages for people shopping in the area and using light rail to travel downtown.

    The other thing to point out is that this stretch of Rainier and MLK have the highest amount of immigrant drivers and uninsured drivers, which will not change by reconfiguring the streets. The city needs to offer better driver training for immigrants and use law enforcement to get uninsured drivers off the road.

    Now, we are one of the hottest growing areas in Seattle so I don’t believe home values will be hurt by a change to Rainier. But, it is a reasonable concern.

    • Ray says:

      Great points, Scott. I concur. I’ve been here 21 years. It takes awhile (years) to connect the dots, but eventually all long-time residents begin to sound alike. Chalk it up to experience living here, and dealing with the city –and the double-standard in city services & investment.

  8. EG says:

    “Stats and data can be manipulated to serve those who want to use it for their argument.”

    Yes…this is true.

    But what is SDOT gaining by wanting to pour millions into our neighborhood to make it safer?

    To me, manipulated stats and data would sound something like this: “all a dangerous road needs is more enforcement and lower speed.” To me, that’s the cheap, feel good fix that we shouldn’t be falling for.

    I absolutely get that there is a long history of the South End getting abused, neglected, and lied to. However, I see very little evidence at all that this is the case here. In fact, as most of the comments have been repeatedly saying, this is an example (finally!) of the city trying to get it right.

    • Ray says:

      Fllip your argument: “The cheap & dirty fix is paint stripes, to create a road diet, which lets SDOT and city leaders off the hook for real investment.” SDOT is not pouring millions into our neighborhood. The $23 million is not guaranteed for Rainier at this point. Plus, $23 million is not nearly enough.

      Enforcement works. Enforcement is what the city has done for other neighborhoods. There’s a dedicated Traffic Unit which ‘floats’ around the city. Have you seen them here? Once or twice maybe? Surely the city’s “most-dangerous arterial” deserves some extra enforcement by the Traffic Unit 24/7. Why are they not here at least two or three times per week? Answer that and you’ve solved the mystery of the double-standard in SE Seattle.

      What we need is real investment, on par with South Lake Union. Enforcement would solve our short-term needs. Long-term, the city needs to invest in a dedicated bike viaduct, or other dedicated bike route. No way should cyclists be forced onto MLK or Rainier. If the Burke Gillman can be expanded, then why won’t the city create a bike corridor through the 8-mile Rainier Valley?

      Why should we settle for paint stripes on Rainier, when what we need is a completely re-designed Rainier Avenue? If the city can commit $288 million to South Lake Union –a very small area– then why not invest in southeast Seattle? Why settle for less than 1/10th? ($23 million)

      Those who seek a road-diet should think twice. A road-diet is the path of least resistance and it will do more harm than good. The worst drivers will divert into our neighborhood streets to avoid Rainier. It’s not a good plan. It’s not a plan that prioritizes safety. It’s just a quick & dirty fix for the southend….another quick & dirty fix among so many quick fixes we’ve had to put up with.

  9. Riti (Hillman City) says:

    To consider:

    1. Although you’ve never once acknowledged it, the plan clearly calls for a dramatic increase in enforcement.
    2. SLU is quite a bit different than our neighborhood. Maybe if Amazon invests billions into the Valley and essentially levels it and we start from scratch we could get all the fancy street cars, elevated bike lanes (whatever the hell that was all about) , and SLU-style infrastructure you want. Last time I checked though, the Rainier Valley is not SLU, doesn’t want to be SLU, and I’m glad of it.

    This plan looks to directly address the current problem of safety on Rainier. It is supported by fact and data and research and working examples and comparables.

    I am done with this hyperbolic reasoning that lacks tangible support. Again, the question has been posed multiple times: show us a failed model of a comparable road diet that destroys businesses, decreases safety, and ends up hurting the neighborhood. When you can produce that, maybe you’ll convince me.

    • Ray says:

      Facts? Let’s re-visit a few facts:

      1) The city has all but abandoned enforcement in the Rainier corridor, while prioritizing traffic enforcement in Lake City, for example, which is not the ‘most-dangerous’ arterial. You have to ask why isn’t the ‘most-dangerous’ arterial a priority for enforcement? Funding is not lacking for enforcement. Political will is the problem. Equitable investing IS the problem. Fact: Former Mayor Norm Rice declared southeast Seattle ‘under-served’ by city services. That’s a fact that should outrage every southeast resident.

      2) I’ve never NOT acknowledged that enforcement is part of the city’s plan. I welcome enforcement. But enforcement doesn’t need to wait. So, if enforcement is a major component of the city’s plan, why not start today? Look around, do you see any effort to boost enforcement? The answer is ‘no’. There is no regular enforcement today and likely not next week. The city is demonstrating a lack of respect for this community and a disregard for human life.

      3) South Lake Union is very different than South Seattle. That’s is not the point. Nor is the point about Amazon’s investment there. The point is equitable investment of tax dollars. Fact: The city spent $288 million of our tax dollars to enhance infrastructure for properties owned by 5-6 property owners at South Lake Union. That was money from the Bridging The Gap levy, and it was supposed to spread around the city. Apparently, fixing Rainier wasn’t a priority during the last levy. Fingers crossed for some crumbs from the next levy maybe?

      4) Fact: The road-diet is not recommended by the federal government, which has devoted much more analysis to the subject than SDOT. Roadways of more than 20,000 vehicles will cease to function when squeezed to a road-diet. That’s a fact, published by the federal government. Other cities, such as Chicago cap road-diet’s at 10,000 and 15,000 vehicle trips per day. Fact: Rainier is at 19,700 vtd, but SDOT isn’t using 2015 data. Wait until the PCC opens this year and watch the Columbia City vtd count soar.

      5) Fact: Traffic diversion will increase as a result of the road-diet. A number of people have posted anecdotally that they’ve observed an increase of drivers seeking to escape congestion on Rainier. Diversion is already a problem before the road-diet. Putting Rainier on a road-diet will only increase short-cutting traffic. Ask neighbors of Nickerson about diverting traffic. The city claims there’s no data regarding the diversion of traffic onto side streets, yet popular blogs discuss traffic diversion on residential streets all the time. Anecdotal evidence by neighbors is real evidence and cannot be ignored. From the city’s perspective, if they don’t study the problem, then the problem doesn’t exist. Seems like bad science if you ask me?

      6) Fact: When MLK was reduced to one lane in each direction for light rail construction, the federal government required an Environmental Impact Statement to analyze the impacts on business of light rail construction AND the long-term impacts of reduced access to businesses. As a result of the very real impacts, a $50 million dollar mitigation fund was created to support local businesses. Rainier has 10-15 times the number of businesses, and squeezing the 8-mile road down to one lane in each direction has not been studied. The city claims it will study the impact AFTER the road-diet. That’s unacceptable. The city is treating the neighborhood with the largest number of minority-owned businesses as guinea pigs.

      If those aren’t enough facts, I can provide more. I don’t support a road-diet at this juncture. It’s using a sledgehammer to kill a bug. Let’s implement more enforcement. Reduce the speed limit. Install turn lanes & turn signals. Re-time traffic lights. And, then enforce, enforce, and enforce.

  10. Scott (23 year resident of CC) says:

    Ray, very well stated. I agree with all your points and I also am not in favor of the city’s plan.

    Riti, when (hopefully IF) the city goes through with their plan, we will quickly see what a horrible plan it is.

    Another example of drivers using side streets to avoid Rainier: S. Oregon St from Rainier to 42nd. Then south on 42nd through the neighborhood to get back to Rainier after avoiding Columbia City. That has increased greatly in the time I have lived here. Drivers don’t slow down at uncontrolled intersections and do speeds that are way above side street safe.

    It will take a major accident or death at one of these uncontrolled intersections (most likely S Oregon St and 42nd or S Snoqualmie St and 42nd) before the city realizes their mistakes. Let’s hope they realize it before that happens.

  11. scott t says:

    is the only safeway in columbia city on charlestown?? would most car traffic to it be going thru neighborhoods on the east anyway?

  12. scott t says:

    about 5.5 blocks from say s andover into the back of safeway…ranier not even afected really.

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