January 20, 2022

Washington State Secretary of Transpo Says: No More Freeway Expansion-Moves to Safe Systems Approach

Kudos to Washington Transportation Secretary Roger Millar who this week used the words “resilient response” to tell the House Transportation Committee that the state had to stop building freeways.

Want to address inequity, climate change, and the increasing serious injuries and death on roads? Don’t build any more highways.

Washington State had set a goal to reduce walking and cycling fatalities by five percent annually, with a goal of zero road deaths by 2030.  In reality? More people are being killed on the roads every year. In 2021,  600 people died in Washington State in 540 crashes.

Sadly 118 cyclists and pedestrians were also killed, with 2,411 crashes resulting in serious injury. That statistic on fatalities is the most since 2006, and 16 percent more than in 2020.

Of the crashes 2,411 of them in 2021 resulted in serious injury — also the most since 2006 and 16% more than in 2020, as David Kroman wrote in the Seattle Times.

Building more freeway lanes require money, maintenance and contribute to the death of state residents.

Tom Fulcoro in Seattle Bike Blog writes that two billion dollars are required for annual maintenance  but there’s only 900 million dollars available for annual funding. Looking at Washington State’s Department of Transportation’s estimate of 115 billion dollars over ten years to add enough lanes to keep everyone at currently posted speed limits? That requires an additional gasoline tax at close to $2.50 dollars a gallon.

As Mr. Millar posits: “Addressing congestion through adding lanes to the Interstate system is not financially feasible, it’s not economically feasible, it’s not environmentally feasible. It’s just not going to happen,” said Millar. “We need to think about doing things differently…”the state’s path of continually expanding freeways to solve congestion has “come to a dead end.”

And the way out? Use smarter infrastructure, enhance accessible public transit, provide affordable housing closer to work, strengthen walking and cycling networks. And emphasize active transportation, encourage congestion to reduce vehicle driver related serious injuries and fatalities.

That is already being enacted in Seattle where instead of using police to enforce driver behaviour the City is converting to the Safe Systems Approach, also called Vision Zero. In this approach every human life matters, and the point is to ensure that no one is seriously injured or dies.(The City of Surrey with Shabnem Afzal is  championing Vision Zero. You can take a look at some of their work here.)

In Seattle there is an emphasis on encouraging cycling and walking with a Safe Routes to Schools Action plan approved in 2021.  The City is also making changes to high crash intersections, creating medians at centre lines, and installing pedestrian leading intervals (LPIs).

Pedestrian leading intervals are created for a nominal cost of less than 2,000 dollars an intersection. Pedestrian crossing lights are reprogrammed to give pedestrians anywhere from a three to ten second start to cross the street before vehicular traffic is allowed to proceed through a crosswalk.

This has been successfully applied in New York City where there are over 2,238  of these leading pedestrian crossing intervals. New York City had a 56 percent decrease in pedestrian and cyclist collisions at locations where LPIs were installed. NACTO, the National Organization of City and Transportation Officials estimates that LPIs can reduce pedestrian crashes by 60 percent. (The City of  Vancouver installed just eight LPIs in 2020).

In the face of a statewide “traffic emergency” it is now recognized that you simply cannot build your way out of congestion. Reducing trips enhances sustainability, reduces carbon emissions and improves individuals’ mental and physical health.

As Secretary of Transportation Millar concludes

We are a Target Zero state, and we’re going the wrong way,”The data shows our system isn’t safe. It kills people, and we need to invest to stop that.” Washington State Department of Transportation estimates that the monetary cost of collisions, injuries and deaths is about $14 billion per year. Of course, a life is more important than money.”



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  1. Sandy writes: “And the way out? Use smarter infrastructure, provide affordable housing closer to work, strengthen walking and cycling networks. And emphasize active transportation, encourage congestion to reduce vehicle driver related serious injuries and fatalities.”

    What is conspicuous by its absence from this list of solutions is any mention of public transit. Which is strange and inexplicable. A robust, reliable, affordable, accessible and convenient public transit system is a critical component of the urban transportation challenge, especially in large, spread out North American cities such as Seattle. However, public transit in the USA is unfortunately often negatively associated with race, poverty and perceived public safety issues. That needs to change and a concerted effort made to change the prevailing US cultural bias against public transit. It’s a key part of the congestion problem that expanding freeways was supposed to address.

    1. I’m going to suggest that in any other US coastal city, transit would be mentioned. The omission in Washington is likely the fruit of two decades of mismanagement of Seattle transit expansion by Sound Transit. (Not that this is entirely the agency’s fault, but also the political environment in which it operates.) This mismanagement has poisoned the public’s mind as to the possibilities that good transit might bring. As a follower of the Seattle transit scene, I’ll list a few.

      The main spine was built as great cost without apparently much thought in how it was going to integrate with transit expansion in the core area. There were always plans to extend at the ends, but apparently no thought was given to how expansion was going to be handled within the city of Seattle. Not even an unwritten concept that the designers had in their minds. Now that the Ballard and West Seattle segments are being developed, we can see just how ill thought out the whole concept was. The central segment doesn’t have the capacity to handle additional feeders in the core area so an entire duplicate tunnel will have to be dug under downtown. The West Seattle-Ballared project is now pencilled in at $12b and is not scheduled to complete until after 2036. And because of the poor design, the new route isn’t even going to be that good. The proposed Ballard station location is just indefensible. If the main line had been built with for future expansion, the Ballard and West Seattle segments could have intersected it outside of downtown and obviated the need for a second tunnel and very expensive downtown transfer stations.

      And bus integration is weak. Only a campaign by transit advocates got a transit stop where the central line crossed a major bus route north of Northgate. And for the preliminary studies of the Ballard expansion, bus transfers did not even seem to be considered. The predicted ridership was very low, apparently because only walkshed was considered, not bus transfers. Now walkshed and transit oriented development are important, but in cities like Seattle and Vancouver, bus integration is a major source of ridership. These flawed studies have continued to be the basis for some initial route choices that continue to burden the expansion plan.

      The first line built in Seattle also has a streetrunning portion in the Rainier Valley which is fine for that area, but since it is in the core segment, it imposes a frequency and speed limitation that will affect the whole network for decades until that area is bypassed or fixed.

      The first hill streetcar, which was built as part of the regional transit plan for over $100m, is so silly that there is serious talk of just getting rid of it instead of spending more money to connect it with the SLU Tram.

      The central spine is supposed to be expanded all the way to Everett and Tacoma, but ridership on these sections will be so low that the plans are not generating enthusiasm. And projected travel times for longer trips are longer than the current express buses. Also not scoring any points with the public.

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