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Fixing Rainier

December 28, 2015

What is the most dangerous road in Seattle, perhaps in all of Washington State? One might guess Aurora Avenue, especially after last fall’s deadly collision of a Ride the Ducks tour vehicle and a bus. But it’s not. It’s Rainier Avenue South, which runs 8.5 miles through Rainier Valley in South Seattle.

Rainier Avenue has one-fourth the vehicle volume of Aurora, but twice the accidents per mile — over one a day. Part of the problem is that Rainier used to be part of State Highway 167, and it still acts like a freeway.

“So, it was very much a state route where people were going excessively fast through the corridor, and the design really encouraged those higher speeds,” says Jim Curtin, a Seattle Deptartment of Transportation (SDOT) traffic manager.

“I’ve seen so many car crashes, people coming through speeding, you know,” says Hikeem Stewart, who works in Columbia City. In the last three years, there have been over 1,200 accidents, 600 injuries and two fatalities on Rainier.



*Average Daily Traffic is captured as a range, including weekday and weekend traffic.
Source: Rainier Valley Transportation Improvements Open House Presentation (PDF)

Phyllis Porter was just exiting a Columbia City restaurant on Rainier when an SUV crashed into the Carol Cobb Salon.

“I turned around and I saw [it] careening into the salon and into the restaurant that I had just got out of,” Porter says. Adds Curtin, “We had eight buildings hit on Rainier in this area in a ten-month period last year, which is absolutely unacceptable.”

Luckily, no one was killed, but the Carol Cobb Salon accident was a tipping point for the neighborhood and the city.

A rally on Rainier Avenue South encouraging drivers to obey posted speed limits.

In Spring 2015, at the same time Rainier community groups rallied for changes to the troubled avenue, SDOT was implementing citywide Vision Zero, an aggressive campaign to eliminate traffic fatalities and injuries by speed reduction and safety design. Rainier was the perfect target, and SDOT had been collecting extensive data on every intersection for months. Just days after the last community intake meeting, SDOT started re-striping a one-mile pilot project on Rainier through the busy neighborhoods of Hillman City and Columbia City.

Rainier was put on a road diet to slow and slim it down.

The pilot project lowers the speed limit to 25 miles per hour, and takes busy Rainier from four directional lanes to two, with a center turn lane to eliminate the deadly left-hook crashes. The street now has enhanced traffic signals, longer pedestrian crossing times and more turn restrictions.

The reduction to two lanes has been controversial. No one denies that it’s safer, but in congestion-prone Seattle, there is now the perception that Rainier, a prime arterial, is slower. Side street residents complain that their traffic has increased as drivers bypass the pilot project on Rainier. (Full disclosure: I live on Seward Park Avenue South, a well-known bypass channel.)

Says Hikeem Stewart, “You can still have safety without taking away lanes to get through this part of town. It’s so congested.”

Curtin argues that some of that congestion is caused by Rainier’s collisions. “It takes an average of 47 minutes to clear each crash,” he says.

One of the many crashes Rainier Avenue South sees on a weekly basis.

For Porter, it’s a simple conclusion: “Congestion or injuries. Congestion or collisions. Congestion or fatalities.”

Will the road diet work? It’s a work in progress, says Curtin. The city has seen success — fewer collisions and injuries and increased mobility — with previous revisions on Nickerson, Northeast 75th Avenue and Northeast 125th Avenue. Data will be collected throughout the next year, and it seems likely that the project will be extended in 2016 to Rainier Beach.


Made possible in part by

Stephen Hegg

Stephen is a 25-year veteran of KCTS, producing a wide range of cultural and public affairs series, documentaries and arts programming.  His credits include PIE, Something in the Water  (PBS feature on Seattle’s indie music scene), the gala opening of Benaroya Hall, and documentaries on Asahel and Edward Curtis, Dan Sullivan and Doris Chase.  Seattle-born, Hegg is a graduate of Whitworth University and is also an accomplished violinist and avid cyclist.

More stories by Stephen Hegg

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The road diet is definitely working. I live near an intersection which has had many accidents, which we have heard, seen and avoided, both day and night. There have been way less accidents since this reduction of speed and center lane turning was added. Because of the center turn lane it does not seem slower to me, and cars are no longer doing last minute lane changes to avoid the person turning in front. I also appreciate the increased enforcement. I formerly was terrifed to drive through Columbia City and avoided it. I now drive on Rainier more-I used to ONLY go through the neighborhood or around it.

Thanks for your comment - i agree that it is working.

Now the side streets are the 'new' arterial due to the ridiculously slow traffic on RAS. To Christine, terrified to drive through CC? You might be the only resident I know that now drives RAS more frequently. This article is ridiculous and one sided. I'm sure there are many accidents a daily driver sees, avoids, and hears. Is this daily? Ugh, I hate overstaters.

@Rhonda, Christine is not the only one, In 10 years I never used that part of road if I could avoid it, now? no problems.

No one can ever voice any opposing views without you, Rhonda, being mean and nasty. You are the problem.

Thank you SDOT for making this change. Traffic is slowed... and that's a good thing!

Traffic is no worse on the side streets. Fact is every side street in Seattle has been a freeway for the last ten years, road diet or not.

@Rhonda Smith-Banchero. YOU are the problem, educate yourself and please shut up for a change. We're sick of you.

avoiding RAS is the new problem. the 25 MPH makes getting out of the neighborhood awful. it smacks of social engineering meant to keep people in their neighborhoods and away from others. how does one get to work? not everyone can work in south seattle.

It's built for people who live here, not people who want to drive past it as fast as legally allowed (and frankly, a little faster, because who doesn't drive 5+ over, right?).

it was designed as a highway and now your complaining it is being redesigned as a city street? Yawn. Let's expand the redesign!

This article is about the most dangerous road in Seattle, and all you can offer as a comment is "road diet is absurd" and some bizarre, paranoid conspiracy theory about social engineering?

Who cares about crashes and fatalities and safety? Won't someone think about the inconvenience to Linda? Selfish and stupid.

SDOT and local citizens long ago decided to put most of the N-S traffic through the Valley on Rainier and not MLK. The 2 streets are never more the 6 blocks from each other from their merge all the way to S Henderson St. But we have both of these monstrosities through the Valley. MLK has a speed limit 5mph faster (10, now that the limit is lower through CCity), was completely re-signaled , built, lined, etc. when light rail went in, but no one uses it.

Why? Because the light at Rainier encourages traffic to Rainier, and discourages it to-and-from MLK.

We're wasting the better, safer, faster infrastructure we already have and that's the main reason SDOT has been proposing the "bow-tie" at MLK and Rainier. Which would go a long way to solving this.

There are a few of you who need to drive to get where you are going but there also are a whole lot of you who really don't need to drive every where you go. Have you heard of transit? You continue to pollute, kill and injure, get fat, give $ to energy companies. Stop displaying your personally and income thru your car. Don't drive one

I can see the point of the road diet but as a resident I still see people exceeding the speed limit. The only thing that the road diet has done is create more traffic, making it impossible to turn right from the side streets on to rainier during the morning or evening commutes. I have seen on numerous times people going thru the yellow light to get across the street expecting the cars in front to move so that they clear the intersection but end up blocking the intersection preventing those from the cross streets from turning right, or left, or going straight.

That issue has been addressed in Europe. No entry till exit clear, camera enforced. The fine needs to be high enough to discourage offenders. Think $1,000 for first & double every subsequent offence.

Town centers need more than traffic calming:

They should be places where people want to get out of their cars and walk. But the narrow sidewalks show the street is still a transportation corridor, moving cars through the town center rather than to it.