Aurora Avenue North has always been one of the most dangerous streets in Seattle for drivers and pedestrians.
This year, the city of Seattle stands ready to raise $ 2 million in government funding to support community engagement, right-of-way planning, traffic analysis, and the first draft of the corridor restructuring pending final permits.
In anticipation of this study, two road safety advocates living in North Seattle, Lee Bruch and Tom Lang, formed a coalition of community groups to lead the discussion about what a redesign of Aurora should entail.
The Aurora-reimagined Coalition, which includes members from Greenwood, Phinney Ridge, Licton Springs, Haller Lake, Bitter Lake, Green Lake, and Fremont, began meeting in January. The group has also invited small business owners to share their perspectives.
“We try to be very open and inclusive with all sorts of people and all sorts of viewpoints, and make sure the voice is heard from all neighborhoods along Aurora,” Lang said.
We spoke to Lang and Bruch for our newest Traffic Lab Ask An Expert Q&A.
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This interview has been edited slightly for the sake of clarity.
Why did you join the coalition?
Lee Bruch: In front of the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) renewed the Aurora Bridge A few years ago I got involved with others to ask, Couldn’t more be done? The answer was that the legislature had listed what could be done and how much they could spend, and they couldn’t change it. Since then, I’ve been working with community groups to make things better on Aurora.
Tom Lang: I live on 100th Street, about a block from Aurora. I see some of the problems on a daily basis, but it’s a long corridor. There are many different ways people use Aurora depending on where you are and what type of user you are.
What issues did you hear regarding Aurora?
Long: Sidewalks are dilapidated and need to be repaired. There are examples of zebra crossings along Aurora that need or have been implemented but poorly implemented. Several of the high profile deaths along Aurora, in which cars collided with pedestrians, occurred on zebra crossings that had no safe path for people to actually cross.
What efforts have already been made to improve security?
Fracture: A couple of schools were built a few blocks up on 90th Street. Community groups in the area and I went to beat the children who had to walk to their schools via Aurora. We got SDOT (Seattle Department of Transportation) and WSDOT to work together and they put a pedestrian crossing with a signal on 92nd Street to make it safer for the kids. That was actually against state policy because it was too close to existing signals. SDOT had to agree that if it didn’t work, they would take it out. SDOT and WSDOT both conducted a study and found that the zebra crossing improves safety so much that not only is it keeping it in place, but the state is changing its policy.
What different visions do the people of Aurora have?
Long: One very drastic change we’ve heard is converting Aurora’s center lane to an elevated light rail line, much like the Seattle Monorail that runs down Fifth Avenue. Then turn the rest of the lane into a more pedestrian-friendly corridor. Some people say not to let pedestrians on the street at all and instead encourage them to walk or cycle on a parallel street. There are many different ideas and we are open to all of them.
Have there been previous efforts to improve security on Aurora?
Fracture: The city has conducted a series of traffic studies on Aurora. They saw almost a big change in the early 2000s, right around the time the Shoreline segment was being redesigned. At the same time, the state was thinking about investing some money and doing something like that in this part of Aurora as well. Unfortunately for a number of reasons that never occurred. When the project was canceled, the city council asked SDOT to look into a few little things that could be done. One of the things that came out was a reduction in speed limits.
What should researchers focus on in a traffic analysis?
Long: Along with some of these guidelines on traffic flow, adding zebra crossings, and other security enhancements, I hope to see Aurora holistically – as more than just a transportation corridor. Instead, think of it as the main drag for many neighborhoods. That brings with it questions of security and development and housing. We hope that this traffic-oriented study not only takes into account traffic throughput and safety, but also the interaction of pedestrians with the environment.
What were the barriers to improving security on Aurora?
Fracture: Obviously, one of the barriers is always money. But when people want something hard enough, they usually find the money for it. In the 1940s, cities emphasized traffic throughput so that as many motorists could get through as quickly as possible. This has caused great damage to our cities. Sidewalks were gradually shortened to add lanes and turn lanes. I think people are starting to realize that roads are not just traffic arteries, they are a whole backbone of the city. This is where people meet and shop.
Are there any guidelines that have prevented Aurora from advancing?
Fracture: Former Vancouver, BC city chief planner has a good saying that you don’t decide to build a bridge by looking at how many people swim across the river. For example, there will be a busy road but no one will cross. People ask for help, but the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices, which is a national standard, requires enough people to cross to set up a crosswalk. So you have to prove it, and such things are obstacles. These are gradually being changed. It takes time. Every major change takes time.
What are the next steps?
Long: Researchers will begin planning the scope of the study as early as September and begin community engagement in early 2022.