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More people die on south Seattle streets, where wide streets encourage fast driving

caption: Clara Cantor crosses Martin Luther King Jr. Way South while riding along South Kenyon Street with her 4-year-old son, on Friday, June 14, 2024, in Seattle.
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Clara Cantor crosses Martin Luther King Jr. Way South while riding along South Kenyon Street with her 4-year-old son, on Friday, June 14, 2024, in Seattle.
KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

Clara Cantor, a safe streets advocate in Seattle, stood on Martin Luther King Boulevard South in the Rainier Valley.

“We're standing here because this was the site of a really unfortunate tragedy,” said Cantor, a community organizer for Seattle Neighborhood Greenways. Fifteen people have been killed on this street in the last six years. Most were walking, and one was in a wheelchair.

It’s not just here on MLK. At the end of May, six people were killed on Seattle’s streets in one brutal week.

Medhin Asgedom, 78, died on MLK. A motorcycle rider died on Aurora Avenue North. Two people were killed in the International District, in two separate incidents. Taylor Reid, 36, was steps from his apartment building in the Denny Triangle when he was killed in a hit-and-run. And Stephen Willis, a medical assistant at the University of Washington’s student health center, was killed while walking near Aurora Avenue and Northgate Way.

This isn’t a blip. The city has a goal to get to zero traffic deaths per year by 2030, but it’s not working: For the past five years, more people have been killed on Seattle’s streets than before — an average of 28 people a year. Advocates hope a proposed levy could help turn things around.

Cantor said the problem is street design: wide streets encourage fast driving.

MLK, for example, “feels and operates in a very kind of wide-open-highway kind of a way,” she said. “But the reality is we’re going through a neighborhood here.”

Cantor lives in the south end and crosses MLK every day to take her kid to daycare.

She said on streets like this — with high speeds and narrow sidewalks next to homes, businesses, and transit — there’s little room for error, and people make mistakes.

Seattle has built more streets like MLK through the south end’s communities of color — and more safe infrastructure in the wealthier neighborhoods north of the ship canal.

That’s why the vast majority of the city’s traffic deaths happen in south Seattle.

“There's just a really intense disparity between what the streets look like and feel like in some of the wealthier, whiter neighborhoods and what they feel like in BIPOC neighborhoods or low-income neighborhoods,” Cantor said.

Cantor said the south end needs more safe infastructure: things like speed bumps, stop signs, narrower lanes — anything that makes streets feel less like highways and more like you’re in a neighborhood.

That’s because slower streets are safer streets: People can more likely brake in time to prevent crashes, and the crashes that happen are less deadly.

Road safety is now in front of the city council as part of a major transportation levy.

“This levy has the ability to quite literally save lives,” said Councilmember Rob Saka, chair of the transportation committee. “I want to offer tribute to the eight fatalities in the past week plus, to the people we lost and their grieving families. We can and must do so much better.”

The proposed ballot levy would double the funding for the Vision Zero program.

Not everyone agrees the cost is worth it, and some say they want to be able to drive fast to get where they're going.

The new levy would replace one that’s expiring. And it would cost the average homeowner more, between about $500 and $600 a year, depending on which option the councilmembers choose.

They must work out those details by early July to get the final levy on the fall ballot.

After that, Seattle voters will decide.

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