Gan Hao Li rode his bike every day, sometimes two or three times. And every day on his way out the door, he’d smile and wave to Marena Ostbo, the manager of Hirabayashi Place in Seattle’s Chinatown International District. Wednesday, May 11, was no different.
“He stopped, smiled, said, ‘Good morning, enjoy the sunshine,’ and left,” Ostbo said.
Except this time, Li, 73, didn’t return. He was killed around 10:30 that morning in Sodo, when a Jeep driver pulled out of a parking lot on Fourth Avenue South and South Holgate Street and hit him, according to the Seattle Police Department. Li died of his injuries later that day. Police are still investigating.
“I’ve never met somebody who was as genuinely kind as he was,” Ostbo said. “Seeing his wife over the last few days, I can only imagine. I can only imagine.”
Ten people have been killed on Seattle’s roads in 2022, according to the Seattle Department of Transportation, outpacing the number of deaths at this time last year and the year before. At least 59 people have been seriously injured.
Although fewer people die on Seattle’s streets than Portland’s or Austin’s, for example, the trends of the last two years have yet to reverse themselves in 2022 and Seattle’s “Vision Zero” goal of no fatalities on the roads remains maddeningly out of reach. Despite recent efforts, the combination of speed, larger vehicles and infrastructure that’s unfriendly to people outside of cars has meant deaths continue to rise.
“It’s really frustrating and devastating,” said Allison Schwartz, SDOT’s Vision Zero coordinator. “And that’s just for someone who reads the collision reports and is trying to make a dent in this issue with my team and with others in the department, you know? It’s hard to think about what the people closest to those who’ve been killed or hurt are going through.”
On the heels of one of the worst years for traffic deaths in Seattle — and across the country — four pedestrians have been killed so far this year and Li is the second bicyclist. The first, Antonio Tiongco, was also hit on Holgate, just a block away on Third Avenue South.
That the two bicyclist deaths occurred in the city’s main industrial district is no coincidence, said Clara Cantor, community organizer for Seattle Neighborhood Greenways. Since at least 2004, more serious injuries and deaths have occurred there than in any other Seattle neighborhood, despite having fewer total collisions than downtown.
“It’s like every single year there are people that are dying in Sodo because of how unsafe the streets are,” Cantor said. “Because it’s such an intense freight corridor, very little has been done there to improve safety for people walking and biking.”
SDOT counted an average 925 riders per weekday through the industrial district in 2020. As a busy stretch for commuters, especially since the West Seattle Bridge’s closure, and with a sizable homeless population, the mingling of pedestrians, bicyclists and large vehicles is ever-present.
“One of the primary issues is speed,” Schwartz said. She pointed to the area’s long blocks, wide streets, large vehicles and minimal crossings or protected bike lanes.
Several projects are planned for the neighborhood to improve safety. East Marginal Way was recently promised $20 million from the federal government to finish building a two-way protected bike lane between South Atlantic and South Spokane streets, in addition to other upgrades to the area. Construction is to begin later this year.
The city also has promised a continuous bike lane from Georgetown to downtown along either Airport Way South or Sixth Avenue South, although the project’s progress was stalled in 2020.
But Seattle City Councilmember Tammy Morales, whose district includes the city’s industrial district, as well as another deadly stretch, Rainier Avenue South, said she’s growing frustrated with talk about improvements and wants more action.
“It just feels like it is clear that there are some roads in the city that are more dangerous, there are some parts of the city that have been underinvested in and we have to be serious about keeping Seattleites safe, and I don’t think we are demonstrating any serious commitment to that,” she said. She called for a council hearing on traffic deaths, which transportation chair and Councilmember Alex Pedersen has agreed to this summer.
“My favorite resident”
Orbst, the manager of Hirabayashi Place, isn’t supposed to have favorite residents. But of Li, she said, “he was my favorite resident.” When she took the job last year, he was the first to welcome her. A Chinese immigrant, Li spoke little English, but the intention behind his waves and gestures was clear enough.
“You can truly feel the sadness in the building since he passed,” she said. “It really is a tragedy.”
Linda Vonheim, the building’s manager until late last year, moved the Lis into the building when it first opened in 2017. She, too, called them her favorites. On his way out the door for his daily rides or evening walks with his wife, he’d greet Vonheim with a hearty, “Hello, manager!”
“He was just a great man, one of the pillars of our community at Hirabayashi,” she said. “If you needed help he would be right there. He would never say no to anybody.”
Crystal Ng, who lives in Hirabayashi Place, said Li and his wife were the only two people to use their building’s rooftop deck, doing exercises and playing pingpong together nearly every day. Ng speaks Chinese and would often help them communicate with other residents in the building.
“He always asked me if I’d had dinner yet and tell me that he hadn’t seen me for a long time,” she said.
Ng didn’t hear the news of Li’s death right away, but started to suspect something was wrong. She didn’t see his bike in storage. While watching the evening news, she saw an image of a “crunched” bicycle and realized she recognized it.
“I had a gut feeling,” she said.
“He and his wife were just enjoying their retirement, growing old together,” Vonheim said through tears, “and now that’s been taken away from her.”
A wake-up call
It’s not just bikers and pedestrians who want to see safer conditions in Sodo, said Erin Goodman, executive director of the Sodo Business Improvement Area. The people driving trucks through there certainly don’t want to kill anyone, she said.
Goodman supports completion of the Sodo bike lane near Fifth Avenue South in order to distinguish between routes for bikers and routes for drivers.
“Do I think that people need to be able to bike through Sodo? Yes,” she said. “On every street? No. There need to be safe corridors.”
“This accident is a little bit of a wake-up call that this area’s transportation system needs some attention,” she added.
The lack of such infrastructure is, on the one hand, the result of Sodo’s role as a freight-heavy neighborhood, said Cantor. But it’s also indicative of underinvestment in South Seattle more broadly, hewing closely to redlined areas of the past.
“Sodo and the entirety of southeast Seattle have really suffered a lot due to racism and people writing off that South Seattle needs to be safe to walk and bike and live in,” she said.
Morales echoed that point, saying that meeting the goals of zero fatalities will mean a much larger investment in capital projects.
“We have to fundamentally change how we think about transportation in this city if we want to meet our Vision Zero goals,” she said.