Aurora Avenue North has consistently been one of Seattle’s most dangerous roads for drivers and pedestrians.
This year, the city of Seattle is poised to receive $2 million in state funding to support community engagement, right of way planning, traffic analysis and initial design for restructuring the corridor, pending final approvals.
In anticipation of that study, two street safety advocates who live in North Seattle, Lee Bruch and Tom Lang, have formed a coalition of community groups to guide discussion of 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 also has invited small business owners to share their perspectives.
“We’re trying to be very open and inclusive of all sorts of people and all sorts of viewpoints, trying to make sure that the voice of all the neighborhoods along Aurora get heard,” Lang said.
We spoke with Lang and Bruch for our latest Traffic Lab Ask An Expert Q&A.
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This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Why did you get involved in the coalition?
Lee Bruch: Before the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) repaved the Aurora bridge a couple of years ago, I got involved with others to ask, couldn’t more be done? The response 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 have been working with community groups trying to get things improved on Aurora.
Tom Lang: I live at 100th Street, about a block off of Aurora. I see some of the problems on a daily basis, but it’s a long corridor. There’s a lot of different ways that people use Aurora depending on where you are and what kind of a user you are.
What are some of the issues you have heard regarding Aurora?
Lang: Sidewalks are in disrepair and need to be fixed. There are examples of crosswalks along Aurora that need to be implemented or have been implemented, but done so poorly. Several of the high profile deaths along Aurora, of cars hitting pedestrians, happened in crosswalks where there was no safe way for people to actually cross.
What efforts have already been made to improve safety?
Bruch: A few schools were built a couple of blocks up at 90th Street. Community groups in the area, and myself, went to bat for the kids who had to walk across Aurora to their schools. We got SDOT (Seattle Department of Transportation) and WSDOT to work together, and they put in a pedestrian crosswalk with a signal at 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 pan out, they would take it out. SDOT and WSDOT both did a study and found that the crosswalk improved safety so tremendously that not only would they keep it in place, but the state actually changed its policy.
What are the different visions people have for Aurora?
Lang: One very drastic change that we’ve heard is turning the center lane of Aurora into an elevated light rail line, kind of like the Seattle Monorail going down Fifth Avenue. Then turning the rest of the roadway into a more pedestrian-friendly corridor. Some people are saying to not allow pedestrians at all on the street and instead encourage them to walk or bike on a parallel street. There’s a lot of different ideas out there and we’re open to all.
Have there been previous efforts to improve safety on Aurora?
Bruch: The city has done a number of traffic analyses on Aurora. They almost got a big change overall back in the early 2000s, just about the time that Shoreline’s segment got redeveloped. At the same time, the state was thinking about putting some funds in and doing that sort of thing on this portion of Aurora as well. Unfortunately, for a number of reasons that never occurred. When the project got canceled, the City Council did ask SDOT to do some looking at small things that could be done. One of the things that came out was a reduction of speed limits.
What would you like researchers to focus on in a traffic analysis?
Lang: What I’m hoping to see come out of it, besides some of these policies around traffic flow, putting in crosswalks and doing other safety improvements, is to look at Aurora more holistically — as more than just a transportation corridor. Instead, think of it as the main street for many neighborhoods. That brings in issues of safety and development and housing. We’re hoping that in this transportation- focused study, there’ll be thought given to more than just traffic throughput and safety, but also how pedestrians interact with the environment.
What barriers have existed in improving safety on Aurora?
Bruch: One of the barriers obviously is always money. But if people want something hard enough, they usually find the money to do it. In the 1940s, cities emphasized traffic throughput, allowing as many drivers to get through as fast as they could. That did a lot of damage to our cities. Sidewalks gradually got chopped bit by bit to add lanes of traffic and to add turn lanes. I think people are starting to realize that streets are not just traffic thoroughfares, but they’re a whole backbone of the city. They’re where people meet and where people shop.
Are there policies that have prevented progress on Aurora?
Bruch: The former chief planner of the city of Vancouver, B.C., has a good saying that you don’t decide to put in a bridge by looking at how many people are swimming across the river. For example, there will be a busy street, but no one’s crossing. People ask for help, but the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices, which is a national standard, requires you to have enough people crossing to install a crosswalk. So you have to prove it, and things like that are roadblocks. Those are gradually being changed. It takes time. Any major change takes time.
What are the next steps?
Lang: Researchers will start as early as September to plan out the scope of the study and begin on the ground with community engagement in early 2022.