Does walking at a marked crosswalk require precision from the pedestrian? Seattle’s answer might surprise you…
Below is a snippet of the City of Seattle’s Motion for Summary Judgment, arguing that its design of the protected bike lane, transit island, and pedestrian crosswalk (only a few yards north of the main crosswalk) had nothing to do with my client’s collision. In fact, the City blames my client, the pedestrian, for not walking precisely on the painted lines of the marked crosswalk. The City argues, this imprecise footing of the pedestrian, is “jaywalking” and is the reason why the bicyclist crashed into her.
In Seattle, pedestrians are generally expected to follow traffic signals and use designated crosswalks when available like intersections with lights or stop signs. Crossing the street at a location OTHER than a marked or unmarked crosswalk is generally considered jaywalking. However, Seattle has implemented a policy called “Pedestrian First” that prioritizes safety. This policy requires vehicles to give the pedestrian right of way at all intersection, marked or unmarked, regardless of whether there is a traffic control device.
In our fair city1, “Pedestrian First” refers to an initiative in that the Seattle Department of Transportation has undertaken to prioritize pedestrian safety and improve conditions for pedestrians when crossing intersections. SDOT’s stated goal of the Pedestrian First approach is to create a safer and more accessible environment for people of all ages and abilities to walk and move around the city. According to SDOT’s own blog posts and publications, this initiative involves implementing various safety upgrades and changes to traffic signal patterns to enhance pedestrian visibility, increase crossing times, and reduce the likelihood of pedestrian-vehicle conflicts.
In an SDOT blog post from July 2020, SDOT announced the completion of their Vision Zero goal to create 250 pedestrian-first intersections six months ahead of schedule. SDOT explains2,
These intersections are designed with a focus on pedestrian safety and have undergone safety upgrades to improve visibility and reduce the risk of accidents*. As a result of these safety upgrades, data showed a 48% reduction in the number of people hit by cars while crossing the street in these pedestrian-first locations. This achievement signifies a significant improvement in pedestrian safety and highlights the effectiveness of the pedestrian-first approach in Seattle.“We’ve Completed Pedestrian First Crosswalk Safety Goal Six Months Early and Are Advancing a New Policy to Create More Automatic Walk Signals and Give People More Time to Cross the Street.” SDOT Blog, 23 July 2020. (*SDOT’s use of “accidents” goes against National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s admonition against this term because these are not acts of god but rather the result of human error.)
To further enhance pedestrian safety, SDOT introduced a new traffic signal policy. The policy includes small but meaningful changes to traffic signal patterns that aim to strike a balance between efficient traffic flow and pedestrian safety3. The policy sets target and maximum cycle length times for traffic signals based on street type designation. This approach ensures that pedestrians have sufficient time to cross the street safely without causing noticeable delays for motorists4.
Significantly, the Pedestrian First initiative in Seattle focused on creating pedestrian-first (surprise, surprise…) intersections and improving safety measures to reduce collisions involving pedestrians. Per SDOT: The term “pedestrian first” specifically refers to this effort and does not encompass all aspects of pedestrian infrastructure or policies in the city.
SDOT has explained that Pedestrian First is intended to prioritize pedestrian safety, create safer intersections, and enhance the overall walking experience in the city.
In a case that we are current litigating, we represent a pedestrian, Angelina Kolomiets, who observed the law and looked both ways (out of habit, she always looks both ways before entering a road) before crossing the bike lane. However, the bus shelter obscured her view as well as the bicyclist’s view. Nonetheless, because the pedestrian walked a few inches south of the painted crosswalk lines, Seattle City Attorney calls this “Jaywalking.” This is the City’s way of attempting to deny that its design of the transit island, crosswalk, and bike lane led to the bicyclist/pedestrian crash. As a result, Ms. Kolomiets sustained serious injuries to her head, brain, face, jaw, teeth, and body.
Guess what? The City engineer admitted at a deposition that the project team never calculated sight distances, though the engineer knew that the tapered (unstraight) bike lane created visibility issues for both bicyclists and pedestrians.
Here is when I asked the SDOT engineer about the late change to the then-new protected bike lane on Roosevelt Way NE in the University District.
The SDOT engineer wants reassurance that I’m not blaming her. Truly, I’m attempting to understand what the main engineer (SDOT project engineer) thought about the potential issues with making the bike lane zig a little to avoid a utility pole:
When I ask the SDOT engineer whether she and the other SDOT engineers made sight distance calculations in this scenario, guess what her response was…
Seattle claimed that Pedestrian First was its plan to prioritize pedestrian safety. Really? Perhaps it’s more focused on prioritizing the Seattle Attorney’s office first? What do you think?
- The initiative called “Pedestrians First” was first conceived at the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP). ITDP is a non-profit organization that focuses on promoting sustainable and equitable transportation systems globally. ITDP has developed a set of interactive tools that measures walkability in cities around the world, and “Pedestrians First” is one of their initiatives aimed at improving walkability and pedestrian-friendly urban planning.
- “We’ve Completed Pedestrian First Crosswalk Safety Goal Six Months Early and Are Advancing a New Policy to Create More Automatic Walk Signals and Give People More Time to Cross the Street.” SDOT Blog, 23 July 2020.
- “Traffic Signal Policy.” SDOT Blog, 29 January 2021.
- “SDOT creates 250 ‘pedestrian-first’ intersections early.” MyNorthwest, 27 July 2020.