ON JUNE 14 officer Ian Walsh threw the Punch Seen Round the World, after he tried to ticket a defiant jaywalker at the junction of Rainier Avenue and Martin Luther King Jr. Way and her friend began grappling with him. Ever since, in the streets and papers and even in police headquarters, the debate has simmered: Who’s to blame? Those who dash through traffic or the cops who crack down on them, even when the cracking gets ugly?
Meanwhile, another culprit gets ignored: the haphazard roadway design and hostile walking conditions that make it hard not to jaywalk along those two busy boulevards. City studies, pedestrian advocates, and roadway experts all note a slew of hazards for the foot-bound. Sidewalks are narrow along Rainier, signals are widely spaced, traffic is fast, and yielding to pedestrians (as required by law) is nearly nil. According to the city’s 2007 Rainier corridor action plan, drivers who fail to yield hit pedestrians and bicyclists three times as often there as at “similar roadways in the region.” With 61 collisions in five years, the corridor is the city’s worst pedestrian shooting gallery outside downtown—and because Rainier’s traffic is faster, collisions there are more likely to be fatal or crippling.
The pedestrian bridge across the Rainier/MLK intersection is a dubious assist. It takes two-and-a-half minutes to cross from the junction’s light-rail station to the opposite side of Rainier—too long for anyone racing to catch a bus. (The station is promoted as a transit connection, but no bus stops at it.)
South of there, along the long, wide expanse of MLK Way, the light-rail line running down the middle of the boulevard provides a median for jaywalkers, but the trains themselves can compound the frustration of those who try to cross at the signals. “Pushing ‘walk’ is kind of like throwing money into a fruit machine at a casino,” says Tom Williams, the city’s Pedestrian Advisory Board Chair, who tested the system last year. “Sometimes you hit the jackpot and get to cross the street.” Other times, an arriving train would override a walk signal, and pedestrians would have to push the button to get a new one.
Williams concedes that city engineers “are doing the best they can, given their resources.” They’ve tweaked the signals along MLK so pedestrians need only wait for one train to pass before they’re allowed to cross; if a second arrives, it must wait for them. This year SDOT will restripe lanes on Rainier and add pedestrian signals at two intersections and curb-widening “bus bulbs” at 10.
That’s a good start. “The whole area needs to be reworked looking at pedestrian safety, not just moving traffic,” says Lisa Quinn, executive director of the pro-ped group Feet First. “Putting blame on the pedestrian puts people in jeopardy.”