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‘Walk’ sign would display for pedestrians without having to push button under proposed Spokane pedestrian safety rules

May 9, 2019

No doubt about it: Spokane is car-dependent.

Citywide traffic counts have gone up between 10% and 25% since 2013. A $1.5 billion freeway is under construction. Nearly a quarter of all central Spokane is dedicated to surface parking.

The city’s reliance on automobiles leads to the inevitable interaction between motorists and pedestrians. In 2018, there were 162 collisions between pedestrians and cars in Spokane, four of which were fatal, according to numbers from the Washington State Department of Transportation. Since 2013, 21 people have been struck and killed by a car in Spokane.

A proposal from Spokane City Council President Ben Stuckart aims to make this car-dominated city safer for people on foot. The ordinance will be voted on Monday by the City Council.

The idea came to him when he was touring Copenhagen, Denmark, last year with a city delegation.

“I was very impressed with how they handled pedestrians in their infrastructure,” Stuckart said. “Pedestrians were their number one priority.”

On paper, that’s Spokane’s goal as well. The city’s comprehensive plan, the guiding document for the city’s growth, says the city’s first priority in designing transportation systems is to “protect and serve the pedestrian first.”

Problem is, Stuckart said, the goal was never officially made part of the Spokane Municipal Code. His ordinance changes that, making it part of the city’s law book. The ordinance would also formally adopt the city’s Pedestrian Master Plan and require that it be updated every five years beginning in 2020.

Beyond these changes, Stuckart’s proposal intends to recast the roles motorists and pedestrians play at traffic signals.

“It would be great if every time drivers in Spokane came to an intersection, they expected to see a pedestrian ready to cross,” said Adam McDaniel, Stuckart’s executive assistant who helped write the ordinance. “I hope it starts to change the conversation about pedestrian access.”

The conversation about pedestrians and motorists is nothing new. A hundred years ago today, on May 9, 1919, the Spokane Daily Chronicle ran a short story alerting drivers to something new: crosswalks. Its headline read, “White lines are danger signs for the motorists of Spokane.”

“One of the deadliest sins for motorists is parking in the safety zones marked off for pedestrians under the ‘jaywalking’ ordinance,” it states. Later, it quoted John Tilsley, commissioner of public safety, saying, “This is not only a technical violation of the parking rules, but it also deprives pedestrians of their rights under the ‘jaywalking’ law and tends to cause the people to cross streets and board streetcars without remaining in the zones marked off for them. The practice must be stopped.”

Stuckart’s 2019 proposal involves less reprimanding and more technology.

First, the law would require all signalized intersections give pedestrians the “walk” signal, whether or not they push the button to get the signal. Currently, half the signals in the city require the button to be pressed in order for the pedestrian to get the go ahead.

Stuckart said the “beg signals” have never made sense to him, especially downtown where the lights are timed and should always show people when it’s appropriate to cross.

Second, the law would give pedestrians a leading “head start” in front of vehicles queued up at a red light. Giving pedestrians three to seven seconds of walk time before motorists see a green light is intended to decrease the conflicts between walkers and drivers making left- or right-hand turns. With the pedestrian clearly in the intersection, motorists are less likely to question who has the right of way.

“Leading pedestrian intervals are being done all over the U.S. It’s a big tool for college towns,” McDaniel said, mentioning New York City; Charlotte, North Carolina; and Gainesville, Florida. “It helps get them established in the crosswalk so they’re not getting cut off by someone trying to get in front of them.”

The new law would prioritize these head-start signals downtown and near schools, hospitals, senior living centers, child care centers and other intersections that have higher than average pedestrian traffic. A demonstration for such a signal could go in at Monroe Street and Summit Parkway, McDaniel said, where the many walkers in Riverfront Park and Kendall Yards often seek to cross the busy Monroe corridor.

Finally, the law would require accessible pedestrian signals be installed in all of Spokane’s signalized intersections by 2025. Currently, 32 of the city’s 263 intersections have these types of signals, which use verbal commands and braille to alert blind or low-vision pedestrians when to cross.

In all, if the ordinance were fully implemented over the next six years, and every signalized intersection in the city was updated, it would cost the city $2.6 million. This amounts to about a 1.7% increase in the city’s street capital and maintenance plans, which have nearly $155 million in spending through 2024.

McDaniel said full build-out of the plan was unlikely, calling it “an incredibly aggressive implementation of these policies” that isn’t part of the ordinance, which is written to integrate the technology only through projects included in the six-year street plans.

Still, he said the proposal was a good start to making the city safer for pedestrians and reaching the state’s Target Zero goal of reducing all traffic-related fatalities and serious injuries to none by 2030.

“There’s way more to it. This is one component,” he said. “It’s not infrastructure. It’s not building sidewalks. It’s not reducing speed. It’s one component about increasing pedestrian safety.”