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How Seattleites Slowed Their Streets

In the League’s Winter 2022 magazine, we shared all of the ways the League and its partners are building momentum to slow roads and save lives. In the following article, written by the League’s communications director Lauren Jenkins, the Seattle Neighborhood Greenways Coalition shares how they have made impressive progress in slowing their streets, not only through “20 is Plenty” speed limits but in redesigning streets as well. Read the full article, then flip through the pages of American Bicyclist below. 

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When a driver going over 40 miles per hour hits a person walking, that person only has a 55 percent chance of surviving. At 20 miles an hour, the same person walking has a 93 percent chance of surviving the crash.

Those are the facts, and behind the numbers are tens of thousands of individuals whose lives were cut short, families who were forever changed. Their stories and these preventable tragedies are why advocates for safer streets and better biking are increasingly advocating for a shift in how our communities are designed: to be destinations for everyone and not racetracks for drivers to zip through.

In Seattle, Washington, community advocates in the Seattle Neighborhood Greenways Coalition have made impressive progress in slowing their streets over the last several years, offering change-makers and local leaders across the country a model for how to transform their own streets to serve people. The League sat down with a few of the folks who were there at the beginning of the push to lower speed limits and change how roads in Seattle are designed and built to learn about their successes and tips for others hoping to achieve similar wins for safety.

Ask Merlin Rainwater and Brie Gyncild how and when the fight for slower streets started and you’ll learn about the people lost and injured — and the memorial rides and walks the advocates led for each of them.

“I think that initiative was critical because it made the issue of speed one of life and death,” Merlin said. “Traffic violence is an invisible scourge. It’s truly taken for granted that people are going to die in traffic and there’s nothing we can do about it.” 

The memorial walks and rides, they said, made the issue of traffic safety about more than just the safety of people inside cars. Using the stories of individuals galvanized support for taking big steps like lowering the speed limit throughout the city. For Brie, lower speed limits were another step towards turning the streets into “places people exist in rather than places people pass through.” When she learned that every city council member was on the record in support of lowering speed limits in Cascade Bicycle Club’s candidate survey, she saw an opportunity to lead a movement for change.

In 2016, a coalition of groups mobilized by Seattle Neighborhood Greenways secured their first major win: the city council and mayor unanimously approved a measure designating all non-arterial streets with speed limits of 20 miles per hour, while arterials — unless otherwise posted — were set to 25 miles per hour. Lowering residential speed limits to 20 mph was a big win, but there was and is still much work ahead.

“We all know that just changing what the sign on the street says doesn’t actually change behavior,” Brie said. As part of their ongoing advocacy, Seattle Neighborhood Greenways focused on the need to not only put up a new sign, but also to redesign the streets to limit driver speeds.

“It felt like the bigger victory in having arterial speeds set to 25 [mph] was the momentum to redesign those streets for 25-mile-an-hour speed limits,” Brie said. “That’s what you’re actually trying to do. Ideally, you don’t even need a sign on the street because it’s obvious how slow you should be driving.”

The data agrees. Lowering a speed limit will make a difference in lowering crashes, but it won’t get any city to its Vision Zero goals. According to the Seattle Department of Transportation’s own accounting, crashes went down 20 percent on streets where they only reduced the speed limit.

“You really need to do the harder streets redesign,” said Gordon Padelford, executive director of Seattle Neighborhood Greenways. 

Changing the speed limits by sign and by design on Seattle’s arterial roads has taken years and coordination with the state on state-owned highways. That changing the sign on a street is not an immediate silver bullet should not be seen as discouraging, though. Even before the 2016 vote on lowering speed limits, the movement in Seattle was inspiring change.

“I think through the memorial walks and rides, we made a big difference in making traffic safety a serious issue and not just the safety of people inside cars,” Merlin said. 

The League hopes the successes in Seattle to lower speed through lower speed limits and street redesign are an inspiration to other local changemakers around the country that it can be done.

“Really believe that it’s possible,” Merlin told us. “A lot of things don’t happen because it seems out of reach, but it’s not, it can be done.” 

Together, we can save lives through slower streets.