Comment: More bike lanes in Everett just a start to save lives

State and cities need to focus traffic safety efforts on education, enforcement and engineering.

By Tyler Rourke / For The Herald

I’m passionate about our transportation system because it’s at the center of many of our greatest problems.

In addition to its significant contributions to climate change, driving cars makes us physically unhealthy, stressed out and angry enough that we’ve had to invent new language describing the insane behavior we exhibit behind the wheel. Our driving kills more than 40,000 of our family members, friends and neighbors in traffic accidents in this country every year, and this number is climbing. These are sudden, tragic and frequently gruesome deaths of often otherwise healthy, sober people, including children.

Our transportation system must change, which is complicated by all of the other things that will also need to change, particularly the way we build cities and communities. On this subject I would like to address two items: recent news of bike lanes planned for Madison Street in Everett (“Madison Street project in Everett will include bike lanes,” The Herald, Nov. 18), and the state of Washington’s Target Zero traffic safety program.

Regarding Madison Street’s proposed bike lanes, I can understand why some of the residents living along that corridor may not support a transformation of parking spaces into travel lanes. On-street parking within the public right of way, owned and maintained by the city as it is, is a very convenient place to store one’s private property, free of charge. Having carefully reread the article describing the proposed bike lanes, and recalling the discussion among volunteers and city staff members at last month’s Transportation Advisory Committee meeting which I attended, the writers of a couple of recent letters to the editor will be relieved to learn that there is no plan to reconfigure the parking. Just beyond the first comma, the news column reads, “on-street parking is staying.” Phew!

As for the cost of the bike lanes, one has to understand the news article’s second sentence. “The project is scheduled for next summer as part of the overlay work for the road’s surface.” To clarify, the city spends about $3 million annually to do pavement overlays, grinding and replacing asphalt that has become worn from use by cars and trucks. (Bicycles don’t have much physical impact on our roads’ surfaces.)

Madison is due for an overlay, so the city is wisely utilizing the opportunity to choose new locations for the stripes that will be painted on top. This is a cost-conscious move, using money that was already going to be spent anyway. All of this is in accordance with the city’s Bicycle Master Plan and Complete Streets ordinances, which were adopted by our elected leaders years ago.

While I wouldn’t exactly call our progress in building the network envisioned by the authors of the Bicycle Master Plan “full steam ahead” or “zipping right through the system,” after more than a decade on the books I’m glad to see that the city is making some meaningful progress. Having ridden a bicycle in Everett just about every day since 2006, I continue to look forward to a day when I might feel some sense of safety as I go about my business.

I completely agree with a recent opinion from the Herald editorial board that we are not on the road to zero traffic deaths and serious injuries (“Stepped-up efforts needed to reduce traffic deaths,” The Herald, Dec. 4). Target Zero — reducing traffic fatalities to zero by 2030 — is a joke. Not because it is a big, hairy, audacious goal (one I believe in), but because we’re not doing anything that would bring about even the slightest chance at its success. Significant reductions in the current numbers of traffic deaths and injuries will require three “Es”: Education, Enforcement and Engineering. So far we’ve only got false hope, lip service and good intentions, and you know what they say about those.

Education: As an example, the City of Everett recently applied for designation as a Bicycle Friendly Community with the League of American Bicyclists. A requirement of that effort was to create an informational safety video to raise awareness about the laws and responsibilities of all roadway users in sharing the road. Unfortunately, although it was well-made, few people will watch the video because, let’s be real, that kind of thing just doesn’t compete for an audience on its own.

Statewide, we need some level of mandatory retraining or proof of proficiency for all drivers, say every 5 years or after any traffic ticket. Make us watch the safety videos, and keep our knowledge of traffic laws current with proficiency tests once in a while.

Enforcement: At least where I live, there is none. Every day on my way home from work I see at least two people driving in the dark with no lights, many people texting, most people speeding, and who knows how many drivers operating motor vehicles while drunk or high. The Everett Police Department has two traffic officers to cover 33 square miles, and sometimes they’re busy responding to calls. Sometimes they get a day off, as they should.

We have the ability to automate speed enforcement, but state law must change to allow mobile automated speed enforcement devices throughout our communities. This can free up the two traffic officers to focus on drunk drivers, texting and all of the dangerous behavior. Given the general shortage of police officers and difficulty in hiring and training them, we also need state law to allow properly trained personnel other than fully commissioned officers to review automated photo enforcement traffic footage.

Engineering: We must redesign and rebuild our roads with safety in mind at every opportunity. Many of our streets encourage people to drive in unsafe ways with long sight-lines and wide lanes that promote excessive speeds. Built-in obstacles like chicanes, speed tables, roundabouts and traffic circles force people to slow down. When a road is narrow one is forced to pay attention. On Madison Street, narrowing the lanes and moving vehicle traffic toward the middle will lower average speeds.

It’s great that the City of Everett is using an existing opportunity to incorporate some small improvements. We need state funding to multiply that kind of thing 1,000 times.

I realize these ideas may not be popular with everybody, but I hope you’ll forgive me if I value our lives and those of our children more than the political ambitions of our elected officials. If we’re sincere about targeting zero traffic fatalities and serious injuries in Washington, we’ll have to do a lot more than local-level efforts like painting stripes on Madison Street.

Ongoing driver retraining, automated enforcement, and adequate funding to build safety into the roadways are the keys to success.

Tyler Rouke, who lives in Everett, is an advocate for bicycle and pedestrian transportation.

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