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Walking across busy streets in Spokane more dangerous

The streets were dry Jan. 26 after the sun had set. Cars filled Division Street during the evening commute, and Clay Brock stepped off the sidewalk and into traffic.

Almost immediately, he was hit by a 1998 Ford Taurus.

His fiancee, Michele Purkey, ran after him. In the same southbound lane near the Costco store, she was hit by another car.

By the time ambulances arrived, Purkey was dead. Brock was taken to Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center with severe injures.

The accident happened on a stretch of Division that shares common elements with many of Spokane’s busy streets: It was more than three lanes wide, with a speed limit above 30 mph, and in a stretch without a crosswalk.

All of those elements, traffic experts say, combine to make Spokane one of the least safe cities in Washington for people crossing streets.

From 2015 to 2017, according to a Spokesman-Review analysis of collision statistics from the Washington State Patrol, Spokane ranked third in the rate of people hit by cars among the 10 largest cities in Washington, behind only Everett and Seattle. In collisions where the pedestrian died, Spokane was again third, and second in serious injury collisions.

Further analysis showed the demographics of people most likely to be hit by vehicles were those living in poverty, or who had no access to a vehicle, like Purkey and Brock.

While cities across the nation weigh safety concerns for pedestrians and motorists against the flow of traffic – especially as population densities rise – Spokane too is tasked with a similar problem: how to make roads safer for everyone involved without a rise in commute times.

“Personally, I’ve always had some concern,” said Kate Burke, city councilwoman for northeast Spokane. “We have wide roads and more bikers and pedestrians than ever.”

Burke, whose district includes Hillyard, parts of downtown east of Division, and stretches of Francis and Wellesley avenues, said road safety will be a focus during her tenure on the city council.

Along with Mike Fagan, she represents a council district that in 2017 had more pedestrian-car collisions than any other, according to WSP data. Most of those happened on streets like Mission and Wellesley avenues, which are four and sometimes five lanes wide.

Division Street, which divides council districts that represent northeast and northwest Spokane, had the most collisions last year with six.

Louis Mueler, a city planner, said any road wider than three lanes, on average, has more accidents.

Factor in that most of Spokane’s residents living in poverty reside on the North Side, including Burke’s district, and it means more people are walking across those roads, he said.

In the most recent Pedestrian Master Plan adopted in 2015, city planners also identified the percentage of the population with no vehicle available. Areas like East Central north of the freeway, Logan and Hillyard fared the worst.

When planners compared those metrics to collision data, they found a correlation. Accidents tended to happen in poorer areas, and specifically where roads are wider.

“We use this information to help create areas where we will focus pedestrian safety and bicycle projects,” Mueler said. “Some of the criteria we looked at was the age group, and where are our commercial areas and retail areas. Employment density, retail areas, parks, and people with disabilities, all of it.”

Heleen Dewey, a health program specialist, and the lead for the active living program at the Spokane Regional Health District, said collision mapping has helped identify the high-risk areas for accidents, including poorer neighborhoods.

It’s why the Spokane Regional Transportation Council has prioritized infrastructure spending in those areas.

“If we have people crossing at an area often, and it’s dark, and there’s not safe crossing, but they’re crossing anyway, I would really look at how do we make the safe choice the easy choice for everybody,” she said.

Seven years ago, the health district received a state transportation grant to focus on bike and pedestrian safety that kick-started an awareness effort called Stickman Knows. The Stickman – the black stick drawing on yellow signs telling motorists there’s a cross walk approaching – emphasized pedestrian safety with videos, easy-to-digest tips and special messaging directed at teenagers.

Since then, Dewey said the health district has worked closely with other local governments to ensure they have proper policies in place to improve infrastructure.

One such safety project is the Monroe Street road diet, which aims to reduce a 1.1-mile stretch of North Monroe Street down to two lanes of traffic from four. Finalized in February by the city council, the project will include wider sidewalks, more areas for pedestrian crossing and bicycle lanes.

Since the inception, it has drawn controversy, mostly from some business owners along the stretch of road who say the construction and traffic snarls will lead to a loss of summer business.

Mueler said traffic should be mostly unaffected, once the construction is complete. According to data from the city, about 17,000 motorists travel Monroe daily, which is about 5,000 less than a three-lane road, turning lane included, can handle before traffic is affected.

The reason being, Mueler explained, is that even with two lanes of travel, drivers typically prefer not to drive next to each other.

“So they’ll naturally space out, so that creates those opportunities where vision is blocked,” he said. “Until a street is almost at stop-and-go traffic, people will stay at that. So when you add another lane of traffic, you don’t get another lane of traffic. It just staggers.”

Last year, two people were hit along Monroe Street. A 5-year-old girl was killed crossing the street outside of a crosswalk in October 2013.

Candace Mumm, who represents northwest Spokane along with Karen Stratton, had a hand in putting together the city’s Pedestrian Master Plan. She also worked with a group of students at Eastern Washington University, who mapped out areas of Spokane where sidewalks were lacking or nonexistent.

They mapped areas with more pedestrian-involved collisions, and other areas that were more at risk. That data then went into one of Mumm’s first initiatives when she came onto the council in 2013 – an ordinance that would make pedestrian crossings a priority.

“It has changed the way we put crosswalks in,” she said. “You’ll see more up on 29th around (Comstock) Park. Around Holmes Elementary, and a bunch more on Monroe.”

According to Mueler and collision data, pedestrians tend to get hit in areas where crosswalks aren’t. On Division, for example, crosswalks are only available at intersections, with stretches of road as long as a quarter mile that have no access points to cross.

“You may, for example, have a bus stop pull out here,” he said, pointing to a section of Division on a map. “If you’re here, do you want to go all the way up the light, then back or would you rather risk it and cross all seven lanes of traffic? Most people would rather risk it.”

In 2015, the city turned to new safety technology and installed a HAWK light on Ruby Street near Gonzaga. When pressed, it works in sequence with other lights, then starts flashing yellow, before going solid yellow and finally red.

“It’s a small step,” he said.

When Brock and Purkey were crossing the road, the use of technology like a HAWK light could have prevented another traffic death.

The accident sent waves throughout Spokane’s homeless community. Jessica Kovak, the founder and director of Blessings Under the Bridge, where the couple would frequent, wondered why Brock would cross where he did.

Was it because they were fighting and he wasn’t looking? Or was it because that’s just how some people cross the road when a crosswalk isn’t as convenient as darting across traffic?

Whatever the reason, Kovak has moved past speculation. In a series of Facebook posts, she has updated the community on his progress. It began as a weekslong stay in the hospital and has now moved to physical therapy.

What’s next is unknown.

“Today, I ask for extra prayers for him,” she wrote on April 1. “God please keep your hands on Clay’s life every step of the way. I pray you use his trials and suffering for something greater.”


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