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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Getting There: Lighting up the dark spots on Spokane’s roadways

When the streetlights came on, North Monroe Street immediately got a new nickname: The “path of life.”

Hundreds had gathered at Monroe and Maxwell Avenue to see the show, when the “master switch” was thrown and the light shone. At 7 p.m. on Nov. 1, 1946, 101 “modern overhead traffic safety lights” came to life, lighting the road from Mallon to Garland avenues, the first street in Spokane to be illuminated.

The reason for the 6,000-watt bulbs was simple and suggested in its nickname: Safety.

As the automobile slowly insinuated itself into nearly every facet of American life, Monroe was a preferred route. It had been a dozen years since Spokane United Railways, the predecessor to the Spokane Transit Authority, had swapped streetcars for buses on Monroe, and by 1946 an average of 14,500 vehicles a day used the road.

Leading up to the illumination, after-dark collisions on Monroe for the year’s first 10 months numbered 151. Eight of them involved pedestrians. One led to a fatality.

Mayor Arthur Meehan, Spokane police Chief Gerald Swartout and Washington State Patrol Capt. Francis Morgan, who attended the lighting ceremony, all agreed that the lights were necessary to increase traffic safety.

More than 70 years later, the work continues, as new research shows.

Governing magazine this month examined data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, showing that between 2010 and 2017, annual nighttime pedestrian and cyclist deaths climbed 46 percent in the U.S.

In 2017 alone, 4,440 pedestrians and 364 cyclists were killed after dark on American streets.

In Spokane County, from 2015 to 2017, there were 26 such fatalities – 15 after dark.

The article’s main conclusion was that motorists just aren’t seeing pedestrians after dark. The article gave a number of reasons why this could be happening; at the top of the list was distracted driving – in other words, your smartphone – and poorly designed pedestrian infrastructure.

The smartphone is an easily identifiable culprit and helps explain why auto-caused pedestrian and cyclist deaths jumped so much in such a short period of time, a time when smartphones suddenly became commonplace.

Beyond that, the data showed that most of these incidents happened away from intersections on stretches of roadway that lack crosswalks.

“In fact, places with high per capita rates of nighttime fatalities tend to be suburban, with roadways designed exclusively for cars,” the article read.

A recent analysis of crash data by The Spokesman-Review – as well as work done by city planners – came to a similar conclusion: pedestrians tended to be hit by cars in poorer areas, and specifically where roads are wider.

Which gets to another bit of research that came to light this month, by University of Illinois master’s student Michael Smith.

Smith’s research, which was reported by Streetsblog USA, found that pedestrians were more likely to “break the rules” where there’s little or limited infrastructure to support them, such as incomplete sidewalks, a lack of signalized crosswalks or no ramps for people with disabilities.

Pedestrians are “more likely engage in risky behavior – like walking or rolling in the street or crossing mid-block – when the pedestrian infrastructure is incomplete or lacking,” wrote Streetsblog reporter Angie Schmitt.

As Smith found, people changed their behavior to suit the conditions, which put them at risk. For his research, he observed State Street in Rockford, Illinois, where he saw people waiting for buses not at the bus stop, but at the nearest retail location.

“And then the moment a bus would come, you’d see a mid-block crossing, running across the street,” he told Streetsblog.

That’s something you would’ve seen not that long ago on North Monroe.

Last year, the street underwent a massive renovation, a project that shut the street for five months. Before, four narrow vehicle lanes ruled the mile-long stretch between Northwest Boulevard and the base of the North Hill. Monroe’s few crosswalks were poorly lit, and crossing the road was reminiscent of playing the classic Konami arcade game “Frogger.”

Now, four crosswalks with mid-street pedestrian refuge islands create a situation “Frogger” could only wish for.

From 2013 through 2018, there were 27 collisions between automobiles and pedestrians, two of which killed the walker, according to data from the Washington State Patrol.

One of these tragedies spurred the city to action.

In 2013, a mother and two children were crossing Monroe near Mansfield Avenue. It was about 6:30 p.m., the sun had been down less than an hour and they weren’t in a crosswalk. A station wagon hit them, killing the girl and hospitalizing the mother. The motorist, who stopped and cooperated with police, was not under the influence of alcohol or drugs, police said.

The following Monday, Spokane City Councilman Jon Snyder called on the city’s traffic and engineering staff to look at ways of improving safety on the Monroe corridor, leading to last year’s improvements.

And it’s working, said Marlene Feist, the city’s spokeswoman. People are walking more on Monroe, Feist said, “so there definitely is a perception of increased safety as a pedestrian.” She noted that this conclusion comes from what the city’s heard anecdotally, because the revamped Monroe hasn’t been open long enough for a good statistical comparison with its past.

She also pointed to other streets the city has transformed, in part, to increase pedestrian safety, such as East Sprague Avenue and East Sharp Avenue.

Snoqualmie’s most unsafe mile

There are 42 miles of road between the summit of Snoqualmie Pass and the Indian John Hill rest area near Cle Elum. Most days, about 20,000 vehicles surmount the pass, and on busy weekends, upwards of 50,000 do – numbers that have increased by 25 percent in the past five years and are projected to keep climbing.

In the winter, the number of collisions on the stretch are only outnumbered by the number of white knuckles gripping steering wheels.

Now, thanks to some number crunching by the Seattle-based Davis Law Group, we know exactly which of these 42 miles is the most dangerous: Milepost 53.

With more than 30 collisions a year, milepost 53 is the worst, so if you see unlucky number 53, keep your wits about you.

Speaking of mileposts

If you snicker when you see milepost 69 or 420, you’re part of the problem.

On U.S. Highway 195, the Washington State Department of Transportation has found a way to stop the giggling – and, more to the point, the robbery of road signs – with a decimal point.

According to an article in the Seattle Times, WSDOT has replaced an “oft-pilfered milepost marker ‘69’ – a number that also refers to a sex position – with one that reads ‘68.9.’ ”

“Depending on location and what was taken, we can replace the sign or, at times, leave one blank – so there would be a 419 and 421 mile-marker but not a 420,” said Beth Bousley, a WSDOT spokeswoman.

“In addition, we’ve created other signs – 419.9 and 68.9 – so they still give drivers location information without being a popular number to steal.”

If you’re still sniggering, know this: Washington state highways have about 8,245 mile-marker signs, and almost 200 are currently missing. Also, WSDOT has had to replace 608 signs since 2012, which cost up to $1,000 each.