SEATTLE — Gan Hao Li rode a bike every day, sometimes two or three times. And every day, walking out the door, he would smile and wave at Marena Ostbo, the manager of Hirabayashi Place in Seattle’s Chinatown international district. Wednesday May 10 was no different.
“He stopped, smiled, said, ‘Good morning, enjoy the sun,’ and left,” Ostbo said.
Except this time, the 73-year-old Li didn’t come back. He was killed around 10:30 a.m. in Sodo when a Jeep driver pulled out of a parking lot at South Fourth Avenue and South Holgate Street and struck him, according to the Seattle Police Department. Li died of his injuries that same day. Police are still investigating.
“I’ve never met someone who was as genuinely kind as he was,” Ostbo said. “Seeing his wife in the last few days, I can only imagine. I can only imagine.”
Ten people have died on Seattle roads in 2022, according to the Seattle Department of Transportation, surpassing the number of deaths at this time last year and the year before. At least 59 people have been seriously injured.
Although fewer people die on the streets of Seattle than those of Portland or Austin, for example, the trends of the past two years have yet to reverse by 2022 and Seattle’s “Vision Zero” goal of zero road deaths remains. being maddeningly out of reach. Despite recent efforts, the combination of speed, larger vehicles and infrastructure that is not friendly to people outside of cars has meant deaths continue to rise.
“It’s really frustrating and devastating,” said Allison Schwartz, SDOT’s Vision Zero coordinator. “And that’s just for someone who reads the crash reports and is trying to make a dent in this issue with my team and with others in the department, you know? It’s hard to think about what the people closest to those who have died or pain are going through.
On the heels of one of the worst years for traffic fatalities in Seattle, and across the country, four pedestrians have been killed so far this year and Li is the second bicyclist. The first, Antonio Tiongco, was also struck in Holgate, just a block from Third Avenue South.
That the two bicyclist deaths occurred in the city’s main industrial district is no coincidence, said Clara Cantor, a community organizer with Seattle Neighborhood Greenways. Since at least 2004, there have been more serious injuries and fatalities there than in any other Seattle neighborhood, despite having fewer total collisions than downtown.
“It’s like every year there are people dying in Sodo because of how unsafe the streets are,” Cantor said. “Because it’s such an intense freight corridor, very little has been done there to improve the safety of people walking and biking.”
SDOT counted an average of 925 riders per weekday through the industrial district in 2020. As a busy stretch for commuters, especially since the closure of the West Seattle Bridge, and with a sizable homeless population, the mix of pedestrians , cyclists and large vehicles is always present. .
“One of the main issues is speed,” Schwartz said. He pointed out the area’s long blocks, wide streets, large vehicles and minimal crossings or protected bike lanes.
Several neighborhood projects are planned to improve safety. The federal government recently promised East Marginal Way $20 million to complete construction of a protected two-way bike lane between South Atlantic and South Spokane streets, in addition to other area improvements. Construction will begin later this year.
The city also promised a continuous bike lane from Georgetown to downtown along Airport Way South or Sixth Avenue South, although progress on the project stalled in 2020.
But Seattle City Councilwoman Tammy Morales, whose district includes the city’s industrial district as well as another deadly stretch, Rainier Avenue South, said she is growing frustrated with talk of improvements and wants more action.
“It seems clear that there are some roads in the city that are more dangerous, there are some parts of the city that haven’t been invested in enough and we have to take the safety of Seattleites seriously, and I don’t think we’re demonstrating a serious commitment to that,” he said. She called for a council hearing on traffic fatalities, which transportation chairman and councilman Alex Pedersen agreed to this summer.
Orbst, the manager of Hirabayashi Place, isn’t supposed to have favorite residents. But of Li, he said, “he was my favorite resident.” When she took the job last year, he was the first to welcome her. Immigrant Chinese, Li spoke little English, but the intention behind his mannerisms and gestures was quite clear.
“You can really feel the sadness in the building since he passed away,” he said. “It really is a tragedy.”
Linda Vonheim, the building manager until late last year, moved the Lises into the building when it first opened in 2017. She, too, called them her favorites. Walking out the door for his daily walks or evening walks with her wife, she greeted Vonheim with a cordial “Hello, manager!”
“He was just a great man, one of the pillars of our community in Hirabayashi,” she said. “If you needed help, he would be right there. He would never say no to anyone.”
Crystal Ng, who lives in Hirabayashi Place, said Li and his wife were the only two people who used the rooftop of their building, exercising and playing ping pong together almost every day. Ng speaks Chinese and often helped them communicate with other residents of the building.
“He would always ask me if I had eaten dinner yet and tell me he hadn’t seen me in a long time,” she said.
Ng did not hear the news of Li’s death right away, but he began to suspect that something was wrong. She didn’t see his bike in storage. As she watched the evening news, she saw the image of a “crushed” bicycle and realized that she recognized it.
“I had a feeling,” he said.
“He and his wife were just enjoying their retirement, growing old together,” Vonheim said through tears, “and now that has been taken away from him.”
It’s not just cyclists and pedestrians who want to see safer conditions in Sodo, said Erin Goodman, executive director of the Sodo Business Improvement Area. The people driving trucks there certainly don’t want to kill anyone, she said.
Goodman supports the completion of a bike lane through the neighborhood, all the way to Georgetown, in order to distinguish between routes for bikers and routes for drivers.
“I think people need to be able to bike around Sodo? Yes,” he said. “On every street? No. There have to be safe corridors.”
“This accident is a bit of a wake-up call that this area’s transportation system needs attention,” he added.
The lack of such infrastructure is, on the one hand, a result of Sodo’s role as a heavy-duty neighborhood, Cantor said. But it’s also indicative of underinvestment in South Seattle more broadly, which comes very close to the red-flagged areas of the past.
“Sodo and the whole of southeast Seattle have really suffered a lot because of racism and people dismiss that South Seattle needs to be safe to walk, bike and live in,” he said.
Morales echoed that point, saying reaching zero fatality goals will mean much more investment in capital projects.
“We have to fundamentally change the way we think about transportation in this city if we want to meet our Vision Zero goals,” he said.
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