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Thursday, February 19, 2009

Guest Commentary: Addressing Safety Concerns and Design Changes to Fifth St Corridor

by Steve Tracy

image by Maren Walker, Landscape Architecture student, UC Davis

This past Tuesday evening the City Council considered changes to the design of the 5th/Russell corridor, between A and L Streets. Opportunities to put missing bike lanes on the street and deal with ongoing safety issues have been missed in the past. We hope this time the community can learn from the experience in other similar situations, set aside fear and emotion, and support a decision to create a safer street that will serve everyone better.

In February of 2005, the timing of the traffic signals was modified at the intersections where F and G Streets meet 5th Street. The new timing, called “split-phase” in traffic engineer vernacular, allows only one direction of traffic on 5th Street (eastbound or westbound) to flow at a time.

Now left turns off of 5th Street at those intersections are “protected” because oncoming traffic is stopped with a red light. This eliminated many dangerous broadside accidents at the F Street and G Street intersections. The Public Works Department should be applauded for addressing a serious problem created when drivers rushed into unsafe left turns against oncoming traffic.

However, the changes fixed only part of the safety problem on the 5th Street corridor. The new signal timing brought on an additional 30 seconds of delay for most drivers using the corridor, which has led to other hazards.

For example, in the average rush hour, only one car a minute turns left from eastbound 5th Street to northbound F Street. The new signal timing imposes a 30 second delay on drivers westbound on 5th, all for the safety of that one driver. Avoiding that delay has drivers making unsafe turns into the residential neighborhoods north and east of downtown to avoid the signals at F and G. These neighborhoods now see much more speeding by impatient drivers, and traffic volumes on alternative routes have increased.

In the four years since the split phase signals were installed, accidents have continued or worsened, especially at the unsignalized intersections in the corridor. This is the record from March of 2005 through the end of 2008 for the entire corridor, A Street to L Street:

109 accidents total
19 pedestrians or bicyclists hit by cars
63 personal injuries requiring treatment

With the current financial crisis threatening City services, we have a situation where 10% of all traffic related calls made by the Police and Fire Departments on streets in the entire City occur on 10 short blocks of a single street.

A recent AAA study reveals that the cost to individuals and society of a single injury in an automobile accident averages $70,000. So in less than 4 years we have run up a 4 million tab on 5th Street. Please, it’s past time to correct this situation.

The best solution also happens to be the cheapest:

It is shown in the graphic above. It’s commonly called a “road diet.” This sounds like a bad term, because we usually don’t like diets, but this one leads to a healthy street. This design technique has been used in literally hundreds of similar situations across the country. Yes, there was initial opposition in many cases, but the results speak for themselves. We are aware of only two cases where the design was completely or partially undone. In fact, many cities went on from their first trial road diet to redo other streets. It works.

This design merges the two center lanes into a single lane for left turns. In time, portions of this lane can be landscaped to beautify the street. We gain a lot of flexibility by merging the left turn lanes: It provides the room to paint in the missing bike lanes. It provides for faster through travel because demand activated left turn arrows can be installed. This all fits between the existing curbs on 5th Street. It requires only paint, and some new traffic lights at F and G. The existing lights can be reused elsewhere.

Between A and B Streets, the only change would be to restripe the vehicle lanes to remove excess width, and stripe in bike lanes. Again, this all fits between the curbs. Almost 50% of the traffic coming east from UCD in the evening rush hour turns off of Russell at B, so this is the logical place to drop the extra lane which isn’t needed beyond that point.

Other communities engaged in road diet projects to address safety issues, with great results. Accident reductions often have been at or over 50%. The severity of crashes and injuries has seen an even more dramatic reduction, because vehicle speeds are lower, set by the prudent drivers at the head of the lines. Aggressive speeding is virtually eliminated. More information and examples are available at the Old North Davis website.

(Click on the top right to expand and view the full PowerPoint presentation)

Fifth Street Project

Arguments that have been made against fixing 5th Street:

We need 4 lanes to carry the car traffic—That is not what the model conducted in 2005 showed. In fact, it revealed that travel times in the corridor between A and L Streets will in fact go DOWN as through traffic flow is better organized in a single lane. That is why so many other cities that have removed lanes from 4 lane streets have seen traffic volumes go UP after the street was fixed. These reworked streets often carry 50% more traffic than 5th Street does. It seems counter to logic, but here is why it works: We do not really have a 4 lane street on 5th between B and L at this time—we have a 2 lane street with 2 left turn lanes. Many drivers make left turns at the frequent cross street intersections. While waiting for a gap in through traffic, they sit in the middle lane and block the cars behind them. Stopped buses (70 a day on this section of 5th), bicyclists, and cars slowing down for right turns also impede traffic flow in the lanes next to the curbs. Aggressive speeders slalom through these obstacles, threatening every user of 5th Street.

We need a 4 lane street for trucks to get in and out of downtown—This simply is not true. The only 4 lane truck access to downtown requires trucks from Sacramento to go completely around Davis on I-80 and Hwy 113, then come in from the west on Russell Blvd. No many do that. Even then, they must negotiate 2 lane streets all through downtown, as delivery truck drivers have successfully done for years. All other truck route access to downtown, from Richards Blvd., B Street, L Street, 1st Street, and 2nd Street is on two-lane streets.

Fire trucks will not be able to get down 5th Street—In fact, emergency responders will have it easier. The bike lane will be available for the single lane of cars to pull into, clearing the way. This is quicker and safer than two lanes of vehicles trying to merge into a single line.

There will be long lines backed up at the traffic signals—Again, this is simply not true. Restoring conventional signal operations at F and G Streets will eliminate 30 seconds of delay. Currently, a driver caught at a red light must wait out green lights for two other traffic streams. That wait will be cut in half, and so will the number of vehicles joining the line at the red light. The single line will be the same length as the current double line.

Bicyclists need to ride somewhere else—This is not consistent with federal, state, or City of Davis policy. As we struggle to reduce global warming, all levels of government must promote clean transportation technologies. A recent Complete Streets directive from Caltrans headquarters (DD-64-R1) states “Therefore, the Department and local agencies have the duty to provide for the safety and mobility needs of all who have legal access to the transportation system.” The Davis General Plan “Primary Bicycle Network” map shows bike lanes on 5th Street between A and L Streets. Let’s get them painted, to accommodate the hordes of cyclists now riding in the gutter, in the lanes, and both directions on the sidewalks.

Pedestrians need to go to the signals to cross—This is unfair, and also unsafe because of the heavy traffic volumes at those intersections and all the cars turning across the crosswalks. It takes over 5 minutes for a pedestrian who wishes to cross 5th Street at J Street or D Street to detour to the nearest traffic signal and then walk back to their route, gaining only 50 feet on their trip in the process. Why expect this of people on foot, when the redesign will reduce delay for the people sitting in air conditioned comfort in their cars?

Only the selfish people in Old North Davis want this—At the City Council hearings on this issue, 3 dozen people from all over Davis spoke up in support of the redesign. They talked about the chaotic street that makes them not want to drive downtown to shop, about the automobile accidents they had been in, and how hostile the street is for them on bicycles. Yes, we in Old North want 5th Street fixed. We are shocked that the business owners are so entrenched in their opposition, in spite of all the evidence that this design works. We are their best customers. Many of us are downtown every day spending money. We don’t clog up the streets, and we don’t take up parking spaces. We just want to get there safely.

It will never work in Davis—It already does. We don’t have to look any farther than B Street. Between 1st and 5th Streets, B Street carries almost exactly the same number of vehicles daily, and more bicyclists. These are the same drivers, in the same town, on a street that is the same width between the curbs. It has a single lane in each direction, a shared left turn lane, and bike lanes. Just like the design for 5th Street that is in the General Plan.

There were 30 accidents on the 4,000 feet of 5th/Russell between A and L Streets in 2008, 8 of them involving bicyclists or pedestrians. In contrast, the 2,000 feet of B Street between 1st and 5th Streets had only 6, one involving a bicyclist. This is the safety improvement we can expect on 5th Street with the proper design.

As we stated at the top of this essay, our Public Works Department has demonstrated in the past that safety is their priority. The solution to the safety issues on 5th Street is right before us. It’s time.
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