Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Road diets: safety vs moving cars faster

I've talked about road diets a few times in this blog, most recently when I attended a meeting held by a councilman in Fresno concerning a proposed diet in his district. He wanted to give residents the opportunity to express their concerns about taking a 4 lane road (+undefined parking space) into a 3 lane road, 1 each way, and 1 for turning, and a couple of bike lanes.

Today I got to see a real world example of the enormous safety benefits a road diet provides....or really, the consequences of keeping the dangerous road design of the past.

This is Villa avenue in Clovis. On the right, a popular recreational park which includes a large regionally-important skatepark. On the left, a medium-high density residential area, filled with apartments. As you can see, there are no bike lanes, and there are no crosswalks, even though a majority of the teenagers which patronize the skatepark arrive on foot or on bike.

The speed limit is 40mph.

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I'm not going to talk about that right now.

I'm going to focus on the one and only concern brought up during the road diet meeting in Fresno:

Traffic. Car traffic.

You see, Villa in Clovis is very similar to Gettysburg. They're both of similar, if not equal width. They're both signed at 40mph or 45mph, depending on the specific block, and they both are residential and recreational access routes.

During the Fresno meeting, the number one concern was possible congestion that would emerge if the road diet took place.

Indeed, even the traffic engineer sent by Fresno to promote the diet made it abundantly clear that he would never (NEVER!) consider a road diet on a high traffic road, because moving traffic was of the utmost importance.

But what about safety?

In his words, road diets would only ever be attempted in places with little traffic, where the safety benefits could be enjoyed without risk of anyone having to slow down.

The engineer and the councilman spoke a lot about the real-world safety benefits of a road diet. Even though the meeting was sort of about bike-lanes (it was bike money funding the diet) 90% of the conversation was about the benefits to motorists. This wasn't exactly a bad angle...it appeared to me that many of those in attendance came to the meeting ignorant about road diets and left convinced that they do include real-world safety benefits.

But here's what troubles me....ff there are more cars (and those pesky people inside) using a road, shouldn't it be even more important to push an important safety redesign...?

That is, according to the engineer, there is some cutoff, something like 20,000 cars per day, in which a road diet is "appropriate". But if a road has 27,000 cars per day, isn't that a much higher safety priority? Shouldn't we spend money protecting as many people as possible?

It just does not make sense that safety is only available for low traffic roads. Especially because the more traffic, the more dangerous roads like Villa become.

So what prompted this post?

This was taken at around 6pm tonight, in the area shown above:

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What happened? I'm not 100% sure, but what I believe happened is that traffic was moving at ~40mph, and a driver in the left lane came to a full stop to make a legal left turn into a small side street. Because the area is full of apartments, I'd assume this is a someone common maneuver.

But this is dangerous.

It was night, so the side street is not very visible, both to the person attempting the turn, and drivers behind him who have no expectation that a turn will be made.

Brake lights obviously indicate a decrease in speed, but unfortunately, they do not indicate how quickly the driver is stopping. Someone could tap on the brakes to begin slowing down for the traffic light 1/4 of a mile away....or slamming on the brakes to make the left turn they were looking for but hadn't seen because side-streets are sometimes difficult to spot, especially if there is heavy oncoming traffic with blinding lights. The driver behind this person doesn't know which is happening.

And here's the kicker:

Because Villa is a high traffic street, higher then may be that threshold for a road diet, it becomes much harder to make a left turn, because there are less gaps in traffic. Also, vehicles are more likely to be bunched up.

AKA: the perfect recipe for a rear-end collision like this one.

So the busier the road, and the less likely the possibility of a road diet....the more likely a dangerous collision.

That doesn't make sense.

If there had been a road diet here, the driver turning left would have maneuvered out of the way of traffic into a turning lane, where he could safely wait as long as possible to make the left turn. He could have done so in advance of the street, giving him time to find where exactly the turn must be made. Other drivers would not have needed to worry about someone suddenly coming to a full stop on a 40mph road.

And as a bonus, there would be bike lanes, in an area that seriously needs them, and also safer places for pedestrians to cross. But clearly, that's not a priority, even in a very dense residential area.

In case you were wondering, this is what the block looks like.
Green: Letterman park.
On the right, you can see the dense development of apartments.
Blue: The only two marked crosswalks, exactly 1/2 a mile apart.
Red: Various roads and apartment access points where pedestrians would seek to cross to the park. While crossing is legal, it is not safe. There is no signal, crosswalk, refugee etc, and street lighting is poor.
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The accident happened just north of 9th St. Fortunately, the driver of the pictured vehicle received only superficial injuries (airbag and seat belt pains + neck), and the occupants of the vehicle that was rear-ended appeared to be fine.

And as of 2:30am the next morning. 9 hours later, I can find no documentation of this collision online in the media. Just another car accident, not worthy of even a news blurb. Maybe one day, at a community meeting, it will appear as a statistic, but except for those who slowly drove by, it's almost like it never happened.

But it will happen again. Are the speeding needs of motorists always more important than making their commute safer? Personally, I wouldn't mind adding 15, 30, 45...even more seconds to my drive if it meant I wouldn't find myself in a collision like this. With the exception of traffic engineers, how many people would not be comfortable with such a tradeoff? It just seems like common sense.

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