San Rafael must get a handle on pedestrian deaths

A New York City intersection before and after treatment. Image from NYCDOT

A New York City intersection before and after treatment. Image from NYCDOT

Four people have suffered violent, brutal deaths in San Rafael in the past nine months. Each one was entirely preventable, each one caused by what should have been a simple mistake that happened to have been made in traffic.

Traffic is the leading preventable cause of death in the United States, and San Rafael’s wave of pedestrian deaths shows the city is not immune.

Rather than try to reinvent the wheel, San Rafael should take a page from cities that have adopted Vision Zero, a plan to cut annual pedestrian and bicycling deaths to zero, returning what is a too-routine fact of life into the shock that it really is.

If it does, it will follow the far-more congested cities of Chicago, and San Francisco, but especially New York.

New York’s pioneering transportation director, Jeanette Sadik-Khan, laid the groundwork during the last mayoral administration. Many of New York’s roads had overly complicated intersections or simple dead spaces of asphalt, which confused drivers and pedestrians alike, and she adopted a Keep It Simple approach to make these notorious streets safer.

Sadik-Khan directed her staff to clearly define pedestrian space, driver space, bicycle space and the areas where they need to share.

She expanded the use of the Leading Pedestrian Interval, which gives pedestrians a head-start on walk signs, and reconfigured intersections to allow for more direct pedestrian crossings.

Though the city’s drivers at first complained about a so-called “War on Cars,” the result was actually smoother-flowing traffic and — shockingly — faster drive times through Manhattan.

Safety, too, went up dramatically, with some intersections posting a 45 percent drop in injury crashes.

A report from her office summarizes the approach: “The fundamental characteristic of the successful projects is that they create the opportunity for drivers, pedestrians, and cyclists to move through the street network simply and easily, minimizing the unexpected, the confusing, and the potential for surprises.”

In other words, make the street easy to use by minimizing complexity and allowing people to go where they want to go.

Continue reading on Marin IJ.

Where do the PDA funds go now?

The future downtown station area will need some work. Image from City of San Rafael.

The future downtown station area will need some work. Image from City of San Rafael.

Now that the Civic Center Priority Development Area (PDA) has been rescinded, TAM is left with a bucket of PDA-designated cash and even fewer places put it. While Mayor Gary Phillips says downtown San Rafael’s PDA is a logical place to put it, none of the proposed projects in the area are at a stage where they need funding.

Part of the delay is due to San Rafael Public Works (DPW) Director Nader Mansourian’s reported insistence that any road alterations wait until after SMART starts service in 2016. As a result, anything that might disrupt a road’s or intersection’s capacity, or level of service (LOS) will have to wait until the needed capacity is known. That includes bike lanes, traffic lights, crosswalks, bus lanes, etc.

PDA funds must be dedicated to improving the transportation infrastructure within a PDA. While they can target projects outside of a PDA, the project must have a direct positive effect on transportation service within the PDA.

It’s up to the Council and staff to get a slate of needed improvements to the area, from the small to the large. Some possible proposals:

Study which projects in the Downtown Station Area Plan would and would not impact traffic. This is probably the most basic study that would need to be conducted, given that it will be three years before SMART runs and likely another year beyond that before traffic patterns start to emerge. This would give a slate of small projects that could be priced, studied, and built before the train.

Link traffic lights to the rail crossings, done in concert with SMART’s work on the rail crossings themselves. When trains start moving through downtown, they will need to coordinate with traffic flow By linking traffic lights to the crossings, San Rafael could prepare for the trains’ arrival today. The linkage will need to happen on Day One of train operations, and so cannot wait for traffic studies to even begin.

While they’re at it, link traffic lights to bus service. Buses currently crawl through downtown San Rafael, especially northbound trunk service like routes 71 and 101. By allowing traffic lights to sense approaching buses and turn green, a system called signal priority, San Rafael could improve speeds for all bus travelers and improve transit access to and through the downtown station area. While DPW will no doubt want a traffic study to find out precisely how the system should work after SMART, the study will only show how to tweak the system once SMART runs. Benefits could flow long before then.

Fix the Andersen Drive/SMART crossing. One of the principal barriers to getting SMART down to Larkspur is not the station or track but the at-grade intersection of SMART tracks and Andersen Drive. The angle of approach for the train is too shallow for state regulators and so will need to be fixed before the train can proceed south to the ferry terminal. Given that the problem was caused by San Rafael when they extended Andersen, it’s on San Rafael’s head to fix the $6 million problem.

Begin a comparison study of how people move through and shop in downtown. How do shoppers get to downtown? How many people move through downtown? This will give San Rafael planners a snapshot of how SMART and the Station Area Plan changes San Rafael and how to target improvements in the future.

The other pressing projects, even under-freeway parking garages (proposed by the Station Area Plan), will change traffic flow and so won’t pass Mansourian’s muster without a Council mandate. However, staff should draw up a decision tree and timetable for implementation of bike, parking, transit, and other traffic-impacting roadway improvements before SMART begins,

What else would be a good fit for TAM’s PDA-dedicated funds?

Note: I reached out to TAM to determine which of these projects are fundable with PDA money and which are not, but staff have been in a crunch time and haven’t been able to answer. I’ll post an update when they reply.

The case of the missing sidewalk

No sidewalk. Click for Google Maps.

No sidewalk. Click for Google Maps.

Recently, I was driving down Second Street on my way to Pacifica and I noticed something I’d never noticed before: a block without a sidewalk, in downtown San Rafael.

Of course, this isn’t really new, simply unnoticed. It’s a blindness, really, to the needs of pedestrians on a street that has gone from a place to stroll down to a long onramp, but those needs are quite real.

On Second, between Hayes and Shaver, neither side of the block has a sidewalk. It’s a very built-up area, and there are sidewalks on the blocks before and after on Second. It’s a bit like paving the whole length of a road except for one isolated block that stays gravel.

It looks as though this block was an oversight. The transit line ran through here from San Anselmo, and buildings were built to turn away from that line. There wouldn’t be a sidewalk here anymore than there would be one along a BART line. Once the tracks were torn up and it became a road, sidewalks were installed on a lot of the right of way, but not this bit.

Not that people don’t use it. You can see a dirt track where people walk. The only other option is a detour onto First but, as any driver would know, not many people will take a five minute detour to get around a 15 second bit of gravel. If you have a stroller or are in a wheelchair, however, forget it. It’s not just that the dirt track is dirt, it’s also really narrow. There’s a power pole right in the middle of it, which cuts the space down to about a foot or so. Nobody except an able-bodied person would be able to get around it.

We wouldn’t accept this kind of treatment to drivers, so why is it acceptable to pedestrians? This is the most basic infrastructure for the most basic form of transportation available in a place where we want people to walk in the first place: downtown. Nader Mansourian, as an engineer and as director of Public Works at San Rafael, should have fixed this a long time ago. Maybe Mayor Phillips can get the ball rolling.

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