How to Make Safe Novato Streets

If last month’s tragedy taught Novato anything, it’s that residents need to take road safety as seriously as they do housing elements. Lives, not just town character or property values, can hang on things we hardly ever think about. Where should the first stop sign be when we enter Novato? What about this road makes the speed limit seem so low? There are easy ways to reform Novato’s streets to be safer for drivers, bikers, and pedestrians, but they only take us so far. Going further would require Novato to rethink the fundamental purpose of its roads. But let’s start easy.

The Gateways

The points of greatest danger are the approaches into the city, where people transition from highway to city driving. In these areas, speeds officially fall from 45+ miles per hour down to 25 or 35, though roadway design and culture tack on another 5-10 miles per hour.

To bring people from highway mode and into city mode, Novato has employed stop signs and stop lights, but these are insufficient. Coverage of the Ratliff crash included quotes from people grousing about high vehicle speeds where she was killed, yet the only indication of a falling speed limit was the speed limit sign. Everything else about the road screamed at the driver, “It’s safe to drive fast here.”

European cities use a combination of special road paint, stop signs, and roundabouts to calm traffic and get drivers into urban driving mode. Roundabouts would be a bit much for a conservative city like Novato, but paint and stop signs certainly aren’t.

This design slowed cars by 5-10 miles per hour. Image from University of Naples.

Different shoulder paint tells drivers that a change is coming, while a stop sign would clearly delineate where the change actually is. The key is to get drivers out of what is essentially an automatic driving mode and into a more attentive mode. On a rural road or Highway 101, one never expects things to jump out in front of the car. The road, through paint and a stop sign, will alert drivers to this change, making them more attentive to the increased complexity of city driving.

The Arterials

Novato’s streets are themselves unsafe. At a typical driving speed of 40 miles per hour, pedestrians hit have a very low chance of survival. At the same time, the streets can have lanes as wide as those on a freeway (about 12 feet), putting drivers back into a highway mode. These arterial roads should be redesigned for safety. Above all, that means narrowing lanes to 10 feet in a process called a lane diet.

Unlike a road diet, which removes lanes to provide space for a center turn lane or a median, a lane diet just narrows the existing lanes and gives the excess space over to parking, biking or sidewalks. Novato roads already have center turn lanes, medians, and parking.  It’s hard to imagine using 28 feet (two lanes plus narrowing existing lanes) for anything useful without land accompanying land-use reforms.

But four 10-foot lanes with a center turn lane would do plenty of good for street safety. Lane diets reduce crash rates, sometimes as much as 43%. Vehicle speeds, too, are reduced by road diets and lane diets, meaning those crashes that do occur are less likely to be serious. The fact that street capacity would remain essentially unchanged is an added political bonus. Introducing lane diets to Novato arterials would make them objectively better roads.

The Bike Lanes

A cycletrack in Portland, OR. Image from NACTO.

We still need to deal with 8 feet of extra road width on our dieted streets. Rather than using it on sidewalks, Novato should convert its class II bicycle lanes to class I cycle tracks.

Cycle tracks are fully separated bicycle paths that have buffers or barriers between them and the automobile traffic and are best suited for roads with high traffic volume or high vehicle speeds, i.e., arterial roads.

NACTO’s bicycle lane guide recommends cycle tracks widths of at least five feet with a three foot buffer. If we combine the width removed from our road lane diets with the width of existing class II bike lanes, there is enough space for a cycle track going in either direction. This improvement would increase safety for bicyclists by getting them away from car traffic without banishing them from the street entirely, increase safety for pedestrians by putting space between them and traffic, and increase bicycling by providing infrastructure appropriate to the road.

Costs are relatively minimal, at least compared to what we spend on road infrastructure. Cycle tracks typically range from about $100,000 to $165,000 per mile. For about $3.35 million, Novato could install cycle tracks on every arterial street in the city; it could do every rural arterial for about $970,000 more. Considering that we’re spending 270 times that on highway expansion, it might be worth more attention from TAM and city hall.

Such an expansive investment in bicycling in Novato would be transformative. While transit and walking aren’t terribly efficient modes of transportation through most of Novato, the bicycle is. If the city provided the infrastructure for in-city trips, it would cut down on traffic and improve the health and quality of life any resident that can ride. At least one study found that cycle tracks increase bicycling by 250% and that in turn increases safety for all road users, from driver to pedestrian, by making drivers more aware of vulnerable users and calming traffic.

Last week’s post exhorted Novato to stand and say enough: enough death, enough apathy. Rather than leave it up to the process, Novatans should tell the council to fix gateways roads, shrink lanes, and invest in bicycle infrastructure that fits the needs of the road. It’s not an issue of road capacity, for it would hardly change. It’s an issue of political will on the part of Novato’s councilmembers, city staff, and residents. They have the power to make safe their city’s streets. Or they could call deaths on their streets inevitable and do nothing at all.

About David Edmondson
A native Marinite working in Washington, DC, I am fascinated by how one might apply smart-growth and urbanist thinking to the low-density towns of my home.

9 Responses to How to Make Safe Novato Streets

  1. Pingback: Today’s Headlines | Streetsblog San Francisco

  2. dw shelf says:

    An earlier post established that _any_ effective arterial street speed is likely to be fatal to a bicyclist, particularly in a head on collision.

    Slowing cars from 50 to 40 is not an answer.

    Slowing them from 40 to 25 might be, but at a huge cost in terms of lost economic activity. We need to get people though these ares to where they are going.

    The best we can do is to create bicycle physical separation.

    When we can’t afford that, we need to disallow children from riding bicycles on arterial streets.

  3. dw shelf says:

    ^^Costs are relatively minimal, at least compared to what we spend on road infrastructure.

    This is bogus on two counts.

    1. Most (but far from all) road infrastructure underlies economic activity, and thus is an investment expected to be returned to the community in monetary terms. Bicycles also return money to the community, but at perhaps 1% the rate of automobile traffic. Just count the number of bicycle trips vs car trips on that street, and the observed ratio will give a rough answer.

    2. The suggestion to delay automobile traffic in favor of bicycle traffic (assign a car lane to bicycles) is effectively a tax on the majority of productive people, with virtually all the benefit going to that small minority who is willing, able, and situated to use a bicycle.

    • Leaving aside the economic argument for a moment, I’m not proposing removing any lanes for cycle tracks. The existing road width is too wide and can be narrowed enough for cycle tracks without reducing road throughput. As I said, taking short trips out of the car and onto a bike would actually increase throughput for the kind of trips that can’t be done on a bike, which is what I assume you’re thinking of when you say “economic activity”. In the process, those bikers will save the money they would’ve spent driving their car all over town.

      So for $3.35 million, you get a) a safer road, and b) a more efficient road with greater overall throughput and capacity. If cars are the economic drivers as you claim, then we’re essentially widening the road by narrowing it. Win-win.

  4. dw shelf says:

    ^^ If cars are the economic drivers as you claim, then we’re essentially widening the road by narrowing it.

    Traffic is the economy in action, generating wealth. It doesn’t matter if the traffic is car, bike, or pedestrian. Loaded trucks are hugely important. Planes and buses are important too.

    Key to bicycle safety is actual physical separation from high speed automobile traffic. If this can be done without restricting automobile traffic, and at a cost justified by the usage level, then indeed, it would be the win/win you describe.

    That result would be highly unusual, both on having the roadway space available, and having a justified cost.

  5. dw shelf says:

    The other thing to consider is the effect on parking. The “cycle track” as depicted in that Portland scene typically eliminates parking, if it doesn’t eliminate traffic.

    Elimination of parking frequently has an even worse economic effect on the economy than reducing traffic, because the trips are eliminated due to parking hassles.

    • You misunderstand what I’m proposing. A typical section of Novato Boulevard is about 81 feet wide. I propose reallocating the space as follows:

      40 feet for four travel lanes
      9 feet for a center turn lane
      16 feet for two parking lanes
      16 feet for two cycle tracks between the parking and the sidewalk

      I chose the Portland picture because it has parking between the track and car traffic. If parking is eliminated, that should be okay. Though a real parking survey would be needed, in travelling around Novato I can’t say I see street parking anywhere near capacity. Most places are required by law to have more than enough on the premises, relegating street parking to overflow.

  6. Fix'n to die rag says:

    As a escapee from Marin County, that law or for the other drivers. One of my all time favorites, a car coming from the opposite direction on Los Ranchitos Road, was slowing down for a yellow (in that part the world it seem to be a rare thing), the driver behind him didn’t want to stop, and he had a simple solution, for that, he pass in a left hand only lane at North San Padro Road, before running the red light. So it really comes down to your own moral conviction about the way you drive.

  7. Cheryl Longinotti says:

    DW says: “Bicycles also return money to the community, but at perhaps 1% the rate of automobile traffic. Just count the number of bicycle trips vs car trips on that street, and the observed ratio will give a rough answer.”
    The 1% figure is purely anecdotal and not representative of the true economic benefits of bicycle and pedestrian friendly infrastructure documented in the following:

    Click to access goodforbusinessfinal_nov.pdf
    More and more people are bicycling. With better infrastructure, those who are reluctant to bicycle because of safety concerns will convert some trips made by car to bicycling.
    To draw a conclusion from current bicycle mode share is like looking at the rate of cell phone usage in the 1980’s and concluding that investment in cellular communications had a poor outlook.

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