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.

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Mapping the Interurban

In 1941, the last ferry and the last train ran on the NWP Interurban commuter line, and Marin was handed over to the battle of its life against the car-centric development unleashed by the Golden Gate Bridge. Marinites, unlike most of the country, won that battle, and we maintained the transit-oriented development passed down from the age of rail.

Most of us, though, don’t even know what it looked like, and the best thing we’ve got are grainy maps and schedules from the 1930s. That’s all well and good, but hides the structure and sinews of the system. The purpose of contemporary transit mapping is to combine not just where a system goes, but how and, to a lesser extent, when.

I’ve created two maps that do just that for the Interurban. The first is in an “old” style. Old printing techniques could only print two or three colors. Given that the Interurban shut down in 1941, I thought a map inspired by that era made sense.

One color does make it hard to tell apart individual lines. Click to enlarge.

The second map is the same thing, but in a “new” style. With contemporary printing techniques, we can do as many colors as we like. The advantage is that individual lines can be individually colored, snapping into focus what lines go where.

The colorful lines really make service stand out. Click to enlarge.

As you can see, it was quite a comprehensive system, at least for Central and Southern Marin. Northern Marin was served by intercity rail, more akin to Amtrak than BART, and was not part of the electric rail system highlighted here.

Mid-Week Links: Perfect Storm

San Francisco Bridge Before the Storm

Photo on flickr by Matt Muangsiri

A ludicrous amount of stuff is happening this week in the City. Though much of the week has already gone by, Fleet Week and America’s Cup, along with others and your regularly-scheduled weekend fun, are still to come.

So take transit and spare yourself the pain of hunting for parking (though if you do, download SFPark and get your passengers to tell you where to go). If you don’t live near a stop, use one of the park & rides. Golden Gate Transit has the rundown for its added service. Unfortunately, that won’t include Route 29 to Larkspur Landing, so you’ll have to bike, drive, or walk from Lucky Drive.

So for the sake of your sanity, your nerves, and the good people of San Francisco, leave the car in Marin.

Marin and Beyond

  • Regional transit service to and from Marin will be the subject of a new study funded by the Community Transportation Association of America. All transit options are on the table, but whether anything will come to fruition is another story. The study is to be completed by 2013. (News-Pointer)
  • If your home shares walls with another, you’ve got a year to quit smoking. San Rafael will ban smoking in attached homes like apartments, as well as on downtown sidewalks, starting next October. (Pacific Sun)
  • 75,000 square feet of downtown Tiburon has been sold to real estate investment firm for an undisclosed sum. The sale means the buildings will likely receive some long overdue renovations. (IJ)
  • The stink of rotting algae at Spinnaker Point in San Rafael has raised the ire of residents and BAAQMD, though nobody who can do anything about the problem wants to pay for it. (IJ)
  • San Anselmoans took back downtown from the car for last Sunday’s Country Fair Day, bringing out the young, the old, and the stormtroopers. (Patch)
  • Y’know that new train control system on Caltrain being paid for by High Speed Rail money? Yeah, it’s a gigantic waste of money and won’t do anything it’s supposed to do. Just like the last train control system. (Oakland Tribune, Systemic Failure)
  • Apparently, President Obama wants to keep freeways out of the suburbs. The position Marin took 40 years ago has reached the White House. Sadly, Congress has yet to get the memo. (Washington Post)
  • And…: San Rafael needs a new parking manager, and it seems there’s room for the office to do some reform. (City of San Rafael) … Forcing people to wear bicycle helmets is a sure way to harm bicycling and make everyone less healthy and every bicyclist less safe. (NYT) … The Ross Police Department faces dissolution if Measure D doesn’t pass.  (IJ)

The Toll

This week, Hailey Ratliff was struck and killed by a driver. Eight others were injured.

  • Dalton Baker, a high school student, critically injured himself when he was clotheslined while riding his bike in Healdsburg. He ran full-speed into a parking lot cable that he apparently didn’t see. He’s lost part of his liver and may lose both kidneys. (PD)
  • Two pedestrians crossing the road were injured by a hit-and-run driver in San Rafael. The driver rear-ended another car, which in turn struck the pedestrians. Police are searching for the culprit. (IJ)
  • A four-year-old was injured after a driver pulling out of a driveway bumped him in Mill Valley. It’s extremely important not to dismiss such incidents, as children are frequently killed this way. (IJ, Kids and Cars)
  • A woman whose tires disintegrated on the road lost control of her vehicle, crashing it and injuring herself in Novato. (Patch) … A woman crashed her car into a Petaluma fire hydrant, injuring herself and causing a geyser. (PD) … Two were injured when a driver wasn’t paying attention to the road and caused a three-car crash in Santa Rosa. (PD)

It’s Our Infrastructure that Kills Us

UK DOT statistics on vehicle/pedestrian collisions

When a car and a person collide, survival is all about speed. Almost everyone survives getting hit by a car going 20 miles per hour; at 30, survival is a bit better than a coin toss at 55 percent. Only 15 percent of people survive a crash at 40 miles per hour. Novato’s main roads are legally limited to 35 miles per hour but, given a comfortable five mile per hour margin, are effectively 40 mile per hour zones. In some places, the lanes are as wide as those on a freeway, giving the illusion of safety at 50 or 55. Novato is a dangerous place to be a pedestrian, and it’s dangerous by design.

Last Thursday, Hailey Ratliff was riding her bike home from her new middle school. A recent transplant to Marin, the seventh grader was settling in well, and it seemed like the move would be a success.

Elsewhere in the United States, the ability to ride a bike home from school is a rare privilege. Many new schools are built with only the car in mind, along wide roads that lack sidewalks, let alone crosswalks or bicycle lanes. Only 15% of American children walk or bike to school, down dramatically from even 20 years ago when half could get themselves to and from their classes.

As she was on her way home, someone else was driving into town on Novato Boulevard. As the road winds through rural Novato and West Marin, cars can speed along at 50 or 55 miles per hour, an easy five or 10 miles per hour above the posted speed limit but we typically concern ourselves with.

As the driver would have just started to slow down for the first stop sign that marks the entrance to Novato, Hailey somehow got in the driver’s path. The SUV struck her with such force it left Hailey’s helmet and shoes in the road and threw the bike back into a telephone pole.

The road where the two collided is actually wider than the rural road just before. Drivers respond to visual cues better than posted speed signs to determine a “safe” speed. We all know what it’s like to feel like we’re driving safely, only to be pulled over for speeding. The new tunnel for Doyle Drive is an example – its wide lanes and easy curves are at odds with the 35 MPH posted speed limit. Where Hailey was hit, the eastbound lane effectively widens to 15 feet as the paint delineating the shoulder is almost worn away. The center turn lane that suddenly appears makes passing cars feel like they aren’t going so fast, giving the illusion that it’s safe to drive even faster than before. Though the speed limit drops to 35 normally and 25 during school hours, that road is built for 50.

So while the collision between Hailey and that driver was probably the result of inattention by one or both of them, it was the speed that killed Hailey Ratliff, a speed that we normally shrug our shoulders about. It’s a speed that Novato encourages through roads designed for cars, not people. Hailey should be alive today, but the negligence and auto-oriented myopia of Novato’s planners made that road entirely unsafe. It’s our infrastructure that killed Hailey Ratliff, and it will keep on killing us until we say enough.