Optical illusions on Fourth Street

While working on a piece about bike lanes, I stumbled across something odd that says a lot about how the built environment influences perceptions.

Downtown San Rafael. Image from Google Maps.

Downtown San Rafael. Image from Google Maps.

A pet peeve of mine for years has been Fourth Street through West End in San Rafael. The neighborhood has struggled for years under the shadow of downtown, hidden just over a short hill, and street width is part of the reason I rarely spend time there. It just doesn’t feel cozy like downtown. Downtown is above this paragraph, West End is below.

San Rafael's West End

San Rafael’s West End

So when I got back street width data from city hall, I made a double take. Fourth Street through West End, which runs from H to E streets, was actually narrower than the rest of Fourth all the way to its end at Union, by up to 10 feet: 40 feet vs. 50 feet.

So why does it feel so much wider? Look again at the two pictures and you’ll see some stark differences. In downtown, the trees are older, the street parking is a bit fuller, and the buildings on both sides of the street cozy right up to the sidewalk. In West End, the buildings only cozy up to the sidewalk on one side of the street, with parking lots and show leading way back to squat buildings on the other side.

Those parking lots make the street appear significantly wider than it actually is, creating an optical illusion. I can’t think of a better example of how walkable development influences our sense of place better than this.

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An entirely preventable death in San Rafael

The place of the crash. Image from Google Streetview.

The place of the crash. Image from Google Streetview.

Someone lost a daughter last week. Olga Rodriguez was killed by a driver while crossing the street in downtown San Rafael. Though her unnamed walking companion survived, he’s in the hospital with serious injuries. The driver, who stayed on the scene and is cooperating fully with police, only stopped after he heard them being hit. According to him, he never saw them.

The driver was turning left from Third Street to Heatherton. From photos, it appears that he was in the inner left-turn lane where it would be harder to see anyone in the crosswalk. The truck is also quite tall, so it’s entirely possible he never did see either Olga or her companion. That’s a sign the intersection is broken, and the crash was likely preventable.

The fix is fairly straightforward: give pedestrians a head start when crossing (something known as a Leading Pedestrian Interval, or LPI). After the light on Heatherton turns red to southbound traffic, pedestrians crossing Heatherton would get a walk sign but Third Street would stay red. Three or four seconds later, Third Street would turn green.

Whether or not the truck driver could have seen Olga or her companion before he hit them, they would have been much harder to miss had they had a short head start. As well, rather than trust drivers to give pedestrians priority, the structure of the intersection gives priority to pedestrians instead.

The LPI isn’t just window dressing. A study by Michael King in New York City found that a pedestrian head start leads to a 12 percent reduction in crashes over the baseline or 28 percent reduction compared to unmodified intersections, which saw crashes increase by 17 percent over the course of the study. While crashes did still occur, their severity occurred declined 55 percent overall and 68 percent in comparison to unmodified intersections.*

A flashing yellow arrow would make things even more apparent. Research on yellow arrows in this situation is scant, but in situations with two-way traffic they make drivers exceptionally aware of oncoming traffic. This is precisely the kind of awareness drivers need while navigating an awkward and busy intersection like Third and Heatherton. A zebra-striped crosswalk would further raise the visibility of people crossing.

Though these kinds of changes require advanced signal hardware, it needs to be purchased anyway to tie SMART in to area’s traffic signals. It would simply be part of that purchase.

The ubiquitous pedestrian barrier is often the tool of choice for San Rafael’s public works department, but deploying it here would just give up on the intersection. It’s a vital connection to the Transit Center for commuters at the park and ride and anyone coming from east San Rafael. The area can get sketchy at night, and discouraging legitimate foot traffic will only make it sketchier. Nobody should ever fear for their lives while crossing the street, especially not in an area that’s supposed to be the heart of the county’s transit system.

We cannot erase the physical scars of Olga’s companion. We cannot bring back Olga or wash her blood from the conscience of the driver who killed her. But we can honor the companion’s wounds and Olga’s death and make sure this never happens again.

* New York State assigns numerical values to crashes based on cost to society. Collisions with fatalities were multiplied by 2729, those whose victims were hospitalized and seriously injured were multiplied by 1214, those whose victims were hospitalized but not seriously injured were multiplied by 303, and those whose victims were injured but walked away were multiplied by 76. The total was then divided by the number of crashes.

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.

What’s the deal with San Rafael’s one-way streets?

One Way

by Matt Peoples, on Flickr

Downtown San Rafael must serve a dual purpose. On the one hand, it is the walkable urban core of Marin, a major center of retail, culture, religion, and office space. On the other hand, it is the gateway between Ross Valley and Highway 101, and it has turned two of its five east-west streets (Second and Third) into high-speed, one-way arterials for that purpose.

Though these streets are repellent to pedestrians and, therefore, retail, the one-way travel conversion allows speedy and efficient access to the freeway, so at least they function well as glorified on/off ramps.

So why are B, C, and D streets, which run north-south, one-way, too?

Stockton City Limits wrote about Stockton’s one-ways and offered up Jeff Speck’s rationale for converting back to two-ways:

One-ways harm downtown in several ways: First, as one-way streets are designed to get cars to their destination as fast as possible, increased automobile speeds create a more dangerous and uninviting environment for pedestrians. Second, one-way streets distribute traffic unevenly, negatively impacting surrounding commercial activity. Businesses along one-ways suffer from a lack of visibility as drivers can quickly speed by without even noticing that a business is there, or only drive by once a day, either on their way into work or on the way back home.

That last point – that businesses suffer – is especially true for businesses whose storefronts face away from oncoming traffic.

Now, Second and Third, unpleasant though they are, at least serve their (too-limited) purpose well. Traffic is heavy to and from Highway 101 along those routes. Folks who remember the one-way conversion some 40 years ago recall those roads as congested when they were two-way.

But the lettered streets are all pain with no gain. There’s no improvement to traffic flow because there is almost no traffic flow to improve. In the meantime, all they do is hurt business, confuse visitors, and provide a raison d’être to the ugliest Do Not Enter sign in the city.