This week, we're sharing stories from Strong Towns members who will be speaking at our transportation summit in Tulsa, OK beginning on Thursday, March 30. Paul Fritz, along with his friends and colleagues Dave Alden and Mitch Connor, are leading a workshop entitled "Building Citizen Organizations to Reintegrate Commuter Rail into Communities." Their workshop will share insights about how to organize your community to promote beneficial, financially sound rail initiatives as an alternative to car-centric cities. Today's article by Paul Fritz is a repost from his blog, Small Town Urbanism. It takes a deep dive into a local street in his town of Sebastopol, CA and considers how it could be better designed to prioritize pedestrian safety—not just car traffic— as well as economic productivity.
And if you're interested in reading more from Paul, take a look at his hilarious and brilliant blog post about "Slow Down Cat," Sebastopol's own, larger than life, traffic calming kitty.
As someone who moves through town primarily on my own two feet I am constantly aware of how our public infrastructure is completely geared toward the automobile. Main Street feels as if it were designed to move cars through town as quickly as possible at the expense of any other user of the public right-of-way. To their credit, the city has been installing new crosswalks to help increase pedestrian visibility on the primary routes that cross our town, which include five along the roughly 1.5 mile length of Main Street. Generally, I think these have been successful in increasing pedestrian safety. But we still have a long way to go before we have a balanced system.
I’ve previously discussed the current design of Main Street here and here. The amount of space devoted to users other than the automobile in Sebastopol is limited to the sidewalks, which are rather narrow, particularly when compared to the SUPER-wide car lanes (lanes are 17′, even 18′ wide in some locations! This is a relic of a time when a train traveled down the center of Main St.) Main Street and Petaluma Avenue currently operate as one-way couplets through downtown. Petaluma Avenue has been designed for two lanes of one-way northbound traffic and Main Street has 2-3 lanes of one-way southbound traffic.
What's wrong with these streets?
The half mile stretch of Main Street from the traffic light at Bodega to the re-joining of the couplet roads feels like a racetrack. Drivers wait for the green light at Bodega Avenue and then they are off. The first block has three lanes of southbound traffic, 13′, 12.5′ and 13′ in width, with 8′ wide parking lanes on either side. So at Burnett Street, the first intersection to the south, there is 54.5′ from curb to curb for a pedestrian to cross. After this intersection, the left lane tapers out eventually leaving two 17′ wide travel lanes with 8′ wide parking lanes on either side.
The posted speed limit on Main Street is 25 mph, but realistically the design speed is much, much higher. While the lane widths would allow driving at 55 mph, or faster, the parallel parking and proximity of buildings on either side of the street discourage it a bit, but people definitely speed frequently. And who could blame them? The majority of indications from the motorist perspective are that you should drive fast after you get through that light. There are four of the improved crosswalks with flashing lights as you move through the first half mile before the left lane directs you back to Petaluma Avenue and only the right lane continues southbound. (This feature also encourages speeding as those drivers in the left lane that want to continue south need to merge back into the right lane within a half mile. And speed they do.)
I live a block west of Main Street, so frequently walk this section of road and have seen firsthand how it is designed to move cars through as quickly as possible with little regard for the pedestrian. The intersection at Burnett, which has a high volume of pedestrians crossing, has had no improvements made for the pedestrian. It’s simply a crosswalk.
On a recent crossing of this intersection there was a rather large pick-up parked in the closest parallel parking space to the corner. I cautiously stepped off the curb and peered around the truck to view oncoming traffic. The traffic light had just turned green. Several cars sped past. The fourth or fifth car in the closest lane stopped for me. I stepped into the travel lane in front of the first stopped car. The first two cars in the next lane sped past at speeds definitely exceeding the 25 mph posted limit. Another car passed in that lane and I began waving my arms wildly, which the next car responded to by stopping for me. I was able to get across this lane and the next without further incident, but the experience was very threatening as a pedestrian.
How to make our streets safer
I’ve been thinking a lot about how to make this intersection safer. An obvious first step would be to install bulb-outs at the intersection. This would allow pedestrians to make themselves visible before stepping off the curb and into the travel lane and it would allow for a shorter crossing distance. But I don’t believe this one design change would be enough. Installing the flashing lights, both in the street and on lamp posts similar to other new crossings would also help. But I’ve used these crosswalks plenty of times and had similar experiences when cars blithely ignore the flashing lights. I think the best way to reduce the urge to speed is to narrow the driving lanes to a width that would encourage drivers to stay within the 25 mph speed limit, or better yet 15 or 20 mph. This would feel much safer from a pedestrian perspective.
A possible solution is inspired by a proposal from Cleveland I read about recently (read about it on Streetsblog). The idea proposed in Cleveland is to create separated bike lanes in the center of the street on streets where streetcars once ran. In Cleveland, and many other places, the streetcar tracks have long been paved over resulting in extra-wide streets. Main Street Sebastopol has a similar history in that a train track, for both passenger and freight trains, once ran down the center of Main Street. It was paved over, I believe in the ’70’s, with the same result: an extra-wide street for cars only.
I am an advocate for returning Main Street to two-way traffic with a protected center bike lane. Something like this.
There would be a landscaped protected bike path in the middle of Main Street with a single travel lane and parking lane on either side. The benefit to pedestrians is that there is now a pedestrian refuge area in the center of the street and you only have to cross one travel lane at a time. Given the current width of Main Street, providing an 8′ parking lane, 11′ travel lane would leave 16′ in the center of the right-of-way for a bike path separated from the drive lanes with landscaping. The bike lane itself could be 10′ wide for 2-way bike traffic with 3′ of landscaping on either side. And at the center of the right-of-way it puts the bikers in a very visible location rather than relegating them to the edges of the road in potential conflict with parked car doors. Increasing the visibility of bikers is not a bad thing. And this protected bike path in the center of the street would completely change the feel of Main Street for everyone.
Jeff Speck writes about separated bike lanes in his book Walkable City. The kind he discusses are located between the parking lane and the curb. But a location along a commercial street may not make sense as it separates the parked cars from their retail destinations. By locating the separated lanes in the middle of the street you can still have separated bike lanes in the center of town, but they do not interrupt the important connection between parallel parking and the sidewalk.
Such a feature could also function as a connection between the Joe Rodota and West County bike trails which start and stop in downtown, but are not well connected. (The current ‘connection’, which lacks clear signage, takes bikers around downtown to the east and north.) This connection would bring bikers directly downtown encouraging people to stop and support our local businesses. An article in Streetsblog a couple of years ago discusses the economic impact of cyclists to commercial streets. And Main Street is wide enough for this length for this to be feasible.
Such a bike path may need to limit left-hand turn movements by cars, but who cares? I don’t have a problem with inconveniencing cars in order to give my town a more balanced transportation system that takes all users into account. We have given cars center stage in our public infrastructure design at the expense of other users. It’s time to take a more balanced approach. A center bike lane with landscaping could also help the aesthetics of Main Street by introducing trees to the center median. Imagine a beautiful tree canopy providing a shaded bike path down the center of Main Street It would certainly make a more human-scaled street and reduce the impact of the car downtown.
Certainly there are many details that would have to be worked out, but I believe that such a system would help with pedestrian crossings of Main Street and create a more balanced transportation system by giving bicyclists a space of their own. We need creative solutions to creating a balanced transportation system, solutions that acknowledge all forms of transportation and do not prioritize automobile drivers at the expense of other street users.
About the Author
Paul Fritz is an architect, urbanist and author of the blog smalltownurbanism.com. Paul has worked on affordable and market rate housing projects, single-family homes, mixed-use urban infill and commercial projects. Paul is a founding member of The Core Project, a grassroots group of Sebastopol business owners who advocate for a revitalized downtown Sebastopol through better design solutions. Paul is also a co-founder of Urban Community Partnership, a non-profit dedicated to transforming our approach to development to create financially resilient communities that provide a better quality of life for their residents. Paul is passionate about creating vibrant human-scaled places that allow us to reduce our dependency on the automobile and live, play and work in environmentally, fiscally and socially sustainable places. Paul is Vice-Chair of the Planning Commission in Sebastopol, California.