freight and passenger rail

The strike by railroad workers seems to have been averted by the private railroads giving in just slightly. I don’t know enough about labor in the railroads to say much of intelligence on the issues, though I am pretty sure that as huge and very profitable corporations, the interests of the freight railroads are not those of the workers.

The possible strike has reminded me that I have ideas about railroads. I quite often use the Capitol Corridor regional service, Sacramento to the Bay Area, and also use the Amtrak long-distance routes, Coast Starlight and California Zephyr. My experience is that service on these routes has been continuously deteriorating over the years. Amtrak is not really very good at running trains, and they are even worse on maintaining trains. Equipment problems are a daily occurrence, and are often the start of trains falling behind schedule.

Passenger trains are guaranteed, by federal law, right of way over freight trains. But only if the passenger train is on schedule. So if a passenger train falls off schedule, due to equipment problems or slow loading at a station or slow crew changes (Amtrak personnel are often late to the job at crew change locations), the train will fall further and further behind. The long distance trains are either on time, because they never fell behind, or four to six hours late, because they did, and lost priority to freight trains. It is frustrating to sit on a siding, often for quite a while, while a slow and long freight train gets the right of way.

The Martinez rail bridge is a major problem for Capitol Corridor schedules. The only solution is a new high level bridge that would not be delayed by maritime traffic.

But the real issue to me is that maintenance of the rails is unacceptably bad. About two years ago, Union Pacific did a major maintenance project on part of the route between Sacramento and Martinez. The result? The rails were much worse after than before. It used to be I could write, not easily, but acceptably, on the Capitol Corridor. Those times are long gone. It is now difficult, and dangerous, to even get up and walk around. Sharp jolts from poorly maintained rails are a regular occurrence. I’ve seen people thrown to the ground by these jolts. A few years ago, a Capitol Corridor train almost derailed between Sacramento and Davis, with many passengers injured. Amtrak stonewalled the investigation, and Capitol Corridor JPA shrugged and accepted that no one was going to take responsibility.

Transportation advocates have long pushed for electrification of the Capitol Corridor trains, and similar regional rail systems throughout the US. But Union Pacific does not want catenary wires (the overhead wires that power electrified trains) along its tracks. So Capitol Corridor will continue to use diesel locomotives forever. The current model is much cleaner than older ones, but still dirty. If you really want to see dirty, look at the ancient diesel locomotives that Amtrak uses for its long distance trains.

Capitol Corridor JPA has a project to add a third track between Sacramento and Roseville so that more passenger trains can be run on that section. Today, there is one train westbound and one train eastbound, up to Auburn, with a stop in Roseville. The project has been much delayed, and now has been trimmed back so that only part of the route with have a third track. As I see it, Capitol Corridor was extorted by Union Pacific.

So, solutions:

  1. Regional rail services, which are almost entirely funded by the states and not Amtrak, should start separating from Amtrak. The result will be better managed trains and better maintained trains. The only advantage regional rail gets from Amtrak is unified ticketing, so the solution there is to have a separate unified ticketing service that is not controlled by Amtrak.
  2. The states and/or federal government should take ownership of all rail lines that serve more than one passenger train per day. Freight railroads would still own their rolling stock, and could buy passage on the routes, but the routes would be managed (dispatched) to prioritize passenger rail at all times. If the freights are willing sellers, then fair market value, but condemnation would be used where they are not.
  3. All regional passenger service should be considered for electrification. The passenger service would be cleaner and quieter and faster (better acceleration than diesel). Not all would be electrified. Freight railroads would have to accept running under catenary, or better yet, just start running electric locomotives as well.
  4. California should commit to and fully fund a high level bridge at or near Martinez.
  5. Capitol Corridor should terminate the third track project as currently designed, and demand that Union Pacific provide the right of way for a third track without any freight use at any time. I’m sure UP would refuse, which takes us back to item 2 above, public ownership of the right of way and rails.

traffic engineering ‘profession’

This post is provoked by two articles on the Strong Towns blog: Strong Towns Will Defend Engineers’ Right to Free Speech From the Minnesota Licensing Board, and We Are Holding Engineers Accountable for Dangerous Road Designs. The Engineering Powers That Be Want Us To Shut Up. However, I’m going to go far beyond anything Strong Towns would say. Strong Towns would say that traffic engineers are good people, just working from a flawed set of assumptions and a flawed understanding of what streets are for. I’m not so sure.

Our transportation system, which largely does not work for walkers and bicyclists, and doesn’t work very well for transit users, was designed by traffic engineers. Our transportation system kills 43,000 people a year in the US, and injures far, far more. Not to mention climate change, which in California is largely the result of our transportation system (57% of GHGs). Not to mention the asthma and other health problems of the kids who live near freeways and arterial roadways. Not to mention… well, you get the idea. The list could be very, very long. Not all of this is the fault of traffic engineers, but I’m saying most of it is. What other profession gets away with killing so many people, and harming far more, and shirks responsibility for it? A little education and a little enforcement will solve the problem? Bullshit.

I have long questioned the use of ‘traffic engineer’ and ‘professional’ in the same phase. Traffic engineering is more akin to quackery. Give us all your money, and we’ll design and build something that will make you happy! Oh, it didn’t, well, give us the rest of your money and we’ll fix the thing that didn’t work. Yeh, we know that what we design doesn’t really work to ease congestion or make your life better or safer, but give us some more money, and it will eventually (one more lane lane will fix it). Snake oil!

Traffic engineers fall back on two things in an effort to absolve themselves of responsibility:

  • The MUTCD made me do it. This is akin to that old expression ‘the devil made me do it’. The MUTCD (Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices) was written largely by traffic engineers, and it could be changed by traffic engineers. But when the revision process started, traffic engineers whined loudly about any change that would reduce traffic flow, or increase safety for other users of the roadways. It’s the two-year-old response: if you don’t let me have my way, I’m going to take my ball and go home, and give me your lunch money while you’re at it (sorry, real two-year-olds, to align you with traffic engineers, that’s mean). The MUTCD is full of ‘facts’ that are largely made up by the engineering ‘profession’. There is almost no research to back up what is claimed in the MUTCD. And even if it were a valid document, it doesn’t require that it be followed, it just says, if you are designing something, here is the the best practice that we’ve documented. In California, the Highway Design Manual also makes up ‘facts’ to fit the desires of traffic engineers, and prohibits many safety features because someone imagined that they were unsafe (or slowed traffic).
  • It was the politician’s decision, not ours. But the fact is that politicians almost always follow the recommendations of the traffic engineers. Most politicians don’t have the expertise to question what the engineers suggest, nor do they usually listen to the concerns of the people who will be harmed by projects (unless those harmed are big campaign donors). After all, ribbon cuttings are a path to reelection. If the traffic engineers propose bad solutions, those are almost always what gets implemented.

So, traffic engineers: If you are not working today and every day to fix the problems your profession has created, you are not only part of the problem, you are the problem. If you spend any time working on roadway capacity expansion projects, I ask that you not go into work, that you find a job where your values don’t harm so many people, while sucking the public budget dry and incurring maintenance liabilities that will be with us for the foreseeable future.

Traffic engineers have embraced a concept called ‘complete streets’ to a degree that surprised everyone. Not me. How else to fund traffic signals and lighting and new curbs and utilities, except by capturing funds meant for active transportation? As though the other roadway projects didn’t provide enough money, here is another source we can capture.

My attitude towards traffic engineers has been simmering for a long while, and it has boiled over. Why do citizens who just want to travel safely by foot, bicycle, and transit have to fight the designs and desires of traffic engineers? Why do we have to fight for walkable sidewalks? Why do we have to fight for bikeable streets? Why do we have to fight for the money and priorities to run an effective transit system? Why are the roads continuing to deteriorate, while roadway capacity expansion projects receive the bulk of funding? Why? The answer is, largely, the traffic engineering ‘profession’.

speed limiting NOW!

If you read the news at all, you will already know why motor vehicles needs to be speed limited. The carnage grows every day, and egregious speeders and drunk/high drivers slaughter innocent people on the streets, on the sidewalks, and inside buildings.

So, I’m going to ask that Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttiegeg and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) Administrator Steven Cliff immediately start the process of rulemaking to require always-on speed limiting devices on all new motor vehicles, and retroactive activation on all vehicles that were built with that capability, and implementation for all motor vehicles within 10 years. I hope that Congress passes legislation mandating this before NHTSA finishes its rulemaking process, because we can’t really wait for that process.

So, Pete and Steven. Will you do what is necessary, right NOW, or will you kowtow to the car-dominance industry and let things go on, let the slaughter continue apace? Now is the time for y0u to show leadership.

keep Sacramento N St narrowed

Note: As is not unusual, I had forgotten that I’d written about N St before: N Street bike route to cycle track, 2015. Seven years have passed, the city has taken no action.

The construction for the Capitol annex project has narrowed N St to two lanes eastbound, from 10th St to 14th St, and parking has been removed from the south side to shift the lanes over. Now is the time for the City of Sacramento to implement its long-delayed (if not deep-sixed) plans for re-allocating space on N St. There have been ongoing utility projects over the last few years that have narrowed N St to two or even just one lane. At no time did that create significant congestion, during the pandemic or before the pandemic. I live two blocks from N St, and both travel along it and cross it frequently. I’ve never seen more than momentary congestion, in 11 years. What that means is that N St, in its three-lane configuration, has grossly excess capacity for motor vehicles.

While the street has been narrowed is the time to redesign the street so that it has no more than two general purpose lanes, and has a curb-protected or parking-protected bikeway. Probably on the left. This is in fact the perfect setting for a separated bikeway, five blocks from 10th St to 15th St with no intersecting streets from the north side, which is Capitol Park.

It is true that the sidewalk on the north side of N St is a designated bikeway, so bicyclists may use the sidewalk to avoid riding in the street. But bicyclists on the sidewalk are often in conflict with people walking on the sidewalk. The sidewalk has pretty continuous use by walkers, particularly during the lunch time – walk time for state workers, but a lot of people also include a circuit of the Capitol Park on their runs and walks. This conflict is easy to solve: create a safe, welcoming, protected (separated) bikeway on the street. And do it now!

On N St eastbound, the leftmost lane is a designated left turn lane at 10th St, which is what makes possible the two-lane configuration beyond 10th St. As a temporary measure, this works well, and forcing turns off three lane streets is a good solution for so many overbuilt arterials roads in Sacramento, but here it is only temporary, and would be obviated by the conversion of all of N St from 3rd St to 15th St. N St becomes a two-lane street at 15th St, and then becomes a two-way street at 21st St. N St from 15th St to 21 St would probably be a good candidate for a separated bikeway as well, but with paint bike lanes existing, would be a lower priority.

Below is a StreetMix sketch of what N St might look like. Note that the width of the street and the elements are estimated, not measured. I don’t believe parking is needed on both sides, but the diagram shows it for people who think it is necessary. Left side is north, Capitol Park in this case, and right side is south, mostly state buildings.

N St Sacramento between 3rd St and 15th St

As a reminder, I feel strongly, and it is backed up by evidence:

  1. Three-lane streets are significantly less safe than two-lane streets, primarily for the muli-lane threat (one vehicle stops for walkers and the others do not). They are also a clear sign of poor land use planning, which puts residents and the things they need to reach (jobs, stores, recreation and entertainment, medical, etc.) far away. Narrowing all such roadways in the city from three to two, or less, would increase safety, increase livability, and encourage people to make different choices about where they live and visit. Maps of collisions (vehicle vs. vehicle, vehicle vs. walker, vehicle vs. bicyclist) align almost perfectly with overbuilt arterials.
  2. One-way streets are significantly less safe than two-way streets, for the same multi-lane threat, and because there isn’t any friction to slow drivers. However, I think that the only valid argument for one-way streets is to accommodate separated bikeways, bus lanes, or rail transit. That may be true of N St.

And, sorry, can’t resist, get rid of the worthless palm trees while they are at it. We need shade trees, not poles.

Freeport Boulevard Transportation Plan Emerging Design Concepts

City of Sacramento staff (Drew Hart) presented to the Sacramento Active Transportation Commission last Thursday on the Freeport Boulevard Emerging Design Concepts. The presentation slides are here. The city’s Freeport webpage has a lot of background material. A link to the virtual open house on April 28 (tomorrow!) is available. This project and the Northgate project are being supported by the same consultant, so you will notice similarities in the process and graphics.

The northern section, between Sutterville Road to the east and Sutterville Road to the west, should look exactly like the traffic-calmed, complete street to the north. This project on Freeport was successful. There is no reason for five lanes in this section. One lane northbound, one lane southbound, and one left turn lane southbound is all it needs. If traffic backs up at the Freeport and Sutterville Road to the east intersection, then shorten the signal cycle.

The emerging design document skips over the issue of whether four general purpose lanes are even needed. A concept should be presented that reduces general purpose lanes to two, and reallocates roadway width to other modes.

Dedicated right hand turn lanes should be removed everywhere. Dedicated left hand turn lanes should be provided only where traffic studies have shown a clear need, and should never reduce the roadway width for other uses.

Green lanes are shown behind protection for separated bikeways. Since the protection does or should prevent vehicle incursion, the paint is not needed.

Dedicated transit lanes should be considered. Though SacRT has not identified this as a high frequency route in the High Capacity Bus Service Study (Route 62 is 30-minute frequency), reconstruction of the roadway must consider the possibility of dedicated transit lanes and transit supporting infrastructure. Appendix A, available on the project webpage, provides a lot of detail about existing transit stops, which are mostly quite poor.

Some businesses along Freeport have multiple driveways, more than are justified by the amount of vehicle traffic access. Closure and narrowing of driveways should be considered. Since almost every business has parking fronting the street, no on-street parking is needed anywhere. This is poor urban design, but it is the nature of the corridor and could not be corrected without wholesale reconstruction of the corridor.

While separated bikeways are often a good solution, the frequency of driveways might make for poor quality infrastructure. Unless driveways can be closed or reconfigured, separated bikeways may not be the best solution.

Posted speed AND design speed should be considered for reduction. Posted speed is 30 mph from Sutterville Rd (to the east) to Arica Way, 35 mph from Arica Way to Fruitridge Rd, and 40 mph from Fruitridge Rd to Blair Ave. The section from Sutterville Rd (to the east) to Fruitridge Rd should be posted and designed for 25 mph, in recognition of the density of businesses and driveways. The section from Fruitridge to Blair Ave should be posted and designed for 30 mph, as it has a lower density of businesses and driveways, and is adjacent to the airport for a significant distance.

Prioritization of the modes for Sutterville (to the east) and Fruitridge Rd should be:

  • walking
  • bicycling
  • transit
  • motor vehicle

Prioritization of the modes for Fruitridge Rd to Blair Ave should be:

  • bicycling
  • transit
  • walking
  • motor vehicle

Crash/collision map of the Northgate Blvd corridor for pedestrians (walkers) and bicyclists. Data is from SWITRS for the years 2015-2019. (pdf)

map of Freeport Blvd Emphasis with pedestrian and bicyclist crashes

Northgate Boulevard Emerging Design Concepts

Update: Added a crash/collision map at the bottom. Though prevention of pedestrian and bicyclist killed and severe injury is always a top priority, this is not a high risk corridor as compared to many arterials in the city.

City of Sacramento staff (Leslie Mancebo) presented to the Sacramento Active Transportation Commission last Thursday on the Northgate Boulevard Emerging Design Concepts. The presentation slides are here. The city’s Northgate webpage has a lot of background material. A link to the virtual open house on May 11 is available.

I rode Northgate Blvd yesterday to refresh my memory about the street, as I’d not gone that way in a while. So, some comments:

The section of Northgate from Rio Tierra to I-80 is a standard suburban arterial, with low quality development and a completely uninteresting place to be. Changes to the roadway may make it safer, but won’t make it any more interesting or economically successful. The city should not focus on this area. It is unpleasant, and not particularly safe, but leave it be.

The section of Northgate from Rio Tierra to Garden Hwy has serious issues, but I see it as a place that could be transformed into an interesting, welcoming, and vibrant place. The number of small businesses, each with a driveway, is a challenge, but also an opportunity. At least half of the businesses are locally owned. This is not the home of big box and chain stores like much of the suburbs. It IS a place where people could walk if provided a safe and encouraging environment, and there are multiple destinations used by local residents.

I think that this entire segment should have buffered and wide sidewalks. The bike facilities could provide some buffer, but the sidewalk buffer is critical because it allows street trees. This section desperately needs street trees! Of course to be successful, the buffer/planting strip needs to be at least six feet, and the sidewalk at least six feet, but eight-ten foot buffer and eight foot sidewalk would be better. I think that the walking mode should take precedence over all other modes, even bicycling and transit, so whatever right-of-way the buffer and sidewalk needs, it should get. Don’t compromise this away.

I realize this project is at the gathering community input stage. However, diagrams will be used, and I’d like to see the diagrams include significant improvement to the pedestrian environment, wide sidewalks buffered from other modes, with trees in the buffer.

The presentation resulted in a number of questions from commission members about bicycle facilities. One of the ideas that got support is a two-way separated bikeway (or cycletrack) to provide a connection between the Ninos multiple use trail and the American River Parkway multiple use trail (the ‘special section’ in the presentation). There was less agreement about bicycle facilities north of there. One of the ideas is separated bikeways (protected bike lanes). Though of course separated bikeways are the best solution overall, I’m not sure they make sense for the east side of the street. Separated bikeways work best when there are few or no driveways, but there is a huge numbers of driveways here. The west side of the street has far fewer driveways.

There are some opportunities on the corridor for reducing driveways, and certainly some of the driveways can be narrowed to reduce entry and exit speeds. But short of a wholesale revision of the area, most driveways will remain, so the street design must accommodate this fact.

Transit on the part of the corridor between Arden Way and San Juan Road is provided by SacRT Route 13 Natomas/Arden, with a 45 minute frequency on weekdays. The route has a fairly low ridership, but it is a long route of which the Northgate section is a small part.

Crash/collision map of the Northgate Blvd corridor for pedestrians (walkers) and bicyclists. Data is from SWITRS for the years 2015-2019. (pdf)

Take the information about fault below with a huge grain of salt. It is well known that law enforcement officers assume walkers and bicyclists to be at fault, without any serious investigation, and often on the sole word of the driver involved.

Pedestrian (walker):

  • Northgate near Rosin Ct: killed, 60 yo male, unknown detail, no fault, no alcohol
  • Northgate near Ozark Cir: severe injury, 74 yo female, crossing, at fault, alcohol
  • Northgate at Wisconsin: severe injury, 36 yo female with two children, crossing, driver fault
  • Northgate at Peralta: severe injury, 48 yo, crossing Peralta, at fault (very unlikely)


  • Northgate near Winter Garden: severe injury, 49 yo male, left turn, at fault
  • Northgate at Bridgeford: killed, 47 yo male, crossing, at fault, alcohol or drug
  • Northgate at Harding: killed, 31 yo female, left turn, at fault
  • Northgate at Garden Hwy: severe injury, 40-44 yo male, broadside, at fault CVC 21453

The intersections of Northgate and San Juan Rd, West El Camino, and Garden Hwy/Jefferson Ave are particularly problematic because they are flared out to accommodate turning lanes, thereby lengthening crossing distances for walkers and creating a walker-hostile environment. Fixing these intersections would probably do more to improve the safety and feeling of this corridor than changes along the corridor.

excess car capacity!

Kevin Dumler posted this to Twitter, and it caused me to pay more attention to all the utility and construction projects going on in the central city that have reduced general purpose travel lanes (car lanes). What follows are some photos of other locations.

10th St past P St, lane reduction two to one
I St past 10th St, lane reduction three to two
J St past 10th St, lane reduction three to two, also parking and bike lane closure
N St past 10th St, lane reduction from three to one (same location as Kevin tweeted)
L St past 12th St, lane reduction from three to one

It is only in this last example, on J Street between 12th and 10th, where there was some congestion. However, no vehicles were being stuck at signals, nor failing to make it through the signal at 11th Street, so this is very minor congestion.

The point, well made by Kevin, is that we have excess capacity for motor vehicles on many of our roadways, particularly three lane roadways, that could better be used for other things, like bike facilities, wider sidewalks, planter strips or wider planter strips. Or even narrowing the street for housing!

(in)complete streets

Note: This is a follow-on to streets – stroads – roads. It will make more sense if you read that one first.

The complete streets concept says that all modes of travel (walking, bicycling, motor vehicles, and transit when appropriate) should be accommodated on streets. The accommodation is accomplished by providing separate spaces for each: sidewalks for people walking, bike lanes for people bicycling, general purpose lanes for people driving.

The concept was and is promoted by the National Complete Street Coalition, now part of Smart Growth America, since 2004. The traffic planning and engineering professions strongly resisted the concept for years, but it now receives at least voice support from most planners and engineers. In California, chances of getting a transportation infrastructure grant are low if it does not at least claim to meet complete streets concepts.

The two biggest weaknesses of the complete streets concept are:

  • No guidelines for the frequency of safe crossings are built into the complete streets concept. It could be, but it is not. So travel along corridors is better, but crossing that corridor may not be any better than it was before.
  • Speed limits are rarely reduced on a reconstructed complete streets. Traffic lanes are often narrowed, and sometimes reduced, in an effort to slow traffic. However, a design that actually enforces a lower speed, and therefore allows a lower speed limit is rarely considered.

FHWA (Federal Highway Administration) recent released a Complete Streets Report to Congress and related webpage. I have not had a chance to look at this in detail, so I don’t know if the federal concept overcomes the weaknesses of the previous complete streets concept. The graphic below was the leading one in the new effort, and was justifiably criticised as presenting an unattractive if sort-of compliant complete street, but some people who have read the document say it is better than this. Streetsblog USA: USDOT Tackles Overlooked Barriers to ‘Complete Streets’ — And Sparks Debate.

FHWA complete streets graphic

Caltrans has a recently adopted Complete Streets Policy. The City of Sacramento has a complete streets policy. Citrus Heights, Elk Grove, Folsom, Rancho Cordova, and the county express support for complete streets concepts in their general plans, and have complete streets projects, but apparently do not have specific policies.

There have been a number of complete streets project already in the Sacramento region, and more are on the way. The proposed Measure 2022 transportation sales tax flags complete streets for much of investment, so it is important to understand what a complete street is and is not. Let me say that a complete street is almost always better than what was there before. A lot of our streets were constructed without sidewalks, or with narrow sidewalks interrupted with utility poles and other obstructions, and lacking curb ramps. Complete streets usually have continuous sidewalks of six feet or more, with fewer (but not no) obstructions, and curb ramps at corners. Almost all of our streets were constructed without any place for bicyclists, so a complete street with bike lanes may be an improvement (though many traffic engineers continue to think that painted bike lanes work on higher speed streets).

I was working partly in the City of Citrus Heights when the Auburn Blvd Complete Streets Phase 1 project was designed and implemented. Indeed, travel along the corridor was much improved, and the road was more welcoming to all modes of travel. But there were no more safe crossings of Auburn Blvd than there were before. The crosswalks were still way to far apart for people to conveniently access the businesses, homes, and schools along the corridor. The speed limit was unchanged, though my perception was that actual speeds were a bit slower.

Nearly all streets that have become, or are proposed to become, complete streets are stroads. Think of a major roadway in the county, and you are picturing a stroad. Making a stroad a complete street does not make it not a stroad. Complete streets projects often forget to answer the most basic questions: what is the purpose of this roadway, and how can we construct it so that it fulfills that purpose? A stroad with sidewalks and bike lanes is still a stroad if the primary function is to move people along the corridor, rather than allow them to be in the corridor.

If the purpose of a roadway is to move a high volume of motor vehicles quickly, a road, then sidewalks and bike lanes probably aren’t appropriate, and those modes should be provided for on parallel routes. If the purpose of a roadway is to provide a place for people and building wealth, a street, then sidewalks and SLOW or no motor vehicle traffic is the only appropriate design. This is often expressed as a place where ‘cars are guests’ and bicyclists mix in with other street users rather than needing an exclusive space.

Yes, I am talking about an ideal here. Almost all of our roadways were designed and function inappropriately. We have a long ways to go, but we at least have to get started by stopping what we are doing wrong, and starting to do it right. The proposed Measure 2022 transportation sales tax largely commits to continue doing it wrong, for 40 years. That is the next post.

streets – stroads – roads

I have been a follower of the Strong Towns blog since 2008, and founding member when it became a formal organization. It has strongly influenced my thinking about transportation, land use, and housing. I recommend to everyone that you check Strong Towns out.

What really got Strong Towns off the ground is the concept of stroad, a roadway which is neither a street nor a road, but something in between. As is said, it is the futon of roadways, something that is neither a comfortable bed nor a comfortable couch. Strong Towns defines streets and roads as follows:

  • Streets: The function of a street is to serve as a platform for building wealth. On a street, we’re attempting to grow the complex ecosystem of businesses and homes that produces community wealth. In these environments, people (outside of their automobiles) are the indicator species of success. Successful streets are environments where humans and human interaction flourish.
  • Roads: In contrast, the function of a road is to connect productive places to one another. You can think of a road as a refinement of the railroad — a road on rails — where people board in one place, depart in another and there is a high speed connection between the two.
from Strong Towns, Matthias Leyer,

In the Sacramento region, and really almost everywhere, streets designated as arterials and most collectors (in the Functional Classification System) are stroads. They have speeds too high for people to be safe and comfortable. They are often called traffic sewers, that flush traffic in and out of central cities every day. But they are also populated by businesses and public amenities such as schools, with so many driveways and turning movements that they can’t possibly function as high speed roads.

The reason this concept is so important right now is that transportation agencies try to make stroads better by turning them into ‘complete streets’ but do so with a poor understanding of the difference between a street and a road, leaving roadways that accommodate all modes (walking, bicycling, motor vehicles) but still don’t really work. Most complete streets are still stroads. And much of the proposed Measure 2022 sales tax measure for Sacramento County is invested in this flawed concept. So the next two posts will address those issues.

For a good introduction to stroads, see the Strong Towns page Slow the Cars, or Chapter 2 of Confessions of a Recovering Engineer.

too many traffic signals?

I just finished reading Confessions of a Recovering Engineer by Chuck Marohn of Strong Towns. I’ll have more to say about the book soon. The reading reminded me of a number of things I’ve wanted to write more about, and one of those is traffic signals. Chapter 7, Intersections and Traffic Flow.

“Traffic signals are the most mindless and wasteful thing Americans routinely install to manage traffic. Removing nearly all of them within cities would improve our transportation systems and overall quality of life.”

Chuck Marohn, Confessions of a Recovering Engineer

I have long wondered what the value of traffic signals really is. As a walker, they make me wait for the signal cycle when there is no traffic coming. As a bicyclist, they stop me at almost every location, because they are set for the speed of cars, not the speed of bicyclists. There are places that set signals to work for bicyclists, but nowhere in the Sacramento region. Of course as an enlightened walker and bicyclist, I wait only for gaps in traffic and not for the signal to change. As a driver, which I once was, they make me sit at an intersection when I could be moving, and slow overall travel time.

Most signals do not sense traffic loads and respond. They are on a cycle, no matter what. Rush hour, midnight, same cycle. Signals are timed to preference one direction of traffic over the cross-traffic. And they are often very slow cycles. In the county, many of the signals are on a 2.5 minute cycle, and even in urban areas they are on a slow 1.5-2 minute cycle. Drivers have come to accept the long wait, but for walkers and bicyclists for whom a red signal can increase overall travel time by 1-1/2 to two times, they make us crazy.

Signals do not slow the speed that drivers drive. Drivers wait at the red light, and then accelerate on the green to make up for wasted time, always going over the posted speed limit. Of course these days many drivers don’t stop for red lights at all, they go through intersections on stale reds (meaning it was red before they even entered the intersection). This has become a very common behavior over the years, and is almost routine since the pandemic.

One of the things that signals seem to do is shift unsafe driving behavior from intersections to corridors, the street parts in between signals. Instead of misbehavior at intersections, causing lower speed crashes, we get misbehavior in between, with higher speed crashes.

Everyone who walks knows that signalized intersections are not safe places to cross the street. Drivers turning right look only for opposing traffic, almost never for people in the crosswalk. When the light turns green, drivers accelerate into right hand turns, across the crosswalk and any walkers in it. For intersections that permit left turns on green lights, the threat of a left turning driver crossing the crosswalk at high speed is constant. So people who value their life tend to cross mid-block, where one only has to look for two directions of traffic instead of 12.

The Confessions book suggests several alternatives to traffic signals, including roundabouts, traffic circles, and shared space intersections.

  • Use roundabouts rather than traditional intersections. Of course in place where the size of intersections is constrained by right-of-way and adjacent buildings, a real roundabout may not be possible, but traffic circles, of which the central city already has a number, can fit. Traffic circles are not as effective as roundabouts, but can replace signals.
  • Slow traffic enough that people can cross streets without having to have signals to interrupt traffic.

I realize that many people associate signals and stop signs with safety, and often demand signals and stop signs when the streets are dangerous. So what I am going to say here will be controversial. For people who think traffic signals make things safer, please spend some time observing at both signalized intersections, and unsignalized intersections. Are the ones with signals really safer? For anyone?

One of my (not) favorite signals is at 15th Street & E Street. At this point, 15th Street is not a collector or arterial, it only becomes one-way a block earlier at D Street, and has very little traffic at this point. It does not become a higher volume street until H Street and I Street to the south. E Street is a collector, though not a very busy one. Yet the signal cycles all day long, with almost no traffic at it. A perfect location for a traffic circle. Not the point of this post, but 15th Street at this location does not need two lanes, one lane would be plenty, and the excess lane can be converted to diagonal parking and/or a bike lane. A photo of the intersection is below, showing a typical amount of traffic.

What about all the signals on 14th Street? This is a low volume, fairly low traffic speed street, at all times of day. It dead-ends at the convention center, so it is not really even a through street, yet it has five signals. There are a lot more such examples. You can add yours in the comments!

15th St & E St intersection, Sacramento

All the signals in the central city that are not at the intersection of collector and/or arterial streets should be slated for removal. If the city wishes to do so, it could do a traffic study before removal, or just go ahead with removal, but it should not be leaving these signals in place without action. There are options short of complete removal. Signals could be made into signalized pedestrian crossings, so that when people walking need to cross, they still have (some) protection of a red light. (Some protection. Again, many drivers to not stop at red lights.) Curb extensions can be installed to shorten crossing distances. Traffic diverters (modal filters) can be installed so that only bicyclists have a thru route. And of course roundabouts and traffic circles. At the intersection of two collector streets, a four-way stop might be appropriate. Each intersection is unique, but each one is also a candidate for change that makes travel safer and less frustrating no matter the mode of travel.

I’m not suggesting, at this time, the removal of signals at the intersection of collector and/or arterial streets. Someday.

The map shows these signal locations, with a red X (pdf). The intersections of collectors and/or arterial streets, not marked here, are not being challenged at this time. The purple streets are designated collectors or arterials by the city (part of the Functional Classification System).

signals in Sacramento central city for possible removal