impassible by design

Another reminder from Enzo. He commented on how dangerous the Watt Ave & Auburn Blvd intersection is, which led to a discussion about the entire section of Watt Ave between the Watt/I-80 light rail station and Auburn Blvd. He pointed out the absolutely ridiculous crosswalk and sidewalk at the westbound onramp to I-80 Business.

westbound I-80 Business onramp with pedestrian crossing and sidewalk

As you can see, the sidewalk leading down to, or up from, the crosswalk on the left hand side is quite steep. It would not be navigable by anyone in a wheelchair, or with any mobility limitations, and Enzo said that even an able bodied person would have difficulty with it. I only walked this sidewalk on the west side of Watt Ave once, and it was such an unpleasant experience that I never did it again. This particular issue did not stand out in my mind because the entire section was so uniformly unpleasant and dangerous.

westbound I-80 Business onramp aerial

As you can see in the Google overhead view, this onramp has a long approach, so most drivers are already going 65 mph when they hit the crosswalk (the speed limit on Watt Ave is 45 mph). So anyone using this crosswalk would be likely to die. For drivers, there is no warning of the crosswalk ahead, and so no reason to take the onramp more slowly. The crosswalk is not even a high visibility crosswalk, but the outmoded two stripe version which can’t even be seen when the pavement is wet.

And very few people do use this sidewalk and this crosswalk. When I worked in the eastern suburbs, I initially took light rail and then bicycled south to Auburn Blvd, but with no bicycle facilities and high speed traffic, that got old very quickly. So then I started taking the SacRT bus Route 1. Currently, this bus route starts and ends at light rail, though it used to go further north. I wondered why so many people got on the bus westbound at the last stop on Auburn, and got off the bus eastbound at the first stop on Auburn. So I asked them, and every person said it was to avoid this section of Watt Avenue between light rail and Auburn Blvd. They said the onramps and off-ramps made it just too dangerous to walk. I wasn’t able to talk to any bicyclists, but I’m sure they would have said the same.

This is Caltrans design, and it was designed to not be usable by people walking. This was the entire design philosophy of Caltrans, to discourage walkers and bicyclists from being anywhere near a highway.

Caltrans has reformed somewhat. For example, when the Watt Ave & Hwy 50 interchange was improved in 2015, a separated walking path and bikeway was created that when under the eastbound onramp, westbound onramp, and westbound off-ramp on the east side of Watt, then along the Watt Ave overpass. In the aerial below, you can see the pathway which loops to gain the elevation from the under tunnel to the bridge height. Note, however, that there is no matching facility on the west side of Watt Ave, so a walker or bicyclist must cross to the east side at the nearest intersection, which is Folsom Blvd to the south and La Riviera Drive to the north. Though not great, it is a considerable improvement over what was there before. It did, however, solidify the status of Watt Avenue as an expressway rather than an arterial street.

Watt Ave & Hwy 50 interchange with ped/bike facility

As you can see from the photo at the beginning, and the Watt/Hwy 50 example, the only way to solve this issue is with some sort of flyover for the sidewalk, so that there is an ADA compatible gradient and no crosswalk over the ramp. I’m expecting that Caltrans will start that project in about 2121. There was a proposal by SacRT to improve the section of Watt Ave between light rail and Auburn because they recognized that the walker and bicyclist hostile nature of the corridor was reducing use of light rail. But the city and Caltrans did not seem interested.

Though Caltrans created these hazards, and the hazard is clearly on Caltrans property, the agency has shown little interest in solving the problems they created. They have washed their hands of the roadway part of interchanges by handing these over to the cities or counties. Their preference remains building new stuff rather than maintaining and correcting existing freeways and highways, and I’m not at all sure that will ever change.

bridge design was the problem

I normally don’t comment on events or issues outside of the Sacramento region, but I just can’t resist commenting on the closure of Interstate 10 in southern California due to a bridge washout and collapse. Many people have used this incident as justification for devoting more money to road maintenance and bridge repair, and many more will. But this was not a maintenance problem, it was a design problem.

Below is a photo, courtesy of AZCentral (The Arizona Republic). It shows the collapsed bridge, the damaged and still closed bridge, and the old highway bridge. Notice that the bridge portion of the old highway spans the entire wash, and is entirely undamaged (I’m not claiming that the old highway is perfect – it has been damaged in other locations, if not by this flood then by other floods). The two new freeway bridges span only a portion of the wash. Caltrans engineers apparently decided that they could funnel the wash into a narrow space by armoring the abutments with rock. They were wrong, and they should have known this was an irresponsible design. Were they trying to save money, or were they so arrogant as to think nature can be pushed around? I don’t know, but clearly there was a mistake, and the mistake was not a lack of maintenance.

 

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What if they held a traffic jam and no one came?

What if the predicted carmageddon is not? What if the expected traffic jam does not occur? I know I’m going out on a limb here, but I’d like to speculate that not only will the Fix50 project not be a big deal, but that it will result in a permanent change in driver behavior.

  • What if people discovered a lower-stress, lower-cost method of commuting? Bicycling? Light rail? Commuter buses? Car pooling?
  • What if employers realized that their employees are more productive if at least some of the time their employees telecommuted instead of sat in their cubicles?
  • What if people started to make different decisions about where they live and where they work? Many people say that this isn’t possible because people “have” to commute to work. But most people and families change work and housing locales many times. What if the next change brought work and home close together?
  • What if people started to value their time, realizing that there are more productive things to do than sit in traffic? Than sit in a car?
  • What if people started to question why we spend huge sums of money building and maintaining freeways for the benefit of those people who choose long commutes, and prefer to use personally owned vehicles, rather than spending money on those who want to live and work close together, and who want transit and bicycling facilities and walkable neighborhoods, to live car-free and car-light lifestyles?

And the most important question of all, what if the freeway re-opens, and the traffic has permanently disappeared?

There are many examples of magical disappearing traffic. The most recent and I think most interesting is the Alaskan Way Viaduct in Seattle. When parts of it were closed to address earthquake hazards, and to prepare for the tunnel that may replace the viaduct, about 2/3 of the traffic simply disappeared. It was not on local streets, it was just not there. People made different choices.

Though the focus of the Fix 50 media storm has been on commuter traffic, the fact is that commuter traffic as a portion of daily traffic has continued to decline. I don’t know the numbers for Highway 50, but nationally the number is down to 15-20% of all traffic. Some of the remaining traffic is commerce, the transport and delivery of goods, though even there a lot of options exist. Most of the traffic is what is called discretionary travel. Sometimes it doesn’t need to happen at all – a lot of people drive just to drive, to fill their time with activity that seems meaningful even if it is not. Sometimes it does need to happen, such as grocery shopping (though again, there are options: buy less at a time, walk, use a bicycle, get a cargo bike), but could happen at any time of day, avoiding commute hours.

In a few days, and over the next two months, we will see what actually happens. Here is hoping that the result is a more livable Sacramento.

Caltrans Watch

As though I need something else to do, I have started another blog called Caltrans Watch, following a conversation with Jim Brown in which we realized that someone needs to be calling Caltrans to account on its sprawl-inducing and livability-killing approach to transportation. Please take a look and make suggestions for improving it, hopefully with your own contributions. There is a Twitter handle to go with it, @CaltransWatch.