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

Sac Transportation Priorities Plan update

Angela Heering provided some progress information and links on the City of Sacramento Transportation Priorities Plan. So here is an update to my previous Sac Transportation Priorities Plan post.

Start with the city’s Transportation Priorities Plan (TPP) webpage, if you haven’t been there before. A video brings an update from Jennifer Donlon Wyant on the completed Phase 1, and a the Phase 1 Community Engagement Summary report gives the details. Update: I hadn’t noticed the TPP Project Prioritization Recommendations.

There will be a presentation to city council on March 15, both on the results on Phase 1 and the plan for Phase 2. An earlier presentation to the ‘community consultants is here. The presentation to council will probably differ.

The presentation clarifies one of the questions that came up during the Big Ideas city council workshop.

How is the TPP different from the Transportation & Climate Big Ideas?
The TPP is a policy document that will prioritize all City Transportation investments in projects based on community values. It does not define new projects.
The Big ideas are a set of defined projects designed to think about mobility as a network and a network to encourage walking, bicycling and transit use. The Big Ideas will be prioritized with all other projects in the TPP.

I’m excited about this process. The city has never had public criteria for how projects are selected. It has been based in the past on the personal preference of the Public Works department, and sometimes, city council members. Making good investments in transportation requires criteria and performance measures for projects!

Reset for SacATC

The City of Sacramento Active Transportation Commission (SacATC) was established in 2018 as a replacement for the city/county Bicycle Advisory Committee (BAC). This was good, as the county’s unwillingness to consider innovative solutions, even when they were in the city, meant that very little ever happened there. There was a lot of hope in the bicycling and walking advocacy community that SacATC would turn a new page and accelerate necessary changes in the city. Unfortunately, that has not been the case. The commission has been reactive, not proactive. A number of people have resigned from the commission when they discovered that not much of importance was happening there.

Nothing here is meant to demean the contributions of city staff to seeking grant funding for critical projects. The city is paying much more attention to active transportation than it used to, but I and many other advocates believe that it is still paying too little attention, and certainly too little funding.

So, I believe it is time for a reset.

  1. SacATC is advisory to the city council. It should therefore be communicating with council on a fairly regular basis. That does not mean that it does not collaborate with staff, but it does not take direction from them.
  2. The primary job of the commission should be to review and to create policy. Reviewing projects is a secondary focus. That means at least half of every meeting should be spent talking about policy, not about projects.
  3. SacATC should be setting its own agenda, not letting staff set it. If staff wants to bring something to the commission, they would contact the commission chair to request that it be on the agenda. The chair should solicit agenda ideas from commissioners at the end of each meeting, and again, in advance of the next meeting to meet whatever deadline the city sets for its agenda posting.
  4. The purview of SacATC should be all city activities, when they may affect active transportation, not just Public Works. This would include, for example, construction traffic control plan permitting, city utility work in the streets, waste collection (trash cans in bike lanes), repaving plans, law enforcement, and parking enforcement.
  5. SacATC supported sidewalks where they are part of complete streets projects, but has not addressed sidewalk infill, closing gaps in this critical transportation infrastructure. I believe this should be a major focus of the commission this year, developing policy to recommend to the council that makes consistent and rapid progress towards a continuous sidewalk network, properly designed ADA ramps at every corner, and frequent safe crossings.

The next meeting of SacATC is Thursday, February 18. The agenda and eComment link will be available a few days beforehand at http://sacramento.granicus.com/ViewPublisher.php?view_id=21.

The commission is established under city code: http://www.qcode.us/codes/sacramento/view.php?topic=2-2_100&showAll=1&frames=on.

Sacramento transportation decision time

The City of Sacramento is holding a city council workshop on Tuesday, February 8, 5:00PM. The purpose of the workshop is to gather input to help the city realign its transportation policies and project with its climate change objectives (they are far, far from in alignment now).

Sacramento Area Bicycle Advocates (SABA) with partners has created a petition you can sign to support a more effective and equitable transportation system. The petition and background information are at https://sites.google.com/sacbike.org/cleansac/home.

In its final report, the Mayors’ Commission on Climate Change recommended that to achieve its climate goals, Sacramento must prioritize the use of active transportation, public transit, and shared mobility services, and then electrify remaining vehicles. Reducing vehicle miles traveled by prioritizing walking, biking, rolling, and transit is the most effective way to reduce emissions in Sacramento.

We are asking the Sacramento City Council to:

1. Build a Comprehensive Active Transportation Network.
Commit to and take action to build a seamless, low-stress network of active transportation corridors, for the central city and connections into and out of the city. An infrastructure that supports safe walking, biking and rolling should include the following elements: separated bikeways, secure bicycle parking, adequate lighting, widened sidewalks, traffic calming, and other speed reduction measures.

2. Commit Funding.
Prioritize and set aside funding within the city budget for an active transportation program. Set aside the necessary matching funds to qualify for the federal and state infrastructure programs this year and in future years. Deliberately seek additional funding and financing through grants, state and federal programs, and other revenue sources.

3. Adopt Policy Guidance to Reduce Vehicle Miles Traveled.
All land use decisions should require consideration of reducing vehicle miles traveled when new projects and modifications to existing projects are evaluated by staff and reviewed and approved by City Commissions and Council.

4. Focus on Equity.
Prioritize a consistent focus on equity for project timing and funding.

5. Engage the Community.
Engage the community and regional experts in developing an active transportation program that works for everyone.

6. Ensure Adequate Staffing.
Ensure adequate staffing and resources to develop and administer the program, including the funding/financing aspect.

I’ll comment first on the petition. It is good, but does not go far enough in my opinion. Two improvements I would make:

1. Build a Comprehensive Active Transportation Network. Add short-term bicycle parking everywhere, and secure long-term bicycle parking at all retail and job centers. Recognize bike share as an integral part of the transportation system, including funding it in low-income neighborhoods.

2. Commit Funding. The city should pursue grants and other funding sources, but must also invest significant budget resources to transportation. The city provides the required match for grants, but almost no other funding. The result is that city funds are spent as a match on large projects, and small projects that could otherwise use the funding and have an immediate impact on safety and equity, are neglected. It is rare for cities to rely almost entirely on grant funding, as the Sacramento does for it active transportation and complete streets projects. Sacramento is an outlier.

The city’s page is at http://www.cityofsacramento.org/Public-Works/Transportation/Planning-Projects/Climate-and-Transportation. The major graphic is below, though note that the workshop date has been changed to February 8, 5:00pm.

One of the major programs being proposed to council is a network of bikeway superhighways, shown on the map below. The concept of bicycle superhighways comes recently from Milan, though other European cities have long had such facilities.

The bikeway superhighways part of the proposal seems to be the flagship of the program, so I’ll make a few comments on that.

In the north, the Niños Parkway must be extended over Interstate 80 into the commercial centers to the north. Otherwise, it fails to connect residents to jobs, and falls short at mitigating the major barrier to travel represented by the freeway.

In the south, the 24th St and MLK corridors must be extended south at least to Florin Rd, if not further. Otherwise the residential areas north and south of Florin Rd are isolated from the job opportunities to the north.

Within the bikeways superhighways portion of the city page, there is a statement: 6. Complete the existing bikeway network within 4 miles of the Central City by closing gaps in the network and calming traffic. I do not deny that this might have the greatest impact in reducing VMT (vehicle miles traveled), and since I live in the central city, I’d be a beneficiary. However, this conflicts with the equity goals stated on this page, and throughout city policy. This is the area that has always received the greatest city investment, in infrastructure and in maintenance. The rest of the city to the north and south has largely been neglected. In my view, it is time to turn this on its head. Only projects and investments in low-income areas, or which demonstrably serve to connect low-income neighborhoods to jobs and regional amenities, should be funded. Period. We have a century of disinvestment in low-income areas, greatly accelerated by the urban renewal fiasco of the 1950-1970s. Now is the time to start undoing that damage.

The term ‘congestion relief’ should be removed from the city page, and city documents. Congestion relief is always taken to mean making it easier to drive. Congestion in fact is always a natural check on overuse of motor vehicles, and by reducing traffic speeds, makes it safer for bicyclists. And probably walkers as well, but the research on that is not as clear.

I hope you’ll get involved. SacMoves, the coalition of transportation and air quality advocacy groups, will be discussing the city proposal in depth, and there may be more information to share before the city workshop.

Katie’s Mid-Year Budget Request Sign-On

Katie Valenzuela, Sacramento councilmember for District 4, posted a request for people to sign on to ideas for a mid-year budget adjustment to include several transportation and livability issues, at https://docs.google.com/forms/d/e/1FAIpQLSc2klsRgKrTcY4Ndoh7OWpz9CdwS_-Vb5rZvrrqG9Td75Z1Ig/viewform.


“In the year I’ve been in office, I’ve heard from thousands of people regarding their concerns and ideas about needed improvements in their neighborhoods. When I bring these community concerns to staff, I hear a lot of support and empathy for the issues raised, but it is often followed by a somber realization: there isn’t a sufficient budget to provide these services.

While I understand the limitations of the City budget, I also believe there are basic services any City should provide:

  • Streetlights, particularly in older neighborhoods that lack sufficient lighting to promote safety for all road users.
  • Sidewalk repair, the costs for which we put onto property owners during the 2008 recession. Sidewalks are a public good everyone uses and should be maintained by the City.
  • Public Restrooms to serve everyone in our city, particularly at parks. This should also include porta potties near large encampments.
  • Road and traffic safety improvements, particularly targeting streets and intersections where there are repeated collisions or injuries.
  • Public garbage cans and collection to help mitigate litter.

These needs aren’t unique to District 4, but are issues I’ve also observed citywide. As we approach the midyear and future budgets, I urge you to join me in asking that we consider the quality-of-life improvements the community is asking for and appropriate funds for these purposes.”


These five items are all transportation issues to some degree or another.

Streetlights: Many people will not walk at night when there is insufficient lighting. They feel unsafe. Many intersections are poorly lit for people walking, providing light for drivers but not for people in crosswalks.

Sidewalk repair: The lower the income level of a neighborhood, which is strongly but not complete correlated with people of color, the poorer the sidewalks. This is an ongoing problem in north Sacramento and south Sacramento, but exists other places. When the city claims it has not responsibility for maintaining sidewalks, but does maintain roadways, it is sending a clear message that drivers are more important than walkers. This must change. The first step is not to start fixing sidewalks, but to change city code so that the city is responsible for maintaining sidewalks, not adjacent property owners. There may be situations in which a tree on private property damages a public sidewalk, but most of the damage from trees occurs by city owned trees in the sidewalk buffer area. In fact, the worst sidewalks are often adjacent to city-owned property, where the ordinance requiring property owner repair apparently doesn’t apply. (In the interests of transparency, if one wishes to see truly horrible sidewalks, visit the City of Los Angeles. Makes Sacramento look like a walking paradise.)

broken sidewalk on V Street, Sacramento

Public restrooms: Any person who is walking is likely to be making a slower trip than a driver, and more likely to need to use a restroom during their trip. Walkers are also more likely to chain destinations, and therefore need a restroom during a longer trip, while drivers often make shorter individual trips to single destinations. The city has resisted making public restrooms available, partially in an effort to make unhoused people unwelcome. One new restroom was built in Cesar Chavez Plaza, and some parks have restrooms available for some hours, but many park restrooms remain locked. For example, the one in Fremont Park has been locked up for two years now.

Traffic safety improvements: This one is obvious. What is not obvious is that the city has an unwritten policy that it will only make major street changes with federal, state, and regional grants, not out of the general budget. A few things are done as part of routine maintenance, when a street is repaved and re-striped, but this is a tiny fraction of what is needed. Improvements to high-injury intersections and corridors should be a funded part of the city budget, not dependent upon grants from outside.

Public garbage cans: Again, people walking are likely to generate things that need to be trashed or recycled. For example, walk to your local coffee shop and then continue on your journey, you end up with an empty cup to dispose of. People driving simply throw it on the floor, or out the window in many cases. And if they throw it on the floor, it is likely to be thrown on the ground the next time the vehicle is parked. I know this because this is the pattern for people who commute in from the suburbs and park in the central city. I’ve observed it hundreds of times. It is true that in areas with active business improvement districts, there are more public garbage cans, but that leaves many areas of the city out, which are just as deserving of the service.

The city discriminates against people walking (and bicycling). These budget items would be a first step towards redressing that.

I will say that the greatest need for these improvements is not in District 4, which has often received more attention from the city than any district other than District 1. Sacramento has had and continues to have a serious equity failing, spending more money on repair and improvements in higher income areas.

pinching bike lanes

Another classic mistake by the City of Sacramento. Re-striping was just done on several blocks of N Street. Eastbound on N Street 22nd Street, this is what it looks like.

N St eastbound at 22nd St

Take a close look. Extend the dashed line forward, and you’ll see the taper, from a regular bike lane adjacent to a parking lane, to just a bike lane. Look even closer. See where the no parking sign is? A vehicle can park that close to the intersection, completely blocking the bike lane, and in fact blocking part of the general purpose lane. Yesterday, when I rode by, but neglected to take a photo, there was a large pedestrian-killer pickup truck parked right up to the no parking sign, and it was actually covering up three of the dash marks. Riding a bicycle in the bike lane and expecting it to continue? In Sacramento, that is not a reasonable expectation.

I would hope that the striping crew, whether city or contractor (not sure which this was) would notice the problem and stop painting until this was clarified. But it is not really the responsibility of the stripers. This design was signed off on by a ‘professional’ engineer employed by the city. This is the quality of people the city employs.

Westbound on N Street, it is not as bad since the no parking sign is further from the intersection. See below.

N St westbound at 22nd St

It is still a poor design, but nowhere near as dangerous.

As I’ve said before (traffic calming in the central city), these median islands, when placed in this way, as a widening of the center line only at intersections, are a hazard to bicyclists, though they do provide some safety for pedestrians. The best traffic calming measure, and the one that should be used by the city, is traffic diverters.

Sac Transportation Priorities Plan

I’ve been intending on writing something useful on the City of Sacramento Transportation Priorities Plan, but here we are just a few days away from the deadline to comment, June 14th, and I’ve not done so. I encourage you to go to the webpage (https://www.cityofsacramento.org/Public-Works/Transportation/Planning-Projects/Transportation-Priorities-Plan), review, and provide your input.

curb ramps

While walking in the central city today, I saw this brand new curb ramp on the southwest corner of X Street and 24th Street.

new curb ramp, southwest corner of X Street & 24th Street

Why, why, why, did the city put in a diagonal curb ramp when they should have put in a two perpendicular ramps? Though I’ve searched in vain through city documents looking to see what the criteria is for a single ramp per corner versus two ramps per corner, I have heard it said by city staff that the single ramps are for residential neighborhoods and the two ramps are for urban neighborhoods. This is definitely an urban neighborhood setting, with both 24th Street and X Street being arterials. Yet the city put in a single ramp. They call this a ‘single flare curb ramp’. What should have been installed here is a ‘standard curb ramp’. The city diagrams do not show exactly this situation, where there is a sidewalk buffer (planter strip) on X Street, with an attached sidewalk on 24th Street, but the diagram below is the closest to the situation.

If the city development code does not specify that single, diagonal ramps should be used only in purely residential situations (if even there), it should be modified to be so.

2021-03-12: Adding a photo that better shows the context for this diagonal ramp. This is the southwest corner, X Street to the right and 24th Street to the left. There is space for perpendicular ramps. Of course this would have been a great location for a curb extension (bulb out) on both 24th Street and X Street, but yes, that would be significantly more expensive and might involve drainage issues.

curb ramp at southwest corner of 24th St & X St

2021-03-17: Adding a photo of a new curb ramp in the same area of town, at 22nd Street and W Street, showing the correct perpendicular curb ramps. It isn’t that the city doesn’t know how to do it right, it is that they chose not to at the intersection of X Street and 24th Street.

perpendicular curb ramps at 22nd Street & W Street

Sac one-way to two-way

The City of Sacramento Downtown Mobility Project includes the conversion of two one-way street segments to two-way. Specifically, I Street from 15th St to 21st St, and 5th Street from I St to X St. The time frame for these changes was projected to be 2021.

Note that 5th Street is already two-way from L St to J St, and from I St to Railyards Blvd. One-way 5th Street significantly handicaps access from the south to and from Sacramento Valley Station.

Downtown Mobility Plan

The 2040 Sacramento General Plan mobility element Proposed Roadway Changes map (10MB; this is from the City Council agenda item 15 for January 19, 2021, I’ve not found it on the city website) indicates additional one-way to two-way conversions in the central city. On the clip of the city-wide map showing the central city, below in pinkish, these are small sections of 3rd St, sections of 7th St and 8th St, one block of 16th St, small sections of 19th St and 21st St, sections of G St and H St, some additional sections of I St, a long section of N St, and small sections of L St and P St under the Business 80/Capital City freeway. There is no indication of sequencing of these conversions in documents available so far, but since the plan is a 20 year plan, I would hope that these conversion are prioritized for the next five years.

2040 Sacramento General Plan, Proposed Roadway Changes, excerpt

I’ve written a number of times about the safety hazards of one-way streets and recommendations for converting them in Sacramento: One-way streets, again; 5th Street mess at Sac Valley Station; more on conversion to two-way streets; street changes. When these additional conversions are implemented, the central city will be closer to my ideal of no one-way streets except when there is a separated (protected) bikeway on the street. An even this is questionable, as it increases safety for bicyclists but does little to increase safety for walkers.

Someone recently asked when the streets in the central city were converted to one-way, and I don’t know. Anyone out there have information?

pavement condition in Sac City, part 2

I started wondering about other variables that might affect pavement condition index (PCI) in the council districts, so here is a little more exploration. See the previous post: pavement condition in Sac City.

First, the council district map, for those who may not be familiar with boundaries.

I wondered about the relationship between population density (people per square mile) and PCI. There isn’t any correlation, though again, the district 1 and 8 outliers may be interesting. I did not realize that district 8 has the highest population density of the districts.

I wondered about the relationship between lanes miles and PCI. There is a weak correlation.

And finally, here is my current data table, in case you want to play with data or suggest insights. Note that the population of each district is roughly the same, as it should be. The unfunded column is the amount (millions of dollars) of backlog, to bring roadways up to PCI 75, but it does not include the ongoing yearly expense of maintaining them at that level.