“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!
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).
Overall, the plan is great, and when someday implemented, will result in a much safer and livable Stockton Blvd. The plan addresses major concerns raised by the community, including safer and more frequent crossings, better lighting, more trees, more effective transit service, and others. However…
The plan is still too oriented to the throughput of motor vehicle traffic. Better, but not as good as it could be. Maintaining the five lane configuration for significant parts of the corridor is unnecessary.
The plan does not even mention speed limits. When any street is reconfigured/reallocated, it removes any obligation to the unsafe and outmoded 85% rule, so the city should have considered speed limit changes for the corridor.
The plan recommends two-way cycle tracks in some locations. These are great for traveling along, but the problem comes in transitioning into and out of them at the beginning and end. Unless very clear guidance and priority is provided, these transitions can be very unsafe, particularly for less experienced bicyclists. In most cases, a bicycle signal head with exclusive bicyclist phase is required at beginning and end.
The plan acknowledges the challenging intersection of Stockton Blvd/34th Street/R Street as a “unique challenge” (page 13), but doesn’t even suggest solutions. I believe that the only way to make this intersection safe is to either restrict R Street or 34th Street, or to construct a flyover for light rail, similar to that for 19th Street, Watt Ave, and Sunrise Blvd. Yes, the expense of any of these might be beyond the scope of this plan, but eliminating this issue from the plan makes it difficult to compare the relative cost and benefit of other solutions.
On page 36, a diagram shows a bike lane eastbound on T Street to the right of a dedicated right hand turn lane. Bike lanes should never be to the right of dedicated turn lanes unless there is a bicycle signal head to create an exclusive bicyclist phase, which the plan does not propose. This must be fixed.
Shared bus and bike lanes will be a new concept for the city, and region. I support the implementation of these, and have used them in several other cities where transit frequency is not high. But they should be considered a pilot. If they don’t work out for bicyclists, and bus drivers, in this region, how do we fix it?
The flared intersection at Stockton Blvd and Fruitridge Road is preserved in the plan, but this is completely inappropriate. Flared intersections are always more dangerous for people crossing the street. The roadway width at the intersection, shown on page 41, is 90 feet. Crossings of this length cannot be safe, no matter what the length of the pedestrian cycle, without a pedestrian refuge median (with push buttons unless the pedestrian crossing is already on auto-recall). Double left hand turn lanes are dangerous for drivers and everyone else, as driver attention is focused on the vehicle beside, and not the roadway ahead, so these should be reduced to single left turn lanes. The right hand turns lanes should probably be eliminated, unless a traffic study shows conclusively that traffic would not clear during a signal cycle without them. The upshot is that this intersection should be completely reconfigured, not just tinkered with.
The plan does not indicate which intersection signals and signalized pedestrian crossings will be on auto-recall, or not. There is probably no justification for pedestrians activation buttons at any location on the corridor (pedestrian crossings should have auto-detection), but if there is, these should be called out clearly in the plan.
The plan shows most intersections as having skipped (dotted) green bike lanes striped through the intersection, but a few do not. They should be used everywhere. For the protected legs of partially protected intersections, the striping should be continuous rather than skipped (dotted). MUTCD frowns on this, but it has been installed many places with positive safety outcomes.
Added item: No right turn on red prohibitions should never be used without leading pedestrian intervals (LPI). Otherwise, drivers turning will immediately come into conflict with walkers in the crosswalk. I don’t think this is being proposed in this plan, but just want to make sure.
The City of Sacramento Active Transportation Commission will consider the plan this evening (2021-03-18). I apologize for not posting this in time for you to consider my suggestions, and relay them to the commission, if you agree.
Added info: There was a discussion about the prioritization of different travel modes during the SacATC meeting this evening. It reminded me of one of my favorite graphics about transportation modes, from Chicago Department of Transportation. I think this is the right answer for Stockton Blvd, and for nearly every other roadway.
As promised, a follow-on to my post on the top bicycle collision intersections in Sacramento (Sac Vision Zero Top 5 Corridors and top intersections), here is the same sort of analysis for pedestrian collisions. I used a somewhat different data set, this time only killed and severe injury crashes (KSI), for the years 2009-2017. This mirrors the data the city used in the Vision Zero Top 5 Corridors document, and so is not directly comparable to the different criteria I used on the bicycle post.
Pedestrian (walker) collisions are more dispersed that bicycle collisions, fewer occurring at intersections and more in between. Of the 408 collisions, 70 were at intersections, 17%, compared to 69% for bicycle collisions. Of these 408 collisions, twelve intersections stood out: Amherst St & Florin Rd, Marysville Blvd & Grand Ave, and Watt Ave & Auburn Blvd, each with three; and 15th St & Capitol Mall, 29th St & Florin Rd, 5th St & N St, 7th St & J St, Stockton Blvd & Broadway, Stockton Blvd & Lemon Hill Ave, Riverside Dr & X St, and Julliard Dr & Kiefer Blvd & Folsom Blvd, each with two. Of these 12 intersections, 4 are on Top Five corridors: Marysville Blvd & Grand Ave on the Marysville corridor, Stockton Blvd & Broadway on the Stockton-Broadway corridor, Stockton Blvd & Lemon Hill Ave on the South Stockton corridor, and 29th St & Florin Rd on the Florin corridor.
The map belows shows the city corridors and the twelve intersections, with the number of collisions and intersection name labeled. There is also a pdf available.
There is a better alignment between the five designated corridors and pedestrian collision intersections than was true for bicycle collisions.
I will point out that the Julliard Dr & Kiefer Blvd & Folsom Blvd intersection is the site of three pedestrian collisions and four bicycle collisions, which is higher than any other intersection in the city. It should really be a focus for the city.
Addition 2021-03-02: Someone asked how the pedestrian collision locations relate to disadvantaged communities. Below, a map with CalEnviroScreen 3 2018-06 (CES) layer, with red end being higher pollution, green being lower, and weighted with income. CES is not the only measure of disadvantage, but it is one commonly used.
Following the online virtual open house, I realized I could not picture the situation on some segments of Stockton. Though I’ve traveled Stockton many times, I had not in a while, so I went back. I had commented during the open house, as well as after, that I didn’t think the cross-sections presented gave enough information on or weight to trees, so that was part of my agenda, to see the tree situation better. The day I went, last Sunday, was one of the cooler days in a while, high of 80 degrees Fahrenheit, but on the street the lack of shade and heat was noticeable. Add 20 degrees, and it would be intolerable for walking and unpleasant for bicycling.
The tree situation is not good. There are some sections with healthy trees, and some places where trees on commercial properties are healthy and shade the sidewalks, but on the whole, trees are lacking. The first photo below, taken looking south, to the south of Broadway, shows a long section with no trees at all, no buffer, no shade. The sidewalk is wide enough, but who would want to walk here?
The next photo is of the section adjacent to UC Davis Medical Center where trees are present in a slightly too narrow buffer. The trees are relatively young, but when mature, will provide necessary shade and probably also crowd the buffer.
The next photo is of a very narrow strip where trees were present but were all cut down, and the following photo, a Google streetview capture of the trees. The trees were obviously planted in a strip far too narrow for them, and some of them were unhealthy as a result, so I’m not presenting this as a model, but as a warning that commercial properties cannot be relied upon to provide trees. Even the small trees in this narrow strip provided some shade and feeling of place to the street. In addition to this instance, there are many commercial properties and some residential properties along Stockton where the trees are dying, dead, or have been removed. And conversely, some where the trees on commercial properties are in good condition, so thank you to these properties. Trees, if they are to serve as a long-term amenity, as I believe they should, must be provided in the public right of way and maintained by the city.
A small archive of photos from Stockton Blvd are available in the Flickr album at the end of this post, and those who live along or do business along can provide more detail.
So what is the solution? The first part of the solution is that the city must modify its cross-section renderings and pages so that it highlights the tree situation. Will there be a sidewalk buffer? How wide? What numbers and kinds of trees? To what degree will the project rely on trees on private property, versus trees in the public right-of-way? I find the options presented as unacceptable because they don’t really address this issue. On a few of the pages, trees are mentioned, but never in enough detail.
I would propose for community along Stockton Blvd that there should be continuous sidewalk buffers planted with trees, all the way from Alhambra to 47th Ave/Elder Creek Rd. Where buffers are present with trees, great, make sure they are preserved and cared for. Where buffers are present but the trees are absent or unhealthy, plant new trees and care for them. Where there are no buffers, create them, and plant trees and care for them. Where there is a healthy tree line on private property, this can serve for now, but the buffer should still be provided for the protection of walkers and as a bulwark against possible abandonment of the private trees. I envision Stockton Blvd being a tree-lined community asset, where walking is a pleasure and traffic speeds and volumes are low.
For new buffers, the minimum width of the buffer should be eight feet, as anything narrower does not allow for full development of the trees, and leads to excessive root heaving of the sidewalk. The heaving is to some degree an inevitable consequence of having trees, but wider buffers and correct watering regimes reduce the problem considerably. Where the existing buffers are at least six feet and the trees are healthy, the buffer can be widened or left as is, depending on the situation. Where the buffer is narrower than six feet, the buffer must be expanded.
Where commercial businesses are present and buildings meet the sidewalk, the trees should still be present, but the spacing and species can be adjusted in consultation with the property or business owners so that they don’t block off visibility of local businesses. In most cases the buffer would be paved, with tree wells for the trees, and street furniture or other amenities in the buffer, but the buffer would still be a minimum of eight feet.
Another issues that the city diagrams and information do not address is intersections and crossings. The existing conditions report acknowledges that there are long distances between safe crossings on the south end, but doesn’t provide much detail about intersections.
The intersections as they exist actively discourage pedestrian activity. The midblock crossings, of which there are a few, do not have any additional protection. At a minimum, these locations need user-activated RRFBs (Rectangular Rapid Flashing Beacons). At many of the signalized intersections with minor streets, there is a pedestrian prohibition on either the north or south leg. These prohibitions exist solely to speed the signal cycle and encourage traffic flow; they do not exist for safety reasons. They must be removed. The photos below shows just one of the many such prohibitions. A person walking on the south side of Jansen, wanting to go south on Stockton, would have to use two crosswalks, waiting for the signal, and then walk through an overly wide commercial driveway. There is no reason for this.
At the major intersections, where crosswalks are present on all legs, the crossing distances are long. Though not as bad as many other locations in Sacramento, intersections are often flared out to add turn lanes, both left and, often, right turn lanes. This increases crossing distance. This issue can be solved in two ways: removing the unnecessary turn lanes, or adding pedestrian refuge islands in the middle, so that slower walkers can make the crossing in two stages. The medians must be six feet wide, to meet standards, and must have a pedestrian button so that people don’t become stranded. (Note: I’m not in favor of pedestrian buttons at all, except when they: 1) trigger audible information, or 2) lengthen the crossing time; however, this is one situation in which they make sense)
The project information does not really address intersections at all. City staff said that these details would be worked out later, but I find this unacceptable. Intersection design must be part of the options presented. Intersections are where most conflicts occur between pedestrians and vehicle drivers, and bicyclists and drivers as well, so they are a critical element of any effort to improve Stockton.
Some of the sections of Stockton are littered with driveways. Each commercial property has one to several. Part of improving Stockton must be to reduce the number of driveways. Each commercial property should have one driveway, or less. One of (the only) advantages of the parking moats that front the street (what I mean by parking moat is that the commercial buildings are set back away from the street, and parking lots face the street; these parking moats contribute significantly to the feeling of Stockton Blvd being a car-dominated place). In several cases, these parking moats can be combined for several properties in order to reduce the frequency of driveways. The issue with driveways is that they not only make a place feel busy and unwelcoming to walkers and bicyclists, but they are safety hazards for walkers and bicyclists very nearly as bad as the hazard of an intersection.
There is a section of ‘old’ Stockton Blvd where the buildings come to the sidewalk, and parking, if any is to the side or back. This traditional pattern (traditional before suburban sprawl) is the best built environment, the one that feels most welcoming to people outside cars. It increases customers, it makes the street feel smaller and the sidewalk feel larger.
The ‘new’ sections of Stockton Blvd where buildings are set back behind a moat of parking have exactly the opposite effect, producing an environment that feels unwelcoming to walkers, makes the sidewalk feel like a part of the street rather than a part of the neighborhood. This built form is a widely recognized mistake, but the correction will take many, many years as these commercial properties evolve. But what can happen, now, is that all new commercial buildings can be required to front the sidewalk. There are a lot of empty or abandoned parcels on Stockton, which everyone hopes will see new development. That development should be the traditional pattern that gives the street a neighborhood feel rather than a traffic sewer feel.
Another issue that the study pays scant attention to is speed limits. Whether or not the street design option work depends on design speed and posted speed. The default assumption in transportation planning is that speed limits cannot be lowered, due to California ‘law’. First, it is not a law, it is case law, established by judges, not the legislature, that says traffic tickets won’t be enforced unless speed limits are set to the level at which only 15% of drivers exceed. This will of course be changed, but the process is long, with powerful opponents, most specifically CHP whose lip service to safety is legend. But more important to this study is that streets that are reconfigured, with a change to lane width or number of lanes or mix of modes, can be set to any speed limit the city wishes. The road is new, and the past speed limit doesn’t apply.
So, in accordance with my desire to see a tree-lined neighborhood boulevard, I think that the speed limit for this entire length should be 30 mph. And of course the street must be designed to enforce that posted speed limit.
Highway 50 Interchange
The Hwy 50 and Stockton Blvd interchange is problematic for both walkers and bicyclists. There are no bike lanes through this section, at all, and walkers on the east side of Stockton face long crossing distances in a design that strongly favors high speed motor vehicle drivers. In the photo below, look at the long crossing distance on the north side of the freeway, of the exit and entrance ramps. It’s about 120 feet, with no protection from drivers, at all. I have both used and observed this crosswalk, and can confirm that very few drivers yield to walkers in the crosswalk. It is a guaranteed death trap for walkers.
The roadway striping does not delineate areas for motor vehicles and bicyclists, nor does it indicate where riders or drivers should be merging to reach their destination. It is just a wide-open area, and as with all wide-open areas, drivers will assume they have complete right-of-way. You can see by the tire tracks that the turns on and off the freeways are being taken at high speed.
This interchange must be completely reconfigured for the safety of walkers and bicyclists, and drivers for that matter. The entry and exit ramps must connect with the street at 90 degree angles, requiring drivers to make low speed turns. Bicycle lanes with green conflict markings must be installed throughout the interchange. Sidewalks must be improved and crossing distances shortened to no more than 22 feet.
It is disappointing that such a critical safety hazard was not addressed in the study.
The study, online survey, and open house never address the key issue for the entire corridor, which is: what should be the priority of travel modes in design of the street? Some of the options imply a higher priority for some modes than others, but the critical question is never asked of the public. I had said in my previous post that my priorities would be transit first, then walking, then bicycling, then private motor vehicle travel. However, having spent more time looking at and thinking about the corridor, I’m going to change that. The priorities should be walking first, strongly supported by the tree-lined boulevard configuration I’ve outlined and justified, then transit, then bicycling, then private motor vehicles.
What is is important here, though, it not my preference, but that the public, and in particular the residents and customers along the corridor were never asked this question.
I’ve laid out what I consider some major flaws in the study. I am not against the particular options that were presented, and from that limited perspective, the study has done a good job. But the number of things NOT considered is glaring. I know the city hopes to address these issues later, but I don’t find later to be acceptable. The public needs a full set in information now, so that it can comment on the study from a perspective of understanding how the street will feel after the changes, not just design diagrams, but how each traveler will get along and across the corridor, and whether it supports their desires for mobility and livability.
I think the city should pause the study process and add in the elements not addressed, then go back out to key stakeholders, and re-do the engagement process including the survey and open house.