13th & J intersection

I want to acknowledge Enzo of Streets Are Better for reminding me of this intersection and provoking me to write now in more detail. Two previous posts change the signal at J St and 13th St and J & 13th needs a pedestrian scramble were briefer and did not cover all the issues.

The intersection of 13th Street and J Street in downtown Sacramento is a mess for walkers and bicyclists, largely due to poor decisions that the city has made. The setting is below, with a historical view selected for no leaves on the deciduous trees. On the southeast corner is the convention center, which is under construction now, and the southeast corner is fenced off. On the southwest corner is the Sheraton Grand Hotel. On the northwest corner is a major downtown parking garage, managed by Ace Parking. On the northeast corner is another parking garage managed by Parking.com.

intersection of 13th Street & J Street, downtown Sacramento

In the days before construction on the convention center started and the Sheraton shut down due to the pandemic, this was one of the busiest pedestrian intersections in the central city. The crossing of 7th Street at K Street/DOCO Center, L Street at 11th Street and 10th Street when the legislature is in session, Capitol Mall at Tower Bridge, and a few others are up there, but this one is certainly in the top 10. The city rarely collects pedestrian data, so I do not know what the ranking or volume is.

When the convention center is completed and open, and the Sheraton opens at full scale, this will again become a very busy pedestrian intersection. So you would think that the city would design this intersection and signals to prioritize people walking, but you’d be wrong.

The crossing of J Street on the west leg of the intersection requires pushing the ped button. There are a number of pedestrian signals in the central city that do not require pushing the button, and these are called auto-recall, meaning they automatically change on a cycle. Not this one! I just observed a number of walkers crossing here, and only about 5% of them initially realized they had to push the button. When I mentioned that the signal would never change unless they pushed it, they were surprised, and not happy. When the ped head signal does come on, it has a white hand of 5 seconds, and a countdown of 9 seconds for a total of 14 seconds. There are three lanes of motor vehicle traffic here, lanes about 12 feet wide, for 36 feet. The MUTCD recommended crossing speed is 3.5 feet/second, so 36 feet should be a minimum of 10 seconds, but this assumes that people can leave the curb immediately, not true when the activation button is set well back, and there is pedestrian congestion. In that case, the crossing speed should be 3.0 feet/second. If you want to read about the contortions traffic engineers go through to make walk cycles as short as possible, read pedestrian crossing questions and answers.

The traffic signal for J Street will remain green unless there is a vehicle waiting on 13th Street or someone pushes the ped button to cross. The ped signal to cross 13th Street goes through a white hand, countdown, brief pause, and then back to the next cycle. Without a cross-traffic vehicle or button push, the traffic signal will never cycle. Ever.

crosswalk over J Street at 13th Street

An additional problem is that sometimes the signal controller will just skip the crossing J Street part of the cycle, even when the button is pushed. Since I’m mostly on my bicycle rather than on foot here, I haven’t quite pinned down the behavior. I don’t know if it depends on time of day, or traffic volume, or is just random, but I can affirm that it happens, and not infrequently. So even after the walker presses the button, they may have to wait through another full cycle before they get the walk.

On the southeast corner, the convention center construction has closed the corner and sidewalks. In this situation, there should be a barricade and warning signs on the opposite corner, so J Street south side eastbound and 13th Street east side southbound. A fully sighted person can of course see the barrier and fence across the street, but the point of ADA requirements is to communicate to everyone, not just the sighted. Below is what is looks like, followed by what it should look like. Remember, this is a city project, not a private development, but the city apparently holds itself to lower standards than it holds private developers.

closed crosswalk over 13th Street at J Street
proper barricade and signing for a closed crosswalk, O Street at 8th Street

The east leg crosswalk also suffers from traffic flow design. The walk sign for this crosswalk comes on at the same time as the southbound green signal comes on, bringing drivers into immediate conflict with walkers in the crosswalk. There is no leading pedestrian interval (LPI) to let the walkers get a head start. At this time the crosswalk is closed, but as soon as it is reopened, the conflicts will be immediate, as they have been for years.

Solutions?

  1. Immediately institute auto-recall on the crossing of J Street, and remove the buttons. These are not modern audible buttons, they are antiques.
  2. Immediately institute a leading pedestrian interval on the crossing of J Street, to increase protection from left and right turning drivers.
  3. Immediately lengthen the pedestrian phase for the crossing of J Street to a minimum of 20 seconds.
  4. When then southeast corner of the intersection is re-opened, with completion of the convention center construction, implement an exclusive pedestrian phase for this intersection, in which there is no movement by motor vehicles during the walk cycle, and walkers can cross in any direction including diagonally. If any intersection in Sacramento deserves this treatment, this is it.
  5. Traffic calm J Street to reduce speeds. The most important step is to reduce general purpose lanes to two, and create some sort of bicycle facility. I’m not sure of the best design, as the valet/unloading/loading are for Sheraton Grand may make this challenging.
  6. Get rid of any City of Sacramento Public Works employee who believes the purpose of central city streets is to favor suburban commuters (the J Street traffic) over walkers, bicyclist, and local residents.

I have made at least seven 311 reports on the signal problems at this intersection, asking that it be changed. The only change that I’ve been able to notice is that they lengthened the pedestrian phase for crossing 13th Street, and shortened it for crossing J Street. I just gave up after a while.

Bicyclists

That covers most of the pedestrian problems at this intersection. How about bicyclists? 13th Street is a major bicycle route in downtown, being the only north-south street that crosses through Capitol Park and is not an arterial street, often with heavy traffic and higher speeds. There are bike lanes on much though not all of 13th Street to the south J Street, and there are bike lanes on most blocks to the north, except the half block approaching this intersection. Here, the bike lane has been sacrificed to create a turn lane. There is a required left turn lane and an optional turn lane, but no bike lane. So at this busiest of all intersections on the route, there is no bike lane. There is a clear message here from the city: we will accommodate bicyclists only if it does not reduce motor vehicle capacity. Otherwise, tough luck.

The loop detectors on 13th Street only sometimes detect bicycles. I often see bicyclists during off-times, when there are fewer motor vehicles to trigger the cycle, proceeding through the intersection on red, when it is safe to do so (and occasionally when it is not). They have the right to do so, since by definition a signal that does not detect vehicles (devices) is a non-functional signal, but it is not the best solution.

When the pedestrian button is pushed to cross J Street on the west leg, but no southbound motor vehicles are present, the vehicle signal remains red, so doesn’t allow for undetected bicyclists. This doesn’t protect any walkers, so it makes not sense.

Solutions?

  1. Continue the bike lane on southbound 13th Street to and through (with green skip paint) the intersection with J Street, and remove the left turn lane which prevents the bike lane from continuing. That might mean lengthening the green light for motor vehicles in order to clear the queue.
  2. Install video detection on this intersection that will detect bicyclists on 13th Street so that they don’t have to wait for motor vehicle traffic to arrive and trigger the signal cycle.
  3. Change the traffic signal for southbound to go green at the same time as the pedestrian walk sign. This allows bicyclists to proceed without confusion.

LPIs and bicyclists

Following on to the benefits of leading pedestrian interval (LPI) signals for walkers, more LPIs, these signals can also benefit bicyclists.

I routinely see bicyclists proceeding on the pedestrian signal, before the traffic signal has turned green, at every location with a LPI. And that’s what I do. Technically it is not legal to do so, so I would like to see state law changed so that it clearly is legal. Even though unlikely to be enforced, there is no reason to give law enforcement a pretext to harass bicyclists.

The permission should be for bicyclists proceeding straight, not for bicyclists turning. Though a turning bicyclist presents a tiny fraction of the danger to walkers of a motor vehicle driver, I still don’t want to see walkers using the LPI to feel intimidated by bicyclists.

When the stop as yield at stop signs, and the stop and proceed when safe at stop lights, is eventually passed in California (this is called the Idaho stop law, though it is now in several other states and being considered in more), this proceed on LPI will become moot. However, being somewhat cynical (or very), I suspect that CHP will succeed in deep-sixing any such change in law for a number of years.

The simpler step forward of permitted bicyclists to proceed straight on LPI should not be controversial with anyone, and could be passed and implemented this this legislative session.

more LPIs

I wrote some while ago about leading pedestrian indicator (LPI) signals, which give the pedestrian a head start of a few seconds before the parallel traffic light turns green. So far as I know, Sacramento has not added any locations to the list of eleven.

But the city should. In fact, I’d argue that any traffic signal where there are a significant number of walkers, and a significant number of turning drivers, should have an LPI. Drivers often fail to yield to people in the crosswalk when turning, or cut in right behind them, and the more chance the walker has to get out into the crosswalk and visible, the better. Of course nothing about the LPI prevents the driver from turning on red, unless turns on red are prohibited. Prohibiting turns on red has been much discussed lately, but I don’t think that treatment is the most important that can happen at intersections.

I live a few blocks from Fremont Park, which is the block between 15th Street and 16th Street, and P Street and Q Street. In fact, many of the parks in the central city are located between pairs of one-way streets, called couplets. 16th is one of the busiest streets in the central city, and the other two are moderately busy, and these four intersections see a lot of turning vehicles. Since I walk nearly every day to and around the park, I get plenty of chance to see how drivers interact with walkers in the crosswalk. I’ve never seen anybody hit, but I often see conflicts, the driver trying to intimidate the walker, trying to beat them to the crosswalk, stopping just short of hitting them, or cutting in close behind them.

P Street and Q Street are two-lane arterials, while 15th Street and 16th Street are three-lane arterials, with higher traffic volumes and vehicle speeds. 16th was a state highway.

So, I’m asking the city to install LPI signals for the south crosswalk at 15th & P, the east crosswalk at 15th & Q, the north crosswalk at 16th & Q, and the west crosswalk at 16th & P. The photos below show the intersection of 15th & P from pedestrian level, and overhead. The video shows two pedestrians crossing, and mostly through the crosswalk before the driver encroaches. This was a low traffic time with only one turning vehicle. When I have a chance to capture a heavier traffic time with pedestrians, I’ll replace it.

P Street westbound, showing crosswalk over 15th St ahead
15th Street & P Street, south crosswalk
crosswalk over 15th Street at P Street

I often write about the Sacramento central city because that is where I live, and I have ample opportunity to observe transportation infrastructure and driver, walker and bicyclist behavior. However, I’d like to state that I DO NOT think that central city issues should be solved first. These issues occur in many places in Sacramento, where the traffic is higher speed, facilities are poorer, and neighborhoods have been disinvested. Drivers in the central city are just as bad as drivers elsewhere, in fact most of them are from elsewhere, the suburbs, but they have grown somewhat accustomed to seeing walkers and bicyclists, and are more careful around them.

Next: LPIs and bicyclists

Leading Pedestrian Interval (LPI) signals

Questions about using Leading Pedestrian Interval (LPI) signals at the community meeting on crosswalks reminded me that I had information on these in the city for some while, but hadn’t shared it. A LPI signal gives the pedestrian a 3-second (or more, but the Sacramento ones are all 3 seconds) head start, with the walk sign coming on before the light turns green, so that pedestrians will already be in the crosswalk and more visible before vehicles start to move. These address the common issue of both right-turning and left-turning vehicles failing to yield to pedestrians in the crosswalk. They are one of the pedestrian safety countermeasures identified by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), with a crash reduction factor of 60%. If you search for ‘leading pedestrian interval’ on the Internet, you’ll see a great number of useful links. The NACTO page is especially worthwhile.

My purpose in sharing the specific locations is so you can go out and experience LPI for yourself. How does it work for you?

A LPI does slow traffic very slightly since there is an additional 3 seconds per direction during which most vehicles are not moving.

Lastly, this is not a solution that could have been used at the Freeport-Oregon intersection, which is not a signalized intersection. However, it is a solution for the signalized intersections along Freeport. Ryan Moore claimed that these can’t be used at low pedestrian locations, but the response to all such reactionary claims is: “You can’t judge the need for a bridge by the number of people swimming the river.” If crossings are not safe, then fewer people are walking than otherwise could be. The demand is there, but not the facility. LPIs are one solution.

Lead Pedestrian Interval (LPI) locations in City of Sacramento (as of 2015-08-28):

  • 9th Street and I Street
  • 9th Street and P Street
  • 10th Street and I Street
  • 10th Street and J Street
  • 15th Street and K Street
  • 29th Street and K Street
  • 30th Street and K Street
  • 9th Street and Q Street
  • 13th Street and I Street
  • 8th Street and P Street
  • 8th Street and Q Street