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.

Don’t touch that button!

Here in the city of Sacramento, most signalized intersections have beg buttons, the button you press to get the pedestrian crossing. Some of these are on auto-recall, which is what it is called when the pedestrian crossing (the white walker symbol) comes on every cycle. Most of them are not; the pedestrian crossing will never change unless you press the button. A few of them won’t ever change because the beg button is broken. You would think that the city would label the buttons with their function: is it required, is it not required, does it only affect the disability audible signal? Who knows. The city can’t be bothered to tell people walking how it works.

This is a huge frustration for walkers ALL the time, but now it is more, it is a public health hazard. Is there corona virus on that button? Probably yes. Is the city cleaning the buttons? Certainly no. So the city is allowing and encouraging a public health hazard by requiring walkers to use the buttons in order to cross the street. This must stop now! The city must set all pedestrian crossings to auto-recall, at least until the end of the pandemic, and hopefully forever.

I have been going on two long walks a day, or sometimes a bike ride, since self-isolating (no, I’m not sick). The only thing I have to touch in the outside world, other than my door knob when exiting and my door knob when returning, is beg buttons. Of course I don’t touch them. I cross when it is safe; I don’t waste my time waiting to see if this is one of those required, or simply decorative buttons. Because I won’t touch the button, I have to assume that every signalized intersection is broken, not accessible to pedestrians, and I therefore have a right to cross during gaps in traffic, no matter what the pedestrian signal says.

Fix this, city. Now.

Corona virus? Your guess.

Walkable Sacramento #3: pedestrian signals

Following on to the previous post on crosswalks, policies are needed for pedestrian signals, which are intended to provide some additional protection for pedestrians crossing at signalized intersections. I am not in favor of creating signalized intersections where they don’t exist (in fact, many should be considered for removal), but where they do exist, the pedestrian signals need to be done right.

It should be noted that the NCUTCD (National Committee on Uniform Traffic Control Devices) just today decided to not recommend that the MUTCD (Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices) require that signalized intersections have pedestrian signals. I’m not sure how I feel about this: sometimes I think that we over-sign and over-signalize roadways, causing lack of attention, but at the same time, such a limitation would never be accepted if it had to do with motor vehicle movement.

Pedestrian activation buttons are often called ‘beg buttons’ because the walker must ‘beg’ permission to cross by pressing the button and then waiting an uncertain length of time. Sometimes forever, because some buttons have failed or been disconnected, and no change has been made to the signal logic to address this. Motor vehicle drivers are not required to take any such action, they are detected in various ways, or the signal is set to change automatically without detection.

Some European cities have installed automatic pedestrian detection, which changes the signal based on the presence of a walker. I have heard that some of the detectors can even distinguish people in wheelchairs, with walkers and canes, or elderly, and adjust the cycle to accommodate. I’m not aware of any of these in the United States, but would be happy to hear about them if there are.

The policies are:

  • No crossing will require the pressing of a pedestrian button unless it is a roadway over over 30,000 ADT with a crossing frequency of less than 100 pedestrians per day, or is a mid-block crossing. 
  • All pedestrian buttons will be labeled to clearly indicate whether they have any effect on the signal cycle. Buttons may serve only the purpose of:
    • triggering infrequent crossings, as above, or
    • triggering audible information, or
    • lengthening the crossing time for walkers requiring a longer time, often seniors and the disabled
  • Existing buttons will be removed unless they provide one one of the functions above, and are signed to indicate their function. Removal of others within three years.
  • All pedestrian signals will have a countdown function, unless there is a crossing frequency of less than 50 pedestrians per day, within five years. 
  • Signals will normally have a cycle of 60 seconds or less in order to reduce pedestrian wait times. Revision within two years.
from Dhiru Thadani

change the signal at J St and 13th St

The signal at J Street and 13th Street in downtown Sacramento (shown at right) does not work well for pedestrians. The signal cycle is long, even compared to other signals on J Street, so the wait for pedestrians is quite long. I have seen the signal cycle skip both pedestrian crossings and vehicle crossings a number of times, which means that the wait is doubly long. Most walkers respond to this long wait by simply crossing the street against the pedestrian signal, and I don’t blame them at all.

A second issue is that the signal is set so that the east crosswalk walk mode occurs at the same time as the left turn from 13th Street southbound to J Street eastbound, meaning there is always a conflict between pedestrians and drivers at this point, and this conflict has been created by the signal setup. Many drivers cut directly behind or in front of people walking, as they know if they wait until the crosswalk is clear, as the law requires, they won’t make the signal.

This signal should be reconfigured so that it gives priority to pedestrians, without making them wait an unreasonable period of time, and does not create unnecessary conflict between turning drivers and people walking. The east crosswalk at a minimum needs a longer leading pedestrian interval (LPI).

Even better would be to make this a pedestrian scramble intersection, with an all-direction crossing phase during which all vehicle turning movement are prohibited. The intersection can be marked with diagonal crosswalks, and additional diagonal pedestrian signal head added, however, simply changing the signal timing is sufficient as an initial step. This is a busy crosswalk intersection, with the convention center on one corner, the Sheraton Grand on another, and the parking garage for the Sheraton and others on the third corner. It is alway busy, and the people crossing here are commonly tourists, who are likely used to more advanced ‘world class’ cities where pedestrians are not second class citizens after car drivers.

Note: There are a number of busy pedestrian crossing intersection in the Sacramento central city that deserve an upgrade, but this is the one that most irritates me, whether walking or bicycling.

Teaching children to cross

children crossing, Fauntleroy at Alaska, West Seattle (Seattle Bike Blog)
children crossing, Fauntleroy at Alaska, West Seattle (Seattle Bike Blog)

Streetsblog today posted an article “Our Streets Fail to Work for Children” which referred in turn to articles from Akron and Seattle. I commented on the Seattle Bike Blog post “We are failing our kids: A look at Seattle’s terrifyingly normal streets,” but I’d like to amplify my comments and specifically talk about pedestrian education.

Poor pedestrian infrastructure, as documented in these posts, is everywhere, more so in the suburbs and rural areas than in urban areas, but everywhere. The problems include:

Continue reading “Teaching children to cross”