The eternal argument on speed limits has resurfaced on Twitter. The binary solution is: a) lower speed limits, or b) redesign roadways. This is a false dichotomy, to which I answer yes! Ultimately, the solution is to redesign roads (and motor vehicles) so as to physically enforce posted speed limits. But in the meanwhile, speed limits that are posted too high for urban areas (and with speeds that alway exceed that, because the road was designed for a higher speed than is posted) should be reduced.
There are two types of speed: posted speed, on the speed limit sign, and design speed, the speed that the road was designed for. Design speeds have traditionally been much higher than posted speeds, at least 10 mph higher, and often more, because the traffic engineer’s value system says that we must always protect drivers from their errors by providing a road that is safer at higher speeds. This is highway design thinking, applied to city streets, and is always inappropriate outside freeways and rural roads (and maybe even there). Protecting other users of the road (walkers and bicyclists) does not traditionally figure into this at all.
As a starting point, local or residential streets should be 20 mph maximum, collector streets 30 mph maximum, and arterial streets 40 mph maximum. These are maximums, more than is appropriate for many roads. 40 mph may never be appropriate in an urban area. Of course most arterial streets are stroads, roads designed for higher speeds but then knee-capped my multiple driveways and intersections. These roads should never have been built that way, or allowed to evolve that way, and must be radically changed.
Existing posted speed limits for the city are available.
It should be noted that most research indicates that the majority of fatality and severe injury crashes are caused by people egregiously exceeding speed limits, by 10 mph or more. It is not unusual for speed surveys, and the rare law enforcement, to record a few drivers exceeding freeways speeds on surface streets. Roadway design, along with lower speed limits, probably does little to change the behavior of egregious speeders, and those are better addressed through automated enforcement.
The City of Sacramento has a number of complete streets or road reconstruction projects underway or planned. Two significant ones are Northgate Blvd and Stockton Blvd. Stockton is on the city’s high injury corridor Vision Zero plan, Northgate is not.
The city has been through several cycles of planning for Broadway and Stockton Blvd. The current plan is the Stockton Blvd Plan – Community Working Version. Though public concerns about motor vehicle speed have been a recurring theme, the city plans to address this by reducing travel lanes and planting trees. They do not intend to reduce the posted speed limit. In fact, speed limit is hardly mentioned in any of the documents. In fact, design speed is never mentioned. The city is pretending that posted speed limits have nothing to do with roadway design. The city is not willing to share with the public its intended design speeds.
The posted speed limits on Broadway and Stockton are 35 mph and, south of Lemon Hill, 40 mph. Broadway and Stockton are ‘other principal arterial’ in the state functional classification system, one step below freeway. And much of Stockton’s current design is very freeway-like. Given the intensity of uses along both Broadway and Stockton, posted speed limits of 30 mph would be appropriate. Instead, the city intends to maintain 35 mph and 40 mph for the redesigned road. This will ensure that they remain stroads rather than streets.
Northgate Blvd is not on the city’s high injury corridor Vision Zero Plan, but was identified because it is a road with intensive local use in a disinvested community. The planning effort for Northgate is in an earlier stage. An existing conditions report, appendices, and initial community outreach are available. These reports document that posted speeds are mostly 40 mph, with a small section 45 mph. Recorded speeds are not that far off from posted speeds. but then again, the 40 mph speed is above what one would normally find in an urban area. Northgate is a ‘other principal arterial’, one step below a freeway. Parts of Northgate are have freeway-like designs, but most of it is more like a simple stroad.
Though public concerns about motor vehicle speed have been a recurring theme, the city plans to address this by narrowing travel lanes and planting trees. I participated in the initial workshop on Northgate, and I and others asked whether the posted speed limit would be reduced. The answer was no. But it is early enough in the planning process that this could be changed by public pressure. Another online workshop was scheduled for yesterday (I was unable to participate), and an in-person open house will be October 22 (Saturday, October 22 from 11:30am-1:30pm at Garden Valley Elementary School).
The city’s standard answer to questions about reducing speed limits is that they cannot be changed, because of the 85% rule (not a law, but guidance by Caltrans and courts), but this is incorrect. When a street is reconstructed, whether complete streets or other, the city can design for and set whatever speed limit it wants. It is as though a new street is being constructed. But the city doesn’t want to see it that way.
I think to redesign a road without seriously considering a reduction of the posted speed limit, as well as the design speed, is throwing money down the toilet. These projects will probably be in place for 30 years. 30 years of less than ideal design, 30 years of less than a fully functional and livable street, 30 years of failure to take climate change seriously, 30 years of unnecessarily high fatalities and severe injuries.
Research on the effects of reducing posted speed limits are mixed. Some have indicated a significant impact, particularly at the higher end of the speed range (over 35 mph), and others indicating no significant change. Though even one life saved by a lower posted speed limit is worthwhile to me, it also points out that the ultimate solution to speeding is not just posted speed limits, or enforcement of those, but also roadway redesign. As I said, both!
Law enforcement of speed limits has been well documented as a tool of harassment and oppression of people of color and low income, so I am not in favor of in-person enforcement. Automated enforcement can easily manage speeds and particularly egregious speeders.
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.
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.
The City of Sacramento is undertaking a Stockton Blvd Corridor Study, covering the section between Alhambra Blvd and 47th Ave / Elder Creek Rd, but focused on the two high injury segments around Broadway to 14th Ave and north of Lemon Hill Ave to south of 47th Ave / Elder Creek Rd. Map below.
Tomorrow, Thursday June 25, there will be a virtual open house at 6:00 pm. There is also a survey which is open through Tuesday, June 30. The survey offers existing conditions information for each of several segments, and then presents two options are asks the user to select one of the other, and make comments if they wish. The options were developed as a result of a community engagement process which was partially led by Jackie Cole of VG Consulting. I attended one of the meetings in February, which had more actual community members than most such meetings, but was only moderately attended. I did not attend any of the other events.
I would encourage anyone who travels on Stockton Blvd, and particularly people who live on or do business on the corridor to take the survey and attend the virtual open house. Please use the comment boxes to tell stories of your personal experiences and concerns using the corridor, as they make a huge difference in the design ultimately selected (we hope).
The nature and width of Stockton (both the street and the right of way) varies considerably over the length of the section, so there is not a single roadway design that can be used throughout.
The survey and background documents do not address the number of driveways along several sections of the road. In some places there are more driveways than not driveways, with each commercial property having one or more driveways. The density of driveways mean that most measures taken to make the street safer for walkers and bicyclists, and faster for transit, will fail. The city must reduce the number of driveways, whereever consolidation is possible. A key question which the survey never asks is what should be the priority of the different travel modes along the corridor. I would argue for:
private motor vehicles
But your priorities may be different. The reason I place transit at the top is that SacRT Route 51, when highest ridership route in the entire system, runs on Stockton from Broadway to 47th Ave and beyond. This is the sort of ridership that would justify bus rapid transit (BRT) in most cities, and some of the options do ease bus travel but fall short of BRT. And of course people must either walk or bicycle to the bus, and so these two modes must come next. High quality sidewalks and bike facilities can ease these ‘first mile’ trips, and make it possible to reduce somewhat the frequency of bus stops, further speeding the bus.