Changes to the boulevard
The Esplanade is great for motorists, but it’s dangerous for bicyclists and pedestrians
Back in the late 1950s, when Fred Davis sat down to redesign The Esplanade, one of his goals was to synchronize the flow of traffic in a way that enabled drivers to simultaneously hit green lights in both directions.
Davis, who died last April at the age of 90, was then Chico’s public works director, but he later would become city manager and serve in that role for 33 years. Working with a young engineer, Earl Talken, Davis sketched out a design for the now-iconic boulevard in just two hours. It subsequently—and much to his surprise—became a model for similar multiway boulevards across the country.
To synchronize the flow of traffic, Davis spaced signals at carefully set distances (the odd-numbered avenues plus Lincoln Avenue and Memorial Way) and eliminated left turns at these signalized intersections. The lights were on timers, and if a person drove at a steady speed—currently set at 28 mph—he or she could hit green lights all the way.
It worked beautifully. Traffic flowed smoothly, and residents along the boulevard could reach their homes simply by turning onto a frontage road.
But that was more than 50 years ago, when greater Chico’s population was about a third what it is now; Chico State, Enloe Medical Center and Chico Senior High School were much smaller; there were few businesses along the corridor; and bicycling was mostly a child’s sport.
Today The Esplanade is one of the four busiest streets in Chico, one that handles 22,000 to 25,000 vehicle trips per day. Residences have given way to businesses, and the hospital and the high school both have expanded greatly. The Esplanade is also heavily used by pedestrians and bicyclists, and by every reckoning it is dangerous for them.
Anyone who has tried to cross East First Avenue while bicycling along one of the frontage roads knows how difficult it is. Cars seem to come from every direction, there’s no clear delineation of where a cyclist should go, and there’s no signal to make it safer.
Data show that the busy intersection has a bicycle/car collision rate that is three times greater than the state average, said Brendan Ottoboni, the city’s public works-engineering director.
Motorists enjoy how The Esplanade allows for an easy flow of traffic, and they appreciate the beautiful trees that make it such an attractive part of the city. As Ottoboni says, however, this experience insulates them from the underlying safety shortcomings of the corridor.
In fact, The Esplanade is seriously out of compliance with federal and state regulations for traffic safety, including the Americans with Disabilities Act. This creates serious liability issues for the city.
There are no pedestrian signal heads at signalized crossings; the signals don’t allow sufficient “green time” for anybody to get across, much less people with disabilities; there are no island refuges on the medians; and there are no ADA-appropriate sidewalk ramps.
Eileen Robinson, a member of the Chico Unified School District’s board of education, is disabled and uses crutches or an electric cart to get around. At the City Council’s first public hearing on the corridor study, on Jan. 19, she pointed out that it’s impossible for her to get across The Esplanade in the time allotted by the signals.
Then she noted that she’d seen high school kids dashing across The Esplanade and dodging traffic and, farther up the street, Enloe doctors and nurses doing the same thing.
“If we don’t act and we lose another child, how do we walk away from it?” she asked.
In 2006, under pressure from the Federal Highway Administration, the city formed an ADA Transition Committee to develop a plan for making city streets ADA-compliant. Its report, issued in 2009, gave highest priority to improving The Esplanade corridor.
In addition, the city’s general plan follows state law in calling for “complete streets”—that is, streets that are friendly not only to motorists, but also to bicyclists, pedestrians and the disabled of all ages. The Esplanade is far from “complete.”
Last May, the city began preparing its Esplanade Corridor Safety and Accessibility Study, which also looks at a stretch of Oleander between First Avenue and Memorial Way. It hired Steve Weinberger, the co-founder and principal of Santa Rosa-based W-Trans, an engineering consultancy that has worked for the city before, most recently on the downtown couplet project.
Weinberger ultimately identified several “hot spots” that needed special attention.
Perhaps the most troubling of them, he told the council, was the congestion in front of and around Chico High during morning drop-off and afternoon pick-up hours. Every day, for instance, the intersection of West Sacramento and The Esplanade invites some kind of collision—and, indeed, there have been several over the years.
Students walking and bicycling, parents in cars coming from several directions, commuters heading downtown; all come together in an intersection that has almost no guidance—no lights, no signage, no clear routes. It’s a mess. For the students, “it’s like a game of Frogger,” Ottoboni said.
The intersection of First Avenue and The Esplanade is another messy hot spot. It’s a funnel for motorists coming off the freeway who want to go downtown or to the university. But when drivers hit The Esplanade, they have only a green-ball light set to a timer that stays on for exactly as long as the lights at the other cross streets, even though traffic volume is at least four times higher. Motorists can sit through several light changes before being able to turn left toward downtown.
It is also, as mentioned above, an extremely difficult intersection for bicyclists and pedestrians to navigate.
And because there are no left-turn lanes on The Esplanade there, southbound motorists who want to head east on First Avenue instead must turn left on Second Avenue and drive on residential side streets until connecting with First Avenue at Oleander.
That’s another troubled intersection known for high accident rates, including the November 2013 death of a young Butte College student, Janee Nickerson, who was struck while riding her bicycle. The study calls for a signal to be installed there.
Another hot spot is at the corner of Memorial Way and Oleander, adjacent to Chico Junior High School. It’s a busy intersection with poor sight lines that becomes congested when school is starting and when it lets out. Weinberger and city staff are proposing putting a roundabout there. Pedro Caldera, the school’s principal, told the City Council that he strongly supported that idea. “It should ease the [congestion] situation a lot,” he said.
Perhaps nothing has changed more since Fred Davis designed The Esplanade than the number of bicyclists in Chico and their use of bikes as a primary means of transportation.
For most of them, The Esplanade is popular, despite its dangers, for the same reasons motorists like it: It offers a direct route and it’s pretty. And the frontage roads are relatively safe—until you arrive at a cross street.
Even though thousands of people bike along the corridor, it has little or nothing in the way of bicycle signage, dedicated bike lanes, or other features to make cycling safer. No wonder bicycle accident rates are high; more than twice the state average at nine intersections, and three times the average at seven of them (see diagram, page 17).
Nevertheless, said Janine Rood, executive director of Chico Velo, bicyclists are going to keep using The Esplanade. Seeming to address those who think it’s feasible to ban bicycling on The Esplanade and force riders over to Oleander, she insisted, “People want to ride on The Esplanade corridor, and no matter what you do on Oleander, they will continue to use The Esplanade.”
The plan preferred by Weinberger and city staff calls for a two-way “cycle track” to be built on the old railroad right-of-way on the east side of the corridor. Such “protected bikeways” are the best way to get people riding bikes. In Europe, where urban ridership sometimes reaches 30 percent, such bikeways are common.
“If you want less traffic on The Esplanade, get more people on bikes,” Rood said.
Weinberger and city staff have held two public workshops, both at the Enloe Conference Center. They’ve also mounted two online surveys that attracted more than 1,100 responses altogether, and have presented an initial report to the council.
At that Jan. 19 public hearing, several concerns rose to the surface. One was about the smooth ride The Esplanade currently provides in both directions. Several people, including some council members, asked whether that smooth flow—the 28 mph effect—could be preserved while also making the corridor safer.
Yes and no, Weinberger seemed to say. There is no way, for example, to increase the “green time” for pedestrians to get across The Esplanade without disrupting the flow somewhat. Indeed, there is no way to solve a number of the corridor’s problems without going to a more flexible “on demand” system that responds to actual traffic, not just a timer.
On the other hand, he said, he was convinced it would be possible to move vehicles through smoothly, though at a slightly lower speed, say around 23 mph. “It wouldn’t be as predictable as it is now,” he said, “but it would be more efficient.”
Survey results suggested that up to 80 percent of respondents were willing to sacrifice some speed for safety, he said.
Another concern had to do with the study’s long-term proposal that roundabouts at Memorial Way and First Avenue would be the best way to handle the significant problems at those intersections.
Weinberger acknowledged that large roundabouts like these are expensive and that many in the community don’t like them. But he pointed out that southbound motorists who want to turn left on Memorial Way are using the Bidwell Mansion parking lot to turn around, something State Parks has asked the city to put a stop to. (The recommended short-term remedy is to put a left-turn lane on the southbound Esplanade.)
Long-term, a roundabout at First Avenue and The Esplanade is the best way to foster smooth traffic flow on both streets, Ottoboni says.
Since the Jan. 19 council meeting, Weinberger and Ottoboni have been preparing their next report. There will be a public hearing on it at the council’s next meeting, on April 5, after which they will finalize a preferred-concept plan to present to council.
If the council approves the recommended plan, the city can begin looking for grant funding to pay for construction. Weinberger says theirs is just the kind of proposal funding agencies are looking for.