Hell is an intersection

The writer returns to the Freeport Boulevard/21st Street conversion and still finds it wanting

Listen up, wing nuts. If you’re searching for social engineering of the worst sort, look no further than the streets of Sacramento, specifically the Freeport Boulevard/21st Street conversion that runs between Land Park on one side and Curtis Park on the other. I first wrote about this $3.4 million boondoggle about a year ago, calling it a “first-class clusterfuck.” I’ve since moved into the neighborhood, and the anecdotal evidence I’ve collected during the interim has completely validated that assessment.

Item: I’m walking from my home on Third Avenue to Taylor’s Market. I take a left on 21st Street, walking south toward Fourth Avenue. Part of this fabulous bit of engineering the city of Sacramento has perpetrated on its innocent citizenry concerns the so-called pork-chop islands that direct right-turning traffic off of 21st Street, which is the main drag, onto neighborhood streets like Third and Fourth avenues, where the traffic moves much slower.

So I’m walking toward the store, and here’s this old man standing in the middle of Fourth Avenue, stopped in front of the pork-chop island like he can’t step over it. That’s when I notice his white cane and recall the Sacramento Society for the Blind is right around the corner. Here’s the deal: The city went to great lengths to lay down that yellow bumpy stuff for blind people to feel their way across intersections, but they forgot to cut a path through the pork chop island so they could actually cross the street without tripping and getting run over by a truck or something.

Item: If there’s a special hell for pedestrians on Earth, you’ll find it at the three-way intersection of Freeport Boulevard, 4th Avenue, and 21st Street, demarcated by Taylor’s Market on one side and the Fourth Avenue/Wayne Hultgren light-rail station on the other. Crossing from station to store is not a journey to be taken lightly. For one, the crossing signals are almost totally useless. You might wait up to seven minutes for the thing to change. It might not change at all.

So what do you do?

If you’re the iPod-wearing high-schooler I saw a couple of weeks ago, you get impatient, wait for the northbound traffic to clear and dash across the street against the light. Problem is the conversion transformed 21st Street from three lanes of northbound traffic to one lane of northbound traffic and one lane of southbound traffic. The kid didn’t see the southbound PT Cruiser coming, the driver jammed on the brakes and I came this close to scoring a free iPod.

That’s not to mention the crossing arm I saw come down on the fancy Beemer’s hood, the dozen old ladies carrying groceries who almost got nailed in the “suicide lane” and the kid who almost got hit by the light-rail train.

Item: Whoever designed this godforsaken intersection might want to take a few lessons in fluid dynamics. The conversion was supposed to slow the traffic down, but what happens when you try to force the water in your hose through a smaller diameter opening, say, like a nozzle? That’s right, the velocity increases, just like the speed of the northbound traffic on 21st Street does now that three lanes have been narrowed to one. Watching cars, buses, trucks and bicyclists careen through this particularly fast-moving bottleneck is more entertaining than the Indy 500.

Our urban planners seem to have no feeling for the psychology of speed. The simple truth of the matter is that social-engineering projects such as traffic calming always have unintended and often undesired effects. To the serious driving aficionado, the traffic light is a drag strip Christmas tree. The traffic circle isn’t an obstacle, it’s a high-speed chicane designed to test skill at hitting the apex. Speed bumps are launch ramps for rally practice. The list goes on.

Perhaps the most mystifying thing about our latest completely botched multimillion-dollar project is that there was no reason to do it in the first place. I mean, really, couldn’t we have used that $3.4 million for something else, like preventing city staff layoffs? Or buying a bunch of honey buckets for the homeless people? Or setting all the stray puppies and kittens free?

I’ll give the city some credit. Not long after I ran into that blind man, a crew came out with a concrete saw and cut a notch in that pork-chop island for pedestrians to make their way across. No doubt the work to fine-tune this monstrosity will continue long into the future. We could have saved ourselves a lot of time, money and trouble by not doing it at all.