Speed kills

Narrower streets and wider bike lanes and sidewalks should cut down on fatalities

A 2002 study ranks the capital as the 23rd most dangerous city in the state to walk or bicycle.

A 2002 study ranks the capital as the 23rd most dangerous city in the state to walk or bicycle.

Photo by Larry Dalton

Perhaps narrower lanes and slower traffic could have prevented the death of the Sacramento man killed on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard on December 31. The driver of a Camry failed to see him crossing the street and hit him. The man, who later died at Sutter General Hospital, just happened to be the last pedestrian fatality in 2002.

Street improvements definitely could have helped in the case of Peter, who asked that SN&R not use his last name. He was injured on his bicycle in Sacramento because the narrow bike lane in which he was riding was filled with debris. “These lanes are so small that there is no room to ride, and this leads to dangerous situations, which don’t encourage people to get out and explore Sacramento by bicycle or on foot,” Peter said.

Large, clear bike lanes; slower traffic; and streets that are more beautiful may become a reality in 2003.

With numerous narrow bike lanes, unmarked crosswalks and speeding traffic, most pedestrians or bicyclists would agree that the Sacramento area is not the safest place for taking a stroll or bicycle ride. There are numbers to prove it: A study released in August by the Surface Transportation Policy Project and California Walkers ranks Sacramento 23rd out of the 58 most dangerous cities in California to walk or bicycle. Sacramento County is the second most dangerous county in the state, with an alarming 30 reported pedestrian fatalities and 551 injuries in the past year. Wide arterial streets allowing for high-speed traffic are often to blame.

According to the report, an increasing number of citizens don’t want to risk death or injury just to cross the street anymore. “In the past five years, the number of individual organizations dedicated to walking and the promotion of pedestrian safety and rights in California has boomed from zero to 14,” the report states. This increase represents the many walking and cycling activists who are tired of being ignored. Recent improvements in cities outside the Sacramento area are due, in large part, to thousands of citizens raising their voices about the need for transformations.

Armed with new traffic-engineering techniques and research that shows two-lane streets can work just as efficiently as four-lane streets as long as a dedicated turn lane is provided, communities across the country are shrinking their streets, widening sidewalks and adding bicycle lanes. Such changes are happening or are proposed in more than 20 California cities, including San Francisco and Mountain View.

The idea is gaining momentum in Sacramento. In June 2002, the Department of Public Works decided to narrow its standard travel-lane width from 11 feet to 10 feet, a move designed to reduce traffic speeds and increase livability and space for other street users, such as bicyclists and pedestrians. The proposal also called for marked crosswalks at all intersections, to help guide pedestrians and alert drivers to safe places to cross streets; and for “countdown pedestrian signals” at high-volume intersections, to tell walkers how long they have to cross.

In response to this and other studies, the department is continuing the state’s trend toward a pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly outlook, with what’s called the “Pedestrian Friendly Street Standard Revision.” Officials say the purpose of the project is twofold: Changes will improve pedestrian and bicycle safety and will help to beautify residential streets.

The changes, however, will only guide new development; the only change to existing roads will be the bike lane striping on all mid-sized city streets. Other than the bike lanes, current city streets will not be altered for the time being.

Proposed changes will affect local residential, local non-residential, collector and arterial streets differently. In brief, there will be narrower lanes for local residential and local non-residential streets, and rolled curbs will be replaced with vertical curbs. City officials hope these changes will reduce traffic speed, minimize the distance for a pedestrian to cross at an intersection and prevent vehicles from parking on sidewalks. Bike lanes will be added to all collector streets, and all city streets will have increased bike-lane widths and will have curbside park or planter strips added. These planter strips, with trees and other greenery, not only will add to the aesthetic appeal, but also will increase pedestrians’ feeling that they are safe from vehicles passing by.

City officials hope the modifications also will improve Sacramento’s appearance and overall environmental health. Landscaping along roads beautifies neighborhoods and gives children more space to play safely in their communities. Officials also hope the changes will encourage citizens to take more trips on foot because of the increased safety. That, in turn, would reduce street congestion and lower auto emissions, thus improving air quality.

Anne Geraghty, executive director of WalkSacramento, applauds the department’s pedestrian viewpoint and said the changes are a great beginning. However, she said she sees room for improvement in efforts to slow down traffic. “Studies have shown that a street width of 30 feet (which is currently being proposed by the project) does not slow the traffic as much as was hoped. A width of 24 or 26 feet is much more effective,” Geraghty said.

Engineer Peter Jacobsen, also with WalkSacramento, said he feels the city needs to strike a balance between motorists and pedestrians for the city’s overall well-being. “The growing obesity problems in this country and the fact that crime decreases when people know their neighbors are just two of the many reasons why we should be walking and cycling around town and in our neighborhoods,” he said.

Some builders and property owners, however, specifically those in the North Natomas area, are concerned about some of the proposed changes. Many developers agree that the intent of the project is good, but they disagree with the way it’s being implemented. “We are changing standards mid-season,” said one property owner during a community open-house meeting at the Department of Public Works.

The largest problem for builders seems to be with the local residential street standards changing from a 41-foot width to a 53-foot width. This could affect density for the builders. Property owners also were concerned about the maintenance of the proposed planters. The change from rolled curbs to vertical curbs also poses difficulties for cul-de-sacs and could increase building costs that are passed on to homeowners.

“We don’t want to upset densities or force builders to redo construction plans,” Assistant City Engineer Jesse Gothan said. In light of the many issues brought forth from public meetings, the department’s initial schedule has been altered to allow officials to hear detailed suggestions from all interested groups. The proposal will be presented to the City Planning Commission, and the City Council meeting initially scheduled for January 9 is now planned for February 25. “We are in the process of coordinating meetings with landowners, most in North Natomas because of their specific concerns, so we can make any needed changes before the project goes to the City Council,” said Gothan.

Overall, activists agree that the Department of Public Works is moving down the right road to promote and encourage pedestrian and bicycle activity in Sacramento. With a few changes, to make pedestrians and property owners more pleased with the new standards, Sacramento should receive a better rating from the STPP and California Walkers, be home to a few more healthy pedestrians and bicyclists, and have fewer fatalities next year.