A good start toward safer streetsThe City Council moved last week to trim down a handful of its oversized streets to make safer lanes and sidewalks for cyclists and pedestrians. It was a good first step after a vigorous discussion that reached an outcome that did not satisfy everyone, but one we hope will be a blueprint for moving ahead.
The city already has an enviable network of bike and pedestrian paths, including dedicated trails that snake out into the Baylands or head through town across El Camino Real toward the Los Altos border. But when pedestrians and cyclists are walking or riding next to a busy four-lane boulevard, or even on a two-lane street, friction can quickly develop between motor vehicles that go whizzing by at 35 or even 45 miles per hour.
Advocates for pedestrians and cyclists pressured the City Council to put some of the wide streets on a "road diet," by, in some cases, reducing the number of lanes from four to two and providing more bike lanes, left-turn lanes on California Street and installing protection for pedestrians. By doing so, the city hopes to entice more people out of their cars to walk or bike to work or where ever they want to go.
Before jumping to any conclusions, the city launched what it called "Operation T.R.A.F.F.I.C.," to research locations that are most dangerous for pedestrians and cyclists. The acronym stands for Together Raising Awareness for Fewer Injuries and Collisions. The search led to some startling findings. Police found 357 collisions since September of 2007, 244 involving bicyclists and 113 involving pedestrians, resulting in injuries ranging from minor cuts and bruises to death. On average, police logged one accident involving pedestrians or bikes every five days and seven pedestrians died after encountering a motor vehicle.
It is difficult to argue with such painful statistics. Clearly the city has a problem when bikes and pedestrians interact with motor vehicles. Although more than half of the accidents logged involved bicyclists, it is also sad and surprising to see more than 100 pedestrians were hit and that seven of them died.
In our view it is simply not acceptable for this carnage to continue. Whether our spacious four-lane boulevards like California Street have to go and be replaced with two lanes and left turn lanes, or speed limits must be drastically reduced, the city must come to grips with this serious problem. Wide boulevards often give drivers the feeling that they can push the speed limit and simply change lanes if there is trouble ahead. Now it is clear that the overwhelming need is to reduce speeds, not make it comfortable to zip through residential neighborhoods like California Street at 40 or more miles per hour. Most vehicles weigh far more than one ton and when they are moving rapidly toward a pedestrian or cyclist there is rarely time to get out of the way. The result can be a serious or fatal accident.
Left turn lanes also were discussed by the council last week, as well as the potential impact on access to businesses that now are located on a wide streets.
After former City Council member Matt Pear, whose family owns the Target property on Showers Drive, told the council he feared businesses would leave if the streets were narrowed, the city's senior traffic engineer Sayed Fakhry disagreed.
He said traffic counts on Showers Drive show that fewer than 12,000 vehicles a day use the street, making one lane in each direction adequate. And, he said, four-lane streets like California could have better traffic flow with just two lanes.
"Say you have two lanes in each direction and the faster lane has a lot of left turns — that creates a lot of unsafe situations," as cars stop in the middle of fast-moving traffic to turn," he said.
These and other common sense changes to our streets can and should be implemented, but not before careful study to make sure better safety is the outcome. Pedestrians and cyclists should not have to risk their life to walk or bike across town.