Die, Pedestrians, Die: The City's implicit response to major long-term safety problems | A Pragmatist's Take | Douglas Moran | Palo Alto Online |


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By Douglas Moran

Die, Pedestrians, Die: The City's implicit response to major long-term safety problems

Uploaded: Feb 18, 2014

City Staff claims that pedestrian needs are an important part of bicycle projects (see Planned Bike Route on Matadero Wins Key Vote, PA Weekly 2014 February 13), but instead Staff demonstrated that they were oblivious to major concerns pedestrians had brought up emphatically and repeatedly at the long series of public meetings (a potential posting here). Although this particular project is of concern to only a limited number of Palo Altans, it is illustrative of widespread problems.

The (adult) son of one of my elderly neighbors was visiting to help with her care. He had gone out for a walk around the block with her, and decided that it was just too dangerous--during that walk a car had blown close by them. I asked how close, and it was less than an arm length (two feet or less). Given her age and health, any collision was likely to be fatal, even if the car had been traveling at the speed limit (it wasn't).

The day of the Commission vote, another neighbor was on the way back from the park with her son in a stroller, and a speeding car had passed 2-3 feet from them. She asked me to convey this to the Commission--I did, but to little effect.

These are not unusual events. Quite the contrary, they are common, if not routine. Matadero is a narrow street: The 10-foot wide lanes are the minimum allowed, and only slightly wider than many of the large trucks that transit them. There is no room for sidewalks, so the 3-foot wide valley gutters serve as a partial substitute. (photos). However, there isn't so much traffic that vehicles can't move to the center of the street to give pedestrians (and bicyclists) more room. Typically, there isn't oncoming traffic, so they wouldn't even need to slow down.

However, much too often, this doesn't happen. The cause is well-known and well-understood: The street has a center line that influences drivers to stay in the lane even when there is absolutely no oncoming traffic. And those who do pull out do so to a lesser amount than one sees on nearby similar streets that don't have a center line.

How did Staff report this situation to the Commission? They grossly understated it as "...a car going 30 miles per hour five feet from your side, that is an extremely uncomfortable experience..." . Really? Me, and most people I know, would be happy, if not ecstatic, to have vehicles giving us that much clearance.

We residents lobbied for this center line well aware of this problem because it was the lesser evil: Speeding was regarded as the greater danger, and the center line provided "visual narrowing", the only mechanism to reduce it that the City would allow us at the time (it produced a 5-7 mph drop in speeds).

However, with the pending installation of speed humps, the visual narrowing likely becomes unnecessary, leaving the center line as a huge negative. We explained this to Staff over and over, in meeting after meeting, and in multiple written submissions. Yet when the topic came up in the Commission hearing, Staff showed lack of awareness of the issue, and when they guessed, they got it wrong (they first guessed it was the center line in the blind S-curve rather than the straight-away).
Aside: This exchange also showed a common problem in Palo Alto government: The elected and appointed officials knowingly prefer bad information from Staff over accurate information from residents.(foot#1)

Wouldn't it be simple to add removing the center line to the proposal? Staff advises against this . It would have been a far smaller problem except that the original (faded) center line had just been repainted (between the first and second Commission hearings). The City has an information system intended to minimize such mistakes, but there are persistent failures with Staff failing to enter critical information and to check it.

Although several Commissioners questioned this, and Commission Chair Mark Michael called not removing it "a really, really bad mistake" , this is unlikely be considered for at least 5 years.

A much bigger similar screw-up had occurred earlier. To one side of the blind S-curve is an emergency water well. During an earlier walk-thru, I pointed out to the City's Chief Transportation Official Jaime Rodriguez that the facility was about to be rebuilt, with a substantial change to its footprint. I stood right there and pointed out that the front portion of the site needed to be reserved for a better pedestrian walkway through that dangerous portion. I then pointed out how that area also provided crucial visibility of and for vehicles entering from a side street (Tippawingo) (photo). Rodriguez seemed to ignore what I was saying, so I repeated it, this time to a perfunctory acknowledgement. I then suggested that he make a note to himself and talk to Utilities about it. Nothing.

The facility was rebuilt preempting the potential pedestrian path and reducing the already poor sight lines within the intersection (foot#2) (note: the satellite images in Google Maps and others is of the previous facility). One of the discouraging things is that I have long ceased to find gross negligence by the City surprising, and I have learned to not expect City leaders to respond to instances, except when there is widespread public outcry.

I and other residents had lobbied for Matadero to become designated an official bicycle boulevard despite qualms about some aspects of such a designation (discussion planned for a future posting). However, after we failed in 2002 to qualify under the City's Neighborhood Traffic Calming Program to get safety improvements for bicyclists and pedestrians, we were left with only two options. The first option was to become an officially designed bicycle boulevard, which came with a virtual guarantee of funding for to-be-determined safety improvements. The second option was to have someone get killed, although there were no guarantees of safety improvements:
It would only produce points
toward reaching a threshold
that would qualify the street for consideration
to be added to the list of projects
that would be eligible for further consideration
for funding within a very limited budget.

After a mere 11 more years of setbacks and other delays, most of that time as one of the City's top priorities for a bike boulevard, it looked like we were finally going to get safety improvements, but it was not to be. We failed to get one of the two most important improvements, and most of the secondary ones. With that first option now a failure, we are down to the City's final option. I am selfishly hoping that the life that gets sacrificed isn't mine, or anyone I know.

---- Footnotes ----

1. Commissioner Carl King asked the question based on my oral presentation. He apparently hadn't read my written (email) submission. He could have asked me the question at the end of my oral presentation, or asked me to come back to the microphone when it became clear that Staff didn't know what it was talking about. Even when the issue involves people's safety and lives, and even though Staff prompted him to ask me, he didn't. Apparently, he found it more important to follow the protocol of being deferential (aka "respectful") of Staff than getting correct information.

2. The City's Utilities Department deserves equal "credit" for this fiasco. Their staff meet with a group of neighborhood representatives, including me, about the project and listened attentively and took good notes. However, the start of the project was repeatedly delayed and somewhere along the line, this constraint got lost or overridden.

The reason that the Utilities Department gave for choosing to build the facility so close to the street was guidelines from the US Department of Homeland Security. To protect against sabotage by terrorist, DHS encourages facilities to be located close to roads so that they can be monitored by passing police and members of the public. Utilities staff failed to ask what was to be gained by not having a setback of literally a few feet to give pedestrian enough space to pass by without getting into the street (actually the gutter). And Staff failed to ask the basic questions about balancing risks. The emergency well is intended to be used only in events such as a disaster so big that it knocks out the Hetch Hetchy system. The question of whether "the terrorists" would have the resources to get around to attacking such an obscure minuscule target is not the right one. "The terrorists" wouldn't want to attack such a target, because such an attack in the middle of a massive disaster would go unnoticed. And a "terrorist" who isn't interested in publicity is, by definition, not a terrorist.

No matter. The City chose to create an all-day, every-day threat to the safety and lives of residents to avoid a non-existent threat.

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