Durable Growth, Safety, Transportation

Were none of us ever kids?

151117001 View from Altura SiteI recently recounted the story of a Petaluma land use hearing during which I missed an opportunity to suggest a project change that should have been obvious to me as an urbanist.

The hearing addressed a proposed apartment complex.  An element of the project was repainting the fronting street to reduce the travel lanes from four to two, with the surplus width being redistributed to a center turn pocket, bike lanes, and parking.  The preliminary plan showed the remaining travel lanes retaining the current lane width of 12 feet, a typical width for public streets ranging from residential roads to arterials and even to older freeways.

The neighbors had a number of objections to the project.  One of those concerns was excessive driving speeds through the neighborhood.  A subsequent traffic speed study found that the 85 percentile speed was 38 mph, which is moderately fast for a largely residential neighborhood.

The point that I failed to make is that the 12-foot travel lanes were a part of the travel speed problem.  Reducing the lane widths below 12 feet would have has the effect of slowing cars.  The reduction happens because drivers feel confined by the narrower lanes.  It’s a point of which I was well aware and on which I’ve previously written, but I’d become somnolent in my backrow seat

Despite whiffing on my chance at the hearing, the door for the comment remained open because the Planning Commission decided to seek additional input on several points and continued the hearing to a later date.  I used the second chance to chat with the City Engineer and several Planning Commissioners about my lane width thoughts.

The project returned for future consideration a few days ago.  I eagerly read the updated staff report to learn if there was any revised thinking on the lane widths.

I was moderately satisfied.  The staff report acknowledged the possible value of reduced widths and then took the decision away from the Planning Commission and instead made the City Engineer responsible for the final determination during his review of the construction drawings.  It was an approach in which I could see both good and not so good.

On one hand, I find the City Engineer a reasonable sort and I trust him to make good decisions.  Although I’ll also forward to him this post and my earlier one for his consideration.  Also, as a civil engineer, I’m always pleased when issues that are largely in the realm of engineering are determined by engineers and not by laypeople.

But on the other hand, I wished there had been the opportunity for the Planning Commission to affirmatively endorse the concept of reduced lane widths as a traffic speed management tool in Petaluma.

With issue at rest until construction drawings, there wasn’t much reason for me to attend the hearing.  But I’m a sucker for the stuff, so again found myself hanging out in the backrow.

And I’m glad I did because another facet of travel lane widths arose.

Late in the hearing, as the Commission was homing in on their decision, a Commissioner, noting a pair of convenience stores directly across the street from the proposed apartment site and shown in the photo from the project site, suggested that children living in the apartments would occasionally visit the stores.  The Commissioner asked the City Engineer about the possibility of a painted crosswalk.

The City Engineer, correctly in my opinion, demurred.  He noted that drivers, because of a curve in the road, might not have a clear view of the crosswalk so would be prone to responding to it inadequately.  At the same time, the children might be emboldened by paint on the pavement and would be too quick to assume that the cars would honor it.  The result could be a more dangerous situation that without the crosswalk.

Another Commissioner then asked what the City Engineer believed children should do to reach the convenience stores.  He said that they should walk down the sidewalk to a nearby arterial, cross the street with the signal, and then walk back on the other side, a route that would add 1,000 feet to their route.

Perhaps it was my imagination, but it seemed the several Commissioners, and perhaps also the City Engineer, were uncomfortable with his answer but, without another solution to offer, the discussion moved onward.

At that point of the hearing, I had no opportunity to contribute to the discussion, but if I had, I would have said something like.

“Are you people kidding me?  Have none of you ever been kids?  Even if a child is willing to walk the extra 1,000 feet, his companions would call demean his timidity and pressure him into joining them in jaywalking.  And that peer pressure would be far mightier than any assumptions we make this evening about the walking routes children should follow.

“I know this instinctively because I remember being a kid.  And yes, I was more of a rule follower who had to be egged into pushing the envelope.  I’m only now catching up on the rebellions that I missed in my youth.

“And I’d be surprised if many of the Commissioners don’t have similar memories from their childhoods.

“But if we acknowledge that children will jaywalk and that the City Engineer is correct in nixing a crosswalk, what’s the alternative?

“It’s the tool that has already been given to the City Engineer in the staff report.  This is the chance for the Planning Commission to strongly encourage the City Engineer to make full use of that tool and to reduce the lane widths to 10-1/2 feet.

“At that width, the 85th percentile speed will drop from 38 mph to perhaps 32 mph.  At the lower speed, children would be more likely to see approaching cars, drivers would be more likely to see pedestrians, and, if the worst occurs and a pedestrian is hit, the likelihood of survival would be higher.

“Although not going as far as the Vision Zero folks, who target no pedestrian fatalities, or the Twenty is Plenty folks, who argue for 20 mph speed limits on many streets, would have us go, encouraging reduced lane widths and the resulting lower driving speeds is a firm step in their direction.

“Ultimately it comes down to what our roles as adults should be.  Should it be to piously tell kids not to make stupid choices so we can claim blamelessness when they do so anyway?  Or should it be to build a world in which kids can make stupid choices without spending the rest of their lives in a wheelchair or worse?  I vote for the latter.”

Perhaps I didn’t have the opportunity to make this plea, but I will continue to look for windows to push this perspective, both on this project and elsewhere.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. – Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

Written by Dave Alden

Dave Alden

Dave Alden is a Registered Civil Engineer. A University of California graduate, he has worked on energy and land-use projects in California, Oregon, and Washington. He was also the president of a minor league baseball team for two seasons. He lives on the west side of Petaluma with his wife and two dogs. The blog that he writes can be found at http://northbaydesignkit.blogspot.com.

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