Arastradero Restriping Trial: Personal Overview

by Douglas B. Moran

Version 1.0.2 of 2012-09-27

This is a personal overview of the Arastradero Restriping Trial as it goes to City Council for a decision on whether it should be retained. This is intended to help people better frame their comments to the City Council during the hearing on 1 October 2012.

My opinion is that the City has conducted the process poorly. However, we are at the stage of judging the results, and it is important for people to look past the failures and insults that are no longer relevant. On the other hand, if you believe that problems in the process have produced a bad result, you should focus on the deficiencies in the result.

In this overview, I am including patterns of bad behavior, partly to help the targets of such separate it from the substantive issues, and partly to make perpetrators aware of such in case it was unintentional.

This is based on my participation in the public meetings, experience with similar traffic studies (especially the Caltrans/El Camino Redesign Study). However, I do not have extensive experience with Arastradero, and especially not during the peak hours.

Arastradero: Very Real Problems

Under the previous 4-lane configuration, Arastradero had multiple problems: traffic safety (high accident rate for the type of road), speeding, and congestion. In talking about Arastradero, it is critical to remember that there are very different conditions at different times of day.

The worst problems are in the morning: The employee commute overlaps the school commute. The evening employee commute is less congested. During most of the rest of the time, traffic is relatively thin. For example, in mid-afternoon, you can turn onto Arastradero and have separation of hundreds of feet between vehicles. A wide, straight street with good visibility and little traffic creates a feeling that one can drive much faster that the posted speed limit. This is a problem because the schools let out during such low traffic periods.

The City's presentations have often failed to adequately differentiate these periods, especially statistics on speeding. For example, a vehicle doing 35 mph at 2 AM should not be aggregated with those doing 35 mph when schools are letting out.

Bad behavior: One of the big problems in the discussions of the trial has been the repeated conflation of these different situations. For example, when critics of the trial are complaining about an average speed of roughly 10 mph in the morning and trying to get consideration of ways to increase it somewhat, they have been repeatedly rebuffed, being mischaracterized as advocating speeding (well over 25 mph). One of the upshots has been that various critics and skeptics have come to see the trial configuration as based in ideology and ignorance of the actual situation. A major failing of the City and other advocates for this trial configuration has been to allow this misrepresentation to go unchecked.

Traffic Calming

Traffic calming is often wrongly portrayed as slowing traffic down. If you think about the choice of the word calming you should realize that nothing could be further from the truth. Calming focuses on making the traffic flow smoother and more predictable. It aims to reduce the jitters—the repeated braking and speeding up. And this typically involves reducing the top speeds while also raising the lowest speeds.

Predictability improves safety because there fewer situations to deal with, especially surprises like someone suddenly switching into your lane. And because you are less stressed, you are less likely to contribute to these problems by doing something sudden, or even stupid.

In the early planning for the trial configuration, improving predictability for drivers was an important aspect, but in later stages this was often being ignored. For example, inadequate signage and lane markings were creating unnecessary unpredictability, and similarly that a poorly designed lane merge encouraged speeding at the crossing to Terman Middle School. I know that some of these were belatedly fixed, but it is up to those who routinely drive on Arastradero to judge the results and make their views known to Council.

Similarly, improving travel time on Arastradero was an early goal of the project that seems to have disappeared. There are many complaints from people along the corridor—residents and firefighters—that the situation is much worse. However, some of the advocates for the current configuration argue that current travel times are similar to what they were earlier and that people are mis-remembering the past because the period just before the trial had an unusually high vacancy rate in the upper Research Park, partly from the Great Recession and partly from corporate relocations.

The Trial Configuration

The two-lane configuration was the best candidate for traffic calming on Arastradero. When there is light traffic—most of the day—it can easily be handled by only two lanes, with the added benefit that such a configuration eliminates many of the visual cues that encourage drivers to drive faster. The two-lane configuration also makes it much safer for students leaving school in the afternoon.

From what I have heard, the two lane configuration does not adversely impact the evening employee commute because the bottleneck is elsewhere—the segment of Charleston between El Camino and Alma (which has remained as four lanes).

So the determining factor is the morning commute. Reduction from 4 to 2 lanes has been successful in similar situations. Although it may seem counter-intuitive, in the right circumstances converting travel lanes to turn-lanes, especially left-turn lanes, can improve traffic flow: Vehicles changing into a lane can slow down that lane more than if they were already there. Most of us have seen this in practice on congested highways, muttering that things would move faster if everyone just stayed in their lane.

The City's analysis show that Arastradero was on the cusp of the conditions where this had a chance of working, and the start of the trial was delayed until after multiple improvements were made to reduce the congestion. Most importantly, improvement in the traffic circulation on the Gunn campus to reduce the backup onto Arastradero, and changing the starting time for schools so that traffic was more spread out.

Also notice that the practicality of reducing 4 lanes to 2 is highly dependent on the mix of thru vehicles and ones making turns in a particular segment of Arastradero, and thus you see places where it remains 4 lanes wide. Over the course of the trial, there has been various adjustments in response to observations of the actual traffic behavior.

Note: Do not confuse the 4-to-2 lane change on Arastradero with that on California Avenue. The CalAve change was largely motivated by a desire to convert lanes that were unneeded for vehicles into wider sidewalks and space for restaurant tables. The advocacy and implementation were perverted by ideologues and fools—often hard to distinguish because both have a disdain for facts—claiming that the CalAve change was about pedestrian safety issues such as those found on Arastradero, even with claims that people were afraid to cross CalAve because of the large amount of traffic whizzing by at high speeds.

Issue: The pedestrian safety issues occur primarily at a few locations—the crossing next to the schools—which have traffic lights. However, much of the improvement in pedestrian safety of two lanes comes at uncontrolled intersects. The City's decisions on lane transitions has been opaque to me, so I don't know how carefully this was considered.

Increased Displaced/Cut-thru Traffic in Barron Park

One of the inevitable side-effects of congestion is that drivers will try to find ways around it, and in this case, it means using residential streets. This includes not just employees cutting thru the neighborhood, but students being dropped off at the rear gates to Gunn (Georgia and Los Robles). This cut-thru traffic is a larger safety concern than the other traffic because it tends to speed, ignore stop signs, and be less accommodating of pedestrians and bicyclists.

Bad behavior: One of the most poisonous aspects of the public meetings has been that legitimate concerns about this very predictable effect have been treated dismissively by the City for much of the process. And by the advocates—a common dismissive comment has been Drivers shouldn't do that. When dealing with safety issues, one plans based upon what people will do, not what they should do. And the advocates have too often made derogatory comments about those raising these safety issues, portraying their concerns as disingenuous and a smokescreen for a desire to speed on Arastradero.

By focusing on Arastradero itself, rather than the larger corridor, the City has in essence pursued improvement of the safety of students coming from the Charleston corridor on their most convenient route at the expense of the students using the other corridors: Meadow, Maybell, Los Robles, ... (Aside: In economics, this is known by the term beggar thy neighbor). Also recognize that when the focus is switched from Gunn HS to Terman Middle School, bicycling along Arastradero is relevant to only a small portion of the enrollment area (PAUSD map: PDF, page 2).

There is now controversy about how big an effect this is, and some of the advocates of retaining the trial are now acknowledging the problem, but saying that it shouldn't delay the Arastradero decision. They argue that the problems created on Maybell should be solved in some unspecified manner as part of the City's new Bicycle Plan. I hope that people with actual experience will address Council on the extent of these problems.

I have great skepticism of the solve-Maybell-later approach. First, there are bicycle projects in Barron Park that have been a supposed top priority of the City for 14 years and counting: There always seemed to have been an excuse for why they had to wait. However, this experience might be obsolete: The current staff has a better record for getting things done than their predecessors. Second, there is only hope, instead of an analytical basis for believing that an actual solution exists for the problems being created on Maybell. Rather what is likely to happen is that the problem will simply be transferred elsewhere, potentially creating even bigger safety problems.

Bicycle Lanes on Arastradero

There are two basic groups advocating for bike lanes on Arastradero, and you need to understand that they are very different. The first group I will term bicycle ideologues, and they are infuriating, but need to be ignored as simply one of many flavors of narcissists one encounters. They believe that every street should make provision for bicyclists, no matter the cost in dollars, nor the costs from the congestion, both the wasted time of the drivers and the greenhouse gases unnecessarily created. The later is particular absurd because they justify their actions as reducing GHGs. This is not a matter of accessibility for bicyclists because they routinely reject parallel bikeways as unacceptable alternatives, even when they are only 1-2 blocks away. And there is a portion of this group that sees creating congestion and inconvenience for drivers as a desirable goal. Unfortunately, these people can set the tone of a meeting.

The second group sees these particular bike lanes as needed to encourage and support bicycling, and tend to be open to facts, analysis and alternatives. Since most of the students bicycling along Arastradero come from the Charleston corridor, you might well ask why don't they use Maybell, which is already an important bike route to the schools? I have been told that the problem is not so much the detour from Charleston to Maybell, for example, from Wilkie Way to James to El Camino Way, but rather on the Gunn campus, because it adds about 6 minutes getting from the entrance at the back of campus to the front where most of the classes are held. I am both sympathetic and skeptical: When I was in high school, we routinely took unapproved shortcuts to school, but the time saved was also much greater. Again, this is a case of planning based upon what people will do, rather than what you think they should do. Although I don't understand the assessment, I must defer to parents who have expertise in bicycling and want their own children biking on Arastradero rather than Maybell.

However, the issue of bike lanes on Arastradero may be moot. Although the provision of bike lanes was one of the motivations for the trial configuration, it may also simply be a freebie—the other changes leave enough room for bike lanes. I do not know if there has been any consideration of whether not having bike lanes on Arastradero would open up any possible improvements, much less a cost-benefit analysis of the tradeoffs.

Future Traffic Sources

The recently proposed development at Clemo and Maybell could have significant traffic impacts: on Arastradero, because it would be turning in/out and on Maybell because of both the additional driveways and the volume.

The City has approved significant expansion in the upper Research Park that is likely to generate significant increases in traffic on Arastradero as those facilities are built.

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