Matadero-Margarita Bicycle Boulevard: PTC meeting of 2014-Feb-12
Comments by Douglas B. Moran


Wrong question: Is Matadero a good place for a bike boulevard?
Matadero has been a major route for bicyclists since at least the late 1980s (the installation of the El Camino traffic light). Matadero may not be a good location for a bike boulevard, but it is the best of the alternatives.

Right question: What can be done to make Matadero safer for bicyclists and pedestrians?

My background/experience: I live on Matadero (close to Emma Court, 2/3 up from El Camino) and am very familiar with bicycling on Matadero and Margarita. During the late 1980s and the 1990s, it was my primary bike route to work. I also use Matadero as a pedestrian, both walking to neighbors and to businesses along El Camino and beyond.

I have been working on these safety problems for roughly 20 years, starting as the chair of the Traffic Committee of the Barron Park Association but also as the leader of an informal group of Matadero residents. My notes from 1998 show that these were already well-known problems, and that there have been few improvements since. The biggest improvement came not from Planning and Transportation, but from Public Works: They agreed to accelerate the installation of valley gutters, which have been a boon, doubling as refuges for pedestrians and bicyclists.

Problem: The City's inflexible, bureaucratic approach to safety.
Over those 20 years, the residents have made multiple attempts to get safety improvements. Matadero does not qualify for the Neighborhood Traffic Calming Program because, although it is physically a narrow residential street, the City classifies it as a "collector" street, for lack of a better alternative. Matadero would qualify under NTCP as a "residential" street, but not as a "collector", and the City has refused to allow flexibility.

The only practical way for Matadero to qualify for safety improvements was to officially become a Bicycle Boulevard. For a decade, this change has been listed as a top priority in the series of Bike Plans, but never seemed to happen.

The lesser evil: There is a legitimate concern that officially designating Matadero as a bike boulevard will give bicyclists a false sense of safety and entitlement, as well as attract additional bicyclists who will be unaware of the dangers. But contrast this to extending the City's refusal to provide easily implemented safety improvements for the many bicyclists who already use this route.

Recommendation: Even if you have qualms about some elements of the plan, at least recommend that the basic safety improvements be approved.

  1. Speed humps: Reducing speeding is the biggest need. However, I would recommend that rather than specify the speed humps in terms of physical dimensions, they should be specified in terms of expected performance. At the outreach meetings, we were told that these humps would allow reasonable passage of a passenger car traveling at 20-25 mph.
  2. Pavement markings: Probably a net positive. Definitely worth trying and evaluating.

Note: The Staff Report does not include a task to return and evaluate the effectiveness of either the speed humps or the pavement markings.

Goal: Safer, not "Safe"

Matadero has so many constraints that it is unlikely that it can be made into a "safe" street. Rather the focus should be on what can be done to make it safer, both in the near and intermediate term.

The Staff Report fails to convey how dangerous the street is. First, the 85% speed is an irrelevant measure because it assumes a normal distribution of speeds. Instead, what I observe are two distinct groups of drivers. One group tends to drive about 25 mph (the speed limit), and another group tends to drive much faster. This latter group tend to be drivers transiting the length of Matadero, both cut-thru traffic and people going to more distant parts of Barron Park.
Cautionary: Bill Gates walks into a soup kitchen. Although the average person in the room is now a billionaire, that is a meaningless, if not thoroughly misleading, characterization.

The second big failing is the lack of any characterization of the mix of traffic. Especially notable is that during the morning work and school commute, Matadero is also filled with construction traffic, not just big pickup trucks bringing in workers and their tools, but trucks delivering construction materials—mostly flatbeds, but also 18-wheelers. A concrete truck going 25 mph and filling all of a 10-foot wide lane is quantitatively different from a passenger car.

Third, the Staff Report fails to convey the extraordinary amount of "bad behavior" by drivers on this street (those transiting the street to elsewhere). On a variety of construction projects, the flag men have used terms like "crazy" and said that it was the worse of any place they had worked.

Pedestrian Safety Largely Ignored

The Matadero Bike Blvd was supposed to include substantial improvements for pedestrian safety, but most of the public input given during the development of the Bicycle and Pedestrian Plan has been ignored, as has similar input provided during the public outreach sessions. Even worse, although there are only minimal changes for pedestrians, the primary one—the proposed crosswalk at Tippawingo— will most likely increase the danger to pedestrians (see below).

The biggest danger for pedestrians and bicyclists along the length of Matadero is vehicles passing too closely to them. The lanes on Matadero are only 10 feet wide, the minimum allowed. Even when there is no oncoming traffic, many drivers are reluctant to move out of their lane to provide more separation. Other move out only a little.

When Matadero was rebuilt in 2002, the decision to have a center line was based on it being the lesser evil. We knew that it would cause the above problem, but the center line also provided "visual narrowing", which was the only method of reducing speeding allowed by the City. When the center line was install several days after the resurfacing, we noticed a substantial drop in speed, probably 5-7 mph. This was judged to be the proper trade-off. However, with speed humps installed, the proper trade-off may be to not have a center line.

Also, based on current experience with driver behavior, one needs to question how much the presence of the center line will negate the expected benefits on the proposed on-pavement marking.

The center line tradeoffs were repeatedly raised with Staff during public input, but there has been no explanation why this is not part of the proposal.

Action Requested: Add a near-term phase to the plan to revisit improvements to pedestrian safety.

Pedestrian Bridge at Tippawingo

Phase 5.1—Future, Pedestrian Bridge— has an alternative that could be implemented much more quickly and cheaply. There is a substantial portion of the pavement on the north side of the bridge that is not utilized by vehicles. I know this both from having stood there, and from the fact that there used to be a thick, low-hanging tree branch that overhung this region (part of an oak tree that died in the late 1990s). Combined with a reconfiguration of the guard rail on the El Camino side of the bridge, the space could provide a significant improvement to pedestrian safety in the blind S-curve at this location.

This opportunity has been pointed out to Staff during multiple walk-throughs of this location, and at the public outreach meetings. No explanation has been provided for not pursuing this opportunity.

Speed Table with Crosswalk at Tippawingo: Dangerous??

This proposed crosswalk is in the middle of the blind S-curve with limited visibility in both directions.

As someone with extensive experience walking along this segment, I would never choose to cross the street anywhere near that location, even if I were guaranteed that traffic would be moving only at 20-25 mph.

I worry that this proposed design, by creating an illusion of safety, will actually increase danger for pedestrians.

Why not add stop-signs?

At the previous PTC hearing, the question was ask "Why not add stop signs?", and an incomplete and unsatisfactory answer was given.

In my many years of dealing with traffic issues, I have asked this question of a range of professional traffic engineers and gotten the same response from all of them. Stop signs can be very useful for a range of situations, but reducing speeding is definitely not one of them. Typically, such misapplications move where the problem occurs, anywhere from shortly after the sign (as drivers accelerate) to further down their route (as drivers make up for perceived lost time).

However, such misapplications often make the situation worse by increasing the risk of collisions. These signs are typically installed where there is a low volume of cross traffic and consequently drivers on the main street are trained to not expect cross traffic, thereby causing the presence of cross traffic to fail to register with them.

BP Street Design Guidelines

The Barron Park Street Design Guidelines have been repeatedly mischaracterized as being only about aesthetics—"a rural feel". The City has persistently used this mischaracterization as an excuse to ignore pedestrian safety issues in Barron Park. This mischaracterization occurred in both the Staff Report and the discussion at the previous PTC hearing on the bike boulevard (November 13).

Aesthetics were a part of the decision, and were a major factor for many residents. However, safety was also a major concern. I know because I was involved in the discussions as a member of the BPA Board and as the BPA Traffic Committee chair.

The advice of traffic engineers was that having sidewalks in some places but not others created unpredictability for drivers that could result in accidents. And thus it was recommended to minimize the inconsistency.

Although there was room to add sidewalks in some portions of Barron Park, on several of the key streets there were no acceptable options. Matadero was one of those.

  1. The street and sidewalk scheme preferred by the City and its consultants would have taken two-thirds of the front yards of me and my neighbors. Even if this had been acceptable, it would have left driveways far too short to park in. Replacing driveway parking with on-street parking was a safety no-no.
  2. A scheme that would have taken less of people's front yards would have required wholesale removal of street trees. This was regarded as a non-starter.
  3. Another scheme would have required relocation of utilities, most likely replacing poles with undergrounding. The City was unwilling to do this within any reasonable time frame. Plus there would have been removal of street trees, although the extent was vague.

Please do not use the Barron Park Street Design Guidelines as an excuse to continue the neglect of pedestrian safety on Matadero (and other sections of Barron Park).

Elements not ready for primetime

I recommend the that PTC remove elements of the Matadero/Margarita Bike Boulevard proposal as insufficiently developed to warrant approval to move to the next stage. The Commission should require:

  1. A description of the problem that exists and that needs to be addressed.
  2. A description of the likely goals of a potential solution.
  3. An appreciation of the likely issues and constraints.
  4. A description of the various stakeholders.

Without these basics, there are likely to be issues and stakeholders left out of the subsequent process. When they are belatedly included, they may well figure that the process has been rigged against them.

The elements that I see as not-ready-for-primetime are:

  1. El Camino Intersection Improvements (Phase 3, Phase 5.3): A "solution" was proposed as part of the Bicycle and Pedestrian Plan, and another was shown during the outreach meeting for the M-M Bike Boulevard.
  2. Margarita-Orinda Intersection Study (Phase 2.5 and Phase 4): The Staff presentation at the outreach meetings indicate that they strongly favor, if not intend, to replace the stop signs with a traffic circle.
  3. Chimalus Drive Green Belt (Phase 5.2 Future): I am aware of this having come up multiple times since 2003 (or earlier) and each time it has been dismissed after only the briefest consideration of the issues and constraints.

Douglas B. Moran