Pedestrian Infrastructure ‘Improvements’
Downtown Sebastopol is bisected by two Caltrans controlled state highways. Highway 12 heads east from downtown toward Santa Rosa on Sebastopol Avenue. Highway 116 is north-south and uses two one-way roads, Main Street and Petaluma Avenue. Caltrans has recently made some ‘improvements’ to downtown intersections and some driveway curb cuts to make them accessible. They have definitely improved the conditions at some intersections, but have failed significantly at one important intersection.
The intersection of Sebastopol Avenue and Petaluma Avenue is the primary entry to downtown coming from the east. The intersection has a strange geometry as can be seen in the Google Earth image below.
Zooming in a bit to the crosswalk configuration, you can see the previous layout had a pedestrian island that allowed you to cross the right turn lane of Petaluma Avenue and pause before continuing either north or west. This was helpful because the right turn lane is a slip lane, so you could cross this one lane and then push the walk sign activator for whichever direction you wanted to go from the island. I will admit, the previous design was not ideal. Slip lanes like these are dangerous for pedestrians. The pedestrian island did not leave you feeling super secure, but it was something, and it could have been improved upon.
Instead Caltrans removed the island and the crosswalk on the east side of the intersection entirely. Now you have to cross the right turn lane and the two through lanes all at once. It’s about 72′ in total now. You do get a crosswalk signal that runs with the east-west traffic signal, but the right turn land is still a yield condition and not signalized.
This was apparently done in the name of pedestrian safety. I’m not exactly sure why this is considered safer. The most dangerous aspect of this intersection for a pedestrian is the crossing of the slip lane. And that condition still exists. And now for a pedestrian traveling north or south on the east side of Petaluma Avenue, you need to cross three streets instead of one.
Along with the pedestrian ‘improvements’ at this intersection, the signal timing was also changed to allow traffic to flow better. I admit, this is a congested area, but as many people have noted, congestion is not necessarily a bad thing for the pedestrian. It means traffic moves more slowly which is much more pedestrian friendly. A car moving at 15 mph has a much better chance of stopping quickly, and if you were to get hit, you have a much better chance of it not being fatal. A car moving at 25 or 30 mph has a much better chance of actually doing some damage. And I’m not sure how removing pedestrian connectivity improves the pedestrian experience downtown. With the change in signal timing, it can now take two and a half minutes to get from point A to point B.
And because human nature is to take the path of least resistance, people will still cross the east side of this intersection. I’ve witnessed it first hand.
Even though there are convenient signs telling you not to do this.
Strong Towns has a good article about the Myth of Pedestrian Infrastructure. While that article primarily discusses adding token pedestrian infrastructure in places that are clearly auto-oriented environments, this example is in downtown Sebastopol. The streets are relatively narrow and there is no possibility of adding vehicle lanes. This could be a great pedestrian environment. But by removing pedestrian infrastructure, we are not helping our community by encouraging walking. We’re signaling that the through movement of cars in our downtown is more important than making a convenient and truly safe walking environment. This is an area with a Walk Score of 88. It could be a great area for pedestrians. And we should be making actual improvements that move us in that direction. We do know what makes a place walkable. But we continue to make ‘improvements’ that are primarily geared towards drivers. God forbid someone has to sit through another traffic signal cycle. There clearly is a way to design this intersection that would allow for better and safer pedestrian connectivity. This is not it.