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taking back the streets with Caltrans

By enelson
Tuesday, March 18th, 2008 at 6:25 pm in Bicycling, Caltrans, walking.

After nearly two years of blogging about transportation, I had to create a really obvious category just now: Walking.

Clearly, I haven’t written about this enough, if at all.

Remember walking? It’s how we Baby Boomers used to get to school, or to the bus stop.

But that was a different time, a time when there were a fraction of the number of cars on the road, when there weren’t so many head cases wandering the streets and when weight loss wasn’t a multi-billion-dollar industry.

And here in California, we barely even use school buses anymore. My son rode a bus to school in Central Maryland and on Long Island. When he started fifth grade in Southern California, I was dumbfounded to discover that nearly all the kids at his elementary school were dropped off by a conga line of minivans, SUVs and station wagons.

Luckily, the local middle school in our tony hilltop neighborhood was on the same boulevard that ran past our apartment complex, so my son was able to walk home from school during sixth and seventh grades. Sometimes, we could even chase him out the door early enough to walk to school.

Today, after a half-century of neglecting the way of the foot, we’re finally taking baby steps back to where we started.

Today I received notice that our fair state’s transportation department, Caltrans, was giving out $52 million for a program called Safe Routes to School. It spreads out grants in the vicinity of $300,000 to $500,000 to create things like crosswalks (there’s a concept!), pedestrian crossing signals that count down and “radar feedback signs” that tell motorists how fast they’re going Ocean View Elementary School in Albany.

 A couple months back, I heard about this in a presentation by the Alameda County Transportation Improvement Authority, which is using some of its half-cent transportation sales tax to match Caltrans’ funds.

For Caltrans and even ACTIA, it’s a drop in the bucket. For the parents of Ocean View students, its a major improvement.

And there will be a $350,000 check to pay for half of a project to put in sidewalks, create a bicycle boulevard and impose traffic calming measures near Springhill Elementary, Stanley Middle and Acalanes High schools in Lafayette.

My favorite improvement is the pedestrian “refuge,” such as the one planned as part of a $900,000 project near Oakland Technical High School, the Castlemont Community of Small Schools, and the E.C. Reems Academy in Oakland. It’s basically a median island where kids crossing the street can stay if they don’t make it all the way across before the light changes.

I know that I tend to think of pedestrian-only downtown shopping districts as the prime examples of how our society is moving back to a time when cars did not rule our lives. Those are big improvements, to be sure, but connecting our homes with schools, transit and local services so we can start walking again have a much better shot at changing and improving our lives. 

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8 Responses to “taking back the streets with Caltrans”

  1. Reedman Says:

    There are things that could be done to make the combination of cars, transit, and pedestrians work together a lot better. As an example, where VTA light rail runs down the middle of Tasman, if a train rider uses the crosswalk button, it stops cars in both directions on Tasman, even though the pedestrian is only crossing half the road. How about making the crosswalk-traffic light controls smarter to allow cars to continue down the part of the road not being crossed?

  2. Capricious Commuter Says:

    That sounds like a great idea, and the thought has occurred to me at other crossings of major boulevards. In Israel, I noticed that the system you suggest seems to be the rule, rather than the exception. I know you aren’t suggesting doing this at places other than where there’s a destination in the median, but I became very tired of getting stuck on median strips waiting for the other light to change.

  3. MikeOnBike Says:

    While this sounds like a reasonable idea, you’re viewing it from the motorists’ perspective. You’re not really “taking back the streets” for pedestrians by limiting the Walk signal to half the road.

    More generally, the Walk phase of many crosswalks only lasts a few seconds out of the entire signal cycle. Once the Don’t Walk starts flashing, pedestrians are supposed to wait several minutes until the next four-second Walk phase comes around.

    At a typical intersection, notice that the green light for vehicles lasts far longer than the Walk phase for pedestrians. And while vehicles can enter the intersection on yellow, pedestrians cannot enter the intersection on a flashing Don’t Walk.

    Then there are the intersections with one crosswalk removed, so pedestrians are required to go the long way around, on three signal phases, just to get to the other side.

    For the most part, pedestrians are treated as a nuisance that delays important traffic.

  4. Reedman Says:

    My experiences outside the US are that pedestrians don’t get many crosswalk signals. They cross through openings in traffic as the traffic allows. The emphasis is on maximum efficiency of the highways and especially the intersections. The use of roundabouts instead of traffic lights provides for much lower amounts of time spent stopped. Interestingly, the number one criticism of roundabouts is that because they are so effective at allowing traffic to continuously move, they don’t allow an easy way for pedestrians to cross.

  5. DensityDuck Says:

    Well, yes; you have to pick pedestrians or vehicles, you can’t let both have convenient use of the same road because they’re so different.

    The problem with “traffic calming” and other such measures is that it’s a namby-pamby effort to have it both ways. If you’re going to make an area pedestrian-friendly at the expense of vehicles, then just freakin’ DO IT!

  6. Capricious Commuter Says:

    I don’t think that traffic calming is appropriate for major boulevards. It’s something you want for your residential streets or commercial side-streets where there are a lot of shoppers and such. I agree that we could use more completely closed-off streets for pedestrians, but I don’t think it’s an either-or decision. You CAN have it both ways.

  7. Becks Says:

    All this talk about different configurations of cross walk signals is making me jealous! All I ask for is a crosswalk (signal free) at the intersection where I live on Telegraph at the 1 bus stop. Just this evening I had to wait until the traffic in one direction had passed, run across the street with heavy grocery bags, and then wait in the middle of the street until someone stopped for me to cross.

    Maybe Alameda County could spend some of its grant money on basic upgrades like painting crosswalks at all the bus stop locations.

  8. This must be my lucky week! « Living in the O Says:

    [...] if the city or county would just paint a crosswalk at my 1 stop, I’d be almost fully contented with my transit [...]

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