Safety for All Road Users

by Larry Hogue

Larry Hogue is a writer. He lives in San Diego.

Imagine you’re standing at the corner of Governor Drive, waiting to cross Genesee Avenue. You’re waiting, and waiting, and waiting, as traffic rushes by at 45-50 miles an hour. When you get your walk signal, you have to wait as two or three of those left turners run the red light. Then a driver in the right-turn-only lane next to you decides to play “beat the pedestrian into the crosswalk,” nearly hitting you. As you’re waiting to cross Genesee on your return trip, you notice that drivers making a right turn on red onto Governor rarely come to a complete stop, and few of them check for pedestrians about to enter the intersection.

Governor Drive and Genesee Avenue (Photo by Larry Hogue)

Or, imagine you’re biking eastbound on Governor, waiting at that same red light on Genesee. You’re positioned in the right through lane because it’s really too narrow to share safely. You can sense the impatience of the drivers stacking up behind you, who are just as tired as you are of waiting more than three minutes for a green light. The instant the lane becomes wide enough to share, the driver behind you hits the gas. You feel the backdraft as the car passes within a foot of your handlebars, then the driver slams on the brakes and turns right in front of you into Vons parking lot.

This is daily life at the intersection of Genesee Avenue and Governor Drive: a quiet, walkable neighborhood collides head-on with infrastructure that privileges auto-dependent commuters traveling quickly through on their way to somewhere else.

In that respect, it’s not much different than a lot of other intersections in San Diego, sharing many of the same problems: freeway-like speeds, signal timing that turns the major arterial into a barrier to cross-traffic, a refusal by city personnel to approve safety measures. Add to the mix three nearby schools, and the safety issues become even more complex.

But two developments could help this intersection, and by extension many other unsafe intersections and streets in San Diego.

The first is a meeting sponsored by the University City Community Association to address the safety of the intersection. This meeting was prompted by the tragic death of cyclist Walter Freeman, who was struck by a police cruiser at the intersection on Nov. 9, 2009. Representatives of the city, the police department and the school board will hear the concerns of the public, and take suggestions for safety improvements. That meeting will take place Thursday, March 11, at 6:00 p.m. in Standley Middle School’s media center. I hope any cyclist or pedestrian concerned about this intersection will attend this meeting. If we are successful at implementing traffic calming measures at Genesee and Governor, then maybe similar improvements can be made at other intersections in our city.

The second development could make it easier for communities to implement these safety improvements and traffic calming measures. On March 18, new, less auto-centric guidelines for implementing the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) go into effect (check here for an overview of these revisions, and to pages 75-76 and 93-95 of this document for a detailed explanation).

It may sound arcane, but up until now the CEQA guidelines required cities to prioritize Level of Service (LOS) for motor vehicles when considering a project’s effects on how people get around. For traffic engineers, LOS is the Holy Grail, and building ever-wider, ever-faster roads has been the main tool they’ve used in seeking it. The unfeasibility of this policy became clear in 2006, when the city of San Francisco was forced to conduct a full environmental review of its bicycle master plan because new bike lanes could make vehicle traffic worse.

The new rules would allow cities more flexibility in choosing which measures they use to assess the impacts projects have on mobility, including increased mobility and safety for pedestrians and cyclists. To my mind, this is simple: if a ten-year-old can’t walk safely across an intersection, then that should rate a “fail.” But the key is that each city needs to adopt its own guidelines about how planning departments should analyze impacts.

I’ve already contacted Councilmember Lightner’s office to ask that San Diego adopt progressive policies that take the needs of all road users into account. I hope you’ll contact your own councilmember and the mayor. For an example of what such a policy might look like, consider this resolution from San Francisco.

And how does this apply to existing dangerous intersections? With clear direction from the city council and the mayor, traffic engineers will no longer be able to write off suggested safety improvements and traffic calming measures merely because they “make traffic worse.”

In the case of Governor & Genesee, I believe there would be a considerable reduction in east-west vehicle trips if the intersection were made safer and less of a perceived barrier in our community. If commuters on Genesee had to wait a few minutes longer to travel through our neighborhood in order for these improvements to take place, I think that’s well worth it.

Our state government, with prodding from cities like San Francisco, is making a less auto-dependent future possible. Now we need to push our local governments to get on board with these changes.

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