When the state finally finishes its Hwy 99 utility work that has torn up half of Dexter Ave near Harrison Street in recent months, they will put the road back together and repaint it. But instead of returning the street to its former dangerous design, which was the scene of more than its share of death and injury, the city plans to give the street a safer makeover.
Working on a tight budget, planners propose changing the current bike lanes into much wider parking-protected bike lanes and redesigning the street to have one lane in each direction plus turn lanes. Having fewer lanes to cross when making a turn and having a dedicated lane to wait while making turns should make the street safer and less stressful for everyone.
In the cases of several people who have been struck and killed or seriously injured on this stretch of Dexter, including Mike Wang in 2011 and Brandon Blake in 2013, people making left turns gunned it to try to make it through a break in the two lanes of oncoming traffic, but did not see the person riding in the bike lane (we have a follow-up story about Blake coming soon, so stay tuned).
This section of Dexter carries only about 10,700 vehicles each day, including about 1,100 bikes (bikes make up nine percent of vehicle traffic). That is far fewer motor vehicles than the former highway-style street was designed to carry. As we noted in our previous post, having a dramatically over-designed street is dangerous and stressful for everyone. Indeed, SDOT data shows that only 41 percent of people driving northbound on Dexter obey the speed limit. Southbound, it’s 52 percent.
There have been 80 reported collisions on this stretch of street since 2011. More than a third of them involved someone biking or walking.
However, being a low-budget project, the city’s plans for the street fall short of the ideas I threw around in my previous post. For example, instead of having separated bike and motor vehicle turn signals at intersections, the design follows the NACTO bike lane guide for streets with protected bike lanes and combined turn lanes. This means the protected bike lane will turn into a combined right turn and bike lane at each intersection. People turning right in a car will be instructed to yield before entering the turn bay.
Since many intersections along the street do not have signals, adding them would have been rather expensive. But the tradeoff is that these combined turn lanes will not be completely comfortable for people of all ages and abilities, and they depend on people driving to actually obey the yield instructions in order to be safe. Here’s an illustration from the NACTO guide showing what it might look like (imagine there is also a left turn lane):
The combined lane design also reduces the potential safety improvements for people walking, who will still need to cross four lanes to get from one side to the other. The street will still be built to handle far, far more car traffic than it will actually carry.
Planners say they hope to add bike signals in a future phase.
Buses will also continue to pull to the curb, which means they will now need to pull across a parking lane and the wider bike lane to serve stops. There will not be bus islands like on the section of Dexter north of Mercer, though they might also be added in a future phase of work.
The upgrades will be rolled out over the course of a year potentially starting this month. But continued Mercer construction will prevent them from reaching the existing Dexter bike lanes until late 2015.
So, it’s exciting that the city and state are not going to simply repaint the dangerous previous design. And for a project with very little budget, this will likely be a safety and comfort improvement. But we can do better, and it’s worth investing more and being a bit more creative to help Dexter become the truly great people-powered entrance into downtown that it should be.
A creative open house
One highlight to come from this project is not even about the design itself. The city needed to hold an open house to let users know about what they had planned, but their low budget made a typical indoor open house (and the promotion needed to get people there) difficult. So instead, they set up an open house right on the street.
They drew somewhere between 40 and 60 people in three hours, which would be a pretty good turnout for a typical and much more expensive indoor open house (assuming there was not big controversy that fueled a larger crowd). And being on the street itself can help people visualize the changes they propose.
It’s great to see SDOT experiment with outreach efforts to reach people more effectively and in different ways. I’d love for this to become more standard for road redesign projects.