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We Build Alaska

Dancing in the streets

We have a crisis on our hands; more and more motor vehicles are getting larger and larger, going faster and faster, and making it next to impossible for non-motorized folk to cross any street, road, boulevard, avenue, parkway, or drive. Five and six lane “stroads” (a term coined by Charles Marohn, who just spoke in Anchorage), are a dominating fixture of the Anchorage transportation network.

Stroads are deadly to cross, without evening factoring in vehicles running red lights and  traveling in excess of 120% of the 85th percentile (the speed below which 85% of the traffic flows; a metric used for years by traffic engineers to actually set speed limits). These fixtures make signals and signs look no more effective in protecting vulnerable users of our transportation corridors than the painted bike lanes which are nationally viewed as a threat to bicyclists. It’s terrible enough to get run over, but to get hit with the signal at an intersection is outrageous, and two of the worst offenders are RTOR (right turn on red) and left turn on green. Research and analysis have been done on both issues.

Perhaps non-intuitively, left hand vehicular turns are more dangerous for non-motorists than right hand vehicular turns. A NYC study (see pie chart) found pedestrians and bicyclists are killed or severely injured (KSI) by a left-turning vehicle at over three times the rate (19%) of pedestrians and bicyclists KSI by a right-turning vehicle (6%) and that a number of simple interventions dramatically reduced (but did not eliminate) pedestrian and bicycle injuries: left turn restrictions resulted in 41% drop, left turn bays resulted in a 15% drop, protected bicycle lanes resulted in a 15% drop (and 53% drop in KSI), left turn only signals resulted in a 33% drop, LPIs (leading pedestrian Interval) resulted in a 14% drop (and 56% drop in KSI).  

NYC also piloted hardened centerlines and slow turn wedges. While these interventions helped, none of them compared in effect to the results seen in Helsinki, largely by just reducing and enforcing speed limits (which essentially did away with almost all injuries by reducing speed to 30 k/h residential and 50 k/h arterial.

Curiously, the NYC report did mention the Barnes Dance, but determined it was simply unfair to motorists (we’ll come back to that). The study also noted that creating safer pedestrian signaling and reducing traffic pressure were critical to reducing injuries. Vehicles making a left hand turn at speed may not even see pedestrians, as they may be screened or camouflaged by cross traffic, a situation dissimilar but in some respects analogous to the issue with right turns.

In Anchorage, we see just how problematic this can be in situations in which motorists have a green light to turn left at the same time as pedestrians have a green signal to cross. This is simply unacceptable. The “law” argues that in such a situation the motorist has a duty of care, but more often than not that duty gets lost in the weeds.

It harkens back to the position of the Municipality of Anchorage with respect to children crossing at crosswalks: they must enter the roadway in order for them to obtain the right of way. Such a nonsensical approach to the safety of your seven year old wouldn’t get by you, but the Anchorage Traffic Department apparently doubled down on this theory just this year. 

While right turns can be dangerous in the best of conditions, right turn on red (RTOR) has become such a blight that many locales are looking at outlawing them (or have already done so)! I know few bicyclists that have not been hit or endured a close call because some motorist, only looking left for oncoming traffic, fails to notice the pedestrian or bicyclist on their right. Of course, this is mostly a sidewalk issue (the exception being where there is no sidewalk, all too common in Anchorage), and is one of the major reasons that bicyclists find riding on sidewalks dangerous.

The left looking driver is typically also blocking the sidewalk and bike path as they roll forward to check on the oncoming traffic, forcing the pedestrian or bicyclist to either sit and wait, or venture in front of the vehicle – an act which saw me almost hit just last month).

Yes, RTOR increases vehicle flow; the question is, “At what cost?” I am unaware of any effort to monetize the cost/benefit ratio of such matters, perhaps because valuing the loss of all the lives, let alone the impact of injury or or mental trauma to the injured and their families and the economic costs. To add insult to injury, State and local agencies are now promoting and deploying right turn slip lanes, or pork chops, touted by DOT as the best thing since diverging diamonds which are perhaps even more dangerous than the “simple” RTOR. 

Recently, in my personal response to the question of why DOT insists on imposing such horrid roundabout designs on us, I made a rather dramatic discovery. Driving only on roads that are not controlled access (roads that have on and off ramps and exclude bicycles and pedestrians), and driving almost entirely at rush hour on arterials, my average speed over the course of hundreds of Anchorage miles was a mere 16 miles per hour. Let me say that again, “16 miles per hour”! I was so taken aback I suggested that the Municipal Traffic Engineer issue a similar challenge to the population at large! This is 14 mph less than Helsinki mandates for arterials (50 k/h).

This datum put into perspective: a) how fast (or slow) we are actually traveling on our way to our destination, and, b) perhaps embarrassingly for some, the fact that properly designed roundabouts (and I am not speaking of AKDOT designed roundabouts) could effectively eliminate traffic signals altogether and deliver us where we want to go without delay! Perhaps “delays” decried by motorists as ‘reducing flow’ may really be a matter of imagined perception. In other words, Brussels, Helsinki, and other cities may be on to something, and City 30 has now become an international movement). But this discussion poses another question, “Is there some universal signal regime that could eliminate non-motorist injuries while retaining faster vehicle speeds?” A quick scramble might offer a possibility. 

For world travelers, the iconic image of the Shibuya scramble may be familiar, but the residents of Tokyo embrace the Scramble as an elegant solution that works well. Believe it or not, though there are hundreds of these well-loved intersections in Japan, the origin of this unique signaling solution is much closer to home.  

The 1940s saw a good deal of traffic innovation as cities faced greater and greater automobile and pedestrian conflicts. While both Kansas City and Vancouver rolled out scrambles, their biggest proponent in the U.S., and the man for whom they would come to be known was Henry A. Barnes, father of the “Barnes Dance”.

Barnes stated in his autobiography:

As things stood now, a downtown shopper needed a four-leaf clover, a voodoo charm, and a St. Christopher’s medal to make it in one piece from one curbstone to the other. As far as I was concerned — a traffic engineer with Methodist leanings — I didn’t think that the Almighty should be bothered with problems which we, ourselves, were capable of solving.

Barnes became traffic Commissioner in New York City in 1962 and immediately looked to implement the solution that he had seen work so well. Within weeks intersections provided pedestrians free reign for 23 seconds of every 90-second light cycle. Success was declared not only in NYC, but across the nation. For a time the scramble saw wide international adoption and was a worldwide sensation.

But within a couple of decades, the heyday of the Barnes Dance was over. Drivers felt it was “unfair” to afford non-drivers so much access to roads and many Barnes Dances were retired. Between 2007 and 2013, another NYC Transportation Commissioner, Sadik-Kahn, took up Barnes’ mantle and forcefully returned to human-centric traffic management, à la the Barnes Dance, but such efforts have not seen anything resembling earlier growth.

A NYC study from 2017 showed that Barnes Dancers are much safer for everyone, but they appeared to increase delays for motorists, so the study recommended their deployment in only certain specific instances. But the general question is still how much delay offsets how much death and injury.  

In Anchorage, intersections like Lake Otis and Tudor have been redesigned and rebuilt every few years. Many will argue that, in each case, the rebuilding decreased pedestrian and bicycle safety. Presently, non-motorists may have to wait three or more minutes for a walk signal, and then race the short signal to safety, and only then dodge cars in slip lanes. Might a 30 second Barnes Dance every 120 seconds be better all the way around? Places like Minneapolis (a NACTO city) think that it’s time to roll them back out. Should Anchorage be listening?

The bottom line is that we are injuring and killing the most vulnerable in our transportation corridors, and we have taken no action to do anything about this calamitous state of affairs other than wringing our hands, passing aspirational ordinances unsupported by public safety officials, and giving lip service to ideas like VisionZero and SafeStreets. We have no cycletrack, sidewalks are typically half the width or less of the municipal design standards, MUTs are too narrow and are in disrepair, bike lanes are a deadly joke, speeding and red light running are endemic, and the human toll rises and rises.

The NTSB recently made a number of recommendations to increase bicyclist and pedestrian safety. We need to change our designs so that infrastructure is not auto-centric, and we need automated speed and signal enforcement. Before we start dancing in the street, we need to make our streets safe.

Marc Grober has been a member of the Alaska Bar since 1977, held a Professional Teaching Certificate, provided IT services to federal and state agencies, worked as a field engineer on an atomic power plant, subsistence fished, and run dogs. He currently spends his days on Anchorage trails, on Anchorage roads, and in Anchorage parks walking Bernie, fatbiking, road biking, and skiing.

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Erik Wassell
8 months ago

I prefer the left turn on red. Legal in Alaska even from a two way street. Feels like being part of an exclusive club.

Dan Svatass
8 months ago
Reply to  Erik Wassell

Untrue. Only legal when both roads are one-way.

Erik Wassell
8 months ago
Reply to  Dan Svatass

Anchorage Ordinance 9.14.040

“This traffic may, after stopping, cautiously proceed to make a right turn from a one-way or two-way roadway into a two-way roadway or into a one-way roadway carrying traffic in the direction of the right turn, or it may make a left turn from a one-way or two-way roadway into a one-way roadway carrying traffic in the direction of the left turn;”

Dan Svatass
8 months ago
Reply to  Erik Wassell

You wrote “I prefer the left turn on red. Legal in Alaska even from a two way street.” That’s not true. Read the current state Driver’s Manual. At page 43, it says only right turns are permitted against a red light: WHEN STOPPED AT A RED LIGHT “Stop behind the crosswalk, stop line, or if none, before entering the intersection. Right turns are permitted only after a full stop, when the turn can be made safely, and is not restricted by a “No turn on red” sign.” No such permission is given for a left turn. WHEN STOPPED AT A… Read more »

Dan Svatass
8 months ago
Reply to  Erik Wassell

And from the Alaska DOTPF MUTCD at page 96: “Except when a traffic control device is in place prohibiting a turn on red or a steady RED ARROW signal indication is displayed, vehicular traffic facing a steady CIRCULAR RED signal indication is permitted to enter the intersection to turn right, or to turn left from a one-way street into a one-way street, after stopping. The right to proceed with the turn shall be subject to the rules applicable after making a stop at a STOP sign.” Sec. 4D.04(A)(1). Such a left turn against a red ball is ONLY permitted from… Read more »

Erik Wassell
8 months ago
Reply to  Dan Svatass

If it’s not available outside Anchorage, so be it. But the Anchorage Ordinance is explicit and clear.

Clearly seen at 13th and L Street. There would be no reason for a “No Turn on Red” sign if it wasn’t legal elsewhere.

Frank Rast
8 months ago

The culture of DOT&PF is to move goods and services efficiently. When 85% of motorists speed the DOT&PF answer is to design for an increased speed limit irregardless of capacity, rather than design for traffic calming that would enhance non-motorized traffic and still meet capacity. As a retired engineer who worked on DOT&PF projects for over 30 years I can point out wasted asphalt on every project DOT&PF builds, this added pavement results in added M&O costs, mostly snow removal.DOT&PF policy should be to include life cycle costs to identify the most efficient design that will lower operational costs while… Read more »

E L
8 months ago

One place to start is to eliminate one of the two left turn lanes that leads from east-bound Benson onto northbound Denali Street. This is a high density area with many pedestrians moving between the REI mall and the commercial area with Barnes and Noble. The turning vehicles in the outside left turn lane on Benson often cannot see past the left turning vehicle in the inside left turn lane. They swing around wide to the north-bound curb-side lane on Denali without seeing pedestrians who have already started to cross. As I cross Denali eastbound, I continually look over my… Read more »

J k
8 months ago
Reply to  E L

I think you mean the two left turn lanes from eastbound Benson onto northbound A Street.

Dan Svatass
8 months ago
Reply to  J k

Agreed, there aren’t two left turn lanes at Denali.

Marlin Savage
8 months ago

Yet now the assembly says those riding bikes can ignore stop signs and red lights and pedestrians can cross the streets anywhere outside of crosswalks. With winter darkness approaching, this likely will raise the number of incidents. Time will tell.

J k
8 months ago
Reply to  Marlin Savage

And vehicles continue to run red lights, fail to stop on right turn on red, and talk on the cell phone while driving. Surrounded by hundreds of pounds of steel armor, vehicle drivers will continue to survive unscathed in most crashes while pedestrians and bicyclists will be seriously injured or killed in most crashes with vehicles. The urban environment is built to privilege cars and their safety. Casting blame on non-motorized walkers and bicyclists for vehicle crashes is gas lighting and ignores the reality of the inherent dangers created by a car-centric urban environment.

Marlin Savage
8 months ago
Reply to  J k

Any person running a red light or stop sign whether in a vehicle or on a bicycle is wrong. Crossing a street at any area other than a crosswalk is less safe.

Scott
8 months ago
Reply to  J k

A “car-centric” urban environment that has armored cars with “privilege” “gas-lighting” the non-motorized.

Seriously? You owe the National Federation of Gibberish Buzz Words like eighty bucks for that.

Jimbob
8 months ago

Meanwhile, the uneducated drivers trying to go on the roundabouts get confused on which way goes what. I had an individual honk at me when they were in the straight only lane, and me in the turn lane, they tried to cross over and turn.

Rick G
8 months ago

I see far more pedestrians and bikers crossing roads nowhere near an intersection then at an intersection. Following any rules seems to have fallen buy the wayside for everyone.

Dan Svatass
8 months ago

“It harkens back to the position of the Municipality of Anchorage with respect to children crossing at crosswalks: they must enter the roadway in order for them to obtain the right of way.”
-Marc Grober

The Muni has it exactly right.

Pedestrians, both children and adults, are permitted to stand on sidewalks near crosswalks. If a driver must stop because a pedestrian standing near a crosswalk might possibly maybe decide to cross someday, the driver will die at the wheel from starvation.

Kooks on wheels
8 months ago

I will take bicyclists seriously when they are required to follow laws and carry liability insurance.

NJB
7 months ago

Pretty much how I feel about drivers. In the meantime how about the onus of safety/liability being mostly on the people driving at deadly speeds in metal boxes?