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.