Die, Pedestrians, Die: The City's implicit response to major long-term safety problems | A Pragmatist's Take | Douglas Moran | Palo Alto Online |

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By Douglas Moran

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About this blog: Real power doesn't reside with those who make the final decision, but with those who decide what qualifies as the viable choices. I stumbled across this insight as a teenager (in the 1960s). As a grad student, I belonged to an org...  (More)

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Die, Pedestrians, Die: The City's implicit response to major long-term safety problems

Uploaded: Feb 18, 2014
City Staff claims that pedestrian needs are an important part of bicycle projects (see Planned Bike Route on Matadero Wins Key Vote, PA Weekly 2014 February 13), but instead Staff demonstrated that they were oblivious to major concerns pedestrians had brought up emphatically and repeatedly at the long series of public meetings (a potential posting here). Although this particular project is of concern to only a limited number of Palo Altans, it is illustrative of widespread problems.

The (adult) son of one of my elderly neighbors was visiting to help with her care. He had gone out for a walk around the block with her, and decided that it was just too dangerous--during that walk a car had blown close by them. I asked how close, and it was less than an arm length (two feet or less). Given her age and health, any collision was likely to be fatal, even if the car had been traveling at the speed limit (it wasn't).

The day of the Commission vote, another neighbor was on the way back from the park with her son in a stroller, and a speeding car had passed 2-3 feet from them. She asked me to convey this to the Commission--I did, but to little effect.

These are not unusual events. Quite the contrary, they are common, if not routine. Matadero is a narrow street: The 10-foot wide lanes are the minimum allowed, and only slightly wider than many of the large trucks that transit them. There is no room for sidewalks, so the 3-foot wide valley gutters serve as a partial substitute. (photos). However, there isn't so much traffic that vehicles can't move to the center of the street to give pedestrians (and bicyclists) more room. Typically, there isn't oncoming traffic, so they wouldn't even need to slow down.

However, much too often, this doesn't happen. The cause is well-known and well-understood: The street has a center line that influences drivers to stay in the lane even when there is absolutely no oncoming traffic. And those who do pull out do so to a lesser amount than one sees on nearby similar streets that don't have a center line.

How did Staff report this situation to the Commission? They grossly understated it as "...a car going 30 miles per hour five feet from your side, that is an extremely uncomfortable experience..." . Really? Me, and most people I know, would be happy, if not ecstatic, to have vehicles giving us that much clearance.

We residents lobbied for this center line well aware of this problem because it was the lesser evil: Speeding was regarded as the greater danger, and the center line provided "visual narrowing", the only mechanism to reduce it that the City would allow us at the time (it produced a 5-7 mph drop in speeds).

However, with the pending installation of speed humps, the visual narrowing likely becomes unnecessary, leaving the center line as a huge negative. We explained this to Staff over and over, in meeting after meeting, and in multiple written submissions. Yet when the topic came up in the Commission hearing, Staff showed lack of awareness of the issue, and when they guessed, they got it wrong (they first guessed it was the center line in the blind S-curve rather than the straight-away).
Aside: This exchange also showed a common problem in Palo Alto government: The elected and appointed officials knowingly prefer bad information from Staff over accurate information from residents.(foot#1)

Wouldn't it be simple to add removing the center line to the proposal? Staff advises against this . It would have been a far smaller problem except that the original (faded) center line had just been repainted (between the first and second Commission hearings). The City has an information system intended to minimize such mistakes, but there are persistent failures with Staff failing to enter critical information and to check it.

Although several Commissioners questioned this, and Commission Chair Mark Michael called not removing it "a really, really bad mistake" , this is unlikely be considered for at least 5 years.

A much bigger similar screw-up had occurred earlier. To one side of the blind S-curve is an emergency water well. During an earlier walk-thru, I pointed out to the City's Chief Transportation Official Jaime Rodriguez that the facility was about to be rebuilt, with a substantial change to its footprint. I stood right there and pointed out that the front portion of the site needed to be reserved for a better pedestrian walkway through that dangerous portion. I then pointed out how that area also provided crucial visibility of and for vehicles entering from a side street (Tippawingo) (photo). Rodriguez seemed to ignore what I was saying, so I repeated it, this time to a perfunctory acknowledgement. I then suggested that he make a note to himself and talk to Utilities about it. Nothing.

The facility was rebuilt preempting the potential pedestrian path and reducing the already poor sight lines within the intersection (foot#2) (note: the satellite images in Google Maps and others is of the previous facility). One of the discouraging things is that I have long ceased to find gross negligence by the City surprising, and I have learned to not expect City leaders to respond to instances, except when there is widespread public outcry.

I and other residents had lobbied for Matadero to become designated an official bicycle boulevard despite qualms about some aspects of such a designation (discussion planned for a future posting). However, after we failed in 2002 to qualify under the City's Neighborhood Traffic Calming Program to get safety improvements for bicyclists and pedestrians, we were left with only two options. The first option was to become an officially designed bicycle boulevard, which came with a virtual guarantee of funding for to-be-determined safety improvements. The second option was to have someone get killed, although there were no guarantees of safety improvements:
It would only produce points
toward reaching a threshold
that would qualify the street for consideration
to be added to the list of projects
that would be eligible for further consideration
for funding within a very limited budget.

After a mere 11 more years of setbacks and other delays, most of that time as one of the City's top priorities for a bike boulevard, it looked like we were finally going to get safety improvements, but it was not to be. We failed to get one of the two most important improvements, and most of the secondary ones. With that first option now a failure, we are down to the City's final option. I am selfishly hoping that the life that gets sacrificed isn't mine, or anyone I know.

---- Footnotes ----

1. Commissioner Carl King asked the question based on my oral presentation. He apparently hadn't read my written (email) submission. He could have asked me the question at the end of my oral presentation, or asked me to come back to the microphone when it became clear that Staff didn't know what it was talking about. Even when the issue involves people's safety and lives, and even though Staff prompted him to ask me, he didn't. Apparently, he found it more important to follow the protocol of being deferential (aka "respectful") of Staff than getting correct information.

2. The City's Utilities Department deserves equal "credit" for this fiasco. Their staff meet with a group of neighborhood representatives, including me, about the project and listened attentively and took good notes. However, the start of the project was repeatedly delayed and somewhere along the line, this constraint got lost or overridden.

The reason that the Utilities Department gave for choosing to build the facility so close to the street was guidelines from the US Department of Homeland Security. To protect against sabotage by terrorist, DHS encourages facilities to be located close to roads so that they can be monitored by passing police and members of the public. Utilities staff failed to ask what was to be gained by not having a setback of literally a few feet to give pedestrian enough space to pass by without getting into the street (actually the gutter). And Staff failed to ask the basic questions about balancing risks. The emergency well is intended to be used only in events such as a disaster so big that it knocks out the Hetch Hetchy system. The question of whether "the terrorists" would have the resources to get around to attacking such an obscure minuscule target is not the right one. "The terrorists" wouldn't want to attack such a target, because such an attack in the middle of a massive disaster would go unnoticed. And a "terrorist" who isn't interested in publicity is, by definition, not a terrorist.

No matter. The City chose to create an all-day, every-day threat to the safety and lives of residents to avoid a non-existent threat.

The Guidelines for comments on this blog are different from those on Town Square Forums. I am attempting to foster more civility and substantive comments by deleting violations of the guidelines.
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Posted by Pete, a resident of Evergreen Park,
on Feb 18, 2014 at 2:34 pm

Thanks for shining a bright light on the city's poor decision making processes!

I wonder if more of the feedback/comments from citizens would be retained if simple projects did not stretch out over decades, past the employment of city staff members.

Why can't the city implement small projects in less than 10 years? There is something very wrong with process control in city hall! This happens in all neighborhoods, so staff can't blame the residents. Well, I guess they can, but it doesn't make it valid.

Posted by Douglas Moran, a resident of Barron Park,
on Feb 18, 2014 at 2:48 pm

Douglas Moran is a registered user.

Unfortunately, this was not a case of public input getting lost during staff turnover. I have been working this project for almost 20 years, and I have kept my notes, updating them for each new iteration of considerations, and for each phase within those considerations. Doesn't help.

At the public meeting for a similar bike boulevard, Maybell-Georgia-Donald, several members of the public had been part of a Caltrans-funded study of that corridor only a few years before. City Staff reject the substantial knowledge that had been produced by that (expensive) study, saying that they wanted to start fresh (ie, under their control, a variant of "not invented here").

Posted by curmudgeon, a resident of Downtown North,
on Feb 19, 2014 at 9:31 am

Don't bemoan city inaction, exploit it.

A jarring speed dip, about 18 inches wide by 2 inches deep and as wide as the road is a much more effective speed reducer than a speed bump, and far easier to implement. A couple hours with a pickaxe should be enough for each speed controller.

It will take months for their presence to register with the city, and years for any action. Until then, pedestrians and bicyclists are safe.

Posted by anne, a resident of Green Acres,
on Feb 20, 2014 at 1:25 am

Thanks for another spot on post.

Our City in general doesn't handle safety very well. One thing I think we really need to demand in the redo of the Comp Plan is for the Safety Element required by the state to be separated out and fully developed. And then we need to make it mandatory in the code, not optional. When Palo Alto was a sleepy little burg, it was okay for the safety element to be kind of infused in the Natural Environment element. But our Council hardly takes the Comp Plan seriously when stuff is explicitly spelled out, forget when it's just a footnote in a mostly ignored section.

Posted by out of control, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Feb 21, 2014 at 5:04 pm

Thank you Douglas Moran for documenting the serious problems we have
here in Palo Alto- an incompetent,arrogant, and dysfunctional, out
of control local government.

Posted by Marrol, a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland,
on Feb 22, 2014 at 4:52 pm

Historically, how many motor vehicle vs pedestrian accidents have occurred on that length of Matadero? Is this a real problem, or a perceived one?

Posted by Douglas Moran, a resident of Barron Park,
on Feb 22, 2014 at 7:49 pm

Douglas Moran is a registered user.

A fundamental of safety engineering is that you don't wait for accidents to happen, but try to preempt them with good design. As illustrated by the two Space Shuttle disasters, you need to treat near misses as a call to action, rather than letting them create a sense of complacency.

The Ford Pinto "Exploding Gas Tank" (1970s) is a classic case study of the various aspects (ethical, financial, public reputation) of knowingly allowing dangerous design to persist based on an analysis purporting that it was cheaper to compensate the victims.

Part of the concern about accidents is that the traffic patterns have been changing in the direction of more danger. The success of the programs to encourage students to bicycle to school has dramatically increased the number of distracted bicyclists. The economy has produced a substantial increase in construction traffic. And there has been a noticeable increase in cars transiting the length of the street (speeding, not paying attention to bicyclists and pedestrians).

Even if the probabilities of an accident were unchanged, for a street segment as short as Matadero, accident history is not a good predictor because accidents are stochastic, not periodic.

Most of the collisions involving vehicles and pedestrians/bicyclists in Barron Park have occurred on similar streets. The more recent ones I know of on Matadero involved cars taking out fences and landscaping. One homeowner on a different pending bike blvd in Barron Park adopted what is humorously referred to as "federal-style landscaping": After incidents of cars winding up in their front yard, they re-landscaped it to have a berm topped with landscaping boulders (to protect their house).

Posted by resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Feb 22, 2014 at 10:22 pm

@Douglas Moran
"accidents are stochastic, not periodic". If I understand this correctly,
this comment absolutely sums it up perfectly and this goes to the heart of
what the City is doing wrong here. On our residential streets accidents are generally random events. An elderly driver, a driver distracted, etc. The City looks at an intersection where there may be no accident history and treats it like it has periodic accidents and makes over the intersection or street in a way that actually creates greater likelihood of a random event occurring. This is not the same as correctly looking at a situation which has inherent danger and before an accident occurs taking action. For example, cars making left turns off of Alma at Channing at the Ace Hardware is inherently dangerous because of all the pedestrians crossing there midblock. But there is no sign there even warning drivers of the danger. Yet other sections of the City have signs plastered all over the streets which are a distraction.

Posted by Marrol, a resident of Downtown North,
on Feb 22, 2014 at 10:39 pm

The accident history, especially one that covers a long period of time, is certainly a credible indicator of the potential danger that exists at any intersection or traffic corridor. If it were truly as dangerous as people might perceive, then at some point the conditions would lead to a higher number of reported accidents. Again, there is a likelihood here that this is a perceived problem versus a real one. I'd add that the headline is more than a bit dramatic and even unfounded to imply that the city is somehow setting up our pedestrians to "die".

Posted by curmudgeon, a resident of Downtown North,
on Feb 23, 2014 at 3:24 pm

"Historically, how many motor vehicle vs pedestrian accidents have occurred on that length of Matadero?"

How many tombstones do you need to see?

Posted by Marrol, a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland,
on Feb 23, 2014 at 8:35 pm

Well curmudgeon, if the answer is zero, then I don't think that questioning the validity of this assertation is unreasonable. Your tombstone reference is as overly dramatic as the headline proclaiming the imminent death of pedestrians. I appreciate the anticipatory concern, but I would maintain that this is a perceived problem and not a legitimate one.

Posted by curmudgeon, a resident of Downtown North,
on Feb 24, 2014 at 10:15 am

"I would maintain that this is a perceived problem and not a legitimate one."

Contacts between motor vehicles and pedestrians/bicyclists have been known to result in tombstones. How many does it take to turn a "perceived" problem into a "legitimate" one?

Posted by Marrol, a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland,
on Feb 24, 2014 at 3:01 pm

Well my understanding is that in the entire history of the Matadero corridor there have been no fatal collisions involving motor vehicles and pedestrians. If I'm missing something here then please clue me in. If there has indeed been zero fatal accidents there, ever, then logic tells me that it can't be as dangerous as what's being professed. Otherwise these doomsday predictions of death and tombstones seem more than a bit dramatic and exaggerated.

Posted by Douglas Moran, a resident of Barron Park,
on Feb 24, 2014 at 3:33 pm

Douglas Moran is a registered user.

Readers, please recognize that attempting to have a legitimate discussion with Marrol is probably an exercise in futility. Notice that here he is advocating that a miniscule sample set (accidents on Matadero over the past few years) is the key/only measure of risk and that very large sample sets are meaningless (the stats that went into design guidance). This sort of "unconventional" thinking is characteristic.

My experience is that Marrol does not responding meaningfully to points other commenters make (if at all), and routinely fails to provide evidence to support his assertions, even in the face of contrary argument/evidence. Plus he often takes the position that if it is unimportant to him, it can\'t be important to anyone else. He has his beliefs and will simply reiterate them.

I have found it best to just ignore Marrol.

Posted by Marrol, a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland,
on Feb 24, 2014 at 6:22 pm

I'm sorry that you feel that way Mr. Moran. I'm truly surprised that for someone posting a public blog, on an open forum, you would seek to exclude and discourage someone from joining the conversation simply because they happen to disagree with your opinion. I have not spoken out in an offensive manner, been disrespectful, or try to discourage anyone from considering your thoughtful opinions.

On this topic I do feel that I make a meaningful point. You argue that the Matadero corridor is seemingly a death trap for pedestrians that is being ignored and dismissed by the city. I thoughtfully and logically ask, if this corridor were indeed as dangerous as you profess, then why hasn't there been any reports of serious accidents involving pedestrians. One would think based on your speculation that at some point over the past 20-30 years you would be able to cite at least one such incident that supports your argument. That's not a miniscule window of time by any means. If not, then it seems like a perfectly logical assumption that maybe it's not as dangerous as you perceive.

May I add, and I would ask that you join me in a positive spirit, to not discourage others from participating on this forum, assuming that they do so respectfully and within the rules. We can certainly agree to disagree and let anyone reading draw their own conclusions. It's not much of a forum really if the only opinions welcome happen to be your own.

Posted by resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Feb 24, 2014 at 9:36 pm

The City needs to use accident history, traffic engineering principles applied to specific situations, good judgement, common sense, a set of baseline community standards in dealing with traffic management in our City. None of this is being done.

Posted by Douglas Moran, a resident of Barron Park,
on Feb 24, 2014 at 11:49 pm

Douglas Moran is a registered user.

Your post shows why I have contempt for you. I didn't seek to discourage your posting because you disagree with me: My comments were directed at your refusal to provide logic or evidence of your assertions: In this case, you persist in asserting that large-scale sample spaces should be ignored in favor of miniscule ones. Another example, in a comment on a previous blog entry of mine, you persisted in asserting without explanation/justification (logic or evidence) that a sign at Alma Village *needed* to be larger than those on El Camino, despite logic that said it was the reverse. That you choose to misrepresent an expectation that you provide justification of your assertions as attempting to discourage comments says much about how disrespectful of others you are. Respectful behavior is much more than respectful language.

You persist in ignoring what has been clearly stated in earlier comments: You choose a duration of the "past 20-30 years" when it was stated that the situation has changed substantially in recent years (more risk factors). If you think that these changes are irrelevant to the stats, as you apparently do, *you* need to explain why, not simply dismiss/ignore that info. This is hardly the "respectful" that you claim to be. I would call it "disingenuous".

If you are going to reject perception of danger--which is widely accepted in safety evaluations--and say that body count is what is important, you need to explain your reasoning. My blog post opened with an example of where a resident found it too dangerous to be a pedestrian. Additional examples are seniors who no longer drive and would like to be able to use the bus, but see the walk between their home and El Camino as too dangerous. Or the parents of children in a certain age range who decided it was too dangerous to walk them to the park at the end of the block and instead drove them there. Please explain why you believe that those assessments are invalid/meaningless.

You have grossly misrepresented what I have said, saying that I "argue that Matadero corridor is seemingly a death trap for pedestrians". I said no such thing. I said that it was dangerous by a variety of conventional and well-understood measures and that the City is refusing to address those dangers, and we are at a point where the City's bureaucratic criteria essentially require a pedestrian death before changes will be considered.

To another blog post that received 36 other comments, yours was "Yawn . . . nothing interesting here. I'll move on..."

So, let's see. You misrepresent, ignore, are disingenuous, and dismiss the arguments of others based on assertions that you make but refuse to provide any meaningful justification and otherwise contemptuous of others. And you think you are being "respectful".

Posted by Marrol, a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland,
on Feb 25, 2014 at 6:27 pm

I have indeed given justification for my observations on this matter, apparently not to your satisfaction. That\'s called agreeing to disagree. I simply believe that if the conditions were as dangerous as you claim, then at some point we would have seen a significant upturn in the number of serious accidents involving pedestrians. I believe that is both a logical and reasonable conclusion.

You back away from my suggestion that you view this traffic corridor as a death trap for pedestrians, claiming that you suggested no such thing. Alright, then how is a reader supposed to interpret your headline which reads, "Die Pedestrians Die", with further implication that the city is ignoring the problem. Sorry, but that strikes me as being exaggerated and dramatically over the top.

You also insist that you are not trying to discourage readers from considering my commentary, but yet you summarized in an earlier post that it would be best to just ignore me. Doesn\'t make sense. A forum such as this one operates best when people focus on the issue. If you disagree with me and feel that you can make a better case for your argument then so be it. We can exchange thoughts, opinions, and ideas, and let the readers decide what is relevant and what is not. To simply dismiss or exclude someone is petty and small. I think I\'m done weighing in on this, and I hope that you\'ll be more tolerant and open-minded in the future.

Posted by Right on, Doug, a resident of Barron Park,
on Mar 4, 2014 at 5:26 pm

I was one of the people who opposed the traffic-calming exercise on Arastradero because of the impacts on streets like Maybell which we saw every day.

My neighbors and I showed CC pictures of how dangerous Maybell was during commute hours when PAHC wanted to build in the old orchard.

We were completely ignored both times.

Since Measure D failed, do you think the city has made ONE safety improvement to Maybell?

Maybell or Matadero, the safety concerns of those in our part of the city don't seem to count for much. What a shame.

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