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Saturday, September 29, 2012

Will Emeryville's New Bike Plan Be Ignored?

Major Traffic Calming Long Past Due For Horton Street

Emeryville's premiere bicycle thoroughfare, the Horton Street Bike Boulevard, has so much high speed traffic that it has become unsafe for bicycling.  So says Alta Planning, a Berkeley based urban bike network design firm that was commissioned by the City of Emeryville to study bicycling in town.  The $200,000 study, now incorporated into Emeryville's Bicycle/Pedestrian Plan and adopted into law by the city council lays waiting, ready to be implemented.
The question is, will it really be implemented or will it languish in some dusty corner at City Hall as so many other expensive studies have done?  Given the city council's baleful history of failing to calm the traffic on Horton Street for bicycle traffic and working to improve the street for vehicle use at the expense of bicycling, it seems likely it will be ignored and will remain a major automobile thoroughfare, unsafe for bicycles and becoming increasingly more so over time.  

Central to the Alta study is a limit on the number of cars that may use Horton Street, set at 3000 vehicles per day, before a mandatory set of traffic calming procedures kicks in.  The idea is that the traffic calming fixes will lower the number of vehicles that use the bike boulevard down below the 3000 maximum.  It should be noted Emeryville's 3000 number earmarked for bike boulevards is larger than any other city in the Bay Area. 

A choker is an example of a 'neckdown'
called for by level 4 traffic calming.
The prescibed traffic calming comes in a series of increasingly interventionist levels, one through five, that reduces traffic volume and speed, the last such level resulting in a total diversion for through traffic.  Each level requires two years to adequately assess its efficacy.  

At this point, Horton Street has already gone through the first three traffic calming levels; these involve street stenciling, signage and intersection "bulb-outs".  Now, since traffic has not subsided on Horton (it's actually increased), it's time for level 4 traffic calming to be implemented according to the Plan.
Level 4 calls for "significant traffic calming", specifically, 'neck downs' or traffic limiters such as 'chokers', designed to act like a one lane bridge permitting only one car through at a time.

Here's what the Bike Plan calls for on Emeryville's bike boulevards:

Level 1 Basic Bicycle Boulevard- signs, pavement markings
Level 2 Enhanced Bicycle Boulevard- wayfinding signs, reduced delays at intersections
Level 3 Limited Traffic Calming- intersection bulbouts
Level 4 Significant Traffic Calming- neckdowns
Level 5 Traffic Diversion

Level 5 calls for diverters: This
is called out only if level 4 doesn't
work after two years.
The problem is the Bike Committee has already twice voted on significant traffic calming for Horton Street in years past.  Both times the city council has overridden the committee's findings.  The last time the committee voted unanimously to add such calming, councilwoman Nora Davis explained her veto to the committee, "I have no problem putting paint on the asphalt [pavement markings]" but anything more dramatic than that would draw a veto from her and consequently also from the council majority.

In the intervening two and a half years since the last council veto shutting down Horton Street traffic calming, the city has commissioned and now encoded the $200,000 Alta study.

While we acknowledge Ms Davis' forthrightness in explaining to the people why they shouldn't expect safe biking routes in town, we call on the rest of the council to abide by the new Bike Plan they have adopted.  The fact that other such documents have been subverted in the past by the council should not serve as a precedent for inaction on Horton Street.  It's never too late to start working towards livability and rational public policy.  Let's make bicycling safe on the Horton Street Bicycle Boulevard.  It's time for a choker on Horton Street.


  1. Is there compelling unbiased data that supports the assertion that the Horton Street bike boulevard is dangerous to bicycles? Has there been a recent study or a rash of collisions that I'm unaware of? As someone who bikes Horton Street frequently, I would certainly prefer more aggressive action, but I've never felt unsafe on the street ... and regardless, the bicycle boulevard plan is a cop-out and will likely remain a failure anyway.

    1. It is the Alta study that concludes that more than 3000 vehicles per day on Horton Street constitutes an unsafe biking condition. The most recent traffic counts on Horton puts the number over 3000 for most of the length of the street and up over 5000 in certain areas. The Alta study is definitive: more than 3000 is unsafe.

    2. I think it's a stretch to call the Alta Study, written by a bicycle, pedestrian, and trail planning company, unbiased. Why is 3000 safe but 3001 suddenly unsafe? It seems arbitrary to rely on a single number without more carefully looking at the types of traffic and the behavior of drivers.

    3. The City of Emeryville has decided to make law based on the standards of the norm... sort of. Municipalities across California (and the nation for that matter) have assigned metrics for bike boulevards. Since bike bulevards are supposed to be for bikes primarily but vehicles are also allowed and since they share the road and since vehicles move faster than bikes and are in conflict with bikes, metrics governing cars are called for. These metrics quantify maximum vehicle speeds and volumes. Emeryville has adopted the max volume of 3000 per day, on the high side but within the bell curve of municipalities nation wide. The metrics define what is safe and what is unsafe, so in Palo Alto forinstance more than 1500 vehicles per day is considered unsafe as opposed to Emeryville's 3000.

      Ultimatley, a number has to be agreed to in setting bike saftey law or any law for that matter. One could argue that it's patently absurd that a person 20 years and 364 days should be allowed to drink alcohol but the law says it's illeagal until the following day; or 21 years of age. You can argue all you want as a 20 year old one day shy of your birthday but that's the way the law rolls.

    4. Fair enough. Generally I feel that Emeryville's bicycle plan is a farce and feel that the city council is playing fast and loose with its own rules ... which is something I think that we generally agree about ... I just have trouble accepting that Horton Street is explicitly unsafe.

  2. How do they expect Horton street to ever fall below the recommended number of vehicles when it serves Novartis, Pixar, and the train station, and serves as a perfect alternative to Hollis.
    Diversion will be the only way, force people down Hollis.
    Of course, if you are going to that, you better widen Hollis.

    1. Diversion may in fact be the only way....first we'll have to see the results of the level 4 traffic calming. You should realize the level 4 treatments on Horton will make Hollis more desirable, especially at rush hour(s), so we may be able to stop there before moving on to level 5.

      This is how the new bike plan is intended to work...the key word is 'work' in that statement. It's supposed to take away politics from the method. As we have seen however, science in public policy is something Republicans in Washington are fearful of as well as the Emeryville city council (historically).

    2. Coupled with traffic calming measures, how about some signage on all bicycle blvds which would read for example, "Horton is a Bicycle Blvd, Auto's please use Hollis" or "No Thru Traffic". Another low budget form of traffic calming would be to make the street a 15 mile per hour zone and have the police enforce the limit.

    3. I like the use of the word 'please' on a traffic's something unexpected among all the didactically barking authoritarian signage. We should look into actually doing this.