Commentary: Long Time Coming on Fifth Street



It is now a theme for this city council – wrapping up tough issues that have been long time struggles for city governance.  The Fifth Street Redesign is yet another issue we have been covering, it seems, since the inception of the Vanguard.  Last night, the council unanimously moved the Fifth Street Project close to the point where we are just a few months away from construction.

It was no small undertaking to get the project to this point, and proponents will undoubtedly and perhaps rightly point to staff resistance.  It is rather remarkable that a concept that was unanimously approved four years ago has still not been implemented.

Still, I think there is a good deal of uncertainty with this project and how well it will work.

Questions were legitimately raised yesterday with regard to cost, particularly during a time when not only does the city lack funding but it is forced to borrow tens of millions for basic street repair.

There has been some mission creep here.  Some of the proponents last night seemed to lament the fact that not everything that needs to do be done will be done.

At the same time, the price tag has gone from the approved $1 million in 2009 to $1.9 million today.  Interim Public Works Director Robert Clarke, who very unceremoniously reported last night that his interim tag is about to go away, told the council there were some details and design refinement that they did not originally anticipate – but staff feels make it safer and better – that have been added.

Skeptics of government projects are always leery about such things, and rightly so.

Nevertheless, a lot of the additional funding was for streetlights and ADA ramps, which will be offset with about $200,000 in additional grant funding with local matches.

Much of the project is funded with money that would not exist at the local level, without this project.  The SACOG grant, for instance, simply would not be available without the innovative transportation project.

One reader noted, and not incorrectly, “That’s the way it always is. Money in the wrong account, not enough, etc, etc. Always a way to start a new project instead of doing needed maintenance. New projects are so much more fun.”

The reality is that there is a lot of truth to that statement.  Money does seem available for new projects, rather than fixing existing infrastructure.  It is a challenge for local government to find money for basic services like roads – but they can fund new projects like this.

Mr. Clarke defended the use of impact fee money going into this project, noting that development over the last two decades really necessitated changes to this core road and added that it was “perfectly reasonable for road impact fee funds to contribute to the improvements in that corridor.”

He also noted that this was never anticipated to be a huge RDA money user.  So, instead, the city has coddled together a host of funds to fund the project.

He did admit that some of this money could have gone into surface maintenance.  But we are talking about a few hundred thousand.  Not enough to make a sizable difference in the huge road maintenance pot, but enough to raise discerning people’s eyebrows.

So it comes down to whether or not this project is worth it.

There are huge problems with Fifth Street.  Drive from the university to the post office at 4 in the morning just for fun down Fifth Street.  There is a good possibility that you could be stopped at a light, with no car in sight for miles for two minutes.  You would be just idling.

Steve Tracy noted he witnessed a horrific bike accident the other day – he often observers horrific accidents on that stretch.  There are problems with the fundamental road design.

Some people have argued that bicyclists should not use the main throughway through town in the east-west direction.  The problem is that they cannot legally be precluded, and the bigger problem is that we have staked our reputation on being a bike capital of the country, if not the world, and here we have a road two blocks from the National Bicycling Hall of Fame that is dangerous to bicyclists.

As currently situated, left turns are both a hazard and an obstruction, as there are no turn pockets.  Impatient cars will zip around turning vehicles.  Turning from the side streets to the main thoroughfare is problematic.  The signals are untriggered and unsophisticated, often wasting fuel.

So, if we can create a road where traffic moves slowly but more consistently, where turns are safer and do not result in traffic blockage, then perhaps that is worth trying.

It has worked elsewhere.

One commenter noted, “I believe, after professionally reviewing many ‘road diet’ projects, and seeing where some have succeeded, and others have failed so miserably that they were reversed, that the Fifth Street application will fall into the latter category. Given the time, effort, money that has been, or will be expended, I sincerely hope I am wrong.”

The commenter adds, “However, I am convinced that if it fails, its proponents will blame staff rather than the applicability of the concept on this particular corridor.”

My view is that they could be right.  None of us truly knows.  But I think the issue has been studied and planned as well as it can be.

As Steve Tracy noted in his presentation, which he effectively demonstrated with a graphic, this is not a small group of people pushing a parochial plan.  2500 people a few years ago signed a petition, and the people lived all throughout town.

Personally, I have lived in both east and western parts of the town, but my journey almost always takes me onto Fifth Street through the corridor at least a few times a week, if not every day.

Something needed to change. The situation was not safe, it was not environmentally efficient, it was not friendly to bikes and pedestrians, and in the end, it was just unsustainable.

So, if we have to take a few hundred thousand of general use money to make this happen, let us do it and hope for the best.

—David M. Greenwald reporting


About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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32 thoughts on “Commentary: Long Time Coming on Fifth Street”

  1. David M. Greenwald

    Same thing that happens now when someone tries to make a left, everyone gets stopped. It should happen less often under the new design than it happens now.

  2. Growth Izzue

    Not true. Now the light is green for all cars going straight or making a left turn. If left turn is being made at a non-light intersection cars still have the extra lane to go around the car making a left.

  3. Growth Izzue

    I should also note that cars driving in one direction with a green light can make a left unimpeded by traffic coming from the other direction because they have a red light.

  4. Matt Williams

    [i]”Steve Tracy noted he witnessed a horrific bike accident the other day – he often observers horrific accidents on that stretch. There are problems with the fundamental road design.”[/i]

    There may be fundamental problems with the road design, but there are also a wealth of fundamental problems with the common sense and road awareness of bicycle riders. In the past year I have been in downtown a whole lot more than ever in the past and the number of stop signs run by bicyclists is astronomical . . . with no regard to the other vehicles/pedestrians. As long as we have knuckleheads in the world we will have accidents.

  5. hpierce

    The CC has decided. We will see/experience the outcome(s). I hope (but am not optimistic) that people will reserve final judgement until the ‘improvements’ are fully in place for at least a year. There will be “hiccups” during construction, and it will take a year to 18 months after construction to monitor/observe changes in crash rates, severity of crashes, changes in travel paths chosen, etc.

    The die is cast. We’ll see.

  6. hpierce

    Oh, and a point should be made (along the lines of MW’s comments) that even the best traffic engineering cannot compensate for stupidity, intoxication and other human behaviors.

  7. David M. Greenwald

    I agree with that to some extent. On the other hand, I also believe that meshing bikes with cars, given the above is a recipe for disaster. And while I agree with Matt that there are serious problems with how people ride their bikes, I see serious problems with how they drive their much heavier and faster cars as well.

  8. David M. Greenwald

    GI: I erroneously assumed your concern was on the non-signalized intersections. I hope with the eight-phase lights that traffic engineers were able to adjust for your concern at the signalized intersections. We will have to see.

  9. SouthofDavis

    David wrote:

    > One reader noted, and not incorrectly, “That’s the way it
    > always is. Money in the wrong account, not enough, etc,
    > etc. Always a way to start a new project instead of doing
    > needed maintenance. New projects are so much more fun.”

    The goal of most (but not all) people in politics is to spend money to make people happy so they vote to re-elect them and get money to the people that give them money to pay for their campaigns (or set up their own political groups to help them). Re-paving a street or re-roofing a school are great ways to get cash to unions and private firms that give politicians money, but those projects don’t get people excited so they vote for politicians so they have rigged the game so they always have some “new and fun projects” so they can show voters that they are not “only” working to funnel millions of public money to unions and politically connected private firms…

    Frankly wrote:

    > I suspect we will just trade one set of problems for another.

    This will end up making things better for bikes and worse for cars on 5th, but will force more cars up to 6th and down to 4th and make things worse for bikes and cars, but in the end it will give the politicians a fancy new project to talk about when they ask “bike activists” (and other people that want 5th changed ) to give time and money for their campaigns and flow millions to private firms and unions who build the project…

  10. stracy

    For Growth Izzue. The highest volume of left turns off of 5th Street in the whole corridor is from eastbound 5th to northbound L Street: 140 cars in an hour. That’s only 2.3 cars a minute, which is roughly the traffic light cycle time. And they will have a long left turn lane running for most of the block with no mid-block median like we will see in most other blocks. Half that number of cars (from 68 to 71 an hour) make left turns onto southbound B Street, southbound E Street, northbound F Street, and southbound G Street. Just over one car per minute at those locations. I wouldn’t expect that to back cars up into the through lanes.

  11. stracy

    For Growth Izzue’s next comment about unsignalized intersections: With the exception of left turns onto southbound B, which I covered above, most of the left turns into the neighborhoods are in single digits for the entire peak hour. Take D Street, where I live: During the busiest time of day when the heaviest traffic volume on 5th Street is eastbound, 6 drivers chose to turn left off of 5th onto northbound D Street. One car every 10 minutes. Rest easy.

  12. stracy

    For Matt Williams: Please, Matt. Go back and read my comment from yesterday. The young woman who was so badly injured last Wednesday was riding where she is forced to ride with the current design: at the right edge of traffic. She had ridden past City Hall and was moving across the A Street intersection with a green light when a driver making a left turn off of eastbound Russell onto northbound A Street ran her down. It’s not right to jump from her experience to all bicyclists are idiots. Let’s stay on the theme here, please.

  13. stracy

    For SouthofDavis: Why do you say this will make things worse for cars? What information do you have to back up that statement? We have seen two traffic model exercises come to an entirely different conclusion than what you state. The first was conducted by the Fehr and Peers office in Walnut Creek, under City contract. It concluded that a round trip in the corridor will be 45 seconds FASTER under peak congestion conditions than the current design, and that the street will be able to safely accommodate higher numbers of vehicles. Three years later a model run by the UCD School of Engineering, using an entirely different traffic simulation software package, came to almost precisely the same conclusion about round-trip travel time reduction. So we get a better street from a driver’s perspective, safer pedestrian crossings, protected pockets to wait in to make left turns, and bike lanes too. What’s not to love?

  14. davehart

    As one who both drives and bikes downtown I am optimistic regarding this project. I do not stand to make any money off it. The project will have no impact on my vote for City Council. It will undoubtedly cause me to change my own preferred route sequences when driving or biking. I may even have to alter my expectation for the time it takes to get to a downtown destination by two or three whole minutes. It doesn’t change the basic responsibility of cyclists to follow traffic laws and behave as if they are vehicles and it doesn’t change the responsibility of motorists to be patient and allow an extra two or three minutes to get where they are going.

    Maybe it will alter the nature of Fifth Street from Davis’ version of a downtown freeway to just another street. That would be nice.

  15. SouthofDavis

    stracy wrote:

    > For SouthofDavis: Why do you say this
    > will make things worse for cars?

    When you reduce the number of lanes for cars by 50% and add bike lanes it will reduce the speed/flow of cars, but increase the speed/flow of bikes (just like when a checker at a drug store closes a register to help in the pharmacy it will increase speed/flow for people waiting for help at the pharmacy but decrease speed/flow for the people waiting at the checkout register).

    I spend a lot of time walking, running, riding and driving around Davis and I use the Strava iPhone apps quite a bit to track the most efficient ways to get around town (the “shortest” way is not always the “fastest”). If I need to get to Mace from Richards on a Friday night I don’t get on I80 and I avoid downtown if I need to get from South to North Davis just like I almost always try and stay off 5th since on average 5th tends to take longer due to getting stuck at lights. Davis is so small and the “bad traffic” (not including I80 on a Friday night) is so minor that difference between the “fastest” and slowest way to ride or drive to another part of town is usually only a couple minutes.

    In the end I don’t think the project will make much difference to anyone (except the people that make a lot of money building it) and I wish the money was spent fixing the damage roots have done to so many of the bike trails around town and other needed repairs to the roads…

  16. Frankly

    Road diets are primarily to slow traffic and improve bike and pedestrian safety. The claim of improved throughput is dubious for a couple of reasons. One, there is not that much delay on this stretch due to left-hand turns. Two, there is often room to change lanes to go around cars waiting to turn left.

    Even if throughput is equal to or better than it is now, the perception for a driver will be that it is taking longer because traffic will be moving slower. The consequence will be some drivers picking alternative routes through neighborhood streets, and some drivers avoiding downtown shopping trips.

    One question… will this design have median islands with left turnouts, or just a full-length middle-lane turnout lane? If the former, it would make it potentially easier for pedestrians to cross as they can do so in two steps. However, if we just have a middle lane for turnouts, I would expect more pedestrian accidents as that middle lane creates a new hard to anticipate variable in the art of crossing a busy street safely.

  17. David M. Greenwald

    I think you have a limited conception of what the road diet’s goal is, which is not to slow traffic per se, but improve flow. With better flow, you can drive slower and yet get through the core faster. Right now drive from east to west or west to east you are going to hit a lot of lights through the city most of the time – with a better flow, you can avoid those lights.

  18. SouthofDavis

    David wrote:

    > THE models show it decreases travel time.

    Of course they do…

    The models made by the people that want a change always show positive results.

    If getting rid of one traffic lane on a busy street really decreased travel time every city would do it…

  19. Frankly

    [quote]I think you have a limited conception of what the road diet’s goal is, which is not to slow traffic per se, but improve flow.[/quote]

    I don’t find much evidence of this. The folks that tend to push road diet plans are more often interested in the benefits for bikers and pedestrians. They believe they have found a sell-able solution using their dubious models. In some cases the main driver is to improve difficult egress and exit of business lining the street… something we do not have.

    The way I look at it, the current road is not a problem for drivers. So, why make the case that it will improve driving? The current road is a problem for bikers. That is the agenda here. I know it. You know it. We all know it. So, let’s stop making these claims that we are doing it to help drivers.

  20. Jim Frame

    [quote]The current road is a problem for bikers. That is the agenda here.[/quote]

    I don’t concur. The current road is a problem for bikers, pedestrians and drivers. It’s not optimized for any of them, so there’s more-or-less continuous conflict between the three groups, and all are disgruntled. I believe that reconfiguring the road to better accommodate all users is the agenda.

    I live about a block north of 5th (Russell, actually, since I’m on A Street), and work out of a home office. I don’t bike on 5th because I’m not suicidal, and the current configuration often discourages me from biking because the alternate routes are inconvenient. I walk downtown pretty much daily, and 5th is a major impediment to be overcome on each trip. I also drive on 5th often as I go to and from job sites.

    My hope for the road diet is that it will better accommodate all three user groups. Although I’m not convinced that the project will degrade the driving experience, I’d be willing to accept quite a bit of slowdown not to have to deal with bikes in the car lanes (annoying to get stuck behind, dangerous to pass) and pedestrians darting pell-mell across the street trying to squeeze through a barely adequate break in traffic. The current situation is bad, and I think the road diet can hardly make it anything but better.


  21. stracy

    To SouthofDavis: The new design doesn’t reduce the number of lanes by 50%. It increases the number of unobstructed free-flowing lanes from zero to two, one in each direction. With the current design, vehicles waiting to turn left block the left-hand lane. Stopped buses and vehicles slowing to turn right impede traffic flow in the curb lane. Changing the traffic signal pattern to the more conventional east/west greens at the same time will remove 45 seconds of delay for the average driver in the corridor. Racing to make those lights while they are green causes some of the accidents that occur near the F and G intersections. Road diets are done for many reasons, primarily safety (as in our case). Impeding traffic flow is not one of them, and is seldom a result.

    If you want to use the cashier line as an example, the new design creates one express lane in each direction reserved for drivers with 0 left turns or fewer to purchase. Drivers with a left or right turn in their cart must get out of the flow of traffic and pull into the protected left turn pockets to wait, or ease safely into the bike lanes to slow for their right turns.

  22. stracy

    Frankly. We have a huge accident problem on 5th Street. Davis has 165 miles of streets, and 10% of all the accidents in the whole city occur on 3,800 feet of a single roadway. Bicyclists and pedestrians make up about 10% of the users of the corridor, but accidents where those vulnerable people are hit by cars make up over 20% of all 5th Street accidents, and account for 43% of the injuries. How can you oppose a redesign to address this safety crisis that also happens to improve traffic flow?

  23. medwoman


    [quote]The way I look at it, the current road is not a problem for drivers. So, why make the case that it will improve driving? The current road is a problem for bikers. That is the agenda here. I know it. You know it. We all know it. So, let’s stop making these claims that we are doing it to help drivers.[/quote]

    To take stracy’s comment one step further. If you are a driver who has ever been involved in an accident, or even a close call, on 5th street, you can appreciate that the current design is a problem for drivers. I am a cautious driver ( in the manner of former school bus drivers) and In my 22 years here, I have had a number of “close calls” with bikes and other cars, and one “fender bender” in which the car behind me did not notice that
    I was slowing for a pedestrian. To assert that everyone knows that this is an agenda exclusively for the benefit of bikers is to ignore the impact that these dangers impose on drivers as well as pedestrians and bikers.

  24. odd man out

    Jim Frame wrote:
    “…I’d be willing to accept quite a bit of slowdown not to have to deal with bikes in the car lanes (annoying to get stuck behind, dangerous to pass)…”

    While I appreciate Jim’s support for the 5th St. project, it’s important to note that the current lanes on 5th between A and L streets are not “car lanes”. They are traffic lanes. Bicyclists are legally allowed in them. And, because the outside lanes are too narrow to safely share with motor vehicles, cyclists are allowed, by the vehicle code (CVC 21202) to use the full lane. It’s no different than overtaking a slow motor vehicle. 5th St. has 2 lanes in each direction. Simply wait until it’s safe to pass on the left. Your “delay” will be seconds at most.

    I drive my bicycle on 5th St. almost daily (weekdays) on my ride to (mostly) and from (often) work. I’ve never had a problem, and I’ve been doing it for 30 years.

  25. Anonymous Pundit

    The City should have tested the design with a temporary installation. See if it works before spending so much money. Those living in the core will be pleased with this project. It will meet their desire for a neighborhood street. Everyone else, using 5th as a cross town arterial, will not.

  26. odd man out

    Anonymous Pundit wrote:”Those living in the core will be pleased with this project. It will meet their desire for a neighborhood street. Everyone else, using 5th as a cross town arterial, will not.”

    I don’t live in the core area. I live east of Pole Line. I use 5th/Russell as a cross-town arterial on my bicycle (daily –weekdays) and in my car (occasionally). I will be pleased with it. Pundit’s general statement suggests that he/she doesn’t consider bicyclists to be legitimate road users.

  27. stracy

    To Anonymous. We should “see if it works” before we do a permanent change? It’s not just paint. Reworking the street includes the very expensive installation of new traffic signals in the corridor, consuming $700,000 of the $830,000 grant.

    But see if it works? Look no farther than B Street south of 5th. It carries 15,100 vehicles a day, just 300 cars less than 5th Street east of B. With two through lanes, left turn pockets, and bike lanes. Same drivers, in the same town, with a fraction of the accident rate. And I guarantee that if you are approaching 5th and B Street, and your destination is the train station, your cardiologist wants you to take B Street to get there, not 5th.

    See if it works? This is like opening the blinds at 8 in the morning in June to see if the sun is up. This design is in place on dozens or hundreds of thoroughfares all over the country.

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