Revisiting the Need For Fifth Street



This week we have an update that on Fifth Street we will see demolition of the existing striping occurring this week; signal crossover and striping will continue the week of July 28; the remaining ramp demolition and replacement will occur the week of August 4. The entire project should be completed mid-August. Partial lane closures will occur during these periods.

This marks a culmination of a process and discussion that was underway before the Vanguard first published on July 30, 2006.

This morning we reprint from a piece written by Steve Tracy in February 2009 which lays out the rationale and the need for the redesign.

Addressing Safety Concerns and Design Changes to Fifth St Corridor

by Steve Tracy

This past Tuesday evening the City Council considered changes to the design of the 5th/Russell corridor, between A and L Streets. Opportunities to put missing bike lanes on the street and deal with ongoing safety issues have been missed in the past. We hope this time the community can learn from the experience in other similar situations, set aside fear and emotion, and support a decision to create a safer street that will serve everyone better.

In February of 2005, the timing of the traffic signals was modified at the intersections where F and G Streets meet 5th Street. The new timing, called “split-phase” in traffic engineer vernacular, allows only one direction of traffic on 5th Street (eastbound or westbound) to flow at a time. Now left turns off of 5th Street at those intersections are “protected” because oncoming traffic is stopped with a red light. This eliminated many dangerous broadside accidents at the F Street and G Street intersections. The Public Works Department should be applauded for addressing a serious problem created when drivers rushed into unsafe left turns against oncoming traffic.

However, the changes fixed only part of the safety problem on the 5th Street corridor. The new signal timing brought on an additional 30 seconds of delay for most drivers using the corridor, which has led to other hazards.

For example, in the average rush hour, only one car a minute turns left from eastbound 5th Street to northbound F Street. The new signal timing imposes a 30 second delay on drivers westbound on 5th, all for the safety of that one driver. Avoiding that delay has drivers making unsafe turns into the residential neighborhoods north and east of downtown to avoid the signals at F and G. These neighborhoods now see much more speeding by impatient drivers, and traffic volumes on alternative routes have increased.

In the four years since the split phase signals were installed, accidents have continued or worsened, especially at the unsignalized intersections in the corridor. This is the record from March of 2005 through the end of 2008 for the entire corridor, A Street to L Street:

  • 109 accidents total
  • 19 pedestrians or bicyclists hit by cars
  • 63 personal injuries requiring treatment

With the current financial crisis threatening City services, we have a situation where 10% of all traffic related calls made by the Police and Fire Departments on streets in the entire City occur on 10 short blocks of a single street.

A recent AAA study reveals that the cost to individuals and society of a single injury in an automobile accident averages $70,000. So in less than 4 years we have run up a 4 million tab on 5th Street. Please, it’s past time to correct this situation.

The best solution also happens to be the cheapest:

It is shown in the graphic above. It’s commonly called a “road diet.” This sounds like a bad term, because we usually don’t like diets, but this one leads to a healthy street. This design technique has been used in literally hundreds of similar situations across the country. Yes, there was initial opposition in many cases, but the results speak for themselves. We are aware of only two cases where the design was completely or partially undone. In fact, many cities went on from their first trial road diet to redo other streets. It works.

This design merges the two center lanes into a single lane for left turns. In time, portions of this lane can be landscaped to beautify the street. We gain a lot of flexibility by merging the left turn lanes: It provides the room to paint in the missing bike lanes. It provides for faster through travel because demand activated left turn arrows can be installed. This all fits between the existing curbs on 5th Street. It requires only paint, and some new traffic lights at F and G. The existing lights can be reused elsewhere.

Between A and B Streets, the only change would be to restripe the vehicle lanes to remove excess width, and stripe in bike lanes. Again, this all fits between the curbs. Almost 50% of the traffic coming east from UCD in the evening rush hour turns off of Russell at B, so this is the logical place to drop the extra lane which isn’t needed beyond that point.

Other communities engaged in road diet projects to address safety issues, with great results. Accident reductions often have been at or over 50%. The severity of crashes and injuries has seen an even more dramatic reduction, because vehicle speeds are lower, set by the prudent drivers at the head of the lines. Aggressive speeding is virtually eliminated.

Arguments that have been made against fixing 5th Street:

We need 4 lanes to carry the car traffic—That is not what the model conducted in 2005 showed. In fact, it revealed that travel times in the corridor between A and L Streets will in fact go DOWN as through traffic flow is better organized in a single lane. That is why so many other cities that have removed lanes from 4 lane streets have seen traffic volumes go UP after the street was fixed. These reworked streets often carry 50% more traffic than 5th Street does. It seems counter to logic, but here is why it works: We do not really have a 4 lane street on 5th between B and L at this time—we have a 2 lane street with 2 left turn lanes. Many drivers make left turns at the frequent cross street intersections. While waiting for a gap in through traffic, they sit in the middle lane and block the cars behind them. Stopped buses (70 a day on this section of 5th), bicyclists, and cars slowing down for right turns also impede traffic flow in the lanes next to the curbs. Aggressive speeders slalom through these obstacles, threatening every user of 5th Street.

We need a 4 lane street for trucks to get in and out of downtown—This simply is not true. The only 4 lane truck access to downtown requires trucks from Sacramento to go completely around Davis on I-80 and Hwy 113, then come in from the west on Russell Blvd. No many do that. Even then, they must negotiate 2 lane streets all through downtown, as delivery truck drivers have successfully done for years. All other truck route access to downtown, from Richards Blvd., B Street, L Street, 1st Street, and 2nd Street is on two-lane streets.

Fire trucks will not be able to get down 5th Street—In fact, emergency responders will have it easier. The bike lane will be available for the single lane of cars to pull into, clearing the way. This is quicker and safer than two lanes of vehicles trying to merge into a single line.

There will be long lines backed up at the traffic signals—Again, this is simply not true. Restoring conventional signal operations at F and G Streets will eliminate 30 seconds of delay. Currently, a driver caught at a red light must wait out green lights for two other traffic streams. That wait will be cut in half, and so will the number of vehicles joining the line at the red light. The single line will be the same length as the current double line.

Bicyclists need to ride somewhere else—This is not consistent with federal, state, or City of Davis policy. As we struggle to reduce global warming, all levels of government must promote clean transportation technologies. A recent Complete Streets directive from Caltrans headquarters (DD-64-R1) states “Therefore, the Department and local agencies have the duty to provide for the safety and mobility needs of all who have legal access to the transportation system.” The Davis General Plan “Primary Bicycle Network” map shows bike lanes on 5th Street between A and L Streets. Let’s get them painted, to accommodate the hordes of cyclists now riding in the gutter, in the lanes, and both directions on the sidewalks.

Pedestrians need to go to the signals to cross—This is unfair, and also unsafe because of the heavy traffic volumes at those intersections and all the cars turning across the crosswalks. It takes over 5 minutes for a pedestrian who wishes to cross 5th Street at J Street or D Street to detour to the nearest traffic signal and then walk back to their route, gaining only 50 feet on their trip in the process. Why expect this of people on foot, when the redesign will reduce delay for the people sitting in air conditioned comfort in their cars?

Only the selfish people in Old North Davis want this—At the City Council hearings on this issue, 3 dozen people from all over Davis spoke up in support of the redesign. They talked about the chaotic street that makes them not want to drive downtown to shop, about the automobile accidents they had been in, and how hostile the street is for them on bicycles. Yes, we in Old North want 5th Street fixed. We are shocked that the business owners are so entrenched in their opposition, in spite of all the evidence that this design works. We are their best customers. Many of us are downtown every day spending money. We don’t clog up the streets, and we don’t take up parking spaces. We just want to get there safely.

It will never work in Davis—It already does. We don’t have to look any farther than B Street. Between 1st and 5th Streets, B Street carries almost exactly the same number of vehicles daily, and more bicyclists. These are the same drivers, in the same town, on a street that is the same width between the curbs. It has a single lane in each direction, a shared left turn lane, and bike lanes. Just like the design for 5th Street that is in the General Plan.

There were 30 accidents on the 4,000 feet of 5th/Russell between A and L Streets in 2008, 8 of them involving bicyclists or pedestrians. In contrast, the 2,000 feet of B Street between 1st and 5th Streets had only 6, one involving a bicyclist. This is the safety improvement we can expect on 5th Street with the proper design.

As we stated at the top of this essay, our Public Works Department has demonstrated in the past that safety is their priority. The solution to the safety issues on 5th Street is right before us. It’s time.


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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25 thoughts on “Revisiting the Need For Fifth Street”

  1. Tia Will

    Thanks for the re print.

    Steve’s explanation is clear, fact based, and well thought through. I once again want to thank Steve for his work in this area.

  2. SODA

    We have seen double stop lights for a few months along the corridor; couldn’t we reuse any of the old rather than have to install a completely new light/pole/etc?
    I look forward to seeing this complete. Hope Steve is right!

      1. hpierce

        Somewhat correct. The traffic controller (computer and software) had to be replaced/upgraded for the phasing. The poles and mast arms had to be replaced due to the lane re-configuration. Without the lane re-config, ONLY the controller would have needed to be replaced, along with some re-wiring in the poles. The poles needed to be replaced absent any phasing changes, with the lane re-config. The phasing and the lane config are somewhat interdependent for the smoothest flow of traffic (of ALL user classes, including peds and bicycles).

  3. darelldd

    This is a fabulous piece, and addresses each bit of opposition I’ve heard – except the expense. But Steve even indirectly covered that as well, when he pointed out that there’s even a positive ROI on reducing collisions, as compared to the cost of the project. I dislike putting a price tag on human suffering, but there are those among us who think in no other terms but dollars.

    The opposition to this redesign (huge mistake to call it a diet since we are going from four lanes of traffic to five… and nobody likes a diet) has been disheartening. People hear “four lanes to two” and jump on the Dunning bandwagon of, “gosh, that math is obvious. We’ll have more congestion!”

    There are countless of successful examples of similar redesigns all across the country. We have one here already in our own backyard – yet nobody can look beyond the math. They find that 4-2=2 instead of 2+3=5. And of course they completely discount the improved traffic light timing that’s only possible with on-demand turn pockets. There are few things we can do where everybody wins. This is one of those things.

    It costs us less in the long run.
    EVERY road user is safer: drivers, cyclists, pedestrians
    Everybody can get to downtown more easily, and spend money sooner
    Everybody has an easier time getting around no matter where they’re going or what form of transportation they choose to use.
    It even looks better (assuming we add landscaping eventually).

    Thanks to Steve and all others who have been involved in this way-to-long-in-coming project to help improve our city.

    1. DavisBurns

      One complaint I’ve heard from a friend who lives off 8th Street which has its own traffic challenges, is the fifth street project will result in increases traffic on 8th Street.

      1. Davis Progressive

        or less. i live in that area and often try to avoid fifth right now because you can get snared in the signal lights plus the traffic is unpredictable.

      2. darelldd

        Right. I’ve discounted the concerns that hinge on all the studies and the success of the existing similar designs being ignored. This is the “Bob Dunning stance.” Everything will be worse if you take one lane away from automobiles. And everybody will avoid this huge bottleneck.


        I (and clearly others) currently avoid 5th street now. I plan to use it more once it is safer and more user friendly.

  4. Davis Progressive

    this is a very clear explanation of the advantage of the road diet. i wish some of the naysayers would post their concerns here and see if they can’t be addressed.

    1. darelldd

      One benefit of the redesign that hasn’t yet been mentioned:

      As the design stands now, there is no place for 5th street residents to dump their yard waste without obstructing automobile traffic. Once the redesign is complete, they’ll have a lovely new bike lane in which to dump it!

      Sorry. I couldn’t help myself.

  5. Anon

    Looking forward to the 5th Street Redesign project being done and over with. Only when it has been completed and working well will the naysayers be silenced, because the evidence will be irrefutable. And even then, perhaps there will still be griping – but ultimately much fewer auto, bike and ped accidents 😉

    1. hpierce

      Or, after new traffic patterns are established, and we have 2-3 years of delay, collision, volume data (on Fifth and on alternative streets), the nay-sayers may be vindicated. We will see… there will be those who will say that no post-construction data will be needed.

      Expect collisions to increase in the short-term, as people adjust to new legends, striping, etc. two to 3 years of data will be needed to evaluate whether the project is a “boon”, a “bust”, a “push”, etc.

        1. hpierce

          As I said… we shall see… time will tell. The section of concern is C thru G, inclusive. This should be an improvement for the rest of the corridor.

          The collisions due to DUI, etc. should be very similar to those pre-project.

  6. Don Shor

    I was initially very skeptical about this project. But I found the accident data about Fifth Street very compelling, and also understand the safety concerns expressed by residents north of Fifth, and bicyclists. It seems counter-intuitive that it would speed up traffic, but Steve certainly has lots of information on that aspect as well. In any event, it seems the road will be safer, and we’ll all get used to the change. It’s just bizarre that it’s taken this long to implement this.
    I have seen one of the sites Steve has presented, the Bird Rock interchange. It solved a very chaotic intersection and is very simple and attractive.
    Overall, from the start my sense has been that this is primarily for the bicyclists and pedestrians, and that the impact on cars and drivers will be minimal. I hope that’s correct.

    1. darelldd

      From the start this has been about the safety of every individual who uses that corridor. It is “primarily” for the safety of people transporting themselves. Which method of convenience they choose to use should not be the issue.

      This is in no way “bikes and peds vs. drivers.”

      People generally fear change. And it still surprises me to find how many people are unwilling to consider that this redesign can, and should be better for everybody.

  7. Rich RifkinWDE 73

    STEVE: “It will never work in Davis—It already does. We don’t have to look any farther than B Street.”

    Another example is Anderson Road from Russell to Covell. From the late-1950s* until the late-1960s, it had no bike lanes and no center turn lane. It had 2 car lanes north and 2 south. In effect, its conversion was an early example of the road diet taking place on Fifth. I suppose that 1 mile stretch of Anderson normally has less traffic than B to L on Fifth. But it still is a heavily trafficked road and it never has the throughput problems we now have on Fifth.
    *It’s hard to compare prior to the late-1950s because before then Anderson Road was a narrower road. It was expanded into a 2 north, 2 south configuration when the west side of Anderson was developed. I think West Davis Elementary (now Cesar Chavez) was one of the first built on the west side of Anderson. WDE opened around 1958 (as did Valley Oak).

    1. Mark West

      Anderson road is actually a poor example. What causes most of the congestion on 5th street is not the number of cars moving completely through downtown, but those that slow to make turns (either right or left) as they traverse the downtown area. There is nothing along Anderson Road that inspires drivers to turn off the road at one intersection over any other. As a consequence, cars turning off of the main road is a random and relatively evenly spread out event.

      Traversing 5th street between the railroad tracks and B street is a completely different issue, with numerous inspirations available to entice drivers to slow and turn off the main road in both directions.

      For the same reasons B street is a poor example as well as there are few opportunities to turn off of B between 1st and 5th streets.

      It will take a few years of data to know for certain, but my expectation is that this change will aid bike and foot travel, and will at best will be neutral for car travel. More likely however, is it will slow car travel through the downtown, primarily because many drivers will refuse to turn into the bike lane when they make a turn right, causing an unnecessary backup for through traffic. We already see this behavior all over town, so there is no reason to believe we won’t see the same on 5th street.

      1. Anon

        If it will make it safer for bikes and peds, then by default it will be safer for me as a driver who does not care to hit a bike or pedestrian. Sorry, but I cannot see how this “road diet” will do anything but bring safety to that stretch of road that has been problematic for years. If it slows cars a bit, that is probably for the better.

  8. Alan Miller

    I thank the Vanguard for reprinting this and thank Steve Tracy for his spirit in overcoming obstacles to this plan (including City staff apathy (lack of knowledge of proper traffic models to apply to the concept], neighborhood opposition [mostly concern of drivers rerouting off 5th], downtown business opposition [simplistic “one lane is half of two lanes so we’ll have half as many customers” thinking]), auto-centric citizen opposition [“it will slow us down on 5th Street”], through his perseverance, determination, use of data, coalition building, meeting attendance, and planning knowledge. This is a great and long-overdue triumph for the betterment of this City, one that will immediately improve safety and travel patterns for hundred of bicyclists and pedestrians daily. That Davis received a bicycle-friendly award prior to this project completion is a bit of a joke.

    The business concerns will prove unfounded. I believe there will be a bit of an improvement in downtown traffic flow, as many bicyclists that currently use 3rd Street to get from East Davis to Campus will now choose 5th Street as it will be much faster. This should ease slightly the ped/car/bike who-goes-first cluster-F’s that have peaked since the bulb-outs were constructed. The neighborhood concerns may or may not pan out, depending if the new design works as modeled. The truth is that people rushing off 5th into adjacent neighborhoods already occurs. I doubt it will get better, but my prediction and hope is that it will not get any worse. Here’s to hoping that regardless the City is able to in the not-too-distant future find funds for the promised traffic-calming measures already planned and agreed-to for Old North and Old East neighborhoods.

    I am puzzled by the “drivers refusing to use the bike lane to right turn” comment previously made. Is that a real thing? There was that thing when 1st Street was re-striped a few months ago without dashed lines where it was really unclear what to do, but the City restriped that so there is no issue. If a driver cannot hold the thought in their head that if they didn’t pass a bicycle coming up to the corner then it’s OK to turn into the bike lane, well, they shouldn’t be driving. If this really is an issue then perhaps some sort of Citywide education campaign is needed, or “OK to use bike lane to right turn” signs. Lord knows a campaign is needed to inform pedestrians standing on bulb-outs downtown not to step off the curb blindly when a car is already proceeding across the intersection in your direction.

    I am so looking forward to opening day. I am going to ride my bicycle up and down Fifth Street from A to L several times just because I CAN, and SAFELY.

  9. Pingback: Fifth Street Lane Reductions Have Been Implemented (Video) | .:Davis Vanguard:.

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