Fifth Street is nearly completed. As we reported earlier this week, traffic lanes were reduced on Fifth Street this week to one in each direction with the addition of turn lanes and bicycle lanes. From what we have reported and what we have heard, there have been few if any problems.
Concrete work will begin a week from Monday and the final touches will occur the week of August 25.
It has been a long journey to get here – an unnecessarily long journey. It is ironic that earlier this week there was a discussion on the Vanguard about criticism of city staff. In the case of Fifth Street, there is no other way to go.
At the outset there are three quick points to be made. Fifth Street was a remarkably low risk undertaking. First, the city was going to expend virtually no general fund money to do the conversion. Second, for those concerned about traffic flow – the traffic flowed through the corridor very poorly prior to this change. I know many people avoided Fifth Street between B and G at all costs.
Finally, if the project didn’t work, all the city would have to do is restripe it.
For all of the bellyaching in the community, the most remarkable thing about the redesign is how unremarkable it really is. They reduced automobile lanes from four to two. They added bike lanes. They added turn lanes. They got new traffic signals. That’s really it.
In May of 2009, Steve Tracy, who has done more to see this project get to the point of completion than any other resident in the city, would write on the Vanguard, “Once again an opportunity has been missed to move forward with the redesign that is in the adopted General Plan. Replacing the 4 lane street we now have with the two lane plus left turn lane and bike lane configuration will finally provide some safety for the numerous bicyclists and pedestrians using the corridor, and has no negative impacts on vehicle flow.”
“The two most recent traffic models, one funded by the City and one from the UC Davis School of Engineering show that the redesigned street will actually improve traffic flow and travel times,” Mr. Tracy writes. “Once again a small but vocal group of individuals representing the Chamber of Commerce and the Davis Downtown Business Association refuse to believe the results of these traffic models or the positive evidence from dozens of communities all over the country that this redesign works. It works for traffic flow, it works for pedestrians and bicyclists, and it works for nearby businesses. And in every single case I have data for, it brings a reduction in accidents. Yet when we showed the Chamber of Commerce spokesman statistics documenting the serious safety problem on 5th Street he said that is an ‘acceptable level of risk.’”
In the summer of 2009, DDBA President Jennifer Anderson presented the Davis City Council with a petition of 400 signatures from businesses opposing the Fifth Street Redesign. In response, supporters of the proposed re-design created their own petition and in just over a week had more than double that number, in fact, when they turned in the petition in September 2009, they had more than 2500 petition signatures.
Moreover, as the distribution map of the locations of those who signed the petition shows, this wasn’t just residents of the Old North Davis Neighborhood that abuts Fifth Street – it was city wide.
On April 28, 2010, the Davis City Council unanimously approved moving forward with the pilot project on Fifth Street.
That was nearly four and a half years ago. How long ago is that? The council that passed it was Mayor Ruth Asmundson, Mayor Pro Tem Don Saylor and Councilmembers Lamar Heystek, Sue Greenwald, and Stephen Souza.
Not only are none of them left on the city council, it has been over two years since the last of them exited the council. How can it possibly take over four years from unanimous passage to completion?
Even as the council was passing the re-design there were concerns that staff was trying to slow play the project. Indeed, the history up to that point was one of missed deadlines for funding and grant applications as staff destroyed data in order to cover up models that showed improved flow and connectivity through the corridor.
Mayor Pro Tem Don Saylor, an earlier skeptic, was a key convert in this process. “Any comment about this should be prefaced by the current circumstance has problems,” he said. “The current circumstance is not nirvana.”
“I think most people who experience Fifth Street in its current circumstance would agree that there are safety concerns on that street. We have had numerous accidents that involve vehicles and bicycles, vehicles and vehicles, and even vehicles and pedestrians,” said Councilmember Don Saylor. “So those accidents are real. The rate of speed is often frightening, when approaching Fifth Street.”
“There are current problems,” he said. “Anything we do designed to change this is going to have competing visions in our imagination.”
He stated, “We’re at a point where we’re ready to proceed.“
That was four and a half years ago.
In March of 2011, the Vanguard questioned, “Is the City Slow-Playing the Fifth Street Redesign?” Six months later, the Vanguard ran a story, “Questioning City Staff’s Commitment to Fifth Street Redesign.”
At that time, 2012 appeared to be the target date for the project, a date that was provided for which the council approved the advance funding for the project.
However, the design firm, KD Anderson & Associates designed the road with no pedestrian amenities, and failed to meet council priorities of bike and pedestrian safety. They created narrow bike lanes and wide vehicles lanes.
The new council, following the 2012 election, pushed for the city staff to narrow the vehicle lanes and raise the medians, among other things. Each step of the way was like pulling teeth.
So we’re finally there and at the end of this I’m not sure if I should be more surprised with how long it took or that we’re there at all and, low and behold, it seems to be working.
The comment made by Mont Hubbard earlier this week was instructive, as he writes, “Dare I say ‘We told you so?’ No. Actually, science told us so. Simulations of the improved corridor by my colleagues, UCD transportation experts from the Civil and Environmental Engineering Department, many years ago predicted that it would work exactly as it is working. Smooth, and comfortable. I am not surprised, folks, because I believe in science (and it ain’t even rocket science!). I have explained this literally hundreds of times to doubters at the Davis Bicycles! Farmers Market booth over the five years it took to happen. It’s amazing how little faith the general population has in the scientific method.”
Indeed, in August 2009, the Vanguard wrote an article showing how the models worked.
The findings of this model show significant improvement in travel time overall, however the results actually vary by direction. The eastbound trip through the corridor during the peak hour is actually slightly slower, while the westbound trip is faster.
Steve Tracy explained, “An eastbound trip during the peak hour is slightly slower–it’s a matter of a few seconds. Average travel time for through vehicles is 144 seconds with the existing street and 151 for the other one. So it’s seven seconds slower in a two-and-a-half minute trip.”
However, that slight difference is more than made up by the vast difference in the westbound traffic flow which is about one minute quicker with the one-lane westbound street with turn pockets.
Said Mr. Tracy, “Feng and Ying have tried to play with the signal timing to adjust that, and that’s about as close as they can get in difference. They couldn’t ever quite get the eastbound flow to be better with the two lane street.”
However, we wrote at the time, given the fact that it is only seven seconds slower and the westbound flow is far improved, overall the average travel time through the corridor is a full 20 to 25 seconds faster. And speed, of course, is not the only consideration.
Remember, the purpose of the redesign is not just speed, but capacity, traffic flow, safety, and also the ability to accommodate bicyclists and pedestrians. So if we were able to get the traffic flow to be comparable to the then-current design, the other factors more than outweighed the very small eastbound slowdown.
Four and a half years after unanimous approval by the city council, we are finally there.
—David M. Greenwald reporting