By David M. Greenwald
Davis, CA – In 2019, the year before the pandemic, the completion of the Mace Redesign saw the corridor snarled in standstill traffic. Quickly, at least in the eyes of many South Davis residents, the Mace Redesign was pinned as the blame.
The backup during that time was in fact so bad, it bled onto side roads like Cowell and Chiles as well.
At the time, the city engineers and traffic consultants determined that, while the redesign was contributing to the problem, the bigger problem was traffic congestion on I-80 causing backups and attempts to cut through at Tremont.
As the traffic engineer from Fehr & Peers noted back in 2019, “What we’re seeing, it’s about a 10-minute difference. By getting off at Dixon and instead of traveling east on 80, the vehicles are saving about 10 minutes of time.”
But that was in 2019.
Then the pandemic happened in 2020, which naturally greatly reduced traffic for the time being. But frankly, even now that life has largely returned to a semblance of normal, I have not seen the type of traffic backups we had back in 2019.
Through some comically tragic happenstances, I ended up having to drive through the Cowell-Mace intersection—back and forth—four times between four and six on Friday, usually the worst peak, and while there was modest backup onto I-80 from northbound Mace, the impact of that backup was pretty limited.
It impacted just one lane of traffic, with the left lane clear for local traffic. There was no subsequent backup onto side streets like we saw in 2019.
In short, the situation was pretty manageable, and it continued my belief that the problem had less to do with the road redesign and more to do with traffic conditions on I-80.
That’s not to say there aren’t some design problems with the reconfiguration of Mace. I think the city over the past four years has identified some and there are some relatively easy fixes to many of them.
At the same time, the seeming emergency situation that existed in early 2019 has not reemerged. There were times when traffic on southbound Mace was backed up to Harper Junior High—I have not seen a repeat of that situation this year.
There were times when traffic on eastbound Cowell was also backed up—that has not been a problem this year.
The state is in the process of expanding I-80 in hopes of avoiding some of the bottlenecks and backups on the I-80 corridor. But the engineers have already warned that more capacity will encourage more vehicle travel, which may end up with just as much congestion despite more capacity.
That’s a concern locally as well.
Fixing Mace, the engineer warned, could, instead of freeing up local traffic, encourage more cut-throughs.
“Anything that we do along this corridor to make it faster to get up Mace from south of Montgomery all the way up to the freeway will potentially draw more traffic off of 80 onto Mace.”
The solutions they want are to help the local community get through Mace better, “but dissuade some of the regional cut through traffic that’s using Mace as a bypass for 80.”
Meanwhile, the state is taking steps to widen I-80, a move that some critics believe will just grow traffic.
Nevertheless, the state received about $85.9 million in federal funding “to reduce congestion on Interstate 80 and U.S. Highway 50 by creating new managed lanes along 17 miles of highway.”
As Adrian Engel from Fehr & Peers pointed out, “some of the congestion can be mitigated with the solutions that we have, but all of it will not be mitigated.” The key is there will be “freeway congestion that causes queuing onto the corridor.”
There was a comment I found pretty interesting: “I feel like the problem here is the city of Davis attempting to transform a county road into a city street.”
As the commenter pointed out, “By far the most complaints about the redesign are from people who don’t live in the city of Davis and who chose to live the semi-rural lifestyle on large lots in El Macero and Willowbank that are absolutely car-dependent.”
I think that’s an important point. The people at El Macero have had pride that they are outside of the city of Davis, but then have become angry when the city has been slower to accommodate their demands when the city attempted to engage in some traffic calming to make other modes of transportation safer.
Bicycle ridership to Pioneer Elementary has increased both from city data and my own anecdotal observations as I walk, jog, and drive down Cowell in the mornings.
If the worst of “Mace mess” is behind us, perhaps we should reevaluate the corridor before we attempt to fix it. We may eventually find that the cure is worse than the disease.