Thursday, June 17, 2010

The Median Mistake

Michael Helquist at BIKE NOPA has a summary of Tuesday nights MTA workshop on redesigning Masonic Avenue.  (I wish I could have attended the meeting but Muni connections to that part of town are slow these days, and I had prior commitments).

According to Helquist, attendees broke into small groups to brainstorm designs for the street.  In summary, attendees wanted:
  • Smooth and steady flowing traffic lanes for vehicles and Muni buses
  • The current 25 mph speed limit
  • A designated bike route
  • Wide sidewalks for walkers
  • Curb-side parking
But they also wanted to re-design or at least enhance the corridor by
  • Improving safety and the perception of safety for all users on the street
  • Enhancing a sense of community or neighborliness that is blunted now by a corridor that separates east from west with several lanes of speeding vehicles
  • Normalizing traffic flow by removing the changes in number of lanes along the corridor
    Quieting the street with landscaping and other sidewalk features
  • Installing a new landscaped median with refuges for safer pedestrian crossings
  • Installing a dedicated, perhaps separated, bike lane on one or both sides of the street
  • Providing for safer crossings for people walking
(enphasis mine)

Masonic Avenue does not currently have a median.  I'm curious as to why the folks at this meeting wanted to add a median to this street, except for the stated reason of "refuges for safer pedestrian crossings."  I'm not a fan of medians, and I've written about them before.  I'd suspect that the median idea is fresh in people's minds because two major streetscape redesigns (Divisadero and Cesar Chavez) include widened medians.  Maybe, too, people think it's an opportunity to add more green space.

But Masonic is only so wide, and any space taken up by a median is space that can't be used by pedestrians or bicyclists.  Added landscaping is indeed an improvement, but if the sidewalks are wider there's more room for trees and plants there, where people can enjoy them.

And the pedestrian refuge is something that I worry has been improperly lumped into the category of Good Street Design Feature, simply because some very poorly-designed roads may need them to be barely acceptable for people on foot.  Any road that's so wide it needs a refuge for those who can't cross is is a road that is just plain too wide.  We certainly shouldn't be going out of our way to trap pedestrians in the middle of a road during a signal phase - that's not safer than letting them get all the way to the other side.  A Masonic Avenue with fewer auto lanes and corner bulb-outs will certainly be narrow enough to cross safely, provided it isn't kept artificially wide by a median.

Further, medians are mandatory features of highways because they allow cars to travel faster without conflicting with oncoming traffic.  Faster traffic is a hazard to all road users, and contradicts the desire to keep the current (widely ignored and barely enforced) 25 mph speed limit.

A better design is one similar to the new Valencia Streetscape, where space gained from reducing the number or width of car lanes is given back to pedestrians and bicyclists.

* * *
If you haven't had a chance to see the improvements along Valencia Street, this Sunday is your chance!  Sunday Streets is returning to the Mission District with a larger route this year than last.

After Sunday Streets, head down Valencia to Casanova Lounge.  Walk San Francisco is throwing a happy hour party and everyone's invited!  Check out the Facebook event page and invite all your friends.  I've been serving on the Board of Walk SF for several months, and I'm helping to throw this party - which should absolutely convince you to join us at the party and join Walk SF as a member!

See you Sunday afternoon!


Dale Danley said...

I think that some of us spoke up for improving left turns from Masonic and that may have been mixed up with support for a median. Masonic could use left turn lanes to make the turns safer and reduce aggressive lane changes. You don't need medians to have left turn lanes (see Valencia). I don't think there was a lot of support for a median, especially given the limited width of the roadway and the need for trade-offs.

Pedestrianist said...

That's great to hear! Again, I'm sorry I couldn't have been there myself.

Let's keep the reality check on medians going!

Peter said...

holy cow -- i'm not the only one bashing medians. love it.

as you mentioned some of, raised medians are great ways to:
1) increase the speed of motor traffic (with all the benefits it brings -- more danger, more auto throughput/more induced driving, more smog, more noise, etc.),
2) reduce the room available for bike lanes, and in particular, buffered/protected bike lanes and cycletracks, the only available remedy proven to allow people to ride their bikes in safety and comfort on major streets,
3) hide crossing pedestrians from speeding traffic until it's too late (note the pedestrian death on Alemany),
4) prevent bikers and pedestrians, including the wheelchair-bound and other handicapped, from being able to turn around on a whim, one of the primary benefits of using non-motorized transportation,
5) increase the cost of maintenance of the road.

i'm sure there are plenty of other reasons to hate medians, and that's why i'm sure we'll see lots of 'advocates' pushing to have more of them, and bigger ones, installed all over the city.

personally, i can't wait to have gargantuan raised medians on Cesar Chavez. they'll serve as a monument to vanity and stupidity 50 years after Robert Moses carried out his best work in destroying cities and towns.

Anonymous said...

How do we find a way to reduce the cost of widening sidewalks?

Pedestrianist said...


There are some regulations that unnecessarily add to the cost of widening sidewalks, such as a city law that says fire hydrants need to be a certain distance from the curb. Other cities manage just fine with hydrants farther away from the curb, or even next to buildings. Removing that one law would allow more sidewalks to be widened.