Author: Russell Neches
Two years ago my little sister was riding her bicycle to a friends house. A woman was diving home from work. They met when the car hit Anna at 30 mph.
Before I go further, Anna is OK.
The weeks following the accident were hard. Aphasia, hematoma, and dental prosthesis became a regular part of family conversation. It was a month before we were sure she would get better.
Anna lives in Norman, Oklahoma. Norman is a lot like Davis; its roughly the same size, population and distance from the state capital. Norman hosts a big university and encourages bicycling.
After the accident, I desperately wanted someone to take responsibility. At first, I blamed Anna for not being more careful. Then I read the police report, and blamed the driver. But when I visited Norman and stood by the splashes of dried blood on the asphalt, I found I couldnt blame either of them. The blame belonged to the road itself.
In sharp contrast to Davis, Norman has some of the sloppiest road design in America. The road where the accident happened has no curb, no sidewalk, no lane markings, no lights, and no center divider. The street is a smear of asphalt that informally fades into gravel and scrubby grass on its way to becoming front yard. This wasnt some lonely country road. It happened downtown, right next to the University of Oklahoma. The equivalent spot in Davis might be about Seventh and E Streets. Until Annas face slammed into the windshield, the driver had no way of knowing for sure that she was driving on the wrong side of the road.
Davis does a pretty good job when it comes to road design. Even out amongst the farms, most of the roads have reflectorized lines to mark the center and shoulders. This isnt because paint is cheaper in California. Its because public officials have found that the lines help people be safer drivers.
With Annas final round of reconstructive surgery still in the works, I hope I can be forgiven for being preoccupied with bicycle safety. Im a scientist. When scientists get worried, we go back to the data. Mapping the last couple of years of Davis accident reports indicates that the biggest problem spot in our town is the much-debated Fifth Street corridor.
It has been proposed to transform the stretch of Fifth Street north of downtown from a higher-speed four-lane road with frequent stops into a lower-speed two-lane road with center turn pockets. The design would look somewhat like B Street does now. I was surprised to learn that the two roads carry about the same amount of traffic.
Not everyone likes the idea, and some warn that slowing traffic may result in congestion. This must be taken seriously, and so detailed computer models have been constructed. The models show that the proposed design would actually increase throughput and reduce congestion somewhat.
This counterintuitive result is something with which I have personal experience. I grew up in Los Angeles, the poster city for congestion. It got that way because people tried to solve congestion problems by adding lanes. What we got for our billions of dollars was even worse congestion. LA has more acreage under roads than under destinations, and yet it is still asphyxiated.
Roads are ancient technology. Roman engineers would find Californias freeways impressive, but would learn little from them. But even ancient technology can be improved. We didnt get from swinging stone axes to landing robots on Mars by refusing to try new things. Lane reduction has been tried in other cities, with great results for safety and efficiency.
The proposed Fifth Street design sounds like something worth trying. It will make Davis a safer, more efficient place walk, bike and drive. Repainting and installing different signals is part of the normal process of maintaining and improving roads. The proposal would simply guide this process. If it doesnt work, the city has more paint. My family learned the hard way just how important lines of paint really are.
Ive made an interactive map at vort.org/media/data/crashes.html displaying the last couple of years of Davis accident data. I hope it will inspire you to think about how our roads are designed, how those designs succeed, and how they can be improved.
Russell Neches is a microbiology graduate student at UC Davis. He has commuted to school and work through Los Angeles, New York and Boston on various vehicles including bikes, cars, trains, subways and on foot.
Webmaster’s note: Since this article appeared, Russell was struck by a car while walking across Fifth Street. He was uninjured; the car had just turned and was not going fast.