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Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Stay in your own lane... if you can!

How many times have you noticed something weird in the road while driving but haven't been able to get a good look? If you're usually going by at a pretty good clip, odds are you will only get the shortest of glances at it. If there's no traffic light or other reason to stop nearby, this is even more likely.

Some places don't lend themselves to stopping the car, and also aren't particularly bike-friendly. For these, you just have to find a distant place to park and hoof it back over to figure out what's going on. This is one of them.

Here in Santa Clara, there is this weird overpass which lets you go more-or-less from El Camino Real over to Coleman. Before it existed, there was no good way to cross over the railroad tracks without dealing with trains blocking the way. There are some odd things happening on either side to make it interface with the residential streets in that area. For one thing, it appears they used to have an extra lane for routing traffic a certain way through here. This is what it looks like at Lewis at Alviso:

Weird blocked lane

Notice, however, they added a curb to keep people from actually using it. Someone who wasn't quite "with it" might see the extra lane and set-back curb and might even try to turn onto it. Of course, if they actually managed to make it over that curb, they'd find themselves going the wrong way on a one-way street. Awesome!

Pull it up on your favorite satellite viewer and check it out. Also note the super tight turn for traffic coming up Alviso which wants to go left instead of right (and over the bridge). The sign which tells trucks to keep out is the only thing keeping traffic on that side from going up that dead lane.

Here's the back view of the "no trucks" sign, and notice there's no curb blocking the way from this end of things:

Back of sign

That whole area has a bunch of weird tight turns and sketchy merges. It feels like a bunch of these structures were shoehorned in after the fact.


In other "sketchy roads" news, here's a completely crazy bike crossing for the San Tomas Aquino Trail at Monroe. What we have here is a four lane road (with bike lanes) which is interrupted at the creek for a diagonal bike crossing.

Wacky diagonal crossing

[ Click to see more detail. ]

It's not immediately obvious, but that is a tiny little red bicycle in that traffic signal. It's lined up to point directly at where I was standing in this picture, and there's another one pointing at the other side.

In theory, you push the button, the main road gets a red, you get a green, and you can scoot across on your bike. In practice, however, things get a little dicey. More often than not, I see cars cruise right through here like they're not even aware of a light. It's not even malicious. I've stopped here just to watch the shenanigans on occasion. Most of the people are genuinely surprised by the fact they just ran a red light and, oh, hey, bicycles!

It's not like they're out to collect 100 points, Death Race 2000 style. They're just doing their thing and something about this "intersection" doesn't register as such in their heads, and so they blunder ahead and have close calls with two-wheeled commuters.

My guess is that it has something to do with the extreme skew and the lack of a cross street. That and the absence of actual pedestrians (that is, people on foot, and not on a bike) probably means they just zone out.

Imagine what it must be like. You're driving along, and you see something that doesn't resemble an intersection, since there's no cross street. Also, it's just past one real cross street (Roosevelt, plus the parking lot), and just before another (South/Marmon). This can't possibly be an intersection. Besides, there are bridge rails! There can't be a road here.

All of this is going through your head as you roll down the street, and then, WTF, there's a bicyclist coming at you from an angle, and boy are they angry at you!

I've not been the car driver in this scenario, but I have been the bicyclist a couple of times. The first time it happened, I thought that person was just being evil or stupid. Since it keeps happening, I now realize something is fundamentally wrong with this intersection. It just doesn't get the right behavior out of people who honestly intend no ill will towards anyone.

This is just me beating the same drum again: if too many users are wrong, it's probably your fault.

Here's another look at just how cockeyed this intersection is. They reproduced it nicely on the helpful "how to use this thing" sign.

How to use the bicycle signal

It's not clear what the correct solution would be here. Normally, this trail goes under the bridges at crossings like this. This probably wasn't an option in this case since there is a confluence with Saratoga Creek just past this point. It may also be too narrow to fit the trail under there without adversely affecting the creek drainage.

Going over the road would be nice, but that would involve a non-trivial amount of money. What they did here was fairly simple: adjust the paint on the road, put in a signalized crosswalk, add a couple of "bicycle signals" that light up with the crosswalk signals, and put up some signs. Actually building a bridge to clear both Monroe and the creek at the same time with compliant grades on either side would probably cost a lot more.

Now, the Stevens Creek trail in Mountain View and Sunnyvale manages to accomplish exactly this. It goes over or under everything it encounters: 101, 237, 85, El Camino, you name it. It took a long time for it to get to that level of coverage, but it happened, and it's pretty amazing. You have to work to get up those slopes, but not having to deal with auto traffic is great.

Maybe this will happen here some day. The city is aware of the situation, and sometimes they park traffic enforcement units out here to keep an eye on things, but that's not really a solution.