Town streets are too narrow for public safety | Guest Column
September 8, 2009 · Updated 2:23 PM
By DR. BURK GOSSOM
A compliment on your article on the roads and an apology that this letter is so tardy ("Town: Driveway would create hazard / Guard Street is narrower than standards by 1 foot," page 1, Aug. 5 Journal).
As many of you know, I enjoy riding my bicycle to work during the summer months, allowing me to combine a bit of exercise with my commute. Unfortunately, through the years I have seen too many tragedies, including deaths, concussions, broken bones, caved-in chest and a multitude of lacerations and other injuries when cars and bikes collide. This has led me to be extremely conscious of the danger of bike riding on the island.
My terror is reinforced whenever a moving vehicle (for some reason, the dump trucks are particularly terrifying) passes inches from my shoulder. The awareness of the extreme danger that exists to bikers led me to contact Town Council members before the pouring of concrete on Guard Street during its most recent construction. It led me to talk with Town Council members — the entire council — during one of their open sessions, and with the mayor. I have talked to other town employees and fire fighters. I feel that the new road construction in town is dangerous and it is only a matter of time before disaster occurs.
I do not know about the legal requirements related to roads, but using the Internet I looked up state and federal Department of Transportation recommendations for roads. As best I can determine, they recommend, especially near schools, that the traffic lanes be 12 feet and combined bike and parking be 15 feet wide. The minimum recommendations are for 11 and 13 feet respectively. Guard Street has 11 feet for the vehicle lanes and 7.5 feet for car and bike. This means that the new road work on Guard Street where there is parking on both sides is 11 feet narrower than state and federal minimal recommendations. This extreme narrowing makes it one of the most dangerous stretches of road for a bike rider I have ever seen.
I would like to look at this a different way. A street-legal vehicle can be 8 feet wide, and with mirrors, this makes it 9 feet. Parking can be a foot away from the curb. On Guard Street, you have school buses, OPALCO, county works, IPS, and a multitude of other commercial vehicles of this width using the road on a regular basis. In the summer, we have boat trailers, RVs, kayak groups, etc., all of which are 8-foot-wide vehicles. This is a road with a high percentage of large vehicle traffic.
Let's add the widths. With vehicles parked a foot from the curb on both sides of the road and vehicles going each way, each occupying 9 feet, this adds up to 38 feet. Our roads are 37 feet wide. In other words, one of the busiest streets on the island is narrower than required for two parked vehicles and two moving vehicles at the same time. I ask you, where is a bike rider to go? For that matter, where is your car or truck to go? How can you safely get out of a parked car? You can't. Guard Street is patently dangerous and somebody is going to get hurt. I have presented this to town officials and urge you to add your voice to modify the road design to prevent serious injury.
Now I would like to turn to the "bump-outs." Bump-outs make a lot of sense in many ways. I think the original work done in town enhances the downtown area both from an aesthetic and safety point of view. Unfortunately, it seems like the mentality both locally and nationally is: if some is good, more is better.
The new exaggerated bump-outs have now turned into bizarre protrusions and are both aesthetically unappealing and causing a dangerous narrowing roads, putting bike riders and pedestrians at risk. I have talked to the advocates and they point to the traffic-calming function and how having narrower crossings make it safer for pedestrians to cross the road. One of the advocates went so far as to say that by making it unsafe, drivers slow down, making it safer. Somehow, the logic of making a road unsafe to make it safe escapes me.
What is the reality? Corners are being needlessly narrowed to the point that there is no room for a bike and a car. Some of the most dangerous bump-outs are near the Mullis Community Senior Center, where cars routinely run over the bump-out and seniors are warned against standing in this area. The bump-out at Spring and Blair (right across from Spring Street School), the bump-out at Guard and Marguerite just before Friday Harbor High School, the bump-out at Guard and Park near Downtown Dog are all places where the roads narrow, making it extremely dangerous for bikers.
If there are any remaining doubts in your mind about these bump-outs, consider that fire trucks and emergency vehicles cannot make these turns without running over the curbs. Look at the tire marks on the curbs where cars are constantly hitting them and consider that the Friday Harbor Fire Department has had to purchase a special cleaner to take the yellow paint off the tires of the fire trucks. The bump-outs are a classic example of a good idea taken to the extreme, now making for a dangerous situation. They should be modified before somebody is hurt.
A last point of unintended consequences: I suspect that the changes on Guard Street have led to more locals using Park Street. This traffic diversion through a residential area likely puts more children at risk as well.
I have talked to multiple town employees. What is clear is that there is no mal-intent at any level. I have received very courteous response and help at all levels of town government, but years ago certain rules were adopted and they are still being followed without reevaluation. I have been politely informed that in order to change policy and reevaluate the guidelines, the town would like to receive continuous input over time, to assure that modifications are really what the public wants.
Using a bit of common sense we can combine improvement in the roads, both in safety and aesthetics. For instance, current planning calls for 6+ foot sidewalks to encourage walking. This is to be admired, but sidewalks of this width are probably only needed in areas of high foot traffic. Strategic narrowing of the sidewalks, modifying the bump-outs and eliminating a few dangerous parking spots could dramatically improve safety.
Unfortunately, common sense does not seem to be enough. Change will not happen without ongoing community input. As such, I encourage you to contact the Town Council to make appropriate modifications in the current roads and for future construction before somebody is hurt.
— Dr. Burk Gossom is a family practice physician at San Juan Healthcare in Friday Harbor, and is an avid cyclist.