Slip lanes near schools are a terrible idea

Just north of downtown Scottsbluff — adjacent to Pioneer Park, Frank Park, Bluffs Middle School, and Scottsbluff High School, at a border between residential and commercial areas — Broadway intersects with 27th Street in a T.

Once upon a time, Broadway was part of the state highway system going straight through town. As a result, Broadway was engineered to highway standards back in the day. This accounts for Broadway being built . . . broad . . . with four wide travel lanes, as well as the existence of slip lanes at that T intersection of Broadway and 27th Street.

The fact that these vestiges of highway infrastructure remain in a pedestrian-heavy area near schools and parks, even after a bypass rerouted highway traffic away from the core of our community, make less than zero sense. It’s nonsensical, and it’s dangerous.

Why are wide, multi-lane roads and slip lanes at an intersection such bad ideas from a pedestrian safety standpoint?

  1. Wider lanes encourage higher driving speeds and expose people walking across the street to a wider “danger zone” in the street. Driving speeds above 20 miles per hour exponentially increase pedestrian deaths and serious injuries.
  2. Multiple lanes create “double jeopardy” for pedestrians crossing the street, requiring multiple drivers to see and stop for them.
  3. Slip lanes do not require drivers to slow or even stop, so they may be less attentive to pedestrians in the area if they don’t have to watch for car traffic in the intersection, and slip lanes may lengthen a driver’s reaction time to pedestrians in the roadway, because of that higher speed.
  4. In Scottsbluff’s case in particular, there are no pedestrian facilities at all on the south side of 27th Street at Broadway, which forces pedestrians to either take a detour several blocks out of their way simply to cross the street, or to take their chances with a dangerous crossing without the benefit of pedestrian infrastructure.

On a recent winter morning, I happened to notice evidence of pedestrians opting for the dangerous crossing option — a reasonable action, especially when it’s cold and windy. Here’s a quick video I filmed of that evidence – footprints in the snow-covered grassy area where there is no sidewalk.

The choice the City of Scottsbluff made to leave the highway-level engineering in place on the north end of Broadway has had life-impacting consequences.

The combination of the slip lane enabling a speedy entrance onto the north end of Broadway and the wide double lanes has made that section of Broadway an attractive place for people choosing to break the law by drag racing. On the evening of September 18, 2019, a driver who was drag racing on Broadway hit a young teen at an estimated speed of 56-91 miles per hour in an already-too-high 30-mile-per-hour zone. (The young man survived, but with devastating injuries.)

As a police officer pointed out in a newspaper column, in response to a resident complaining about the ongoing problem of excessive speeding on Broadway, it’s the City of Scottsbluff that has ultimate responsibility for the environment that enables unsafe behavior from drivers.

I have some suggestions for the city in a zine I wrote last year:

I continue to hold out hope that one day, city leaders will pay as much attention to the ways in which people get around our community OUTSIDE of cars as they do to those INSIDE of cars.

For further reading on slip lanes:
“Slip Lanes Would Never Exist if We Prioritized Safety Over Speed” on the Strong Towns blog
Cities Are Replacing Dangerous Slip Lanes With Space for People” on Streetsblog USA

Copyright 2021 by Katie Bradshaw

Bike/ped crash data: pinpoint vs. corridor

A few years ago, I was working with the Tri-City Active Living Advisory Committee to gather information about where crashes between motor vehicles and people walking and biking were happening in the Scottsbluff-Gering area. Where were the problem areas in terms of bike/ped safety? Where could safety efforts best be focused?

When a report came out on the state of sidewalks and bike transportation in our area, I was a bit . . . disappointed? The reported crashes were not in any one location, really — they were all over the map.

Here’s a screenshot of the map in the report, which came out in December 2017 and included bike/ped crash data from January 2014 through July 2017. The red dots are bike crashes; the blue dots are pedestrian crashes.

People driving cars are crashing into people biking and walking all over the place. There are no particularly problematic spots that can be called out for action, really. (Spoiler alert: actually, there are.)

I kind of put the information aside – until this week.

This week, I’ve been participating in the virtual National Bike Summit, put on by the League of American Bicyclists.

In a session discussing federal legislation related to traffic safety funding (specifically, H.R. 508), League Vice President Caron Whitaker noted that there is a disconnect between the proportion of deaths that occur among people biking and walking (Vulnerable Road Users) in the United States and the amount of funding allocated for bike/ped safety. Here’s a screen grab from her presentation:

People biking and walking make up about 12% of trips, but are over-represented in fatalities at 20%, yet less than 1% of federal highway safety funding goes to bike/ped safety improvements.

Why is this happening? Why the disconnect?

Caron pointed out that there’s a problem with how traffic fatality data is collected and analyzed that leads to a distortion in how funds are spent. I’m going to quote directly from her presentation given on Feb. 28, 2021:

Under current practices, we know that states say they use a data-driven approach, and that data-driven approach is to identify hot spots or pinpoints of high fatalities.

But we know that those hot spots, especially for in-vehicle fatalities, are generally in very high-speed areas, like interstates or rural roads, maybe a specific turn, or they’re head-on collisions in intersections. It’s very easy to pinpoint those deaths because right now we make our cars so safe for the people inside them, that it takes really high speed or head-on crashes for fatalities.

But when we look at areas that are most dangerous for people biking and walking, it’s corridors, it’s arterials, it’s connector streets that have a high speed limit or maybe even higher speeding, but you have destinations and you have virtually no infrastructure, you don’t have a lot of crosswalks or sidewalks or bike infrastructure. So those corridors don’t show up in the formula, and that’s why states are spending less than 1% of their safety dollars on this.

I’m going to repeat a portion of that.

[The] areas that are most dangerous for people biking and walking, it’s corridors, it’s arterials, it’s connector streets that have a high speed limit or maybe even higher speeding, but you have destinations and you have virtually no infrastructure.

Taking another look at the Scottsbluff-Gering map of crashes, the data jumped out and smacked me in the face. The pattern is clear. IT’S THE CORRIDORS. Here’s that map again, with the problematic corridors highlighted in pink – accounting for at least 75% of the traffic crashes involving people biking and walking.

27th Street. 20th Street. Overland. U Street. Avenue I. Broadway / 10th Street. 5th Avenue.

And this doesn’t include crashes that have happened more recently. The ones I can think of offhand all happened along these corridors:
27th Street
April 2019
March 2020
Broadway
December 2018
September 2019
10th Street
December 2019
Overland
September 2019
September 2020

What do these corridors generally have in common?

  • They are highly traveled areas that connect people to destinations: schools, businesses, workplaces.
  • Many areas of less-than-ideal conditions for people biking and walking, including:
    • Higher speed limits (30-40 mph)
    • Lack of marked and/or traffic-controlled crosswalks
    • Street-adjacent sidewalks that are often poorly cleared of snow in the winter (did you SEE the sidewalks on 27th Street after our recent storms?) and/or poorly maintained or absent altogether
    • Multi-lane streets, exposing people to higher danger as they cross
    • No bicycle facilities

The first step in solving a problem is correctly identifying the problem. A problem in our community is that the places people are biking and walking are not as safe as they could be, and a portion of that lack of safety could be attributed to a lack of funding, because of the way problems have been reported. Better data can lead to better solutions.

Designing our streets for ALL USERS, not just people in cars and trucks, can also lead to better decisions for our community.

I would also like to make another point in conjunction with this map that has been weighing on my mind.

There has been a lot of celebration recently about the near-completion of the pathway extension in Scottsbluff, and rightly so. The city has done a great job of maintaining the prior pathway along the river, and it’s heavily used and greatly appreciated. Having more pathway is great! Especially great is the fact that people will finally have a place to safely cross Highway 26 on foot and by bike.

However, the danger for people walking and biking remains. Take a look at my (super rough) map of the new pathway marked in blue compared to the problematic corridors for bike/ped safety marked in pink.

There’s virtually no overlap.

I’m concerned that people will think “Oh, things are all set for people biking an walking – look at all that new pathway!”, when in fact, the pathway will not do a whole lot to improve safety for the people who are trying to get places that are not connected to the pathway. I’m concerned that when people are biking and walking in the community and they are hit and hurt or killed, that they will be blamed for “not being on the pathway” even if the pathway is nowhere near where they need to go.

Yes, Scottsbluff has made a lot of progress recently. But there’s still a lot of work to do. It’s going to take time. It’s going to take money. And it’s going to take political will.

Traffic deaths often catalyze infrastructure improvements. (Sad that it takes someone dying or being severely injured for changes to occur, but that’s where we’re at.) In the late 1970s, a young person riding a bike died at the 5th Avenue crossing of Highway 26. It took more than 40 years before city priorities and local/federal funding aligned to get a bridge built that can prevent future such tragedies.

How long will it take for the traffic dangers for people biking and walking in the central parts of Scottsbluff and Gering to be addressed? When will sidewalks and crosswalks show up on the city’s multi-year road construction forecasts? When will a policy be implemented to require that sidewalk improvements be made every time a construction project is undertaken? Where will the political will come from? I can tell you, if it’s just lonely little ol’ me out there being a squeaky wheel, the timeline is going to span many decades, if anything changes at all.

Copyright 2021 by Katie Bradshaw

Walkable, bikable Wyobraska

There is something of a sea change afoot in Wyobraska.

Seven years after Scottsbluff earned the dubious distinction of being the “seventh fattest city in America” due to its rate of overweight and obese residents, self-reported inactivity, and poor walkability rating, there are more than 30 area running races and triathlons listed on the Western Wind Running Club Facebook page, there is an active Western Nebraska Bicycling Club, many new workplace wellness programs are in full swing, and communities throughout the region are putting in new recreational pathways.

An Oct. 14 gathering in Sidney marked another deviation from this characterization of slothfulness. In cooperation with local government, business, health care, and education representatives, the Panhandle Public Health District organized a “Let’s Activate Sidney” summit, at which members of the Sidney community strategized about opportunities for and barriers to increasing biking, walking, running, and overall citizen health. The goal of the summit was to take concrete action and move towards the development of a multi-year strategic plan to make Sidney a healthier place to live.

Jessica Davies, Wellness Coordinator with the Panhandle Public Health District, vowed that the momentum generated at the summit would have a positive impact on the community: “It will not fizzle out!”

The summit – one of six in Nebraska funded through a grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – could not have been timelier.

On Sept. 9, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy issued a call to action to tackle inactivity, which he noted is now one of the most critical threats to Americans’ health. Over time, American citizens have become less and less physically active, contributing to crisis-level incidences of chronic health conditions like cancer, diabetes and heart disease.

Murthy’s solution and call to action – “Step It Up!” – is at once simple and complex: incorporate ways for Americans to walk, wheel and run in their daily lives, with support from community organizations including schools, local governments, health care providers, places of worship, businesses, and nonprofit and service organizations.

The role of city planning in public health is featured front-and-center.

“Where you live today can be an all-too-accurate indicator of how healthy you’ll be,” Murthy said in his call to action address.

While fitness activities like running, biking, swimming and lifting weights are certainly ways to improve community health, the Surgeon General’s primary focus is on a simpler activity.

“One of the most powerful things we can do to turn the tide on chronic disease is something that we have been doing for a millennium, and that is walking,” Murthy said.

If there are safe and attractive walking routes that connect people’s homes and workplaces with the places they want to go – schools, libraries, restaurants, churches – they are more likely to walk, thus combining physical activity with their commute.

Some of the action items proposed during the Sidney summit addressed this sort of connectivity, including a review of city and county ordinances affecting walking and biking infrastructure and a mapping project to highlight and identify current pathways and best routes.

Facilitator Jeremy Grandstaff, right, works with a subset of participants in the Let's Activate Sidney summit to categorize action items identified by the larger group.

Facilitator Jeremy Grandstaff, right, works with a subset of participants in the Let’s Activate Sidney summit to categorize action items identified by the larger group.

The five other Nebraska cities included in the CDC planning grant – Hebron, Lexington, Superior, Grand Island, and Hastings – may have developed similar action items, or they could have gone in completely different directions. The point of the summits is to identify the unique actions that each community can take to tweak existing physical and social infrastructure to encourage more day-to-day activity.

Davies said that the “Let’s Activate Sidney” summit is also serving as a pilot program. She envisions similar sessions being replicated in communities throughout the Panhandle.

I could not be more thrilled with this development.

For many years now, I have been relying on my feet and my bicycle for transportation. What started out of necessity during my financially-tight post-college years and grew into a habit when I realized something.

I am fundamentally lazy. I dislike going to the gym and taking time out of my day for scheduled workouts. But if I can walk to the grocery store or ride my bike to work, I can sneak in exercise without “working out.”

The quality of the sidewalks and paths that connect me to my destination definitely influence my behavior, though. If it’s too difficult, inconvenient or unpleasant, the lazy part of me wins out, and I’m more likely to drive. I don’t think I’m alone in this regard.

I can see improvements like added curb cuts, enforcement of crosswalk laws and attractive sidewalks connected to the front doors of businesses leading to increased walking and fitness in the community. But there are benefits to a community beyond fitness.

Wheelchair-friendly walking and biking infrastructure can improve employment security for people who – for financial, health or legal reasons – do not have access to reliable automobile transportation.

During a panel discussion at the Sidney summit, planners and public health professionals linked walking and biking to the economic goal of attracting and retaining population in rural communities. Younger generations increasingly prefer communities that are more walkable and bikable. Older generations value walkable communities, too, according to a 2011 AARP baby boomer housing survey.

(Side note: I was surprised to see the volume of materials available in the AARP “walkability archive.”)

With these changes in individual preference, city planning practices and public health focus, the tide does seem to be shifting towards a more walkable, bikable Panhandle.

Copyright 2015 by Katie Bradshaw