Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Taking It To The Streets

As election season kicks into high gear, an unlikely issue seems to be emerging on the campaign trail: those "bulb outs" that have been popping out lately around town.

Bulb-outs are traffic-calming devices that narrow the street by widening the curb and sidewalk. Their purpose is to make the street appear narrow, thereby reducing speeds and to improve pedestrian visibility for drivers.

Bulb-out on Garden Street

I'm assuming that drivers who are put out by bulb-outs probably think that it's hard enough as it is to drive while texting, talking on the phone, sipping a latte and hacking a butt all at the same time. Now they have to slow down in order to cope with yet another obstacle.

Woe to the politician who dares to diddle with a driver's inalienable right to speed.

So far, much of the bulb-out outrage has been confined to the opinion pages of the Santa Barbara News-Press, the paper that loves to hate.

One News-Press editorial asserted that, "The bulb-outs are wildly disliked in certain neighborhoods. They create safety hazards for bicyclists. They will cause other safety problems as well."

Exactly what those "other safety problems" might be, we are never told.

Despite, the lack of specificity as to what hazards the bulb outs allegedly pose, News-Press readers have responded with predictable road rage. Take Shirley Wood Force for example. Her open letter to the mayor and city council was published in the News-Press. "Better for pedestrians and handicapped - baloney!" She wrote. "What you are deliberately doing is trying to make driving so unpleasant and difficult that people won't drive."

Actually, all the traffic engineers are trying to do with the bulb outs is to get you to slow down. And, if slowing down makes driving "unpleasant" for you, maybe you shouldn't be driving.

Bulb-outs work by extending the sidewalk slightly into the street at pedestrian cross-walks. The narrower the street is perceived to be, the slower people drive. Not only do drivers reduce their speed but trying to ignore that pedestrian in the cross-walk, who state law says you must stop for, becomes more difficult. No longer can you quickly make a right turn and cut the pedestrian off as they are about to step off the curb.

And lest we forget, pedestrians have been killed while attempting to cross downtown streets.

And what about the oft-repeated claim that bulb outs create safety hazards for cyclists? As far as I know, none of the people making that claim are actually bike riders. In fact I asked Ralph Fertig, a long-time member of the Santa Barbara Bicycle Coalition what he thought of bulb-outs. He wrote an article that appeared in the Coalition's newsletter a few months ago that concluded, "there should be no additional danger caused by these pedestrian safety measures." He told me that while the Coalition has no formal position on bulb-outs, we do know that they slow down motorists, and just that increases everybody's safety. "If you're hit by a car going under 30 MPH, you'll probably live; above 35 MPH, you'll probably die."

At one of the recent candidates' forums, candidates for both mayor and city council were asked what their posture was on these protrusions. Council candidate Lane Anderson said he was in favor of them because they make bicycling safer. David Pritchett says he is for pedestrian safety, therefore he is for bulb-outs. Grant House, who is running for a second term on the council, and perhaps mindful of the fact that they are a hot button issue, said he favors them "where it makes it safer." Well wouldn't that be everywhere?

Frank Hotchkiss, in his second attempt in as many years to win a seat on the council is "generally not" in favor of bulb-outs. Michael Self, the self-proclaimed "safe streets advocate," said she is not 100 percent opposed to them.

Helene Schneider is the only candidate for mayor who favors bulb outs. Dale Francisco and Isaac Garrett oppose them, and Steve Cushman went so far as to tell the audience that night that he, "wants to find a grant to remove the ones that we put in."

So much for anyone who might have accused Cushman of being built for comfort and not for speed.

The pedestrian and bike rider in me wishes that Cushman and the others would get the message: Being forced to slow down is not necessarily a bad thing.

Now, if traffic engineers could only figure out a way to force drivers to put down that cell phone.

* * *

Speaking of traffic and vehicles, if you're wondering why KEYT's sports guy Gerry Fall has been off the air as of late, the answer is he was rear-ended recently while driving one of the TV station's cars.

Don't know whether a bulb-out or other traffic calming device would have helped him.
© 2009 by Craig Smith and www.craigsmithsblog.com