John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
Drivers are mowing over dividers in Oakland meant to protect cyclists and pedestrians. What can be done?
Travel down Telegraph Avenue in Oakland and you’ll encounter what look like giant cigarettes violently smooshed to the ground. These are so-called soft-hit posts, plastic barriers meant to separate motorists from cyclists and pedestrians that are proving as effective here as saplings against charging bulls.
For example, look at this sad specimen, with the bike lane in the foreground (before the double-white lines intended as a barrier between cars and cyclists):
Here’s another victim with the bike lane at right:
Then there’s this guy:
Oakland redesigned its Telegraph traffic flow last year, adding bike lanes along the curb protected by rows of parked cars and sometimes marked with green paint. It also added these posts to wall off various things from drivers—they appear around crosswalks, grayish-tan no-parking zones, a bike rack, and corners where drivers making tight turns could smack into cyclists and pedestrians. As a local rider, I can report that there was chaos when the new design debuted, with cars parking in bike paths as if they were valet lanes. Since then, most people seem to have gotten used to the reworked system (save for weekend nights, when anything goes).
To Oakland’s credit, soft-hit posts are something safe-street advocates often cry out for. San Francisco has anonymous activists installing them in areas they deem dangerous, to both corral cars and shame the city into erecting barriers. In Wichita, Omaha, and Providence, people have made their own post-protected lanes using toilet plungers.
But in Oakland, the officially sanctioned posts are clearly suffering. On a recent slog, I counted more than a dozen dead soldiers in six blocks. The ineffective poles could be denting general safety and perhaps the city’s coffers in replacement costs. Oakland says the situation on this artery, which it deems a “high-injury corridor,” will improve as it advances its Telegraph Avenue Complete Streets project. Construction planned for late 2018 could bring more “vertical delineators” between parking and biking lanes and also “curb protection for bikeways.”
“The flex-posts are providing important direction for drivers and protection for pedestrians and cyclists, but we’re not stopping there,” says Sean Maher, a spokesman for the newly created Oakland Department of Transportation. “Our anticipated next steps are all outlined at the project’s web page, including signage and paving solutions to help reinforce the safety and accessibility improvements OakDOT has already installed.”
What might be done in the meantime? As it turns out, San Francisco has been experimenting with these kinds of barriers, too. The city’s Municipal Transportation Agency explained in an April blog post:
Plastic “safe-hit” posts may be a relatively quick and low-cost way to separate bike lanes from traffic lanes, but to do their job, they need to last….
Safe-hit posts are installed along bike lanes to deter drivers from entering them illegally. Thanks to their flexible material, they still allow emergency and paratransit vehicles to pass over them without causing damage (and ideally, they stay standing).
But in many cases, the types of safe-hit posts installed in S.F. and other cities in past years have continued to be run over illegally and need to be replaced regularly. Those installations only consisted of vertical posts applied to the pavement with epoxy.
The city wanted to find something more durable, so it installed a test track along a bike lane on downtown’s Market Street using four different posts. They were (*transportation nerd alert*) a Pexco FG 300 Post with TG Curb, an Impact Recovery Systems Tuff Curb, an Impact Recovery Systems Tuff Curb XLP, and an Endoto EveluxUSA flexible post and channelizer. “They have been on the road for five months now and we haven’t encountered a problem with any of the above products,” says SFMTA spokesman Ben Jose. “Staff has made the decision to keep using the Pexco post in the future based on the following criteria: 1. least expensive, 2. easiest to install, and 3. interchangeable parts available.”
Time will tell if Oakland settles on a Rurpbo XXL Curbmaster or some such leveled-up post. But on the off chance its transportation experts are looking for outside advice, the San Francisco Municipal Transformation Authority—the guerrilla group installing makeshift lane barriers around San Francisco—emails this assessment:
Those tan-painted areas could be raised curbs or sidewalks... then you would not see the problem of drivers running over the posts to park their vehicles where they shouldn’t be.
Those are also inferior posts to the ones more commonly used which have a T-shaped profile. Those last longer and bounce back better, generally. But they all have a lifespan and should be replaced when they get totally flattened like these.
So yes—posts are better than nothing. But they could have used more posts (and could have added some in the buffer zone between the bike lane and parked cars to keep parked cars in their place), used better-quality posts, replaced the posts more often, or used a real solution like curbs, concrete, etc.