What to do with a road that's too wide

Every person riding a bike on a sidewalk is a vote for protected bike lanes. Image from Google Streetview, 2016.

Every person riding a bike on a sidewalk is a vote for protected bike lanes. Image from Google Streetview, 2016.

Every time I drive on Novato Boulevard, I’m baffled. The road widens from 2 lanes to 5 for about a mile just before 7th Street, then narrowed back to 2 or 3 after the Square Shopping Center. I have to watch my speedometer like a hawk because the sudden width meant driving faster was so easy it could happen on accident.

But there is no reason for a 5-lane road wedged between narrower roads. It has very light traffic, even at rush hour [1], and the five-lane segment can’t move cars any faster to 101 because of the 2-lane piece to the south. So, what gives? And could the space be used any better?

In 1952, this stretch of Novato transitioning from farmland to suburb, with buildings and orchards lining the road [2]. Crucially, on the southern end, Los Alondras Court and Boulevard Terrace had already been built (the County Assessor says Los Alondras’ homes were built around 1948). Novato Boulevard there and further west was a two-lane affair.

By the next available aerial image, 1968, the next developments had been built but, crucially, there was a huge setback made to accommodate road widening, making the right-of-way 80 feet rather than the 60 feet it had been. Assessor’s maps show various other setback had been provided in the 60-foot area, but the road never got enough width to extend that 5-lane monster all the way to Diablo Avenue.

After asking around on Twitter, giving land as a right-of-way was a common condition of construction imposed by city councils on developers during the 1950-1980 sprawl years. This allowed towns to accommodate expected traffic without the need for expensive and politically difficult takings later on. But in Novato Boulevard’s case, the traffic never materialized, so the neighborhood is stuck with a stroad [3]. What should the city do?

Make it beautiful.

When roads are too wide, either because traffic lanes are too wide (12 feet or more) or because there are too many lanes to handle the traffic, it gives residents an opportunity to remake the road without removing needed traffic capacity. Novato Boulevard is one of these.

We know that the road’s use can be handled by 2 lanes without a center-turn lane because it does just fine closer to Diablo Avenue. A 2014 traffic study put the road firmly in Level of Service A and B during rush hour [4], which shows its capacity is fully double what it should be. Levels of service should be between C and E; D is the sweet-spot, where a road is handling all the traffic thrown at it with minimal delays for drivers.

The assessor’s property book [5] reports Novato Boulevard is 80 feet wide. (Measuring from a Google satellite image puts it at 90 feet, but there could be a high margin of error there.) With 22 feet given over to 2 driving lanes, another 16 for parking, and 16 for sidewalks, there are still 26 feet left over for other uses.

First up should be 11 feet for a two-way protected bike lane plus a buffer. Downtown Novato already has a lot of cyclists, and there are plenty of kids in the family-friendly city who would be happy to use it. Further, although Novato isn't exactly mixed-use - a key requirement to successful bike investments [6] - it does sprinkle destinations around town, with shopping centers, libraries, community centers, and other places accessible easily by bike. The part of the city centered around downtown is a mere 15-minute bike ride across - hardly worth driving.

That leaves 15 feet for plantings, especially native trees and grasses. Currently, the boulevard is sunbaked in the summer, making it terrifically unpleasant to walk along. New plantings, aesthetically designed, would make the street one of the most beautiful streets in the city. Driving would give the feeling of being in a forest, and walking would give the feeling of, if not being in a park, then at least somewhere welcome. If the neighborhood wants to keep the 9-foot center-turn instead, there is more than enough space for it instead.

What Novato Boulevard would look like if it were remade to fit its traffic flow. Image by the author using Streetmix.

What Novato Boulevard would look like if it were remade to fit its traffic flow. Image by the author using Streetmix.

Because bike lanes get the most bang for their buck when they are part of a continuous network, they should be continued on to the west and to the east. San Marin, Atherton, Diablo, and Redwood are all similarly well-positioned to take protected bike lanes without impacting traffic flow.

There are dozens of roads like this all over the county. Putting these roads on a diet and repurposing bits of them for the sake of beauty and ease of travel should be a priority of Marin’s municipalities. TAM ought to undertake a countywide road census to determine where these are and support towns that might want to alter them. That way, not just Novato Boulevard but the whole county could become an easier place to get around without a car and a more beautiful place to live.

Works Cited

[1] “Existing Conditions Report” (Novato, CA: City of Novato, April 1, 2014).

[2] “Historic Aerials.” NETRonline. Accessed December 7, 2017.

[3] Charles Marohn, “The STROAD,” Strong Towns (blog), March 4, 2013.

[4] “Existing Conditions Report.”

[5] "Book 140," in Assessor's Maps, County of Marin, Calif, p 140-03 (San Rafael, CA: County of Marin, n.d.)

[6] David Edmondson, “How Marin could make the most of its bike dollars,” The Greater Marin (blog), October 23, 2017.