Sir Francis Drake isn't safe. What to do?

Sir Francis Drake and Saunders. Image from Google Streetview, May, 2018.

Sir Francis Drake and Saunders. Image from Google Streetview, May, 2018.

Last week, two kids were almost killed by a driver in San Anselmo. The near-crash, at the intersection of Sir Francis Drake Boulevard and Saunders Avenue, was relayed on NextDoor by Shanti Putnam [1]. (An archive copy is available here.) She estimated the driver’s speed at 40 miles per hour, roughly the speed that would give a 90 percent chance of fatality. She honked her horn in warning, and the kids jumped back. The driver, she said, missed them by inches.

The kids, crossing as they were at a crosswalk with flashing lights and other warnings, should have been safe from this speeding driver, but they weren’t. There were eight crashes involving someone on foot or on a bike on this section of Drake between 2009 and 2013 [2], so this near-miss is another reason to examine Sir Francis Drake’s design and how it might be made safer.

A brief analysis of Drake

The 1-mile (1.5km) section of Drake of concern (from Red Hill Shopping Center at Sais Avenue/Sunny Hills Drive to the Fairfax border at Willow Drive) is a high-volume arterial road linking Fairfax and San Anselmo. It is just one of just two roads connecting the two, the other being Center Boulevard. Sir Francis Drake High School, my alma mater, is about halfway along the corridor. The Fairfax-San Rafael corridor study [3] provides a wealth of data about this segment.

At its busiest, some 35,000 cars use Drake per day. Level of Service (LOS), a measure of how fast or slow traffic moves relative to the speed limit, is at LOS-C going in both directions, meaning there’s little impediment to travel speeds. A good target for traffic engineering is LOS-D, so there is some wiggle room to reduce vehicle capacity.

Image source: Nelson\Nygaard Consulting Associates, Inc. ‘Fairfax-San Rafael Transit Corridor Feasibility Study’.

There appears to be significant travel between places on the corridor, with trips in the 1 to 1.5-mile range. LOS data shows that rush hour goes in both directions, not just towards San Rafael and San Francisco. This holds out in the weekend data as well, with just a 10 percent drop in daily traffic volume between the weekdays and weekends.  The short trip lengths imply that cycling, which works well for trips between about 0.5 to 5 miles, would be a strong competitor with driving if it were safe and comfortable.

How to fix it

San Anselmo’s traffic calming handbook indicates that Drake isn’t eligible for normal traffic calming [4], so there needs to be more creative solutions to make the road safer. There are three such things that should be done to make Drake safer, each with far different time-scales and costs: improve enforcement, change the flashing signal to a stop light, and redesign Drake.

The first, improve enforcement, was suggested by a myriad of NextDoor commenters. This would involve increasing police patrols along Drake and conducting sting operations to ticket drivers who don’t stop for people trying to cross at crosswalks. Speed cameras would be part of this situation as well – especially since the would-be killer driver was speeding – but are both longer-term and should be part of a comprehensive enforcement system.

The second, adding a stop light, would involve more significant investment by the town. These can run upwards of $125,000 each and would require roadwork on Saunders. The red light would come on if someone presses the beg button (that’s literally the term for the button to create the Walk sign) or if a car is waiting to turn onto Drake from Saunders. Signals are a much more common and much better-understood signal than flashing lights, so this should cut down on people running the intersection.

The third would redesign Drake from a 4-lane to a 3-lane road with bike lanes on either side. The center lane would be reversible, so there would always be 2 lanes of traffic flow in the rush-hour direction, but this would further calm traffic along the stretch and make it much less of the unpleasant arterial road it is today. The right-of-way is just 60 feet wide, so normal traffic-calming that eliminates parking on one side of the street or narrows lanes without eliminate traffic lanes isn’t feasible here.

Image by the author.

Image by the author.

As usual with a major redesign, it serves multiple purposes beyond slowing traffic and making crossings safer by making them shorter. First, San Anselmo’s General Plan stipulates on page 31 that the town “promote a transportation network which offers strong transit, pedestrian, and bikeway alternatives to the automobile.” [5] Without a network of protected lanes, this goal will not be achieved. Second, San Anselmo’s 2016 Bike/Pedestrian Plan shows that stretch of Drake between Saunders and Mountain View as integral to the town’s system of bike lanes and safe walking routes [6] even though it is woefully inadequate for the job, so the redesign would serve this town goal as well.

But in order to prevent significant reverse-peak congestion, some 25 percent of trips along Drake would need to switch away from single-occupant vehicles. This won’t be possible without protected bike infrastructure to San Rafael, Ross, and through Sleepy Hollow but given trip distances it is well within the range of possibility. Protected lanes are much more easily provided on those other segments than along Drake, and so should be built either simultaneously or prior to this link.

What’s next

San Anselmo should immediately begin a crackdown on crosswalk infringement by drivers and begin the planning process to make this flashing light into a proper stop light.

There is a Town Hall meeting on Tuesday, January 29th to discuss traffic safety in San Anselmo with the Town and with the Central Marin Police Authority. This meeting will take place from 6:30 to 8:00 p.m. in the Town Council Chambers at 525 San Anselmo Avenue. People who drive along Drake, whether a resident of the town or not, should come and speak up for permanent solutions.

Works Cited

[1] Shanti Putnam, ‘Near Miss of Drake Students This Morning’, Nextdoor.com, 24 January 2019. [Archive copy]

[2] Alta Planning + Design and Parisi Transportation Consulting, ‘Town of San Anselmo Bicycle and Pedestrian Master Plan’ (San Anselmo, CA: Town of San Anselmo, 29 November 2016), 34.

[3] Nelson\Nygaard Consulting Associates, Inc., ‘Fairfax-San Rafael Transit Corridor Feasibility Study’ (San Rafael, CA: Transportation Authority of Marin, December 2015).

[4] Parisi Transportation Consulting. ‘San Anselmo Traffic Calming Handbook’. San Anselmo, CA: Town of San Anselmo, May 2016.

[5] Town of San Anselmo, ‘General Plan’ (San Anselmo, CA, 13 January 2015), 31.

[6] Alta Planning + Design and Parisi Transportation Consulting, ‘Town of San Anselmo Bicycle and Pedestrian Master Plan’.