Saturday, September 5, 2015

Tilting at Windmills: The Traffic Engineering Edition

Traffic can get weird on Summit and 4th streets, scary even. This is particularly true of those stretches between Hudson Avenue and the OSU campus. That's not entirely surprising given the easy access to OSU, the Fairgrounds/Expo Center, Mapfre Stadium, the Short North, and downtown. This geography ensures these corridors present a dangerous mix of young, aggressive drivers ("Check out my Challenger!"), impatient commuters ("I'll take Summit! It's quicker!), bewildered tourists ("Are the fairgrounds around here? Oh! Is this street one way?") and impaired drivers ("Dude, I said I was cool. Give me the keys!").

It should go without saying that any changes to these roads and the traffic they carry should be done carefully and thoughtfully. Unfortunately that has not been the case. As part of a project that involves adding bike lanes to Summit and 4th, the City of Columbus also plans to remove the traffic lights at the following intersections:

Summit and Maynard
4th and Wyandaotte
4th and 19th

Not surprisingly, the people who actually live in this neighborhood have pushed back, citing both the residential nature of the neighborhood and the need for more traffic calming, not less.

The City's not budging. Sure, the signs say the lights are "under study", but make no mistake, they're going away. Still, as a resident of the area myself, I felt it was important that my voice be heard. In that spirit, I wrote a letter to all of our City Council representatives and the lead traffic studies engineer. I knew nothing would come of it, but I'm getting to that age where I'm expected to start shaking my fist at things, and this seemed like as good a place as any to start:

July 22, 2015
Columbus City Council Members,

As an area resident and long-time homeowner near the intersection of Maynard and Summit I am writing to voice my concerns over the removal of the traffic signals at Summit & Maynard and Wyndotte & 4th.
When I moved here in 2000 Summit still had a traffic signal at Tompkins. That was removed when Medary School closed. With it went the traffic calming effect that it had on drivers entering Summit at Hudson.

Now the City proposes removing the only other calming influence on this stretch of road between Hudson and Lane. Maybe that's good traffic planning, and maybe that's good car planning, but it's absolutely awful neighborhood planning. While I understand the importance of traffic flow in the context of a car-centric city like Columbus, I also know that this area is, and remains, a largely residential neighborhood. Are the needs (and safety) of those residents to be compromised simply to help commuters get to campus or downtown a minute or two sooner? That seems neither reasonable nor fair.
Also, I'm curious to know how an intersection that was once deemed problematic enough that it was outfitted with the "added safety" of a red light camera, now doesn't warrant a signal at all. Similarly, do you think this light would be slated for removal if it were still generating revenue for the City? My hunch is no.

I know the City's response to all this has been to invoke federal standards and compliance and the like. The problem with that explanation (as has been pointed out by area residents who've done their homework) is that the City has NOT done all the studies it could have and the City HAS NOT explored means by which the lights can stay. From the sound of it, the City found the answer it was looking for, and then stopped looking.
It's hard for me to imagine Clintonville getting treated like this. I've not heard of any lights on Summit in Italian Village going away either. But North Campus? Well it's just a marginal neighborhood full transient students, absentee landlords, and a handful of voiceless and disenfranchised homeowners, right? Apparently that means drivers, developers, and commuters will get whatever they want. 
This whole episode is shameful. I strongly encourage City Council to re-examine this backward and regressive decision.

Jeff Regensburger

I'll credit Council Member Shannon Hardin's office with replying. Everyone else? Crickets. And that's fine. As I mentioned, this is a done deal and the lights are going away. What surprised me though was that once I found my voice, I didn't want to stop using it.

Sadly, the high number of traffic accidents in our neighborhood have provided a lot of additional opportunities to correspond with this group. "If they want to study traffic" I thought, "Maybe I can help".

So, I sent them a few more letters:

August 25, 2015
Hey Everybody,
I wanted to share this picture from the corner of Clinton and Summit yesterday. I'm not sure exactly what happened, but I'm pretty sure it involved a high rate of speed.

The fact is unreasonable speeds on Summit are the rule, not the exception. Yet, in spite of this, you want me to believe that removing the last traffic calming device in the residential neighborhood between Hudson and Lane is a safe and sane option.
But hey, I just live here. You all are the experts. Just let me know when we should expect our guardrails and noise barriers.

Jeff Regensbruger

This time? No response at all. Not even a thank you. I don't know about you, but if I was studying traffic, I'd want to know about this sort of thing. As it turns out the morning of August 30th provided additional material for the City's study.

August 30, 2015
Hey Everyone,

I've got a couple other things to share as you continue to study the removal of last remaining traffic signals in our neighborhood.
First, please find attached a picture from an accident that occurred on Summit St, just north of Maynard at 3:00 AM Sunday August 30th 2015. While it's dark, and hard to tell at first, what you see is in fact a car flipped on its side in the middle of Summit. There was another car involved in the accident and a parked car was struck as well (an occurrence that's actually pretty common along Summit. Have you studied those records?).

Secondly, I'd call your attention to this SUV/motorcycle accident a block further south that happened at the beginning of July:

Honestly, I don't know how you calculate the value of unimpeded traffic, but it's hard to believe it's worth this kind of menace.

I know your collective contention is that restricting Summit to two lanes (and narrowing those lanes) will somehow calm traffic. While you are certainly welcome to your opinion, as a resident who's lived here and watched traffic fly by for the last 15 years, I'd like to offer a different perspective: it's going to take a lot more than that to calm traffic and reduce speeds on this stretch of road.

Removing these lights is a step backwards. You wouldn't stand for it your neighborhood. Why should we stand for it in ours?

Jeff Regensburger

When it rains it pours, right? On the very next day I drove past an accident on 4th Street just north of a signal slated for removal. The scene there offered yet another chance to contribute to City's ongoing traffic study.

August 31, 2015
I hate to pester you folks, but I know you're studying the the traffic light at 4th and 19th too, so I thought I'd pass this along.
The attached pictures were taken around 4:30 PM on Monday, August 31, 2015 at the intersection of Northwood and N. 4th St (that's a few blocks north of 19th).

While it's impossible to know exactly what happened here, it's a safe bet that excessive speed played a role.
To that point, I remain mystified as to how removing the very elements that might help control speeds benefits anyone, save those individuals who would prefer drive as fast as possible regardless of the risks.
I'm really trying hard to avoid hyperbole, but it's getting difficult at this point. This plan is ill-conceived and unconscionable.

Jeff Regensburger

Needless to say, the City hasn't responded. And why would they? They've made up their minds, and that's that. Unless something unexpectedly miraculous or unexpectedly horrific happens, these lights are going away.

Still, I want this to end on a positive note. I want to be gracious and congratulate our winners.

First, a shout out to all the Clintonville residents who work downtown or in the near north. When you swing right on Summit from Hudson now, you can punch it and not have to worry about slowing down till Lane Avenue.

Second, congratulations to all the commuting OSU students and faculty who live north of the University. Your trip to and from campus will now be faster and more convenient.

Third, let's not forget the motorcycling friends who harbor an unquenchable thirst for speed. Open it up. Bless us all with the dulcet tones of your immaculately tuned pipes. On Summit and 4th streets, fifth gear is now yours. You just have to want it.

Finally, congratulations to everyone at City Hall and the Division of Traffic Management. You withstood the backlash. You weathered the storm. The lights are bagged. You win.