Walkable West Palm Beach


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Can we spare five seconds to save a life?

In downtown West Palm Beach, condominium residents cross Lakeview Avenue, a large urban arterial, every day. So do students attending nearby Palm Beach Atlantic University. Here is what the intersection looks like at street level. The two lanes of traffic on Olive Avenue head northbound with the westernmost lane a left turn lane/straight through lane.

 

I recorded a short video to show what the crossing is like. Once the light turns green, the pedestrian gets a short walk signal. It’s hard to replicate the uneasy feeling you get crossing this road, knowing that just behind you are impatient drivers at the intersection, just waiting to gun it when the light turns green. Many of these drivers make a left turn, and when they do, they turn directly into your walking path from behind you, where you cannot see the car coming.

 

 

From the reports I’ve read, this was the situation at this intersection when a resident of One City Plaza suffered injuries while crossing northbound across Lakeview Avenue. Sadly, his dog was killed in the crash. WPEC covered the story.

Consider that the entire roadway is dominated by cars on Lakeview. That little strip of crosswalk where pedestrians are expected to cross amounts to a very, very small amount of the roadway area. Crosswalks are better than nothing in this environment, but there is no denying the car dominated nature of this roadway. It carries a lot of cars. But the most vulnerable users are those on foot, for whom a collision with a car would mean much more serious impacts than a bumper scratch.

 

 

tingvall

Typical road situation (Source: Greater Greater Washington)

 

Is it too much to ask that pedestrian safety is prioritized in the small space given to pedestrians for crossing the road?

What can be done?

Leading Pedestrian Intervals (LPIs) are a proven safety mechanism for giving people more time to “claim” the intersection before cars begin to make left turn movements. The added time can be anywhere from 3 seconds to 15 seconds or more, depending on the conditions. LPIs make the pedestrian visible to the turning motorist, making conditions far less dangerous, and giving pedestrians some sense of comfort and safety.

Here is a good overview of how LPIs work from StreetFilms.

Reshaping the curb radius to something much tighter would also help. This would have the effect of slowing the speed of cars through the turn and making pedestrians more visible. Below is an elaborate rendering of what this might look like.

 

801_S_Olive_Ave_-_Google_Maps v2.png

 

This intersection needs to be made safer for people on foot, now. Retiming lights to put in Leading Pedestrian Intervals (LPIs) is an easy, cheap, fast fix. It can be done on other arterials in downtown (the Convention Center/CityPlace comes to mind). Waiting will increase the chances of another crash happening, and the consequences may be even worse next time, especially as pedestrian traffic increases in our downtown. It’s good to see our local leaders at the Tourist Development Council getting rightly concerned about safety issues along Okeechobee Boulevard. Now it’s time to take action.

Can we spare five seconds?

If you’re interested in helping to make this change, please reply below. Thanks.


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A two-way Olive and Dixie is twenty years overdue

Yesterday on the Engage West Palm Facebook discussion group, two crashes were discussed, mere blocks from each other. One crash occurred at the intersection of Clematis and Dixie and the other at the Evernia and Dixie intersection.

 

 

 

The crash at Evernia and Dixie damaged the ArtHaus building, cracking part of the building facade. Thankfully, no one was hurt in either incident, from our understanding.

One of these crash types is so familiar to the community that we all knew immediately the cause: drivers in the outside lane trying to make a left onto Clematis, sideswiping a car in the inside lane. Most streets in the downtown are two way. Drivers, especially those from out of town, expect two way operation in downtown. Everything in this environment sends the message this is an urban street: People walking on sidewalks, sidewalk cafes, buildings close to the street with ground floor retail. It’s a complex environment in which people, including drivers, negotiate with one another through social queues – that means looking each other in the eye, gesturing, etc. So many people already treat Olive and Dixie as two way streets out of convenience (why circle the block?) that I see a wrong way driver nearly every day. These streets just want to be two-way.

It’s not clear whether the ArtHaus crash was as clearly a result of our one way streets, but I suspect driver confusion may have contributed. Intersections are especially perilous because drivers can become confused, realize they are turning the wrong way and make a rash decision. One way streets also contribute to higher car speeds through downtown because drivers jockey for position and try to pass each other. One wrong move, and a person stepping into the street can be killed. On urban streets, speed kills.

 

Source: Vox.com

Source: Vox.com

 

Literally once every couple of weeks, a neighbor reports on a crash on Olive or Dixie, sometimes close calls involving pedestrians.

One way streets just don’t make sense in this environment. Rather than rehashing the extensive research that has been done on multilane one-way streets and why they’re bad in an urban environment, here is a series of supporting links.

There are many more supportive research papers available, but these articles are a good starting point.

A city goal for at least two decades

Most recently, one of the key recommendations in Jeff Speck’s walkability study was to convert Olive and Dixie in downtown to two-way operation. Video here and study here.

A two way Olive and Dixie is called for in the city’s comprehensive plan:

Policy 2.3.5(n): The City shall continue to coordinate with Palm Beach County and FDOT on the possibility of restoring Dixie and Olive to two-way operations in the Downtown area.

 

Going back even further, here is a 1993 article from the Palm Beach Post’s Joel Engelhardt, describing the goal to convert Olive and Dixie to two-way operation:
More people from Palm Beach County and the Treasure Coast come into West Palm to work than any other city. Few stay. Fewer still ever think about moving in to avoid commuting. Who can blame them? There aren’t many inviting places to live downtown. There isn’t even a big grocery store or a nice bookstore. The night life isn’t much. Crime is a problem.
So the plan concentrates on people. It divides downtown West Palm into areas. Some are residential neighborhoods. Others are business districts. Each is given an identity and a blueprint. Olive Avenue and Dixie Highway, two of the main north-south roads, are changed from one-way to two-way so drivers will slow down; sidewalks will be widened to make them more inviting. A simpler building code is proposed.
“In the suburbs,” Mr. Duany said, “people have open land and few rules. That’s what downtowns compete with. So you need to make it as easy as possible while keeping with your overall design.”

 

Here is an excerpt from the 1994 Duany-Plater Zyberk Downtown Master Plan, on making Olive and Dixie two-way.
 Duany_Plater-Zyberk__DPZ__1994_Downtown_Master_Plan_for_the_City_of_West_Palm_Beach__April_2004_update_

 

The way ahead

 

The city controls Olive Avenue through the city, and it controls Dixie through downtown. This should make the process of creating a two-way Olive and Dixie less complicated, as these streets are within city control. Mayor Muoio has expressed support for changing Olive and Dixie to two way. From what I’ve been told, however, the county does play a role in these decisions, and Olive and Dixie remain one way in the county’s comp plan. This means this decision is largely a political one, hinging on county support.

 

We have ample leadership in the city to make this change. Support from our county elected officials will be required to make Olive and Dixie through downtown safer and more prosperous. It’s a change 20 years overdue.

 

To email a letter of support to all county commissioners, use this email address: BCC-AllCommissioners@pbcgov.org 
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The time is right for time of day parking

Time of day parking is a simple low-cost high return on investment solution that has been utilized in other cities with great success to provide on-street  parking  at off-peak hours. How it works is that one of the two travel lanes in the same direction become on-street parallel parking during off peak hours and weekends. For example,  all lanes would be open to cars during rush hour from 7 AM – 9:30 AM and from 4:00 PM – 6:30 PM. At other times of the day one travel lane would become curbside parking. Here is a picture of it being applied in Miami.

Time_day_lane_parking_miami

North Miami Avenue isn’t quite as pretty as the Avenue des Champs-Élysées, but allowing on-street parking in unneeded travel lanes is one of the first steps in the recovery from stroad to street.

There are plenty of locations where this strategy could benefit West Palm Beach. Here are a few locations:

  • Olive Avenue (Federal Highway) from Evernia to Clematis. There is already a nascent out-door restaurant scene developing and most of the buildings contain ground floor walk up retail that could benefit from having mid-day, evening, and weekend on-street parking.
  • Flagler Blvd. in front of Clematis park. I would love to see those unneeded lanes turned into on-street parking for the Saturday Green Market. The on-street parking might convey the proper context to slow cars down on Flagler so you don’t have to take your life in your hands to cross from the park to get to the water.
  • Dixie Highway south of Okeechobee. This section should go on a four to three lane road diet, but that won’t happen overnight. There is a lot of great stuff going on in this area and simple strategy like this could be the tipping point. In a recent Palm Beach Post article one observer dubbed this area the next Greenwich Village.
  • Quadrille – five lane section from 3rd to Dixie.

Still not convinced? The reference section of the blog contains a report from the Hillsborough County MPO on this concept. The report includes case studies from Miami, Richmond Virginia, and Washington D.C. It should be noted that all of the case studies had great success. From the study, the only thing Miami would have done differently would be to “Provide this opportunity sooner.”

What are we waiting for? This is a low risk experiment.

P.S. It would be nice if the City employed some Donald Shoup principles and not charged for this newly found parking.

 

 


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Downtown street flooding

A neighbor shot this video, showing the view of Olive Avenue near Two City Plaza and the Prado after a rainstorm on September 7th.

This is the aftermath of a 24 hour rainfall event that measured, at best, 2.5 inches of rain. Our downtown stormwater system merits serious attention.

downtown stormwater


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Interview on WPTV – Jeff Speck walkability study


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We talk downtown WPB with Jeff Speck

[Thanks for coming out last night for ‘Walkable Wednesday’! It was stimulating conversation all around. Next month – same time, different place: J Flynn’s Irish Pub on Clematis at 6 pm on March 26th. And don’t forget tonight’s “c’est la via” event downtown, and Critical Mass this Friday. Follow community building events on the blog calendar.]

Last week, Jeff Speck was in town to start his walkability study of our downtown. As part of this process, he met with stakeholders in the downtown to get up to speed on the facts on the ground, and opinions on what is most needed to improve walkability. Aaron Wormus, Joe Roskowski, Joe Chase, and I met with Jeff at Terebinth, the new art gallery/organic cafe on Dixie and Evernia Street downtown.

If you haven’t read Walkable City yet, put it at the top of your list. I have a copy if you’d like to borrow it. This book along with the Smart Growth Manual are two of the best books for understanding how to make great places for the layperson and they’ve been a big influence.

Here is a recap of the ideas we discussed at the meeting:

First up on the list: Maintenance issues downtown, especially the lack of priority for street shade trees. This is one of the most noticeable detriments to a decent walk.  See this report for a sample of the tree issues the downtown community has identified.  Jeff devotes an entire chapter in Walkable City to street trees, and states: “It’s best not to pick favorites in the walkability discussion – every individual point counts – but the humble American street tree might win my vote.” It’s great to have a renowned urban planner working on this plan for improving our downtown.

Joe Chase discussed the lack of connectivity between Banyan Boulevard/Clearlake office park area and Clematis Street, and the missing bicycle link between these two areas. It may be difficult to improve walkability in this area, but bikeability seems very achievable and an easier fix.

Parking: I made another call for higher standards for surface parking lots downtown. We have an abundance of surface parking lots, poorly maintained and without any landscaping. Our code only requires new surface parking lots to be screened (which we shouldn’t be building more of anyhow) but says little about landscaping and shade tree buffer on existing lots.  We should also consider the feasibility of installing a green wall on the Evernia and Banyan parking garages, as Naples has done. Lastly, require city employees to pay market rate for their parking, or at least provide a parking cash-out. May be politically difficult, but it would be a shot in the arm to Clematis retail. I’ll need another post to go into the reasons why.

Two-way Olive and Dixie. Another idea that deserves its own blog post, and has been kicked around and talked about for years.

Aaron Wormus brought up the Sunset Lounge, and the CRA plan to revitalize it. This led to a discussion about how to reconnect the Northwest neighborhood with neighborhoods to the south and east. We all emphasized the importance of maintaining our street grid, not abandoning streets and alleys. We supported following through on the downtown master plan to create new streets west of Sapodilla and break up the mega-blocks, and creating the frontage road on the west side of the FEC right of way.

Joe Roskowski had much to say about Okeechobee Boulevard and how unpleasant and unsafe an experience it is to cross, on foot or on bike. Everyone strongly agreed. Same goes for Quadrille Boulevard. Even after the FDOT grant project, it maintains a highway speed geometry, with excessively wide lanes, much too wide curbs, and angry drivers who don’t like bicyclists sharing the road.

What would you have told him? Tweet @JeffSpeckAICP.

That’s a recap of the meeting. Jeff’s report is due to be released sometime this summer, most likely in June. Stay tuned – we will need everyone’s help to see that the plan is carried through.


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A solution looking for a problem – the Pioneer Plaza roundabout

West Palm Beach city commissioners have instructed the traffic department to come up with a plan for improvement to the Pioneer Plaza roundabout, and held a public meeting with city staff on the 23rd to present the newest iteration, which I attended along with representatives from the Norton Museum of Art.

When the so-called improvement looks strikingly similar in the before and after photos, some questions need to be asked.  Is this roundabout at the end of its useful life, necessitating a capital replacement? If not, what’s the problem with the existing design and what is the objective of a redesign?

According to the city traffic engineers, the redesign is necessary due to safety issues. Since safety is such a concern, you’d expect the data to make the case for a redesign. We should be seeing stories about serious accidents at this roundabout as well as crash statistics that show its dangerous nature.  In fact, looking at City of WPB Police Department crash statistics, I found one accident year to date, involving a driver who sneezed and sideswiped a concrete bollard. The accident only involved the driver and she was not seriously injured. I searched the Palm Beach Post archives going back to 2006, searching for keywords with “Pioneer Plaza” or “traffic circle/roundabout” in West Palm Beach. I found not a single report of a crash at this roundabout. No question bollards are knocked over, and some incidents go unreported. But the data does not show this is a dangerous intersection; in reality, it is likely one of the safer intersections in the city.

When pressed about the safety issues, city officials pointed to the concrete bollards that are getting knocked over, and insisted that the roundabout must be redesigned to meet the standard. So it seems we have not a safety problem for the people who use this roundabout, but a concrete bollard public safety crisis. What’s the proposed solution to keep the bollards safe?  Spend $550,000 to tear out the beautiful brick pavers, substitute stamped concrete fake brick, and widen the travel lanes to 16′ from the current 13′.

It’s important to emphasize that this roundabout is not at the end of its useful life. Not once in the public meeting did officials make the argument that it needs capital replacement. This intersection sees a much lower volume of traffic than the shared space in front of the Centennial Fountain on Clematis, and that area is holding up just fine.

Is this really a wise use of public funds? Could there possibly be a simpler and much cheaper fix? From speaking to the most affected neighbor, the representatives of the Norton Museum of Art, they would rather keep the current configuration and just clean up and maintain what is already there, and much prefer it to the new proposal.

I can think of many ways the city could use this money more wisely than fixing what isn’t broken.

As an aside, this is also an opportunity to think about the configuration of Olive throughout the city. Why are these bollards getting hit in the first place? Here’s a hypothesis: Are large trucks and semis hitting the bollards, thinking this local street is still a through street? I ask this because I had so much trouble (and conflicting answers) about which entity controls Olive through downtown that I tweeted to FDOT Secretary Prasad, who to his credit replied promptly and confirmed local ownership of Olive.

Olive Avenue through downtown was to be changed to two way operation in the 1994 DMP, but it never happened; however, the City of WPB did manage to gain control of Olive and Dixie, giving up Quadrille to FDOT. Could maps that truck companies use still designate Olive as a through road, rather than a local street? I’ve seen maps online that still show Dixie/Olive as a state road.  And the fact Olive is two lane, one way through downtown incentivizes large trucks to use it through downtown, and perhaps at this intersection because it offers easy access to Olive through downtown.