Mountain View installed new traffic signals on Wright Avenue at Shoreline Boulevard. They separate east and westbound traffic along Wright. This makes it safe to cross Shoreline. While pedestrians have the walk signal, oncoming drivers (including those turning left) now wait at a red light.
This may not sound like much, but let me tell you - it is huge.
My friend Abigail told me recently: "When I was in 5th grade, I rode a subway by myself to get to and from school. Somehow, crossing Shoreline Boulevard today is more dangerous than riding the subway when I was a kid!"
I'm happy to report that this intersection is now safe to cross. The improvements are very personal to me because my family and friends are affected by it every time we go to school, ballet class or swim class, all of which lie on the other side. This intersection is what turned me into an advocate for safe streets.
Shoreline Boulevard is a typical American, super-sized street. It's a six-lane arterial. And it's on the route to seven schools, or more if you count preschools. There are all sorts of hazards along Shoreline Boulevard that I won't get into here. Today, I'm going to focus on just this intersection, and how crossing it has been a beast - until now.
Our daily Danger
Crossing Shoreline Boulevard at Wright Avenue is tantamount to risking your life. It's hard to believe crossing a street could possibly be so dangerous unless you've experienced it. In fact, when my husband first started complaining that a left-turning driver almost plowed into him and our two kids on their way to school, AGAIN, I was skeptical. How could drivers possibly make the same mistake on so many mornings?
Then, it happened to me.
I was by myself. My husband walked my kids to school as usual. Five minutes after they left, I also made my way to the school. I pressed the walk button. The light turned green and I got a walk signal. Before stepping off the curb I tried to make eye contact with the oncoming driver who would be making a left turn over the crosswalk I was about to step into, but the intersection is so wide that eye contact is impossible. I knew I had barely enough time to get across the intersection before the light turned red, so waiting until the driver was close enough for eye contact was not an option. I stepped into the road and hoped they would see me and give me the right of way. The closer the driver got, the faster she drove. This is a BIG intersection, so by the time a driver makes it across, they've had the chance to build up some speed. I was starting to feel rather threatened. When the driver started her left turn toward me, I instinctively raised my arms to make myself look big. I let out a holler. She didn't seem to notice me!! I wasn't sure what to do. There was nowhere to go! Right before she crossed my path (read: barreled right into me), the woman driving slammed on her brakes and veered so as not to hit me. I avoided tragedy by a mere couple of feet.
Now I believed my husband. Now I understood why I would often hear him and others yelling from the intersection, which we live very close to. Now I knew this was a serious problem and that we had to be VERY careful using this intersection. What I did not understand was - why does this happen... repeatedly?!!
The shocked look in the driver's eyes told me it was not a malicious act, nor that she was distracted with her cell phone. Her eyes spoke volumes: I am SO sorry!! I had no idea you were there! How did I not see you? How indeed.
I was bent on getting some answers. I started investigating the intersection during the morning rush hour. I set out my husband's go pro to take vido footage. I sat on the corner, writing down the types of people going through the intersection by bike and foot: adults? kids? direction of travel? on their way to school? did I know them? I started asking people if they had the same problem. Yes, they did. Again - the question kept coming to me - why?
I investigated the final piece of the puzzle: I wanted to see what the drivers see, or rather, don't see, and why they don't see people who should be in clear view.
I had my kids stand on the usual corner on a lazy Saturday morning (when there is hardly anyone on the road). I got in my car. I instructed my kids to wait for me to get into position to turn left towards them, then push the walk button. They obliged. When they got the walk sign, they started walking across the crosswalk. I started driving into the intersection, trying to imagine I didn't see them.
What I discovered that morning blew my mind.
If I hadn't known they were there, I would not have seen them. When they entered the intersection, they were hidden behind the A-frame of my car - that piece of metal between the windshield and the driver's door. As they progressed, and I approached them to make my left turn, I naturally turned my car slightly, which kept them in my blind spot. It wasn't until I was practically on top of them that they came into full view.
Wow. Holy cow.
Mystery solved. No wonder people are bewildered when they almost hit us.
I have to wonder if the same conditions led to Robert Schwehr's death. He was a Los Altos man who died after being struck in Mountain View by a left-turning driver at Charleston Road and Independence Avenue (article here).
With this combination of blind spots and road design, sending my family into this intersection is sending them into a death trap! No amount of being careful can make this a safe place to cross. I realized: someone is going to get killed here, and it will likely be someone in my family!
Inquiry turned to advocacy
With this new knowledge, I felt I had an obligation to do something. It would be easy to just use the other crosswalk. But what about everyone else who crosses here? Nobody knows they are hidden in the oncoming drivers' blindspot. Nobody tells you that drivers in large intersections can't always see you even if you're right in front of them. I can warn people I know, but I don't know everyone! If somebody got struck here, I would feel party responsible for letting it happen. I didn't want that on my conscience, so that day, I decided I had to fix it. But how do you fix a problem such as this?
If you're lucky, you meet people in a local advocacy group where you learn how to affect change. You write to your city staff and ask them to fix it. You give a presentation at the Bicycle Pedestrian Advisory Committee (B/PAC) letting them know of the hazards. You invite the mayor to visit the intersection. Then you invite city staff, other council members, and B/PAC members to visit it. And you ask anyone who can to please fix it. Then you ask again. And again - politely, of course.
And if you're very lucky, you live in a city that listens.
Imagine our suprise and delight when one morning we went to cross the street as usual, but there was an arrow letting us konw we were now safe from turning cars!
Advocacy pays off
Along with Safe Mountain View, I advocated for safety improvements to this intersection for two and a half years. It took time, but it finally paid off!! In a way, I'm glad it took a while. During that time, my daughter learned how to ride a bike. I've used my bike as my main way to get around for much of my life, but I'm fearless. Roads usually don't bother me much. I'll ride wherever to get where I need to go, even if there isn't a bike lane. My motto has always been, "feel the fear and do it anyway." It wasn't until I saw the road through my daughter's 8-year old eyes that I realized how unsafe our roads are, especially for young riders.
Safe Mountain View taught me a lot about what other problems there are, and together we started investigating what kinds of solutions are possible. We discovered unconvential but incredible things like protected bike lanes, protected intersections, and bus stop bypasses. I find these designs so fabulous and needed that I feel a certain obligation to educate people about them and advocate for them - for the safety of my fellow humans. So that's what Safe Mountain View and I have been doing together.
We are lucky to have a responsive city.
Some street designs make the difference between life and death. The changes to Wright at Shoreline fit that profile. We are eternally grateful for the changes, and we look forward to seeing more of them. Word has it this signal phasing will be added to a couple more intersections along the Shoreline corridor. Thank goodness! It's even more dangerous to cross further south.
love letter to the city
A good deed deserves some love! This is the letter I wrote to city staff to let them know how profoundly grateful I am for the changes they made:
Hello Mike and Jacqueline,
Thank you SO much for separating the East/West signal phases on Wright Avenue at Shoreline Boulevard. We, along with many other families, have a safe way to walk/bike to our kids' school now!! It means so much to me! I really feel you have given us a gift of life - life without the fear of it being taken every time we cross that street. Thank you - from the bottom of my heart.
The day I uncovered the true danger in this intersection, the mama bear awoke in me - determined to protect my bear cubs. I figured this was something I'd help solve then resume normal life. I never would have imagined my life would change that day, and that the mama bear in me would want to protect all the cubs in my beautiful city, and that I would want to help shape the very fabric of our roads.
Will life ever go back to normal? Maybe once the bike and pedestrian network safely connects neighborhoods to schools, work places, local parks, restaurants and shops.
This might take a while.