There’s no magic bullet to fix what ails Milpas Street in terms of traffic safety, but city engineers outlined a menu of partial fixes Thursday night that could go a long way to improve pedestrian safety throughout one of the busier and more hazardous thoroughfares on the South Coast. In a nutshell, new traffic signals by Ortega and Yonanali streets — which enjoy strong popular support among neighborhood residents and traffic safety activists — are simply not going to happen.
Far more helpful — not to mention possible — insisted city traffic engineer Derrick Bailey, would be to install median island strips in the middle of Milpas Street at these two intersections — the only two on Milpas, coincidentally, without traffic signals — where pedestrians can stand as they make the trip from one side of Milpas to the other. In addition, Bailey said, these islands should be equipped with rapidly blinking horizontal yellow lights that can be activated by pedestrians. These lights have a quasi-strobe effect and are 86 percent effective in getting motorists to yield in cities where they are deployed.
In addition, Bailey suggested that the portion of Milpas Street north of Cota could be re-striped — a “road diet” in the lingo of transportation speak — meaning there would be two lanes on each side of the road and one center turn lane. By eliminating one of the four lanes that now exist, Bailey said, there would be space for bike lanes as well. Currently, Milpas has “sharrows” notifying motorists they need to share the road with cyclists, but no actual space set aside for the cyclists to use. Bailey also suggested that some of the bus stops on Milpas should be eliminated or relocated. Buses, he pointed out, are nine feet wide, but the bus lanes are only seven, meaning that one lane of traffic is blocked every time a bus makes a stop.
Thursday night’s presentation was made to the City’s Transportation and Circulation Committee (TCC) and marked the grand unveiling of City Hall’s response to the death of a 15-year-old pedestrian killed while trying to cross Milpas Street last October. “Sergio Romero lost his life trying to cross Milpas Street,” intoned Bailey. “That’s why we’re here.” The young Romero was hit by a truck moving 20-miles-an-hour faster than the posted speed limit of 30 mph. The presentation to the TCC comes on the heels of two very intense and emotional public hearings about Romero’s death coupled with long-standing concerns about safety problems that have afflicted the Milpas corridor.
According to Bailey, Milpas’s traffic safety problems are rooted in the fact that the street is attempting to do too many things in too limited a space. He noted that Milpas’s four lanes are 10-feet wide, the narrowest state regulations will allow. Likewise, he noted that the parking lanes on both sides of Milpas are only seven feet wide, also the narrowest state law allows. With four supermarkets, a junior high school, many restaurants, and a host of merchants supplying the local construction trade, Milpas gets a lot of action from a lot of different users. Compounding the problem, the sidewalks along Milpas — home to heavy pedestrian use — are notoriously skinny. Competing for what little space there is for people are the many trees that line both sides of the street.
The proposal drawing the greatest fire from residents and activists was to eliminate or relocate bus stops. Milpas serves a population unusually dependent upon mass transit. At a time when bus ridership and walking should be encouraged, they argued, eliminating bus stops would be counterproductive. At best, they said, the problem would be moved elsewhere, but not solved.
Many of the speakers insisted that traffic lights at the two intersections still remained the best solution. A few accused the city traffic engineers of pushing traffic “efficiency” over that of public safety. But most recognized the futility of their demand. New traffic lights must comply with state guidelines based on traffic volumes and collision counts; based on those, new lights on Milpas are not warranted. Should City Hall install them anyway, its exposure to legal liability — should anything go wrong — would increase.
Bailey tried with limited success to persuade people that new traffic lights could well make Milpas’s problems worse. He noted that the number of broadside car crashes on Milpas were two-and-a-half times higher at intersections with street lights than those without. He noted as well that 48 of the 50 most collision-prone intersections in Santa Barbara had street lights. “People think street lights stop accidents from happening,” he said. “That’s not necessarily the case.
But clearly, Milpas Street has problems that go beyond the death of Sergio Romero. In the past 10 years, 20 pedestrians have been struck by cars along Milpas; at least two resulted in deaths. With Milpas’s narrow lanes running alongside its even narrower parking lanes, Bailey said the street has been the site of many side-swipe collisions. In fact, when it comes to reported side-swipes, the intersection of Milpas and Cota ranks second highest in the city, and the one at Ortega is tied for seventh. Making these numbers more alarming is that the traffic volumes in this one-block stretch are relatively low.
One alternative transportation activist asked why there weren’t more cops assigned to Milpas Street. Sergeant Mike McGrew said only two officers have been assigned to traffic enforcement citywide in recent years, and they’ve frequently been assigned to basic patrol functions because the department has been understaffed. In recent months that number has increased to five. That, he said, would enable more aggressive enforcement in the area. McGrew all but guaranteed that the department would conduct a sting operation soon, busting motorists who fail to yield for an undercover pedestrian who attempts to cross the street.
What can and will be done in the short term remains to be seen. Bailey said he has no cost estimates for any of the proposals, though he did say the blinking rectangular lights can cost as much as $10,000. The matter next goes to the Neighborhood Advisory Committee on February 8 and then back to a joint session of the two committees on March 22. But relatively quick fixes, Bailey warned, have tradeoffs. Does the community want to give up bus stops? To re-stripe the north end of the street could cause additional delays — an average of five seconds — at De la Guerra and Milpas. And to install the medians will eat into painfully finite road space. For this to happen, some on-street parking will have to be cannibalized. How will the merchants respond?
In the meantime, a neighborhood group has collected 514 signatures on a petition for pedestrian lights. Long term, a coalition of the Milpas Community Association, PUEBLO, and COAST is calling on City Hall as well as the broader community to figure out how the fundamental street furniture of Milpas street — the sidewalks, parking lanes, bikes lanes, and car lanes — can be rearranged to create a commercially vital, pedestrian friendly, and culturally happening thoroughfare.