City Council acts on Solano Complete Streets

At the City Council meeting on July 15, 2019, the Council considered the Solano Complete Streets project and took some important steps. You can watch the video here.

Staff had recommended “that the Council accept the draft study with City Council directed refinements and direct staff to prepare a final study.” In the end, Councilmember Barnes made a motion with exactly those words and the Council passed it with only Councilmember Pilch opposing. There was general agreement on many of the principles at stake, but some felt that the wording of the motion did not clearly reflect those principles and it should have been stated differently. Nonetheless, the entire discussion is on the record and AS&R feels cautiously optimistic that the project might ultimately produce a real Complete Street.

Thank you to the many AS&R members and community members who wrote letters and spoke in favor of improvements for bicycling on Solano Ave along with greater improvements for walking. We built a strong case that the design shown in the draft plan is inadequate and actually decreases safety for people biking, and that the alternatives we’ve been advocating should be taken seriously.

Speaking on behalf of AS&R, Harry Chomsky stated our position that:

  • The project must improve the safety and comfort of people riding bicycles along Solano Ave,
  • AS&R hopes to partner with the City by writing letters of support for future grants for the project, that AS&R would reluctantly but publicly oppose the project if the City tries to move it forward without any such improvement, and
  • We urge the Council at this meeting to keep a pathway open for a possible real Complete Street.

Staff set the stage for the discussion by admitting that the public process that’s coming to a close has not produced a consensus about what Solano should look like. Staff now refers to the resulting document as a “study” instead of a “plan”. In other words, by approving the document, the City is acknowledging and appreciating the ideas it presents but not committing to build them as shown. The document has to be accepted by early next year in order to fulfill the terms of the grant that funded its production. Accepting it as a study instead of a plan may allow us to satisfy the grantor without having to resolve the important questions that remain controversial.

Public comment was allowed before the Council deliberated the plan. Therefore, the public, including many AS&R members, had no opportunity to react to, discuss or refute any of the Council’s statements.

The Council considered 19 elements listed in the staff report. Council members agreed on many: for instance, they approved bulbouts as long as they don’t inhibit truck movements and don’t endanger bike riders, and they rejected pedestrian refuge islands as overkill for street of this size and generally problematic. AS&R supports the decisions that the Council made on these and several other elements.

The Council briefly discussed the one-way and two-way cycletrack ideas that many AS&R members have advocated. Instead of trying to approve or reject them, the Council decided that the ideas should be considered as part of the impending update to Albany’s Active Transportation Plan. That update needs to happen very soon and should come to the Traffic & Safety Commission within the next few months. We can continue supporting these ideas as the ATP update proceeds this fall. The Council also agreed that the City should not build any project that would make it more difficult to add cycling facilities in the future. This sounds reassuring but it’s hard to tell exactly what it means.

The Council supported the idea of a back-in angled parking pilot. Back-in angled parking is another AS&R priority, as it would improve safety for bike riding on Solano in the absence of a cycletrack. The Council did not make any specific recommendations about the pilot, but they agreed that it should run for a long time, and that we should measure its success or failure based on objective criteria determined in advance rather than based on its popularity. AS&R supports this outcome and we can continue to engage to ensure a robust pilot.

The Council decided that the project should not increase or decrease the amount of car parking. The draft plan increased car parking by removing unneeded bus stops and driveways and by using curb space more efficiently. AS&R agrees that the freed-up public space should have been considered for other uses besides added car parking — for instance, car parking could have been rearranged to allow wider sidewalks and a one-way cycletrack, with little change to the overall car parking supply. AS&R is concerned that the Council’s decision might be too restrictive. If a change in road layout would improve conditions for walking, biking or transit but result in moderate loss of car parking, we would like to see the idea explored for all of its pros and cons. We hope that the Council’s decision will function as a general principle and a starting point for discussion, rather than as a hard and fast rule.

The consultant and some Council members argued that the design shown in the draft plan improves safety for bike riders on Solano by slowing car traffic. This idea is not justified effectively in the draft plan. How fast is car traffic today? How much would it likely be slowed by adding features such as bulbouts and colored parking zones? To what extent does car speed endanger bike riders today? We perceive much greater danger to bike riders from other sources: cars backing out of parking spaces, cars parking or turning without proper preparation, cars trying to pass bikes without adequate visibility, distracted motorists drifting in the lane, or wide trucks impinging on cycling travel space. It was also stated that the draft plan design will force people on bikes to ride slower and thus stay safer. We are deeply skeptical of this idea. We doubt that bikes on Solano move faster than cars, we doubt that the draft plan’s design would cause them to move slower than they do today, and we doubt that excessive bike speed is a significant cause of conflicts or collisions. Nonetheless, the City may ask for AS&R’s support to build a plan that “improves conditions for biking on Solano” only by slowing car or bike traffic. We would ask for careful analysis before accepting these changes as improvements.

The Council discussed having staff revise the draft plan to incorporate all the changes discussed at the meeting, including titling it “study” instead of “plan”, and present the updated document at a future Council meeting for final approval before closing out the grant. AS&R agrees this is what should happen next. However, the Council’s motion did not say this. According to the wording of the motion, the Council has now accepted the “study”, and staff is expected to update it but is not obligated to bring it back to the Council for approval. AS&R wishes the motion would have stated explicitly that staff would update the document and bring it back to the Council which might approve it or not. The Council did state outside of the motion that this is what they expect, and AS&R will insist that staff follow this expectation despite its absence from the motion.

When the study comes before the Council in the future, it will likely be part of the Consent Calendar. Consent Calendar items are normally accepted without discussion at the meeting. Anybody from the Council or the general public can ask for a Consent Calendar item to be “pulled” so that the public and the Council can consider it thoroughly and vote on it separately. If we still have concerns about the revised study when it appears, we might ask for it to be pulled from the Consent Calendar.

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