Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Figuring out a dangerous intersection

My Coe colleague Lynda Barrow called my attention to an intersection that she thinks (and I agree) is an accident waiting to happen. The intersection of 12th Street (a.k.a. Coe Road) and 1st Avenue is a product of 1970s traffic engineering aimed at moving cars through town. At that time streets on either side of campus were made one-way from 3rd Avenue SE to 32nd Street NE. (I won't identify them, not out of fastidiousness, but because the streets change names as they go along, besides which they have changed names over the years. At one time "Center Point Road" was part of both one-way streets. Directions are also hard to call in Cedar Rapids, but let's call them "northish" and "southish." 12th Street a.k.a. Coe Road is one-way southish.

12th Street funnels southish-bound traffic from the northeast side and eastish-bound traffic from I-380 and the St. Luke's Hospital Complex into 1st Avenue and around Coe's campus.
 (A Avenue feeding into Coe Rd NE, which becomes 12th St SE)

1st Avenue is, of course, the four-lane main drag of Cedar Rapids. At the intersection with 1st Avenue, Coe Road offers drivers three options: (1) a left turn lane that feeds into the NE-bound left lane of 1st Avenue, with the option of joining two left-turn lanes onto College Drive (a.k.a. 13th St); (2) a middle lane which allows either continuation straight through the intersection or a left-turn into the NE-bound right lane of 1st Avenue; and (3) a right turn lane onto 1st Avenue heading SE.
(Coe Road NE approaching 1st Avenue)

The set-up screams traffic flow, by which we mean car traffic flow, and in the auto-centric world we were building back in the 1970s it was a good attempt. This was before the interstate highway was built a few blocks away, and traffic through the intersection must have been intense. 

There still is a goodly amount now, mixed--as it must have been even then--with pedestrian and bicycle traffic the engineers didn't figure into their calculations. It's a challenge to navigate an intersection built strictly for cars when you're not driving a car. It's a challenge driving through a tricky intersection when there are bicycles and pedestrians in the mix. The light is green for Coe Road for 10 seconds with 75 seconds in between.

This bicyclist timed it just right, getting to 1st Avenue just as the light turned green, and no one was waiting to turn right. While I was taking pictures, I saw a woman exit a bus and then try to cross Coe Road on foot with the green; she was nearly struck by a car edging forward on Coe Road in hopes of making a right turn. A man riding a bike through the crosswalk was buzzed by a van turning left (and understandably trying to get through the intersection in the brief time before the light changed). As Lynda points out, one person in the crosswalk, or one driver on Coe Road who loses concentration during the 75-second light can entirely stop traffic.
(Car driver waiting for pedestrian crossing 1st Avenue, as the clock ticks)

A couple related issues: 

What does a Coe Road bicyclist do when they're not as lucky as our friend above, and arrive at a red light? This must be a common problem with intersections that feature a right-turn only lane. My solution if I must go through the intersection is to land on this safe box, past the crosswalk between the center and right lane. I get funny looks but no one's objected.

Better yet, I cross 1st Avenue mid-block between 12th and 13th, as I've found that the timing of the lights creates a reliable regular interval of no traffic. I wouldn't expect anyone who doesn't spend their time at Coe to know that, though.

Another problem is traffic exiting Casey's General Store, a popular convenience store at 1201 1st Avenue SE that has drives onto both 1st Avenue and 12th Street. 
 (Casey's, where it meets 12th Street, across from Zio Johno's Spaghetti House)

A lot of people who exit onto 12th Street don't realize that it's still one-way at that point, and every once in awhile the intersection gets an exciting surprise.

There's not an easy solution to this intersection. A well-placed one-way sign could address the Casey's parking lot issue, and a longer light for Coe Road would accommodate drivers and pedestrians. But that would create traffic back-ups on 1st Avenue, which uses every second of its 75-second green lights.

I'm coming to think making all these streets two-way probably needs to be part of the solution.

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