On Development: Fifth and Cassady belongs to the trucks now

If we make it easier for big trucks to turn, we end up making it harder for pedestrians to cross. And city officials have made their conscious (yet unconscionable) decision to serve the trucks.
The intersection of Cassady and East Fifth avenues
The intersection of Cassady and East Fifth avenuesBrian Williams

The ordinance was about eminent domain, but the discussion and implications were really about the relative value Columbus places on 18-wheelers and pedestrians, and on affordable housing and an ostensible commitment to safe streets. 

Columbus City Council, at its Feb. 12 meeting, approved spending more than $1.6 million to complete the purchases of four properties (including two buildings with a total of 12 affordable apartments) that will be demolished to allow substantial widening at the intersection of East Fifth and Cassady avenues. The land purchase is in addition to $11 million for construction.

“The purpose of the widening is to make it easier for semis to turn,” said City Councilor Lourdes Barroso de Padilla, who later added, “We have a number of transit advocates here. I’d be happy to follow up on any conversations later in March.”

Too late. Moments later, the council unanimously approved the ordinance.

De Padilla, herself a victim of unsafe streets some 20 years ago, might be expected to be more critical of the standard, vehicle-centric approach to city streets. She was in the crosswalk at a downtown intersection when she was struck by a car making an illegal left turn. She said in an interview last year with NBC4 that the experience made her particularly interested in bicycle and pedestrian safety initiatives, such as Vision Zero.

An international strategy that began in Sweden 30 years ago, Vision Zero imagines a future that eliminates traffic fatalities and serious injuries. It recognizes that humans make mistakes but favors policies and practices that try to avoid them and that mitigate the damage when crashes occur. Discussion at that February council meeting was punctuated with references to Vision Zero.

De Padilla, as chair of council’s Public Service & Transportation Committee, led the discussion – including what appeared to be a perfunctory request for city staff to rationalize solutions to which council members had already deferred. 

Kelly Scocco, deputy director of the city’s Department of Public Service, described the intersection widening as “a safety project, mostly to address the heavy truck usage. Scocco also added that “typical Vision Zero [procedure] would be to bring in the curbs so [pedestrians] don’t have so far to cross. But because of the trucks, we had to widen them out. Our professional engineering judgment is that bump-outs would be less safe. Trucks could drive up onto the sidewalk and hit pedestrians.”

“Bump-outs” are widened sidewalks at intersections to reduce the length of crosswalks. But opponents of the Fifth and Cassady widening aren’t seeking shorter crosswalks – they just don’t want the current ones lengthened.

Scocco said a prior plan for bump-outs at Livingston Avenue and James Road was scrapped because, even before construction started, the pedestrian signal got hit “many times” by trucks.

So, apparently, Columbus has given up and decided to design streets to accommodate sloppy driving.

But the choice between an unprotected big sidewalk and the sweeping curve of a widened intersection is a false dichotomy. The one-word mantra of bike-ped advocates is: “Bollards!” Lining the curbs with heavy-duty bollards – or even concrete “jersey” barriers – can protect corners and pedestrians. The more space we give to the trucks, the more they’ll use.

But if there are clear barriers, drivers will avoid crossing them. After all, truck drivers tend to be well-trained and need to be masters of maneuvering their vehicles in and out of tight spots. Look at any of the dozens of YouTube videos of drivers backing their trailers into seemingly impossible spaces – spaces far more challenging than turning right from a typical two-lane street onto a four-lane street.

Narrower streets and tighter turns force drivers to be more careful and attentive. A wide, sweeping turn radius – like the ones planned for Cassady and Fifth – could have the unintended consequence of letting drivers relax too much. 

De Padilla later argued that Fifth and Cassady is a “unique intersection” and that Vision Zero “is a guidebook.”

Actually, Vision Zero is emphatically not a guidebook. Vision Zero preaches not just new solutions, but new ways of looking at streets – rejecting the “status quo” in favor of “a new paradigm.” What Vision Zero preaches over and over is the critical need to have a diverse array of voices in the planning process.

There was a clear tradeoff here. If we make it easier for big trucks to turn, we end up making it harder for pedestrians to cross. And city officials have made their conscious (yet unconscionable) decision to spend millions of dollars serving the trucks.

It’s bad enough that Columbus pedestrians must defer to trucks on street corners. But they shouldn’t also have to defer to trucks in city council chambers.

Brian Williams is a consultant and freelance writer. A former Columbus Dispatch reporter, he is retired from the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission and likes to walk and pedal.

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