CUT THROUGH CULTUREJan 06, 2020 03:14PM ● By Pam Kessler
Navigation apps offer frustrated drivers a way to beat the traffic on Interstate 680 and Highway 4 by routing them through suburban side streets, often at unsafe speeds, transforming peaceful Walnut Creek backroads into gridlock.
The Bay Area went wild over Waze when it first hit smartphones in 2011. It was the go-to cut through traffic app that your kids insisted was the best alternative to Google Maps. It grabbed commuters looking for faster routes, even if it meant speeding through residential neighborhoods and triggering traffic nightmares.
Look no further than the snake of cars backed up on Homestead Avenue (almost to Sierra Drive) during the evening commute to understand how cut through culture wreaks havoc on local streets. It’s bumper to bumper dozens of cars deep, frustrating residents who live on the congested route and making it almost impossible to run a quick errand and return home.
Why drivers choose a route with right turn restrictions onto Ygnacio Valley Road for a short-cut remains a mystery—Waze has reportedly taken the route off of its app. For commuters who ignore the “no right turn” flashing light, between 4:00-6:30 pm, a word of warning, the Walnut Creek Police Department is often nearby writing hefty right turn violation tickets.
HOW DO WE FIX THIS?
According to Traffic Engineer Smadar Boardman, the city has limited options. “These are public streets and the city cannot restrict access, but if people are cutting through and speeding, that’s a problem we want to solve.” Boardman and her team are working on software solutions to Walnut Creeks’ traffic jams, but that won’t include eliminating the right turn restrictions from Walnut and Homestead or adding lanes to Ygnacio Valley Road. Instead, they’re creating a Local Roadway Safety Plan and traffic signal synchronization to change the light timing at popular cut through intersections, like the Broadway and Olympic Boulevard exits off I-680N—popular pop-off spots for rush hour commuters attempting to circumvent freeway traffic.
Berkeley has a long and successful history of calming traffic through its neighborhood streets. Since 1975 the city has been using speed humps and street barriers (diverters) as well as traffic circles, curb extensions, chicanes, and textured paving to deter short-cuts. Others like the City of Fremont have issued warnings to freeway drivers exiting onto city streets to expect long delays at traffic lights.
The days of simply pouring concrete and widening roads are over. As one traffic engineer explains, there’s no magic bullet to fix traffic flow and prevent short cuts. Walnut Creek sees some 120,000 cars pass through its two main east-west arteries, Treat Boulevard and Ygnacio Valley Road, each day. To keep the cars moving, the city relies on its Intelligent Transportation System, a grid of computers that orchestrates 100 traffic signals in and around Walnut Creek. The synchronized lights can adapt to changing demand in real time to maximize traffic flow and reduce backups.
With cities across the Bay Area becoming more and more congested (the proliferation of ride-sharing services like Uber is contributing to the problem), it’s clear that one approach to traffic mitigation won’t work. Fixing the problems will require flexibility, collaboration, and citizen engagement.