Is Coleman Avenue dangerous, stressful, both or neither?

Coleman Avenue holds a special place for Parents for Safe Routes. Founder and Chair, Jen Wolosin, was called to action because she didn’t feel that the street was safe enough for her children (or her alone) to walk or bike to school on. If it weren’t for Coleman Avenue, there would be no Parents for Safe Routes. However, given all of the other scary intersections and streets around town (Y" at Santa Cruz Ave. and Alameda de las Pulgas near La Entrada, Chilco Street in Belle Haven, Middle Ave., and on and on), should Coleman Avenue rank on the top of the Safe Routes Hot Spot list? Is it really that dangerous?

There are many ways to study and analyze this question:

1. Collision/accident data. While 39% of bike and ped collisions in San Mateo County are within 1/4 mile of schools, has anyone been seriously hurt or killed on Coleman over the past 5, 10, 20, 30 years? We haven't heard of any BIG injuries that have occurred on Coleman. There has been at least one semi-recent bicycle-related injury along Coleman in the past year. In August 2016, a M-A kid blew a stop sign at Coleman and Menlo Oaks and was hit by a parent. The student was at fault and not wearing a helmet. He was taken to a hospital for an eval (no additional info available). Even taking this accident into account, there appears to be no overwhelming evidence in this category that really shows that Coleman is fundamentally dangerous.

As an FYI, Parents for Safe Routes is currently analyzing collision scene information from the SWITR (Statewide Integrated Traffic Records System) database to see what's really there. We're also working with a Stanford Trauma Surgeon to check out hospital data to see if any unreported accidents show up there. This is being done to look at Coleman and Menlo Park at large (to help inform our "hot spots" list).

2. Speed and volume. As road speeds and volumes go up, the dangers to bicyclists and pedestrians also rise. We can look at the data from the 2007 study to see where speed and volume were then along Coleman. Looking at the stretch between Menlo Oaks and Ringwood, the posted speed was/is 25mph, 85% of folks were driving approximately at 28 miles per hour and only 0.2% of vehicles were driving more than 10mph over the speed limit (this is in comparison to much faster driving along Ringwood). As for volume, this stretch experienced 3,065 vehicles per day (vs. 8,190 on Bay, 23,455 on Middlefield and 6,570 on Ringwood).

Regarding current data, we don't have any current information on speed, but when Marsh Road was closing last year the Town of Atherton took counts on surrounding streets and recorded the daily traffic on Coleman between Berkeley and Ringwood. On May 17, 2016, they recorded 3,066 cars on that stretch - almost identical to the volume in 2007 (it was 3,065). We'll find out even more current data when the Willows Neighborhood Complete Streets Study is conducted over the next 18 months (it will include Coleman Ave. since it is combined with a Laurel Safe Routes Study). Certainly not a slam dunk, though, for speed and volume being the case for danger.

3. Design of the street. This is where lies the inherent danger of Coleman Ave. For who and for what is this street designed for?  This street is trying to be everything to everyone:

  • Peak hour cut-through commuters - It's a thoroughfare and a way to bypass Willow and Middlefield (or Bay).
  • Peak hour school kids and families in cars - It's the most direct way for many families and teenagers to drive to M-A and Laurel (and other schools)
  • Peak hour school kids and families on foot - It's the most direct way for many families and teenagers to walk to M-A and Laurel (and other schools)
  • Peak hour school kids and families on bikes (also skateboards, etc.) - It's the most direct way for many families and teenagers to bike to M-A and Laurel (and other schools)
  • All hours neighbors - It's easy access in and out of home and a tree-lined rural-like road to be enjoyed with dogs, friends, etc.

The problem is the interaction of all of these users of the road (and buses, garbage trucks, construction vehicles, etc. aren’t even included). While the crowdedness of the street certainly slows things down and to-date, has prevented any tragedies, the margin of error and space for all of these users to successfully navigate the roads is very slim. Many of us have seen bicyclists/cars/pedestrians come within a fraction of a hair of each other. See for yourself in a video we made a year and a half ago (note: this was before parking was restricted during school hours on the County stretch). During peak hours, the situation along Coleman is dangerous.

In addition to thinking about the level of safety/danger...there's another measure to consider: the level of stress. How much stress do different users of a road feel when traveling along it? Level of stress captures the perceived dangers, which is likely a key issue experienced along Coleman.

Thinking only about bicyclists, there are studies that show that when a user's tolerance for stress along a road is exceeded, people will opt-out of using that route. This is absolutely the case in Jen Wolosin’s family's experience. She tried biking with her kids along Coleman. It was so stressful (and many would also argue dangerous), to her and her kids, that they opt not to do it. This matters because if lots of families are opting out of biking and/or letting their children bike, those families may be driving (yes, we should carpool and bus) ...which puts more cars on the road...which makes the road even more stressful (and possibly dangerous)...which makes even those with a higher threshold for stress choose to opt out...which puts more cars on the road...and so on. And...vulnerable users (think kids and their parents, and the elderly) have a lower tolerance for stress.

Having proper walking and biking infrastructure not only makes the road safer, but it is perceived to be safer, which brings out more walkers and bikers, which lowers the number of cars, and so on. Page 30 of the Joint Venture Silicon Valley's Bike Vision illustrates the interplay between stress level and speed/volume and level of separation in infrastructure. The more separation of bikes from cars, and the lower speed and volume, the greater the less the level of stress, and vice-versa.

So, is this a "if we build it they will come" scenario? How do we really know, aside from anecdotal comments , that parents would leave their cars at home and have their kids walk and bike to school if Coleman were safer? Well, Laurel will be collecting data in the Fall to learn the barrier and incentives for walking, biking, busing and carpooling. The survey will include a question about how much of a difference improved infrastructure would make on their willingness to have their child walk/bike to school. And, if substantive changes to the infrastructure on Coleman, the level of encouragement efforts at the school level (via parent volunteers working with staff) will significantly increase. Parents for Safe Routes cannot, in good conscious, currently encourage families to ride bikes and walk to school along Coleman given its current design. Engineering, then Education and Enforcement, then Encouragement (and all along Engagement, Evaluation and Equity - these are the 7 E's of Safe Routes to School).

10-14% of morning commute traffic is school-related (national statistic). Getting kids and families out of cars and onto bike and feet can have a huge impact on our traffic situation. There are the other benefits of increased walking and biking for kids and Safe Routes to consider: combats childhood obesity, reduces childhood stress through movement and fresh air, fosters independence and confidence in kids (for older children), reduces air pollution, fosters friendlier neighborhoods. Let's make Coleman safer/less stressful, for ourselves and our children.

Jen Wolosin