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Dilemmas with pedestrian/cyclist crossings

A bicycle or pedestrian transportation system will not be used if it intimidates people.

St. Francis, Cerrillos and St. Michaels are fast, wide, multilane principal arterials designed to move as many cars as efficiently as possible rather than balance the needs of all modes of transportation.

There are no bike lanes on St. Francis, a design approved more than a decade ago by the New Mexico Department of Transportation to maximize vehicle lanes and done against the wishes of the bicycling community. The St. Francis-Cerrillos intersection is further complicated by the diagonal crossing of the Rail Runner alignment, whose tracks can trap the wheel of a cyclist. These roads intimidate anyone not in a car. Thus, tunnels or bridges on busy principal arterials are a staple of the Vision Zero strategy to cut traffic fatalities.

Reports, as described by the New Mexican and Journal North, of “… a couple of scary incidents at the pedestrian/cyclist tunnel under St. Francis Drive …” suggest the bicycle-pedestrian tunnel crossing is a locus for crime and homeless squatters. As far as crime is concerned, it is not clear whether the tunnel itself is a problem or if this location has more crime than elsewhere in the city.

Hypothetically, an attractive Railyard-Acequia Trail corridor may create an opportunity to prey on isolated pedestrians. We must therefore understand all the effects a fully built trail system will have on the public. We need to collect data on bike and pedestrian use, reports of crimes and harassment, whether these facilities reduce bicycle and pedestrian crashes and injuries, and how often the homeless are creating a hostile environment.

But we need grade-separated crossings, and tunnels and pedestrian overpasses are two options. Tunnels can be compact, needing only enough headspace for people. Of course, a tunnel protects everyone against the elements, including homeless people looking for refuge.

Bridges, by contrast, are exposed. They also can be massive due to design requirements. The Federal Highway Administration requires a minimum overhead clearance of 14-16 feet for a bridge over an arterial so large trucks can pass underneath. The Americans With Disabilities Act stipulates a shallow ramp gradient less than 1 foot in 12, resulting in long ramps leading to a bridge. A 2014 analysis of the proposed pedestrian bridge over St. Michael’s Drive suggested approach ramps to the bridge would be about 350 feet long for a bridge with 16 feet of clearance over the road. Thus, access to a substantial easement is required.

This is a constraint in a heavily built environment, hence the tunnel option. Either option improves the level of service for motorists since they don’t have to endure the long red light cycles needed to get pedestrians across increasingly wide arterials.

Grade-separated crossings are necessary to make our trail system work. Given that a multimodal transportation system is important to public health, urban planning and environmental protection, we must use smart designs to make the system function properly.

As far as safest design practice is concerned, underpass design was discussed in a recent Cityspot article, “The Underpass Dilemma,” in which we are told to use “Crime Prevention through Environmental Design.”

In an interconnected way, Santa Fe needs to focus on solving the root cause of the homelessness and crime highlighted in the underpass issue rather than on the symptoms (attacks and homeless people camping in an underpass). We must solve the problems of transportation, homelessness, mental health and crime holistically.

Khalil J. Spencer lives in Santa Fe.

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