Taking Advantage

Although they by no means outweigh the tremendous downsides of COVID-19, there are some small upsides. For one, it is being reported that our air is getting cleaner. If you have to drive downtown, there is plenty of parking now. Traffic all around the Bay Area is lighter. And, more and more people are now out walking our city sidewalks and riding bicycles along our city streets (the latter mostly in the residential areas).

People (and dogs!) need exercise, and with the gyms closed people are recognizing that walking and biking are great ways to stretch your legs and get your heart pumping. Pretty much every time I look out my front window I see at least one person walking by. Most often I see people walking in groups: either pairs (you can pretty much tell by the distance they are keeping from one another if they are or are not a couple) or whole families. Walking (or riding), especially with your significant other or your whole family, is not only good exercise, it’s a great bonding experience. Especially given our generally excellent weather, getting outside into the sunshine provides, I believe, a real psychological boost.

Walkers need to remain vigilant, of course, but I find that almost everyone I encounter seems as eager to give me a wide berth as I am of them. Although that sometimes means that one of us needs to walk for a short distance in the parking strip, or even along the edge of the street itself, our light traffic means that that is almost never a problem. Do be mindful of the bike lanes, though…

One thing that I thought I noticed a week or two ago, and confirmed for myself this week, concerns another area in which walkers need to be vigilant: the crosswalk buttons. Most of our signaled intersections have pedestrian signals that indicate when it is safe to cross the street. But you usually need to push a pedestrian pushbutton to let the signaling system know that you want to cross. Otherwise, of course, you never get the walk indication. Over the last couple of weeks I’ve become increasingly leery about touching those buttons. I’ve developed some techniques, such as using a knuckle instead of a fingertip to push buttons of the type shown above, and using an elbow or forearm to push the larger types. But some time in the last couple of weeks it seems that someone working for the city has had the same thought, and has come up with a much better solution. Many (but not all) of Redwood City’s signaled crosswalks no longer require you to push the button! It appears that most, if not all, of our downtown intersections, plus some others throughout the city (in particular, the one at the intersection of Alameda de las Pulgas and Whipple Avenue) now always illuminate the “walk” indicator at the beginning of the cycle when it is safe to cross, whether or not you push a button.

While this change might slow the cycle for the lights controlling the vehicular traffic — green lights now have to stay on long enough to ensure that a pedestrian can safely cross, whether or not there actually are any pedestrians — given the significant reduction in the amount of street traffic these days this shouldn’t be much of an issue. And in any case, it seems like an excellent tradeoff to make at this time. Kudos to whoever thought to reprogram many of Redwood City’s traffic signals this way.

I first noticed this change at the Alameda de las Pulgas intersection by Sequoia Hospital, and confirmed it when I took my walk this week. My entire walk, in which I started at my house, walked downtown, strolled all throughout downtown and halfway to Woodside Road along Middlefield Road (more on that in just a bit), and then back home again, was made without pressing a single crosswalk button. I will admit to making one crossing where I didn’t get a walk light: the intersection of El Camino Real and Brewster Avenue didn’t appear to have been reprogrammed, but I “waited for a new green light” (as I was taught to do when I was young) and crossed anyway. Otherwise, the intersection of El Camino Real and Broadway, plus countless intersections downtown, including Jefferson Avenue and Middlefield Road, reliably gave me a walk light with no button pushing required.

I took my walk this week not expecting to see a great deal, and in one sense I wasn’t surprised. Much of the construction I reported on in last week’s post continues: although San Mateo County has put further restrictions on the type of construction that is allowed, nearly all of the construction I had previously observed was either being done on buildings that will provide some amount of affordable housing, or buildings that enhance our medical facilities, all of which is permitted. But I did see another type of construction activity going on, one that makes a great deal of sense to me. Whether all of the activity I observed was just a matter of fortuitous timing, or whether someone actually had the bright idea to adjust project schedules to take advantage of the fact that things are pretty quiet right now, I encountered a number of road construction projects that normally would have significant impacts on our traffic flow, but given our relative lack of traffic were causing little trouble.

Perhaps the most significant, in a traffic-impacting sense, was taking place at the intersection of Jefferson Avenue and Marshall Street. As part of the project to build 601 Marshall, the 8-story office building that stretches along Marshall Street between Middlefield Road and Jefferson Avenue, the sidewalks were rebuilt with bulb-outs added to some of the corners. The building was completed nearly two years ago, as were the sidewalks, but until now the street was never properly repaved to cleanly meet those new sidewalks. This was most noticeable at the intersection of Jefferson Avenue and Marshall Street, where one of the bulb-outs was added. What was needed was to close and repave this normally very busy intersection. And indeed that is exactly what happened over the last couple of days (as of today, Friday April 3, the work was still going on but I believe that they were hoping to have the intersection back open by the end of the day).

Here is a picture showing the project on Monday, March 30, when it was first getting underway:

This shows the intersection as viewed from Jefferson Avenue; 601 Marshall is the tall sandstone-colored building along the left edge of the image.

Two days later, on Wednesday, I walked downtown to check up on the project’s progress. This time I climbed to the top of the Marshall Street Parking Garage, giving me a nice overhead view of the project. From here, not only can you see the extent of the repaving, but you can clearly see one of the two new bulb-outs at this intersection.

While taking the first picture, flashing lights drew me to Broadway, another of Redwood City’s busiest streets. These lights turned out to be a crew that was working their way down the street, stopping at various manholes and cleaning out the storm drains. Normally their presence would have been a real annoyance for Broadway traffic, but the few cars that came up behind them had no problem crossing into the opposing lane to get around the small parade of city trucks.

Further down Broadway I encountered yet another road project, this one taking place at the extremely busy intersection of Woodside Road and Broadway, right in front of the exit from our main post office:

The focus of their attention was right at the intersection: they were repaving a spot right in the middle of the leftmost left-turn lane (and, as you can see, in the middle of the crosswalk across Broadway).

They truly picked a great time to make this particular fix! There was almost no traffic to speak of along Broadway that day.

Nearby, Caltrans seems to have had the same idea. They were replacing some of the chain-link fencing down the center of Woodside Road, between Bay Road and Middlefield Road:

Although this next project didn’t really have any impact on traffic — the work was being done on the sidewalk, and the construction vehicles were not blocking the travel lanes — at the nearby intersection of Chestnut and Spring streets I found these guys:

Lastly, if you’ve been down to Costco or Sigona’s lately you almost couldn’t help but have noticed all the work going on along Middlefield Road. For some time now crews have been hard at work on the “Middlefield Road Phase 1 Underground Utility District and Streetscape Project,” which is undergrounding all of the extremely unsightly overhead wires and removing the utility poles, replacing the sidewalks and adding accessible curb ramps, painting new crosswalks and protected bicycle lanes, and adding street lights and street trees along Middlefield Road between Maple Street and Woodside Road. Until now the work has largely been confined to the area of the sidewalks, but seemingly to take advantage of the lighter traffic suddenly we’re seeing a flurry of work in the street itself. Over the last handful of days crews have been tearing up and quickly repaving sections of the street itself:

They seem to have started at the Maple Street end and have been working their way down to Middlefield Road. Here is a view from the Maple Street intersection, taken just before I took the above photo (near Middlefield Road and Elm Street):

I’m hoping that the paving work indicates that the underground conduits needed to carry the replacement wires are complete, and thus that crews will soon be installing wires in those conduits (if they aren’t already installed) and taking down the overhead lines and utility poles. I often walk along this section of Middlefield Road, as it is the best way to get down to the area where Sigona’s, Costco, and our soon-to-be-open Outdoor Supply Hardware store are located. The sidewalks along this street have, for many years now, been pretty shabby, and I can’t wait to be able to make use of the new ones.

Whether or not it was just “lucky” timing, or whether someone truly realized that with so many of us sheltering in place they could take advantage of the light traffic and tear up streets all over town, this past week was something of an “Infrastructure Week” in Redwood City. If you’ve been taking the shelter orders seriously you just might have missed all of this recent activity, but know that when we are once again free to resume some semblance of our normal lives, Redwood City’s streets will be just a bit better than they were.

Brian Jaffe, the VOCA guy, recently launched a new service called Covid Assist that uses text messaging to match volunteers with residents needing non-medical assistance. Volunteers perform simple chores such as picking up groceries, medicines, and supplies for neighbors who cannot leave their homes. Although the majority of Covid Assist’s volunteers currently reside in the San Francisco Bay Area, the platform accepts signups from anywhere in the United States. If you are willing to volunteer to help a neighbor in need, or if you are a person who needs non-medical help from one of your neighbors, do check out their website at https://www.covidassist.org. And spread the word! We’re all in this together, and its times like these that we need to step up and show what kind of people we truly are.

3 thoughts on “Taking Advantage

  1. All this “sudden” infrastructure work has got to be someone’s good idea at the city – and I agree good idea! Looking forward to seeing the finished product on that section of Middlefield. The county is planning something kind of similar for Middlefield through North Fair Oaks as well right? Thanks for still keeping us all informed.

  2. Hi,
    I just wanted to say thanks for your terrific weekly column here. I was lucky enough to be spending the academic year in Redwood City starting last Fall and your writing really helped me get a sense of the city. I felt like I learned a lot about the past and present (and future) from your weekly post. Regretfully I left to return to my permanent home across the country a couple weeks ago because of everything being shut down. But thanks for helping to make Redwood City a more interesting place – your knowledge base is truly impressive and should be considered a city treasure and resource for all. Thanks and stay safe.

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