In May, Berkeley’s Transportation Commission voted to expedite installation of a Rapid-Rectangular Flashing Beacon (RRFB) at the intersection of Dwight Way and California Avenue. The dangerous intersection, located four blocks from Longfellow Middle School along one of Berkeley’s bicycle boulevards, has seen two middle school students hospitalized this year while biking across Dwight Way. The Commission’s vote occurred without public input or an engineering study. While swift action is clearly needed, advocates including Charles Siegel and Bike East Bay criticized the move, arguing that RRFBs are an unproven experimental tool for bicycle crossings and provide no legal priority for bicyclists. All-way stops, they argue, would provide a safer treatment to ensure that cars actually stop.

While we share concerns over the use of RRFBs for kids biking to school, the purpose of this post is not to support one solution over another. The intersection of Dwight and California is a bit unusual given the slip lane, crosswalk placement, bus stops, and sight distance constraints – factors which merit an expedited yet thorough engineering study to determine the feasibility of an all-way stop. Rather, this post questions the opaque bureaucratic process by the City’s traffic engineers in dismissing resident requests for all-way stops at bicycle boulevards.

Aerial image of Dwight & California intersection (Source: Google Maps)

Berkeley’s website includes a webpage advocating against the use of stop signs. (Source: City of Berkeley)

Berkeley’s traffic engineers don’t seem to be fans of stop signs. The City has an unusual anti-stop sign webpage that details numerous arguments against their installation. While there is a consensus amongst transportation professionals that stop signs are not an effective measure of traffic calming, stop signs provide value in assigning right-of-way at an intersection – particularly at a bicycle boulevard or near a school. Yet Siegel describes how the City’s new Bicycle Plan originally omitted any mention of all way stop signs. Instead, the plan called for Pedestrian Hybrid Beacons (PHBs) and RRFBs, a type of traffic signal and advisory beacon, respectively, which are activated only when requested by a person walking or biking. Both provide advantages to drivers by otherwise maintaining traffic flow. However, while applications for pedestrian crossings have generally been successful, there are very few proven applications of either treatment for bicyclists. After extensive public comment, the City amended the plan to consider all-way stops; nevertheless, it’s unclear how closely they’ve followed through on this commitment.

Whether the City decides to install an all-way stop over a PHB or RRFB depends on the judgement of its traffic engineers, which is where the process gets muddy. The City’s anti-stop sign webpage describes an extensive compliance process necessary to justify the installation of a stop sign dictated by the Federal Highway Administration’s (FHWA) and State of California’s Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD).

“The City of Berkeley is required by state law to comply with the guidelines of the [FHWA- and CA-MUTCD]. These policies identify specific traffic and pedestrian volumes, accident history, and unusual conditions that would indicate the need for installation of stop signs.”

The City implies that stop signs have very specific applications based on strict MUTCD guidelines, and they have very little discretion in their installation. But this explanation misrepresents the MUTCD’s own definitions of standards and guidance. The federal MUTCD website clarifies this distinction: a standard is a required practice, whereas guidance is advisory depending on engineering judgement:

“The word “shall” in a Standard statement has been identified as denoting a “required, mandatory, or specifically prohibitive practice” whereas the word “should” in a Guidance statement has been identified as denoting a “recommended, but not mandatory, practice in typical situations, with deviations allowed if engineering judgment or engineering study indicates the deviation to be appropriate.”

This distinction is really important, because the MUTCD does not include any standards on specific applications of all-way stop control; it provides guidance only. While this guidance is relevant, it is fully within the power of the City’s traffic engineers to use their own best judgement in the application of this guidance when conducting an engineering study – they are not “required” to comply with any thresholds of traffic volumes, collisions, or unusual conditions as the City’s website would lead residents to believe. This flexibility is in part why we see so many stop signs previously installed throughout Berkeley that do not meet all criteria. Instead, the City seems to be using the MUTCD as an excuse to avoid installing all-way stops on streets like Dwight Way.

Let’s review key guidance for Multi-Way Stop Control from Section 2B.07 of the CA-MUTCD in relation to the intersection of Dwight and California:

Clearly, the intersection of California Avenue and Dwight Way merits consideration for an all-way stop based on its general consistency with MUTCD guidance and unique context. Many other crossings of bicycle boulevards at major two-lane streets should merit consideration for all-way stops as well. Whether or not an all-way stop is appropriate depends on a range of design and operations considerations, but the City needs to seriously consider all-way stops as a potential solution. There is no place for misrepresentations, excuses, or opaque processes in making decisions over safety of kids biking to school.