Why are the streets around Fresno CA’s Woodward Park so dangerous?
Woodward Park, along with its trails and properties connected to the San Joaquin River Parkway, is Fresno’s safe haven for cyclists, walkers and runners.
Provided they can get there without being hit by a fast moving car or truck when crossing Friant Road or Audubon Drive, streets bordering streets that either lack basic cycling and pedestrian infrastructure or offer the bare minimum .
I believe inadequate crosswalk security near Woodward Park contributed to the death of Paul Moore, a Fresno cyclist who was killed Jan. 12 while crossing the dangerous Friant and Audubon intersection on a recumbent bike. The same was true in June 2021 when 10-year-old Angel Hernandez died while he and members of his family were walking through Friant at Fort Washington Road. Further north, the intersection of Friant and Copper River Road has been the scene of at least three fatal collisions, including one in February 2019 that claimed the life of Ram Bhatia as the septuagenarian was taking his evening walk.
How many more people have to die trying to get to Woodward Park and the Lewis S. Eaton Trail before city leaders lift a finger?
“Everything in Fresno is designed for cars and more cars. It’s always about cars,” said Sheila Hakimipour, urban designer and co-founder of the Safe Access to Woodward Park Coalition. “Even Woodward Park, Fresno’s only true regional park, is surrounded by treacherous high-speed streets.”
Formed early last year and galvanized by Hernandez’s death, the Safe Access to Woodward Park Coalition includes neighborhood representatives, bicycle and pedestrian advisory committee members, community advocacy groups, running clubs and high school cross country teams. Last September, coalition members met with city council members Mike Karbassi and Garry Bredefeld and traffic engineers from the town of Friant and Audubon to show them the gaps in the intersection, and they were told basically said nothing could be done until a traffic scan was done.
Sorry, but that’s not enough.
The dangers to pedestrians and cyclists around Woodward Park can be attributed to short-sighted planning and shifting paradigms. When the park was developed in the late 1960s, it was thought that most visitors (except those lucky enough to live nearby) would drive there. To some extent, that’s still true. But now there is an equal demand for places to walk, run and cycle without having to mingle with car traffic. Thus, increased emphasis on separate trails that are away from the road.
Unfortunately, Fresno’s bike path system has one major flaw: the two longest and most used, the Eaton Trail and the Sugar Pine Trail, don’t connect. When the Sugar Pine Trail veers southwest from Shepherd Avenue (through the underpass built following another tragic death involving a child) to follow the old rail line, a half-mile deviation is created. West of the underpass, Shepherd has only narrow sidewalks and bike lanes that disappear at intersections.
Those continuing on the Sugar Pine Trail soon reach Audubon Drive at Cole Avenue. To access Woodward Park, users must turn north on Audubon and cross Friant Road where the experienced cyclist recently lost his life.
‘Exitouring’ of sorrow, of indignation
“Paul’s death has caused a real outpouring of grief and outrage,” said Tony Molina, a retired physician and co-founder of the Safe Access to Woodward Park Coalition. “So many people knew him and he had so much experience, everyone is asking the same question: if this could happen to Paul, how lucky are we all?”
The intersection of Friant and Fort Washington a mile north is equally dangerous as drivers have more pavement to exceed the posted speed limit of 50 mph – which many do. The main draw is the River View mall (and especially Starbucks) on the northeast corner as well as a safe haven from Woodward Park’s $5 per vehicle entrance fee.
Would fewer pedestrians use this crosswalk if the city removed the fee? (And shouldn’t it be, now that the P measure is operational?) Or is the lure of caramel macchiatos too strong?
Even Audubon Drive, the supposedly safe route to Woodward Park, can be a pain. Although Audubon has bike lanes, cyclists cannot enter the park without using the left-turn lane intended for cars. There isn’t even a crosswalk at the entrance, requiring pedestrians to cross a busy road or walk to the Friant Road intersection. And once you pass the entrance to Fresno Heart Hospital, even the sidewalk disappears.
While Mayor Jerry Dyer has pledged to install a traffic light at Audubon and Del Mar Avenue, a planned roundabout at the Audubon entrance to Woodward Park is caught in a development agreement between the city and Zinkin Family Development , the owner/developer of Park Crossing mall.
From what I understand, the developer must pay for the roundabout once the 250,000 square feet of office space for the project is under construction. Improvements to the Friant and Audubon intersection were also discussed. There has been no progress, however, even as anchor stores and trendy restaurants in the center have led to increased traffic on what was already a busy thoroughfare.
Fresno’s “wealthy” side?
What can be done? Building an overpass or underpass, or more than one, is an obvious solution. Of course, these cost millions of dollars each. However, there are less expensive options that would help alleviate the conditions. Crosswalks near Woodward Park could be painted green, striped and given flashing signals for better visibility. Speed limits may be reduced. Wider mid-islands and border extensions can be added. Some cities are even installing “bike boxes” on certain roads – painted areas that give cyclists a safe and visible way to get ahead of waiting traffic at red lights.
“For the cars to get the message that this is a different space, a space that’s not totally mine, and I have to be careful,” Hakimipour said.
Members of the Safe Access to Woodward Park Coalition tell me that they have received a positive reception from the public, but rather cold from policy makers. Part of the problem, according to Hakimipour, is that Woodward Park is located on the “wealthy” side of Fresno. There are many neighborhoods with even greater needs that have been neglected for longer.
While this may be true in a general sense, Fresno has only one regional park that attracts visitors from across the city as well as neighboring towns. That’s why the coalition is working with the Fresno State Transportation Institute on a survey of Woodward Park users.
“When we’re all done, we’ll have a document showing that users (Woodward Park) come from everywhere,” Hakimipour said. “Then we will go to the (municipal) council, show them the results and get their buy-in.”
Fresno can no longer ignore the treacherous situation she helped create. The city’s relentless northward march has transformed Friant Road into an urban freeway. Housing developments near Millerton Lake and the Table Mountain Casino have added even more traffic, and now Fresno County supervisors — bless their sprawl-addicted hearts — want 9,000 more people to live in Friant.
This means there will be even more cars and trucks around Woodward Park for cyclists and pedestrians in the future. How many more people have to die (or have a heartbreaking experience) near the Fresno Refuge until something changes?
This story was originally published January 21, 2022 5:00 a.m.