Making a right turn is getting more difficult at many intersections across the Bay Area, a change likely to rankle many motorists but one that pedestrians should welcome.

Agencies are even removing a popular California tradition -- the free right turn -- at some intersections where drivers could previously turn right on red without stopping. And they are extending many curb corners into the street, in tear-shaped configurations called "bulb-outs," to make it safer for pedestrians to cross, though in places they have to remove or shorten a lane of traffic to do so.

It's the latest in a growing trend to slow down drivers and boost safety on heavily traveled roads where cars compete for space with pedestrians.

"This is definitely a good idea as the Bay Area becomes more urban," said Jim Pierson, the head of the transportation department in Fremont, where free right turns have been or will be removed at a half-dozen locations. "We simply can't have cars making high-speed right turns in areas that have a lot of pedestrians or bicycles."

Added Dan Collen, deputy director of the Santa Clara County roads division: "The free running right is just not an appropriate design for urban surface streets."

A free right turn is one located at an intersection that usually has a designated right turn lane and a concrete curb or painted triangle island to its left. Unless there is a stop sign or red light to the right of the turn lane, drivers need only yield to oncoming traffic and do not need to stop if it's clear.


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At the three-way corner of The Alameda and Race Street in San Jose, the right-hand turn lane has been eliminated in favor of a bulb-out, and some people aren't happy.

"This forces traffic to move left into the flowing lane and will cause horrendous traffic delays for drivers traveling south on The Alameda," said Sheldon Onstead, of San Jose. "Who planned this and how stupid can they be?"

Added motorist Bill Gross: "I understand bulb-outs and like them, but the one at The Alameda and Race is wrong."

Campbell traffic engineer Matthew Jue said the logic for bulb-outs is pedestrian safety. "Pedestrians can walk across a narrower street and be less exposed to traffic for a shorter distance and amount of time," he said.

Until last year, pedestrian and bicycling deaths have been on the rise in California, and transportation officials across the state are taking aim at locations where cars whip around corners at unsafe speeds.

Bicycle fatalities in California increased 15.2 percent, from 99 in 2010 to 114 in 2011, while pedestrian deaths increased 4 percent, from 601 to 625, over the same period.

Pedestrians accounted for roughly 23 percent of the 2,835 people killed in collisions statewide. An additional 12,691 pedestrians were injured in collisions, plus 13,606 bicyclists.

In addition to The Alameda in San Jose, major changes have been made on Almaden Expressway near Highway 85. Free right turns are being removed from the four corners of Union Square in downtown San Francisco. Oakland has installed several bulb-outs and removed the free right turn on southbound Park Boulevard at East 18th Street.

And in Berkeley, the free right turn from northbound Oxford to eastbound Hearst was narrowed so much that now only bicycles can use it.

Dee White of Danville is "always fearful when out walking and I see a driver wanting to turn right," she said. "The driver is looking left for other cars and often doesn't look right to see me standing on the corner."

Some changes began years ago, but the push toward "road diets," as transportation planners call them, took off in 2008, when the state endorsed the concept of "complete streets" for urban neighborhoods in which the entire streetscape, from sidewalk to sidewalk, is geared for safe access by nondrivers.

Pat Pierce was upset at first that the free right turn at San Tomas Expressway and Cabrillo Road in Santa Clara was being altered. Now she's adopting a wait-and-see attitude.

"I was really bummed out," she said. "But I guess pedestrians will be happy if it saves lives. And so will I."

Contact Gary Richards at 408-920-5335.

Bay Area road changes
  • Berkeley: Removed a free right turn for vehicles traveling from northbound Oxford to eastbound Hearst and has built many curb bulb-outs, in addition to widening sidewalks, on Solano Avenue. City may remove free right turns at Oxford and Bancroft and Sacramento and Rose streets, and changes may be coming at Telegraph and Dwight.
  • Campbell: Added numerous bulb-outs along Winchester Boulevard and through downtown.
  • Fremont: Removed or will remove free right turns at Fremont/Nicolet, Fremont/Eggers, Fremont/Alder, Fremont/Walnut and Blacow/Grimmer roads.
  • Oakland: Has installed several bulb-outs and removed the free right turn on southbound Park Boulevard at East 18th Street.
  • Palo Alto: Removed a free right turn at El Camino and Stanford Avenue and may do so at El Camino and Arastradero Road and at Embarcadero Road.
  • Redwood City: Free right turns at Veterans Boulevard and at El Camino Real and Whipple Avenue have been eliminated, and those at Middlefield and Woodside roads may be next.
  • San Francisco: Free right turns being removed from the four corners of Union Square in downtown San Francisco.
  • San Jose: Free right turns removed on Almaden Expressway near Highway 85 and on The Alameda.
    Source: Mercury News reporting