Woodward Park is Fresno’s safe haven. Why are its bordering streets so dangerous?

·6 min read

Woodward Park, along with its connecting San Joaquin River Parkway trails and properties, is Fresno’s safe haven for cyclists, walkers and runners.

Provided they can get there without getting struck by a fast-moving car or truck while crossing Friant Road or Audubon Drive, bordering streets that either lack basic cycling and pedestrian infrastructure or offer the bare minimum.

I believe inadequate crosswalk safety near Woodward Park was a contributing factor in the death of Paul Moore, a Fresno cyclist killed Jan. 12 while pedaling across the hazardous 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 family members crossed Friant at Fort Washington Road on foot. Further north, the intersection at Friant and Copper River Road has been the scene of at least three deadly collisions, including one in February 2019 that claimed the life of Ram Bhatia while the 70-year-old was out on his evening stroll.

How many more people have to die trying to get to and from 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, an urban designer and co-founder of the Safe Access to Woodward Park Coalition. “Even Woodward Park, the only true regional park in Fresno, is wrapped by very high-speed, dangerous streets.”

Opinion

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 Councilmembers Mike Karbassi and Garry Bredefeld and city traffic engineers at Friant and Audubon to show them the intersection’s deficiencies, and were essentially told nothing could be done until a traffic analysis was conducted.

Flowers sit at the corner of Friant Road and Audubon Drive in north Fresno on Jan. 19, 2022, in memory of cyclist and retired teacher Paul Moore who died there a week earlier while crossing the intersection in a recumbent bike.
Flowers sit at the corner of Friant Road and Audubon Drive in north Fresno on Jan. 19, 2022, in memory of cyclist and retired teacher Paul Moore who died there a week earlier while crossing the intersection in a recumbent bike.

Pedestrian and cycling hazards around Woodward Park can be attributed to shortsighted planning and shifting paradigms. When the park was developed in the late 1960s, the thought was most visitors (except those fortunate enough to live nearby) would drive there. To some extent that’s still true. But now, there’s an equal demand for places to walk, run and bike without having to mingle with car traffic. Thus the increased emphasis on separated trails that are set away from the road.

Unfortunately, Fresno’s system of bike trails has a major flaw: the two longest and most heavily 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 in the wake of another tragic fatality involving a child) to follow the old railroad line, a half-mile gap is created. West of the underpass, Shepherd only has narrow sidewalks and bike lanes that vanish at intersections.

Those who continue 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.

‘Outpouring’ of grief, outrage

“Paul’s death has resulted in a real outpouring of grief and outrage,” said Tony Molina, a retired physician and Safe Access to Woodward Park Coalition co-founder. “So many people knew him and he was so experienced, everyone is asking themselves the same question: If it could happen to Paul, what chance do the rest of us have?”

The intersection at Friant and Fort Washington one mile north is just as unsafe since drivers have more roadway to exceed the posted 50 mph speed limit — which many do. The main draw is the River View shopping center (and especially Starbucks) on the northeast corner as well as a refuge from Woodward Park’s $5 per vehicle entry fee.

Would fewer pedestrians use this crosswalk if the city scrapped the fee? (And shouldn’t it, now that Measure P is up and running?) Or is the allure of caramel macchiatos too strong?

Even Audubon Drive, the supposed safe route to Woodward Park, can be distressing. While Audubon does have bike lanes, cyclists can’t enter the park without using the left-hand turn lane meant for cars. There isn’t even a crosswalk at the entrance, forcing pedestrians to either scoot across a busy road or walk all the way to the Friant Road intersection. And once you get past the entrance to Fresno Heart Hospital, even the sidewalk vanishes.

While Mayor Jerry Dyer has committed to installing a traffic signal at Audubon and Del Mar Avenue, a planned roundabout at the Audubon entrance to Woodward Park is caught up in a development agreement between the city and Zinkin Family Development, the owner/developer of Park Crossing shopping center.

The way I understand things, the developer must pay for the roundabout once the project’s 250,000 square feet of office space are under construction. Improvements to the Friant and Audubon intersection have also been discussed. There’s been no progress, however, even though the center’s anchor stores and trendy restaurants have brought increased traffic on what was already a busy arterial.

‘Rich’ side of Fresno?

What can be done? Building an overpass or underpass, or more than one, is an obvious solution. Of course those cost millions of dollars each. However there are less expensive options that would help mitigate the conditions. Crosswalks near Woodward Park could be painted green, striped and given flashing signals for added visibility. Speed limits can be reduced. Wider median islands and curb 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 traffic waiting at red lights.

Tony Molina, a retired Fresno physician and cycling advocate who is chair of the Fresno County Cycling Coalition and a co-founder of the community advocacy group Safe Access to Woodward Park, stops by a small memorial for his friend Paul Moore at the corner of Friant Road and Audubon Drive on Wednesday, Jan. 19, 2022.
Tony Molina, a retired Fresno physician and cycling advocate who is chair of the Fresno County Cycling Coalition and a co-founder of the community advocacy group Safe Access to Woodward Park, stops by a small memorial for his friend Paul Moore at the corner of Friant Road and Audubon Drive on Wednesday, Jan. 19, 2022.

Safe Access to Woodward Park Coalition members tell me they’ve gotten a positive reception from the public but a relatively cool one from decision-makers. Part of the issue, according to Hakimipour, is that Woodward Park is located on the “rich” side of Fresno. There are many neighborhoods with even greater needs that have been neglected longer.

While that may be true in a general sense, Fresno only has one regional park that attracts visitors from throughout the city as well as neighboring towns. Which is why the coalition is working with the Fresno State Transportation Institute on a Woodward Park user survey.

“When we’re all done we’ll have a document showing (Woodward Park) users come from everywhere,” Hakimipour said. “Then we’re going to go to the (City) Council, show them the results and get their buy-in.”

Fresno can no longer ignore the treacherous situation it helped create. The city’s ceaseless northward march transformed Friant Road into an urban freeway. Housing developments near Millerton Lake and Table Mountain Casino added even more traffic, and now Fresno County supervisors — bless their sprawl-addicted hearts — want 9,000 additional people living in Friant.

Meaning there will be even more cars and trucks around Woodward Park for cyclists and pedestrians to contend with in the future. How many more people have to die (or have a harrowing experience) near Fresno’s safe haven until something changes?

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