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I live in a small town. The population is around 7,400. The total area is about 1.8 square miles. There are some hills but it’s generally easy to walk and bike pretty much everywhere in town. Even though we have 2 state highways passing through town and therefore have our share of traffic, no street is wider than 3 lanes and there are many quiet residential streets to walk on, avoiding the busier roads altogether. I’ve committed myself to walk/bike to in-town destinations whenever possible, unless I will need to be transporting something more that I can fit in my backpack. I know this is not standard practice, and why is that? I’ve been trying to wrap me head around it and cannot figure out why we are so attached to our cars. It’s definitely a cultural thing. Most of us are raised in environments where the car is the primary means of transportation. And the environment does not encourage us to get out of our cars. So even when we end up living in a community like the one I live in, we are used to just getting into our car to go by that tube of toothpaste rather than walk the 15 minutes to the drug store.

We need to change the paradigm of immediately getting in the car whenever we need to get somewhere and we need to start with our children. My daughter’s school participates in Walk and Roll to School Day every Wednesday. I stand in the courtyard of her school and count the number of kids walking, biking and carpooling to school (we decided to include carpoolers because as a charter school there are a fair number of kids who live outside of town and could not realistically be expected to walk and this was a way to encourage them to reduce their carbon footprint).walk and roll tallyingOn the first Wednesday of the month the class that has the most walkers and bikers wins the ‘Golden Sneaker’ award and the class with the most carpoolers wins the ‘Silver Hubcap’ award. They also get a pencil, which is a surprisingly popular ‘award.’ Participation varies but is generally decent. It tends to be higher on the first Wednesday of the month when the award is tallied and pencils handed out (and families receive a phone call reminder the day before). So far this year we’ve had a high of 88% participation. This was on October 8, International Walk and Roll to School Day 2015. November was a close second with 78% participation ( percentages are based on the total number of kids living in town which is 72 attending the grade 3-8 campus). The winter months have been a bit lower which I guess is to be expected, but this is Northern California after all. It’s not like we have blizzards to contend with. As you may have heard we’re in the midst of a drought and haven not had many rainy Wednesdays (although the lowest was 21% which happened during a day of pretty steady rain). So weather really shouldn’t be an issue, although we have some ‘chilly’ mornings now and then.

I know we can do better though. I know there are kids that live within a 15 minute walk to school that rarely, if ever, walk. One kid in my daughter’s class (eighth grade) lives about 1,000 feet from the school and he is almost always driven. I can’t even fathom this. It’s so great for kids to get some exercise before school. Studies show that kids are more alert when they get some exercise before school. Walking is a way to decrease stress and increase creativity. Walking to school gives them an opportunity to be independent, think responsibly and make decisions for themselves.

The most encouraging aspect of being the parent counting the walkers and rollers has been to see the enthusiasm of the third graders, which is the youngest kids on campus. There have been days when the number of walkers/rollers is more than the number of third graders that live in town which means there are families that park away from the school and walk the remaining distance to campus (they are asked to walk a minimum of 10 minutes to be counted). I also hear participation at the K-2 campus is good so I’m hoping that as these kids age the total number of participants rises. The K-2 campus has 2 regular ‘walking school buses‘ which is when a group of children meet at a specific location and are walked to school with at least one accompanying adult.

I am concerned, as I have written about on several occasions (here, here, here and here) that the school is planning on moving from it’s 2 in-town locations, to a location on the edge of town which is far less walk and bike friendly. I’m still hoping it doesn’t happen, but if it does, I hope that the kids that currently walk and bike will have it ingrained enough to continue to do so.

My daughter has been walking to school since kindergarten and I think it’s been so good for her. From kindergarten through second grade it was about a mile walk. She didn’t always walk both ways (which would end up being about 4 miles of walking for my wife), but at least one way every day, sun or rain. In third grade she started attending the ‘upper’ campus location, which is about 3 blocks from our house so her time spent walking decreased significantly. But the day she was aloud to walk by herself, near the end of third grade was great. You could just see how proud she was of her new found independence. I believe it’s made her much more confident and not only in knowing that she can make her way around town on her own, but in other aspects of her life as well.

We need to break the cycle of immediately getting into a car for every trip. There are so many benefits to be gained from walking and/or biking. In his book ‘Why I Walk,’ Kevin Klinkenberg discusses the benefits of walking, breaking them down into four categories; financial, freedom, health and social. I am fortunate enough to be able to walk to my office (it was in my house until about a month ago, but is now about 3 blocks away) and to most of my daily destinations. Because of the way we’ve been building our cities for the past 70 or so years, many of us are not this lucky. But if we look for them, there are opportunities to walk more than we do. I’d encourage you to look for the opportunities to start if you are not walking already. And start your kids walking more. Once it become normal for them, they will likely continue to be walkers into adulthood.

Surrey Parking Standards

I like the way this blog post illustrates what would happen if our traditional downtowns were required to provide parking at today’s zoning code parking ratios. You can understand why we have so much strip commercial development. This is something I struggle with when considering infill development opportunities in Sebastopol. Any new development will essentially be required to provide the parking required by our current zoning code on it’s site. This will not create a good walkable environment. We need to get a handle on downtown parking.

Surrey Parking Standards.

I will be attending the New Partners for Smart Growth Conference in Baltimore later this week. If any of you out there reading this blog are planning on attending and interested in meeting, send me an email (go to my about page and fill out the email form) and maybe we can meet up in Baltimore.

Today’s post is inspired by an item on last night’s Sebastopol City Council agenda. The item was on the ‘Consent Calendar’ which is reserved for items that are expected to be non-controversial and approved as a matter of course. The name of the item is ‘Approval of Pedestrian, Bicycle and Traffic Improvements.’ Who can argue with pedestrian, bicycle and traffic improvements? Sounds good. Of the 5 requests in the item there are 2 that I have concerns with.

The first concern I have is a request by a business located on Main Street, outside of the ‘core’ downtown zone, to establish a 24 minute parallel parking space directly in front of their shop. The request state that ‘The owner of the business reports that vehicles often park in that space for long periods of time, thereby limiting easy parking for potential customers.’ The business is a mailing/packing center and while I can appreciate that they may have customers carrying packages to be mailed there is generally always parking in the vicinity of the business even if the space directly in front of the business is occupied. I live and work within 2 blocks of the business in question and walk the block frequently. There are 13 parking spaces in this block (both sides of the street) and the density of businesses is low, certainly not as dense as the central blocks of Main street. This photos shows a typical condition. If your business needs ‘easy parking’ you should probably locate your business in a strip shopping center which tend to have way more parking then they ever use (see black friday parking),

South Main Street. The business in question is in the beige building to the right of the photo.

South Main Street. The business in question is in the beige building to the right of the photo. Doesn’t seem to be a lack of parking in the vicinity. There is also a free public lot that ALWAYS has space available behind the green-gray building to the left of center of the photo.

Parallel parking on a public street is public. Approving the request sets up a precedent for all businesses to attempt to ‘reserve’ the space in front of their business for ‘their’ customers. There seems to be a strange assumption by businesses fronting streets that the parking in front of their business is for their customers only. This also extends to residential neighborhoods as well. People often expect to always have the parking in front of their home available for their car, or for someone visiting their house. There is no legal precedent for this. The streets are public, and anyone may park there as long as they are complying with any posted restrictions. It would be silly for the City Council to approve this request, but in fact, they did. Apparently it was pulled from the consent calendar and there was some discussion. But in the end it was approved unanimously.

The second issue is that the City Council was asked to set aside a parking space in the public parking lot closest to city hall for city hall employees. This is arguably the most popular parking lot in town. It is directly behind the primary commercial block of Main Street and adjacent to the library. The lot is small, 43 spaces. While only 1 parking space was requested to be reserved, I don’t think this is wise. Again, it’s a public parking lot and should be reserved for the public.

CITY HALL PARKING-EXHIBIT

Aerial view of the parking lots near city hall. The red line indicates the 650′ walk from the South High Street lot to city hall.

Several years ago the city removed time restrictions at two underutilized public lots to encourage downtown employees to park at the edge of downtown rather than occupy street parking spaces or spaces in one of the more popular, centrally located downtown lots. The idea being that the popular lots should be available to patrons of downtown businesses. Employees can be asked to walk a little farther. City Hall employees should be setting an example by using the South High Street lot to park in. It’s about 1 1/2 blocks from City Hall (650′ as measured on Google Earth).

Public parking should remain available to the public. We should not be reserving downtown public parking for specific businesses. If private businesses are going to ‘claim’ public parking spaces for their customers or employees, they should be financially responsible for the maintenance of and enforcement of the time limits for those parking spaces.

One of the suggestions of the SDAT Team’s visit to Sebastopol was to actively market development opportunity sites in town in order to attract the kind of development we want, rather than being left fighting development we don’t want. An example of the latter can be seen in the multi-year fight over the development of a 2+ acre parcel in the center of downtown Sebastopol for a CVS and Chase bank. This proposed project resulted in a couple lawsuits which were recently settled (or read about it in a local newspaper article). The city council recently approved the legal settlement and final design review for the project so it will unfortunately be moving forward, although with some concessions, the most significant being the elimination of the drive-through pharmacy and ATM (Chase has since pulled out of the project. No new tenant for the bank building has been announced.)

The city council convened a sub-committee to determine the community’s vision for a highly visible underutilized property downtown and put up a small amount of money ($5,000) to make it happen. The property is known as the ‘Diamond Lumber’ property, although it is currently used as a tractor store. The 2.5 acre parcel is directly across the street from the downtown plaza and completely destroys any pedestrian-friendly experience. It is also an important link between the historic Main Street district of downtown and the new Barlow development to the east of the property. (While I think there is a place for tractor stores, I don’t think that place is the center of town. It doesn’t do anything to support the pedestrian experience downtown.)

This is the property to be discussed in a public workshop. It is directly across the street from the town plaza. It used to be a lumber yard and is not a tractor sales store. Not the highest and best use of a property in the center of downtown.

This is the property in question. It is directly across the street from the town plaza. It used to be a lumber yard and is now a tractor sales store. Not the highest and best use of a property in the center of downtown.

The sub-committee conducted a public workshop last June to solicit input for the future of the property. The well attended event started with an introductory talk about what creates a successful building on a public square. Attendants were then encouraged to provide ideas to several tables setup around the room focusing on different topics; urban design, use and connectivity. The public feedback was then distilled into a wish list by the committee and translated into a brochure to provide to prospective developers. The idea being that if they can respond to the desires of the community as articulated, their project would likely have an easier time being approved. Unlike the process the developer of the CVS site had to go through, which was rather painful for all involved.

The lumber yard site is a critical link between the existing Main Street district and The Barlow.

The lumber yard site is a critical link between the existing Main Street district and The Barlow.

The property owner has had the property on the market and has been a willing participant in the project. Some have questioned the appropriateness of the city spending money on the marketing of a privately held property. I believe it is absolutely appropriate and necessary if we want to be proactive about development in our cities. Too often, in fact almost always, our city leadership and staff have been completely reactive to development proposals which tend to serve no one’s best interest.

This proactive marketing approach also reduces the risk to developers inherent in the entitlement process. If the community has publicly stated what is desired and if the developer can match their project to those desires it should be a much easier entitlement process which benefits everyone. Sebastopol has a reputation for being a difficult place to develop and developers tend not to want to take the risk. But there is much opportunity to create a really strong mixed-use core, but the remaining properties need to be developed appropriately to make that happen. The CVS project is not going to contribute in any positive way and we do not have much land available to allow those types of projects to come to fruition.

The brochure was recently completed and both the city and owner can now share with prospective developers. The site is absolutely critical to the future success of downtown Sebastopol, but this approach could be applied to a several other important properties in our community. I hope it becomes a successful example of a jurisdiction taking a proactive approach to future development.

Smart School Siting – 4

Today’s post will be an update on the Sebastopol Charter School’s pursuit of a new 20 acre campus located on the periphery of Sebastopol. If you’re interested in reading previous posts on this topic please see the following links; Smart School Siting -1,  Smart School Siting – 2 and Smart School Siting – 3.

The school has filed a Use Permit application with Sonoma County. The current zoning of the 2 parcels that make up the 20 acre site is Rural Residential with a density that would allow up to 10 single-family homes to be built. A public school is an allowed use with the approval of a use permit. As part of the use permit process the county planning department sends out a letter of referral to other interested agencies or departments in the county for comments on the application. As the proposed site is adjacent to the Sebastopol city limits and in the city’s sphere of influence the city received a referral letter.

At their meeting this week, the city council discussed their response to the referral request. I was pleased that the council members were unanimous in their opposition to the project. While all council members stated their support and appreciation for the school and what it brings to our community, they all felt that the proposed site was not an appropriate one for a school and the relocation of the school to this property would generally have a negative impact on the larger community. I was impressed with the level of the discussion and how the council members really seem to understand the planning issues involved with the proposed relocation.The discussion focused on planning issues related to sprawl and the fact that the proposed site is, without a doubt, a drive to location.The site limits the ability of children to walk and bike to school and will increase traffic impacts throughout town.

Again, circles represent a half-mile radius centered on school campuses. The red circle is centered on the location of the proposed Sebastopol Charter School campus. Note how few homes are located within a half mile of the site.

Circles represent a half-mile radius centered on school campuses. The red circle is centered on the location of the proposed Sebastopol Charter School campus. Note how few homes are located within a half mile of the site. The blue circles are the current Charter School locations, yellow are Sebastopol Union School District campuses and purple is another elementary school site. The dashed line indicates the city’s Urban Growth Boundary.

As I have pointed out previously, even though the site is on a multi-use trail, it is simply too far from the residential neighborhoods for most students to walk or bike. Plus the fact that the trail runs through a predominately rural landscape with no eyes to supervise activity. I am a huge proponent of kids learning to get themselves around on their own (ask my daughter) and even I would not let my daughter walk alone on the trail. Even for the neighborhoods that are closest to the site, the only real route to the school would be along a state highway with strip development on both sides. It’s a completely car-oriented, pedestrian hostile environment 

The council discussed possible mitigation measure which included sidewalks, crosswalks and other traffic control measures, all of which are likely cost-prohibitive for the school to take on, and in the end I don’t know if they would really improve the walkability/bikability of the location.

The current city council clearly understands that we need to be creating more opportunities for our community to get around town without the need of a car. This serves not only those in the community that cannot drive, like our children, but all of us that want to live in a more human-scaled environment. At the same meeting, the council approved an ordinance prohibiting any future drive-through uses. (The city has had an ordinance against fast food drive-throughs for some time. They instituted a temporary moratorium on drive-throughs a couple of years ago, I think in response to the effort of CVS to build a new store with a drive-through downtown. The CVS project abandoned both the pharmacy drive-through and a drive-through ATM.)

The council expressed concern that the proposed school would be outside the city’s urban growth boundary which was approved by voters nearly 20 years ago. The urban growth boundary was implemented to preserve surrounding rural open space, focus future development in already developed areas of town and prevent auto-oriented sprawl. The proposed school site is clearly auto-oriented sprawl and not in the best interest of the larger community.

image

Current Sebastopol Charter School location on Main Street. The school occupies the second floor and the ground floor on the side street. The Main Street frontage includes 3 locally-owned retail businesses.

The school, I’m sure, intendeds to be on this site for decades. Decades of parents forced to drive their children to school. And why? Because it was the original vision for the Charter School. Well, that vision is simply out of date. We know more now than we did when that vision was created. The vision needs to evolve to the reality of a world facing the catastrophic impacts of climate change. The school does not need this property to succeed. The school is a model of success in the charter school Waldorf movement. Classes are full and most have waiting lists. Parents are not choosing this school because it might someday be located on a 20 acre campus, with gardens and orchards. Parents are choosing this school because of the excellent education children receive. They are choosing it for the community of teachers and parents, and the values the school teaches. My daughter has been at this school for 9 years. She’ll graduate in the spring. She has received a top notch education that I will always be thankful for. And she has done it while attending the school in its current configuration.

This is an important land use decision that should not be rubber stamped. The city council will be sending a letter to the counting stating that they do not feel the proposed site is an appropriate location for a school. The ultimate decision will lie with the county planning commission. I hope they take the opinions of the Sebastopol City Council to heart and see that this is not an appropriate location for a new school in the 21st century. The proposed school location is what sprawl looks like. It’s an example of the way we’ve been building schools in the era of the automobile. It’s not a model of how we should be building schools.

For more information on the proposed school site see this link.

Traffic Calming

I am a member of the Sebastopol General Plan Advisory Committee. Circulation was the topic of our meeting last month. It was a robust conversation for 3.5 hours, and we still managed to omit large topics, like transit. But it gave me another opportunity to look at circulation issues in Sebastopol. And while there is plenty to talk about, I’d like to discuss traffic calming today.

Two state highways intersect in the middle of Sebastopol. Highway 12 actually starts in the center of downtown and travels east. Highway 116 travels north/south and is Main Street in the center of downtown. North of downtown 116 is known as Healdsburg Avenue and is the primary route to the north. South of downtown it is South Main Street and is one-way in the southbound direction. Posted speed limits are 25 mph on Main Street downtown and 30 mph on both Healdsburg Avenue and South Main Street about 4 blocks south of downtown. In my observation, and based on comments from many other committee members, traffic speeds are often exceeded along most of the length 116 and the result is that these streets do not feel like safe places to walk or bike. There are several reasons for this.

Sebastopol Aerial

Sebastopol Aerial

Both Healdsburg Avenue and South Main Street are very straight (actually Healdsburg Ave. has a couple slight bends as you can see in the photos, but given it’s width and the slope you can see along it’s entire length). People have a tendency to drive faster on straight streets because you can see far ahead. Streets with bends tend to slow drivers down as you can’t see what’s around the next corner and you need to be prepared for the unexpected. This is evident on the segment of 116 that serves as the one-way northbound approach to downtown. The street is Petaluma Avenue and it has several bends and changes in elevation. Traffic definitely drives slower on this street than on Main Street which is just a block away and is one-way in the southbound direction.

In addition to being very straight, Healdsburg Avenue also slopes down most of it’s length heading towards downtown which encourages cars to speed up as they are heading into downtown.

Healdsburg Ave. is configured with a center turn lane, single travel lane in each direction and parallel parking on each side (parallel parking is omitted at some locations). The curb to curb width varies from 52′ to 54.5. Travel lane widths vary from 12′ (which I believe is the Caltrans minimum) to 20′ (yes, 20’!) at the east end where there is no parallel parking. Most of the driving lane width is in the 12′-14′ range.

Crosswalk on Healdsburg Ave. It would be nice if the white line was indicating a bike lane, but it's not. Not sure why it's there

Healdsburg Ave. at intersection with Main St., looking west

IMG_20141212_135647160_HDR

Crosswalk on Healdsburg Ave. It would be nice if the white line was indicating a bike lane, but it’s not. Not sure why it’s there

Healdsburg Ave., near the top looking east

Healdsburg Ave., near the top looking east

The configuration of S. Main starts as 3 lanes all in the southbound direction at Bodega Ave., but one lane is dropped after a block so the bulk is 2 lanes. Where 3 lanes, the lane configuration is 13′, 12.5′, 13′ with 8′ parking lanes for a total width of 54.5′. Where it goes to 2 lanes each lane is 17′ wide with 8′ parking lanes (curb to curb 50′).

Looking South on Main Street - How fast would you want to drive here?

Looking South on Main Street – How fast would you want to drive here? The speed limit is posted 25 mph here and changes to 30 mph a block south of this location. Driving lanes are 17′ wide.

The lane widths of both Healdsbug Ave. and S. Main allow for much faster driving than the posted speed limit. While I don’t have a radar gun it is obvious as a pedestrian walking these stretches that vehicles are traveling over the speed limit. It’s also obvious when driving. I’m very aware of the speed limit and the environment and have to be extremely alert when driving these streets so as not to speed. And it is also obvious to the police department who have several spots they like to park to catch speeders. The police department also uses those portable speed detectors that display your speed. (You know a street is designed for a speed far greater than it’s posted speed limit when they have to pull these out.)

Speed Detector - not being used today

Speed Detector – not being used today

Both street segments have been the recipient of ‘Street Smart Sebastopol’ crosswalks which typically include bulb-outs, pedestrian crossing signs, flashing lights and sometimes include in-roadway lights and colored crosswalks (although the green color of the crosswalks does not differ much in value from the regular asphalt). While I believe these have helped in making drivers more aware that they are in an environment shared with pedestrians, it’s really not enough to keep speeds low.

Street Smart Sebastopol crossing of Main Street and Calder

Street Smart Sebastopol crossing of Main Street and Calder

Main Street crosswalk at Willow

Main Street crosswalk at Willow

One idea for slowing traffic I believe deserves to be explored, would be to create a raised intersections between Healdsburg Avenue and Main Street and their respective side streets (See the National Association for City Transportation Officials guidelines for raised intersections here). The street would be ramped up at intersections ahead of the crosswalk, to the sidewalk level. The raised section is continued to the opposite side of the intersection. This allows pedestrians to cross without a curb ramp and encourages drivers to slow down as they travel over the raised intersection. Raised intersections are often constructed of pavers or stamped and/or colored concrete/asphalt to bring attention to themselves. This type of installation prioritizes the pedestrian over the car which is rare in our urban places. It may be a bit much to include at each intersection with Healdsburg Ave. or Main St., but even a couple on each length of street would limit a driver’s ability to speed up much in between raised intersections, keeping vehicle speeds lower and safer for everyone.

When the lanes are wide and streets are straight drivers are more likely to engage in other distracting behaviors (like texting) and take their minds off the activity at hand which is driving a car. By introducing an unexpected piece of infrastructure like a raised intersection you cause drivers to pay more attention to their environment, they can’t just go into autopilot mode on the wide straight street.

To be honest, I’ve never seen a raised intersection used on a busy main street like I’m proposing, but I think they would definitely serve to keep speeds in check. If would be great to see some examples. (If anyone has any please forward to paul@fritzarchitecture.com.)

It has been shown that pedestrian fatalities are much reduced when cars are traveling at 25 mph or less. The design of Healdsburg Ave. and Main St. allow for much higher travel speeds, and have been the sites of bad collisions between pedestrians and cars (there was 1 fatality at a crosswalk on Healdsburg Ave. earlier this year). We’ve been prioritizing cars in the design of our streets for a long time now. We need to recognize the importance of pedestrians and other non-motorized street users in street design and raised intersections is one way to do that while at the same time reducing traffic speeds and hopefully accidents between cars and people.

 

 

 

 

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