One of the most common complaints made by Sebastopol residents is traffic. What I find ironic is that the people that complain about traffic typically complain because they are in cars that are creating traffic. I walk and bike around town as much as possible and am not impacted by traffic, so it’s not my issue. But it is an issue for many people, so I’d like to discuss it here. It’s as if we expect to be able to drive through town whenever we want without encountering another car. There are times when there is some congestion downtown, but the times are limited, and fairly predictable – AM and PM commute times, not a big surprise. Also, because of the two state highways with limited traffic controls that cross town, it is occasionally difficult to make turns from side streets. However, compared to other places I’ve lived, traffic moves rather quickly. And, for at least 20 hours a day there is no traffic to speak of anywhere in town.
Much of the traffic in Sebastopol is pass-through. There are approximately 50,000 people living in the ‘rural’ areas to the south, west and north of Sebastopol. Many of these residents use the two state highways which pass through town to get around. The local road network does not allow for many alternatives. And the street network in town does not allow for many alternatives once you’re in town. A bi-pass has been discussed for years, but it would be extremely expensive and unpractical and will likely never come to pass. As long as people continue to live in these areas, I don’t see traffic getting a whole lot better. The supposed ‘freedom’ provided by the car allows us to live in these semi-rural settings. This is a result of our car-dominated lifestyles. If it is your choice to live in a location that requires you to get in a car whenever you leave home then you are going to have to expect to encounter traffic at times.
Another traffic generator is driving our children to and from school, and after school activities. Afternoon traffic here tends to start just before 3 PM, not the typical 5 PM rush hour start. This is right around when local schools gets out. And traffic is noticeably reduced during school breaks. This is a partly a result of inter-district school transfers which happen a lot around here. Children are also walking and biking to school far less often then they used to. According to the National Center for Safe Routes to School, 89% of children who lived within a mile of school walked or biked daily in 1972. Today the number is 35%.
Sebatopol sits at the intersection of two state highways. Highway 12 is a 2-lane rural highway which enters Sebastopol from the east and while the state highway designation actually terminates in Sebastopol, the road continues as Bodega Avenue to the west, taking you to the coast. Highway 12 serves as the main connection to Santa Rosa, the primary employment center in Sonoma County so there is a lot of commute hour traffic generated on this route through Sebastopol between West County and Santa Rosa. It also connects to highway 101 in Santa Rosa.
Highway 116, also 2 lanes as it enters town, travels north-south through Sebastopol and serves as the primary connection to highway 101 when heading south towards San Francisco. 116 splits about 1/2 mile south of downtown into two one-way, 2-lane roads. The north and southbound lanes connect again in downtown and the road becomes 2 travel lanes with a center turn lane for most of the rest of the town to the north.
The street network in Sebastopol is also poor. There are very few through streets. Many streets dead-end or terminate in T-intersections, and many streets are misaligned, just enough to be annoying. This makes it so that there are few alternatives to the state highways for getting through, or even just around town.
Unfortunately traffic has become a rallying cry for those opposed to development. Most proposed projects of any size will be subject to the argument that ‘it will make traffic worse’. Plus, the Sebastopol General Plan requires minimum Level of Service (LOS) standards for downtown intersections which gives legal teeth to any opposition to development. As pointed out in this blog post by Gary Toth, LOS standards were developed for highways, and have been misapplied to urban environments of large and small towns alike. They were designed to reduce congestion on freeways. If we want to create a more pedestrian-friendly urban environment we must eliminate the LOS standards at our intersections and trade giving cars priority to giving people priority and accept that if you are driving you may have to wait a little bit longer at peak traffic hours.
It also is absurd that we design our street systems for the peak hour, ignoring the fact that most of the day traffic flows quite easily. It’s similar to the way we design our retail parking lots for the number of cars expected on black Friday, while allowing them to be mostly empty the other 364 days a year. LOS are also usually estimated using projected traffic volumes, 20 to 30 years into the future. So when you propose a development in downtown Sebastopol, you have to project traffic volumes for your project and the surrounding area 20 years into the future. If the resulting calculation drops the LOS below D at a downtown intersection you have to mitigate that impact (change signal timing, limit turns, add signals or stops, widen roads, etc.), or you don’t have a project. This completely restricts any sizable development from happening in downtown Sebastopol and was one of the issues that killed the Northeast Area Plan (see previous post, Need for a Vision)
The solution to the traffic problem is better public transportation, better facilities for pedestrians and cyclists and more people living within walking distance of downtown. The density of the residential neighborhoods within walking distance of downtown is not very high (based on 2010 census data, I calculate approx. 2,380 people within 1/2 mile of downtown – which is about 3,000 people per sq. mile). Yet downtown Sebastopol generates a walk score of 100! This is a ‘Walkers’ Paradise!’ More people living downtown will improve traffic because those people can walk to local services, and public transportation rather than drive. It will also improve the economic viability of downtown businesses. We should also accept the fact that there will be congestion downtown at certain times. Plan your trips accordingly.