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Archive for November, 2013

Main Street Sebastopol has great potential, but it is not a pedestrian friendly environment. The space allocated to pedestrians is definitely secondary to the space allocated to cars. This is partly due to the fact that Main Street is a state highway, but it doesn’t have to be this way. A few design interventions could turn Main Street from a space dominated by the automobile to one dominated by people.

main street aerial

Main Street Sebastopol. McKinley is the ‘T’ intersection at the top of the image. Bodega Avenue is the street at the bottom.

My last post discusses the problem with the one-way street network in downtown Sebastopol. In that post I noted the excessive size of the driving lanes in downtown Sebastopol. There are 3 travel lanes along the 2 primary blocks of downtown Sebastopol. Between McKinley and Bodega Ave. the widths are 12′, 18′ and 12′. Main Street along this block is 77′ wide from storefront to storefront. (A block further south the travel lanes are reduced to 13′, 12.5′ and 13′. There is a parking lane on each side that is 8′ wide. The sidewalks are each 9.5′ wide. The total width devoted to pedestrians (there are no bike lanes) is 19′. This is 25% of the total width of the street. No wonder pedestrians feel marginalized on Main Street.

existing main street section

Existing Main Street Section

An idea for a more equitable distribution of the available space would be as shown in the following diagram.

proposed main street section

Proposed Main Street Section

This results in 38′ devoted to cars, and 39′ devoted to pedestrians/bikes. This would go a long way to making pedestrians feel a welcomed part of the street environment. The diagram above shows a bike lane between the parked cars and sidewalk in what is referred to a protected bike lane. A protected bike lane creates a safer biking experience as bikes are separated from the car travel lane and do not need to yield to parallel parking cars. In this configuration the bike lane combines with the sidewalk to create a total width for people of 19.5′ from the storefront to the parked car. Contrast this with a more conventional bike lane between the driving lane and the parallel parked cars. In this situation the people realm is broken into two sections, the sidewalk and bike lane, separated by a parked car. This gives the perception of a wider car realm between the outside edges of the parallel parking bays, which would be 52′ in the example of Main Street Sebastopol.

A wider sidewalk would create more opportunity for exterior seating for businesses which is sorely lacking. Sebastopol is located in a very mild climate and outdoor seating is possible for a good part of the year. Outdoor seating will draw more people to the area, people attract people. The wider sidewalks would also create more opportunity to stop and talk with someone you may run into, which happens often in a small town. Right now, if you stop to talk with someone, you almost block the entire width of the sidewalk. There are currently benches located along this block, but again, if you stop to talk to someone at one of those benches you significantly reduce the amount of passable sidewalk width. A redesigned street section could include a 12.5′ wide sidewalk.

The excessive street width also creates a longer crossing distance for pedestrians at intersections which detracts from the pedestrian friendly streetscape. In the existing configuration a  pedestrian has to travel 58′ from curb to curb. Adding curb extensions at the corners can reduce this distance to 42′.

columbus_parklet1

Parklet on Columbus Ave., San Francisco

As widening the sidewalks and re-striping the street to allow for the design proposed above is a longer term project, an intermediate solution would be to convert some of the parallel parking spaces to parklets. The parklet idea evolved from park(ing) day, which transforms parking spaces into temporary public parks for a day. San Francisco now has a process to make this one day event more permanent in their Pavement to Parks program. The same idea could be implemented on Main Street to reclaim some of the area devoted to cars for people. These parks would allow for expanded seating areas that could be used by patrons to neighboring businesses or just someone out for a stroll. Giving people a place to linger will help improve the vitality of Main Street from both a social and economic standpoint.

Oakland Parklet

Oakland Parklet

Another problem with Main Street is that the ratio of street width to building height does not create a sense of space. Most of the buildings along Main Street are one story, with a few 2-story buildings. The typical height of the 1-story buildings is about 18′- 20′. With the 77′ width between buildings this results in a ratio of height to width of about 1:4, which is too low to establish the feeling of enclosure desirable for a good pedestrian experience. At this ratio you see more of the sky than of the building wall which reduces your sense of spatial enclosure. A ratio that is commonly used to describe a good walkable environment is 1:1. That is, the height of the buildings should be as wide as the streets. This can vary some depending on the environment and people’s expectations, but is a reasonable starting point. At this ratio, Main Street Sebastopol could accommodate 4 story buildings. I’d be willing to settle for 3, but 2 should be the absolute minimum. At 2 stories, you could get a height to width ratio of 2:1 which is reasonable, particularly for a small town environment. While the zoning code currently allows 3-story buildings, there is only 1 building downtown that is 3 stories, and it’s not on Main Street, and was only developed a couple of years ago. I believe the zoning code should require a minimum of 2-story buildings on Main Street. There is a good description of this issue here. There are several diagrams near the bottom of the page that show a variety of ratios and real life examples.

Street trees can also be used to accomplish the sense of spatial enclosure, but this also does not happen in Sebastopol. The Main Street trees are rather pathetic. They provide minimal value from an aethetic, shade or spatial-defining point of view. They were pruned rather severely earlier this year which reduced what little value they had even more.

As is true for much of downtown Sebastopol, Main Street has a lot of potential. As Main Street is a state highway (route 116), it is controlled by Caltrans which is often seen as a barrier to change. However, Caltrans has adopted complete streets guidelines and an implementation plan. So there should be some support for reconfiguring Main Street to accommodate more than just moving cars through as quickly as possible from Caltrans. This would involved reclaiming some of the right-of-way for pedestrians in addition to converting the street back to two-way traffic.

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Sebastopol has a traffic problem.  And It’s not the number of cars passing through downtown and backing up at times as concerns many people.  The traffic problem has to do with the one-way street couplet created by Petaluma Avenue and Main Street. These streets were originally two-way streets but were converted to one-way in the mid 1980’s.  I believe this was done to improve vehicular traffic flow, which it may or may not have improved. It also may have been a response to the removal of the train tracks (there had been a train running down the middle of Main Street, which is partly to blame for it’s extra-wide width).  Sitting at the intersection of two state highways, Sebastopol has had it’s issues with pass-through traffic congestion. And there is a limit to what can and should be done to alleviate this. We need to choose if we want a pedestrian-friendly downtown, or one that caters to cars. Our current one-way street network caters to the car at the expense of the pedestrian.

Given the limited street network, the one-way streets further limit choice for maneuvering through town.  Everyone entering downtown from the south has to travel on Petaluma Ave. heading north.  Traveling through town to the south you have to take Main Street.   Changing the one-way streets to two-way streets will provide more choice for motorists moving around downtown.  It also will limit the amount of backtracking required to get to your destination inherent in a one-way street network which can be particularly confusing for visitors to our community.

south main street

South Main Street, Sebastopol, 50′ curb-to-curb, 17′ wide travel lanes

The one-way streets are also detrimental to the pedestrian and bike experience in town.  I live one block from South Main Street and walk this stretch of road on a regular basis.  Once cars cross the main intersection downtown at Bodega Ave. there are no traffic controls other than crosswalks.  The speed limit is 25 MPH transitioning to 30 MPH as you head further south. These posted speed limits are difficult to abide by on the straight extra-wide travel lanes. The travel lane width along this stretch of Main Street is 17′! That’s crazy! The minimum recommended lane width for interstate freeways is 12′, and that is generally the width they are designed. This is for design speeds of 65 mph. The travel lane width on South Main is 5′ wider than the standard for a freeway! Two 17′ wide lanes, side-by-side, and we somehow expect drivers to adhere to 25-30 mph. People will drive at the speed they feel safe at and a 17′ wide lane allows a lot of room for error, encouraging fast driving. The police regularly sit in wait for speeders along this stretch of road, but tickets alone do not discourage fast driving. The design of the street has much to do with how fast people feel comfortable driving.

One way roads also encourage fast driving because drivers do not have to concentrate on oncoming traffic. We tend to get more distracted when we don’t have oncoming traffic to pay attention to and often engage in risky driving behavior when on one-way streets, particularly when the lanes are 17′ wide!

Speeding along this one-way road is further exacerbated by the fact only the right lane continues south out of town, so drivers in the left lane speed up to pass traffic in the right lane in order to continue south. The same things happens on Petaluma Ave. as most traffic continues north which requires you to be in the right lane. To attempt to bypass the often backed-up right lane, drivers stay in the relatively clear left lane and try to cut back in to the right at the last possible minute. Northbound Petaluma Avenue is narrower, but the lanes are mostly 12′ minimum, and are 13′ in some locations.

North Main Street at Bodega Avenue, 3 lanes of traffic coming at you. Is this a pleasant pedestrian experience?

North Main Street at Bodega Avenue, 3 lanes of traffic coming at you. Is this a pleasant pedestrian experience?

Even on the main commercial block of Main Street the 3 driving lanes are 12′, 18′ and 12′. With an 8′ parking lane on each side the curb to curb width is 58′. And yet the sidewalks are only 9.5′ wide. Who is prioritized on the downtown Sebastopol street system, pedestrians or cars? Clearly it is the cars. If we want Sebastopol to become a pedestrian-friendly environment, we need to take back some of the right-of-way for pedestrians. And do we really need 3 lanes of traffic all heading in the same direction? We are a town of 7,200 people. Granted, we serve a much larger market area, but how many small towns have 3 lanes in one direction. This is certainly a street that could benefit from a road diet.

It has also been shown that two-way traffic is better for business. With one-way streets, you only get half of the potential exposure by passing vehicles. Communities that have converted one-way streets to two-way streets often see an increase in revenue for the businesses along the route. A one-way street system is confusing for visitors. As Sebastopol becomes more of a tourist destination we need to make the experience of circulating downtown as easy as possible. I have seen people drive the wrong-way on more than one occasion. Here is an interesting article about the conversion of many one-way street systems to two-way. And another urban design blog about one-way streets

The problem with the road design in downtown Sebastopol is that the streets have been seen as tools for traffic engineering only. They have not been viewed as an important piece in the creation of a good urban experience for a variety of users, or for being able to enhance the quality of urban life. This happens all the time. Streets are designed to move vehicles as efficiently as possible, often to the detriment of other users. One of the recommendations of the SDAT was to return downtown Sebastopol to a 2-way street network (see pages 70-72 of the report). You could convert Main Street to two ways with an 8′ parking lane on each side, a 6′ bike lane in each direction and an 11′ wide travel lane in each direction which is plenty wide for an urban thoroughfare. Imagine how this would improve the pedestrian experience. Bulb-outs at the intersections would reduce pedestrian crossing distance further enhancing the pedestrian experience.

An improved crosswalk. Bump-outs and flashing crossing signal improve safety, but Main Street still often feels like a highway rather than a small town main street.

An improved crosswalk. Bump-outs and flashing crossing signal improve safety, but Main Street still often feels like a highway rather than a small town main street.

Sebastopol is a crossroads community with a street network that is currently designed to move the most through-traffic as efficiently as possible at the expense of the pedestrian experience. Even with the one-way streets designed to move the most traffic, we still have traffic congestion at certain times and a pedestrian-unfriendly environment. We should move to a city-first approach as discussed in the SDAT report. A two-way street network will benefit the city-first approach. It may not help traffic congestion, but are we designing our communities for people or for cars? For a long time we have been designing our communities for cars. It’s time to for our cities and towns to welcome back pedestrians and bikes and share the space with cars. Returning the downtown Sebastopol street system to two-ways will go along way in rehumanizing downtown.

I’ve reblogged another post which discusses some general issues surrounding one-way streets.

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Dom's Plan B Blog

one-way-street-sign

By Dom Nozzi

Creating one-way streets was popular a number of decades ago as a low-cost way to quickly move high volumes of traffic through downtown. Perceived benefits included:

 

Improved Traffic Flow. One-way streets, by removing on-coming traffic, reduce the “friction” that motorists experience on a street. This tends to reduce motorist delays and increase motorist speeds because the perception of risk is reduced. The street is perceived to feel more like a raceway, and drivers tend to drive at the highest possible speed at which they feel safe. On a “raceway,” that “safe speed” can be quite high.

 

Lower Cost. Compared to road widening, conversion of a two-way street to one-way operation  is a comparatively cost-free means of increasing traffic volumes and speeds on a street. (However,  research has shown that the highest volumes are carried on streets that have speeds of no more than…

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