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Just read a great blog post from Mr. Money Mustache. Check it out The Happy City and our $20 Trillion Opportunity. It is a succinct description of the inefficiencies of our current development paradigm in the United States. It relates very directly to work I’ve been doing with Urban Community Partnership and the work of Strong Towns.

Mr. Money Mustache is a great blog and I’d suggest you check out some of his other posts. The blog is generally about creating personal financial freedom. Enjoy.

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morpheus traffic meme

Chuck Marohn of Strong Towns was in Santa Rosa last week. During one of our conversations he told me about this meme and I had to share it.  I have been feeling this way for years. One of the biggest complaints about the state of our town is traffic and it drives me crazy.

Traffic is far down the list of my concerns. Partly because the times when there is traffic are relatively limited. Also, because I generally avoid driving during times when I know there will be traffic. If I have to drive during the morning or afternoon commute times, then I expect I will encounter traffic and plan accordingly. Most of the time I transport myself around town on foot or on bike. So traffic is a non-issue for me.

The most common time I find myself in traffic is when I pick up my daughter from high school in Santa Rosa. That was a choice we made and because of that choice she needs to be driven to school. When driving back to town from Santa Rosa there is often a backup before you get to downtown Sebastopol. There are probably quite a few people in that backup because their kid(s) go to school in Santa Rosa, or because they live in Santa Rosa and are picking their kid up from school in Sebastopol. Open enrollment schools are responsible for a lot of the traffic we experience around here. Sitting in the backup at 3:30, I am traffic and I don’t have anyone to blame but myself.

Sebastopol is a crossroads town. There are 40,000+ people that live in the ‘country’ to the south, west and north of town. Many of those people must pass through Sebastopol to get to work or shopping. Not much we in Sebastopol can do about it. This creates some traffic, at limited, and mostly predictable, times during the day.

The people that complain about traffic drive. And as Morpheus says in the meme ‘ You are traffic.’ Get over it. You think you are the only person that wants to be on the road at 5:00? You’re not.  The larger problem in my mind is that there is a serious lack of traffic downtown at 7:00 in the evening. The streets are empty which has an impact on Sebastopol’s vitality, or lack thereof. This is the problem we need to be addressing.

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One of the topics at our General Plan Advisory Committee (GPAC) meeting this week was ‘Community Character.’ It was an interesting conversation and it made me think about the form of the public spaces in Sebastopol and how they may be improved. People often describe Sebastopol as ‘quirky.’ I don’t know that that adjective is meant to describe the physical form of the community. There are a variety of building types and styles that I suppose could be described as quirky, but so do many other places. I think when people describe Sebastopol as quirky, it has more to do with the characters in our community than the character seen in the physical make-up of the town itself.

The physical character of Sebastopol is largely defined by the state highways that bisect the town. As in most of America the car has come to dominate the public realm. In the 50’s 60’s, and continuing into the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s commercial development began it’s sprawl toward the edges of town. In the 80’s the north-south state highway was converted into a pair of one-way streets through downtown. This has done much to define the character of downtown, and not in a good way.

All of the primary gateways to town are lined with auto-oriented sprawl.

East Entry - SR 12

East Entry – SR 12

South Entry - SR 116

South Entry – SR 116

No sign - but this is the north edge of town.

No sign – but this is the north edge of town.

This strip mall is near the northern edge of town on Gravenstein Hwy North.

This strip mall is near the northern edge of town on Gravenstein Hwy North.

There has been a focus in the last 20 years on improving the downtown character in Sebastopol. A new town plaza has been created on the site of a former parking lot, utility lines have been relocated underground, some streetscape improvements have been undertaken and the city has offered facade improvement grants to downtown businesses which has resulted in some much-needed makeovers. A couple of new buildings and remodels have improved the character of downtown, most significantly in The Barlow.

Downtown Plaza

Downtown Plaza

The Basso Building on Main Street generated $118,819.92 per acre in property taxes, a whopping 6.6 times more than Safeway!

The Basso Building on Main Street

McKinley Street in The Barlow

McKinley Street in The Barlow

A lot more work needs to be done at the gateway entrances to town, particularly from the north and south. While these areas are car-oriented in their physical form, they are close to residential neighborhoods and have many resident-serving businesses. During our conversation at the GPAC meeting this week I realized that most, if not all, residents of Sebastopol are within walking distance of a major grocery store. The south end of town has Fircrest; center of town has Whole Foods, Community Market and Safeway; and the north end of town has Pacific Market and Lucky. I think that’s remarkable given a population around 7,400!

Circles represent 1/2 mile radius from the 6 grocery stores in town. Pretty much everyone in town is within walking distance of a grocery store, except maybe the SW corner.

Circles represent 1/2 mile radius from the 6 grocery stores in town. Pretty much everyone in town is within walking distance of a grocery store, except maybe the SW corner.

What we need to do is strengthen the links between the residential neighborhoods and these commercial nodes to encourage people to leave their cars at home and walk to these services. And we need strengthen the links between the nodes for pedestrians. That largely involve making route 116 more pedestrian friendly.

Sidewalks would be a good start. The sidewalks on the east side of Gravenstein Highway South are spotty. You have to walk on the shoulder of the road in some locations. I’m a dedicated walker so I’ll do it. But I’m sure it discourages many people. The city needs to prioritize connecting the sidewalks to support these businesses.The east side of Gravenstein Highway North also has stretches of missing sidewalks.

One of the stretches of 'missing' sidewalk on Gravenstein Hwy South

One of the stretches of ‘missing’ sidewalk on Gravenstein Hwy South

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Another section of ‘missing’ sidewalk on Gravenstein Hwy South

There is a sidewalk here, but would you want to walk on it?

There is a sidewalk here, but would you want to walk on it?

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Sidewalk on west side of Gravenstein Hwy South.

Gravenstein Hwy North, the trees help, but it's still not a great place to walk.

Gravenstein Hwy North, the trees help, but it’s still not a great place to walk.

While the west side has a sidewalk it’s not a great walking experience at either the north or south ends of town. The sidewalk is adjacent to the curb and there is no parallel parking so traffic whizzes by at 35 mph or faster. You feel out of place as a pedestrian. The road is a reasonable 3 lanes (1 northbound, 1 southbound and a center turn lane) except a couple of stretches at Gravenstein Highway North, but you feel like you are walking along a highway. A similar experience may be found at the north end of town. Although a large extent of the frontage of the west side of the road is taken up by strip commercial shopping centers which makes it even less pedestrian friendly since the frontage is all parking.

More frequent pedestrian crossings would help. The city has recently installed two ‘Street Smart Sebastopol’ crosswalks on Gravenstein Hwy South. They are about 740′ apart.

Gravenstein Hwy South - existing crosswalks are shown in yellow, proposed in red

Gravenstein Hwy South – existing crosswalks are shown in yellow, proposed in red

There is a street intersection about halfway between them which would be a great opportunity for another crosswalk. The next crosswalk to the south is about 760′ and is at a traffic light. Again, there is an intersecting street about halfway between, another opportunity for a crosswalk and a more reasonable distance between crossings. The next crossing to the north is about 1,200 feet. There is an opportunity for a crossing about 400′ north, but then it’s tricky due to the geometry of the streets where they turn into the one-way streets. If/when the streets are converted back to 2-way, this would be a great location for a roundabout. A roundabout would also make it easier for a pedestrian crossing at this location.

Good place for a roundabout

Good place for a roundabout

North of downtown, Healdsburg Ave. has several ‘Street Smart Sebastopol’ crossings, but from the crossing at Murphy Street, the next crossing to the north is about 2,300′. There could be a crosswalk at Lyding lane, 300′ from Murhpy, but then you get to the awkward intersection of Covert and Healdsburg Ave. A roundabout has been mentioned in the past for this intersection as well which could accommodate a better pedestrian crossing.

Gravenstein Hwy North - existing crosswalks are shown in yellow, proposed in red

Gravenstein Hwy North – existing crosswalks are shown in yellow, proposed in red

Parallel parking would make it more comfortable to be a pedestrian. You feel a measure of protection from moving traffic when you have cars parked between you and the travel lane. And parallel parking does serve to slow traffic as you have to be more alert to cars’ parking maneuvers. New developments on North and South Gravenstein Highway have been required to install parallel parking. I don’t know if the width of the right-of-way is enough to accommodate parking lanes on both sides at all locations, but where possible it would help.

This is the site of a proposed mixed-use project. The adjacent residential development was required to improve the frontage with a sidewalk, street trees, parallel parking and even enough room for a bike lane. The proposed project is 2-stories and will be located at the back of sidewalk.

This is the site of a proposed mixed-use project. The adjacent residential development was required to improve the frontage with a sidewalk, street trees, parallel parking and even enough room for a bike lane. The proposed project is 2-stories and will be located at the back of sidewalk.

Street trees would also improve the pedestrian experience. Many of the existing curb-adjacent sidewalk on the west side are probably too narrow to allow for street trees in the sidewalk. But maybe the private property owners could be encouraged to plant trees behind the sidewalk. Maybe the city could donate the trees, or provide them at cost to interested residents/businesses. New developments have been including street trees in addition to the parallel parking and should be required to do so in any future development/redevelopment.

Strip shopping center on Healdsburg Ave. Not a positive contribution to the community character.

Strip shopping center on Healdsburg Ave. Not a positive contribution to the community character.

A couple new projects and a renovation are creating a restaurant/commercial hub on Healdsburg Ave. about a block away from the strip development above.

A couple new projects and a renovation are creating a better restaurant/commercial hub on Healdsburg Ave. about a block away from the strip development above.

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Healdsburg Ave, where the sidewalk ends.

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Gravenstein Hwy North, where the sidewalk ends on the east side.

Even with the crosswalks, you still have a problem with traffic speed. South Main Street and Healdsburg Ave. have several of the ‘Street Smart Sebastopol’ pedestrian crossings, but traffic tends to travel faster than the posted speed limit along both stretches. These crosswalks do not eliminate all conflicts between pedestrians and cars (several pedestrians have been hit in these crosswalks, one man unfortunately died last year after being hit in a crosswalk across Healdsburg Ave.) but they generally make drivers more aware of pedestrians than if there were not crosswalks. In a previous post I discussed the concept of raised intersections which would serve to slow traffic. Another option would be to install stop signs. Traffic from side streets does probably not meet whatever Caltrans’ standard would be for the installation of stop signs, but installing stop signs at every block or 2 would definitely slow things down. And it certainly is not without precedent to have a stop sign at every intersection in an urban area. Drivers may not like to have to stop so often, or have to slow over a raised intersection, but who cares. We need to decide if our public right-of-way is to be designed to benefit people or cars. This is a key decision that will effect the overall character of the community. So far we have been prioritizing the car at the expense of our community’s physical character. I argue that to improve our character we should favor the pedestrian at the expense of the car. The added benefit is that when people feel more comfortable walking, they will, which will in turn reduce traffic.

Not an easy crossing for pedestrians. Another possible roundabout location?

Not an easy crossing for pedestrians. Another possible roundabout location?

As I’ve been writing this I’ve realized a very easy low-cost first step would be to rename the north and south stretches of 116 as they enter town. At the south end of the we have Gravenstein HIGHWAY South and at the north end of town we have Gravenstein HIGHWAY North (The gravenstein is a type of apple that is produced locally, although there are not as many apple orchards as there once were. Trader Joe’s does sell gravenstein apple sauce). Maybe we could start by renaming both roads to eliminate the word HIGHWAY. This may start the transformation of how we view these roads and their function differently in our community. It’s sometimes amazing how the smallest gestures can trigger a tidal wave of change. Maybe we start with changing the names to Gravenstein Avenue North and Gravenstein Avenue South. I feel better about them already.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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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I came across this article today by Jeff Speck where he discusses reducing drive lane widths on urban streets from 12′ to 10′. Reading down through the comments there are obviously strong opinions on both sides, but it seems like an obvious safety improvement to me and I think would go a long way to helping create more human-scaled streets here in Sebastopol, and probably many other communities across the country.

You can read the whole article here, but in a nutshell in the article Speck looks at several studies showing that a reduction in lane width leads to reduced accidents, and those accidents that do occur result in less fatalities as cars are generally traveling slower when in 10′ lanes than 12′ lanes. He states people drive at the speed at which they feel safe:

On city streets, most drivers ignore posted speed limits, and instead drive the speed at which they feel safe. That speed is set by the cues provided by the environment. Are there other cars near me? Is an intersection approaching? Can I see around that corner? Are there trees and buildings near the road? Are there people walking or biking nearby? And: How wide is my lane?

28' wide High St - how fast would you drive here?

28′ wide High St – how fast would you drive here?

I see the difference in how people drive on streets with vastly different lane widths every day. The street I live on is 28′ curb to curb with parallel parking on both sides. With cars parked on both sides you are left with a roughly 14′ travel lane. it’s not a high volume road, but it is used fairly often as it serves as it is a through street as many others in the neighborhood have limited connections. We also have a school at the end of the street so traffic definitely increases before and after school. Given the 14′ travel lane width it’s not comfortable for cars traveling in opposite directions to pass one another. So one car has to ‘give way’ and pull over in between parked cars to let the approaching car pass. The narrow lane width, parked cars, people on the sidewalks, trees and houses with 10′-15′ setbacks are all physical features of the environment that clue drivers to keep their speeds relatively low. Sure there are those that blow through at 30-35 mph from time to time, but generally I would say most people drive less than 25 mph and many drive less than 20 mph because that’s what feels safe.

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?

In contrast, Main St., which is 1 block away, has 2 one-way travel lanes that are 17′ wide with 8′ parallel parking lanes on both sides (no bike lane, although one is planned which will reduce the lane widths somewhat). Heck, I’d be thankful for a reduction to 12′ here, but 10′ would be even better. The posted speed limit is 25 mph, increasing to 30 about one block to the south for some reason, but drivers regularly speed along here. And why not, with 17′ wide lanes there is a lot of wiggle room before you would move into the adjacent lane or a parked car (and there are often stretches without parked cars, as seen in the photo, which makes the lane feel even wider – effectively 25′ from center stripe to curb). The road is also very straight. There is little to keep you driving at 25 mph other than self-restraint. All visual signals are for you to drive faster than you should. There are several crosswalks with bulb-outs and flashing lights, but drivers often ignore pedestrians waiting to cross.

It’s unfortunate that the 28′ wide street I live on could not be built today (I could not find a copy of the city’s street standards on-line, but I’m pretty sure a 28′ wide street is not in the standards. Certainly not with parking on both sides). The fire department for one would never allow it. They want 20′ clear. To my knowledge no house has burned down, and no one has died because a fire truck or ambulance could not maneuver the street, and it’s been here probably 100 years. But it works very well for keeping car speeds load and pedestrian, bike and car safety high.

This issue is particularly relevant to a blog post I’ve been working on and will hopefully get out next – It’s mostly written but needs some graphics. I have an idea for adding protected bike lanes to Main St. which will reduce lane widths and allow for shorter pedestrian crossings. The idea is to create a more balanced Main Street experience where all users of the public right-of-way pedestrians, bikes, cars and transit may be accommodated. Stay tuned.

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I came across this interesting video that demonstrates the concept of ‘Shared Streets’ which is the inspiration for this post. Prior to the widespread use of the automobile, streets were shared by all users. We didn’t have the segregation we see today in which priority is given to the movement of the automobile. Today, streets are generally designed to move the highest volume of cars possible, at the expense of all other street users. Granted, vehicles are generally larger and can move faster than any other transport used in human history. However, this doesn’t mean they should be given priority in our street design. We need to reestablish a balance between all users to improve our streetscapes and to encourage more people to leave the car behind and walk and bike, particularly in urban areas.

Looking North on Main Street at Bodega Ave., Sebastopol. This space is not being shared very well.

Looking North on Main Street at Bodega Ave., Sebastopol. This space is not being shared very well.

Generally, the concept of shared streets reduces or eliminates the demarcations between various users of the streets and traffic controls with the intent to improve safety and flow for all involved. Importantly it eliminates giving priority to the vehicle, which is what happens with our current street design standards. Setting up a hierarchy between street users sets the stage for conflict as the user given ‘priority’ assumes they have more of a right to the space than others. Traffic controls allow the driver of a car to abdicate their responsibility for safety. For example, a green light gives a driver the authority to ‘go.’ The driver of a car may not realize someone has not quite made it through the intersection since they have only been watching the light and they start  to move. If they don’t see the person in the crosswalk and apply their brakes in time, an accident occurs. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in 2012 there were 33,561 fatalities caused by motor vehicles. Of these 4,743 were pedestrians and 726 were cyclists. An additional 76,00 pedestrians and 49,000 cyclists were injured. Obviously giving vehicles priority in our street system design has been, and continues to be. dangerous for pedestrians and cyclists.

In a shared street, all street users are equal which results in more cooperation between users of the street. Generally demarcation lines between pedestrian, bike and vehicle space are blurred and most traffic control, including traffic lights, are eliminated. This gives the impression of a less safe environment which naturally makes all users take more responsibility for their safety. “When you don’t exactly know who has right of way, you tend to seek eye contact with other road users. You automatically reduce your speed, you have contact with other people and you take greater care.” (Hans Monderman, “European Towns Remove Traffic Signs to Make Streets Safer. Deutsche Welle. 27 August 2006. Retrieved 9 May 2014)

I’ve heard of the concept of shared space before but must admit I was a bit dubious of its implementation. It remains controversial but in most places it has been implemented accidents have been significantly reduced, and vehicular travel times have also generally been reduced, even though speeds are lower. This occurs because although peak speeds are reduced, the amount of time spent waiting at an intersection is also reduced, or eliminated, which results in a higher average speed. How many times have you waited at a traffic light or stop sign, whether in a car, on foot, or on a bike with no opposing traffic, yet you sit and wait for the light to turn. By eliminating the traffic controls, all types of movement can occur with less delay.

The video below shows the potential of shared space in a real life trial. It shows the before and after of an intersection in the English town of Poynton, which in some ways reminds me of Sebastopol. It appears to be a crossroad town, like Sebastopol, with a main street (or ‘high’ street as they say) dominated by motor vehicles. The intersection has an average of 26,000 vehicles passing through each day which is similar to the number of cars traveling through the center of Sebastopol (according to California Department of Transportation 2011 counts). So I found it interesting to wonder if a similar approach could help restore the balance between cars and people in downtown Sebastopol. Right now, downtown is completely dominated by the car at the expense of other users, which I believe hinders the vitality of downtown.

Even though Caltrans is supposedly embracing complete street guidelines, if seems that a shared street concept would be difficult to get approved. (The main streets in downtown Sebastopol are state routes under Caltrans’ jurisdiction.) But there are lessons to learn about priority and sharing of streets in the creation of more pedestrian-friendly spaces. And there are certainly other precedents for sharing of streets. Having been to Rome recently, one of the things I noticed is that many of the streets in the center of Rome are shared, and the pedestrian obviously has as much, or more, right to the space as the car. Sidewalks, if they exist at all, are minimal and yet it seems to work.

Shared use Roman street - pedestrians, restaurant seating and cars

Shared use Roman street – pedestrians, restaurant seating and cars

Now Rome is a totally different scale, and has had time to develop over millennia. Importantly, the center of Rome evolved prior to cars so streets were naturally human scaled. Sebastopol once had a train running down the center of Main Street which is one of the reasons it’s so wide. However, it seems like there must be a way to reclaim some of the street for pedestrians and bicyclists, and establish a more even balance among all users of the public way. I will continue looking for other examples of small towns creating a more shared and balanced approach to transportation. Please contact me if you have any suggestions.

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