Posts Tagged ‘traffic’

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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Looking North on Main Street at Bodega Ave.

Looking North on Main Street at Bodega Ave.

Probably the number one complaint of residents of Sebastopol and West County, as mentioned in an earlier post, is traffic. This is a common lament of people in communities across the country from large urban areas to small towns like Sebastopol. People just hate traffic. And who could blame them. No one wants to be trapped in a car in a line of other cars moving at a snails pace, or not at all. We want to be moving when we’re in cars, that’s what cars are for after all. Why be in a car if you’re just going to sit. Even the nicest luxury car is not really all that comfortable for extended periods of time (not that I have a lot of experience of sitting in luxury cars). We expect that once we get in a car, we should be able to move freely to our destination. Traffic disrupts this flow.

What I always find interesting is that the people that complain about traffic are usually, if not always, drivers. Pedestrians and cyclists don’t complain about traffic. A stationary car is preferable to a moving car from a pedestrian and cyclist standpoint. Free-flowing traffic is more dangerous for bikes and pedestrians. I love passing cars stuck in traffic while on my bike. It’s immensely satisfying. To the drivers who complain about traffic I would like to say ‘Guess what, by driving your car, you are creating traffic.’ We seem to have this expectation that once we get in our car we should be able to get wherever we want as fast as we want. This is simply not always the case.

I think a reason many people move to Sonoma County is to live in a semi-rural setting, on a large plot of land. That is fine, but it comes with consequences. Today, there are an incredible number of homes in the ‘rural’ countryside to the north, south and west of Sebastopol. And most employment opportunities are to the south and east. Because of the limited road network surrounding Sebastopol, most of the trips must pass through downtown. Hence, much of Sebastopol’s traffic is generated by people driving through town to get to a destination on the other side. To be honest, I really have no patience for people that live in these completely car-dependent locations who complain about traffic when they come into town. It is precisely because of their decision to live outside of town that we have the traffic we do today.

I’m sure there are some people who live out of town simply because the amount of housing stock in town is limited and more people would live in town if they could. I personally know several families looking to move into town but are having a difficult time due to the laws of supply and demand. Limited supply and high demand have served to drive up prices. Due to it’s geography and Urban Growth Boundary, Sebastopol’s best opportunity to increase it’s supply of housing lies in the creation of higher density housing downtown. Because downtown Sebastopol is located on the edge of the Laguna de Santa Rosa, it has not been possible to develop to the east. As town developed to the north, south and west it did so in the pattern of early 20th century of single-family homes. There has been very little multi-family development. Even on Main Street today, there are only 2 buildings, that I am aware of, that have any housing above them amounting to probably no more than 10 units total, if that. Most of the housing downtown is of the single-family variety. This has been a missed opportunity to this point and a great opportunity for the future to build more housing in a walkable location. Housing downtown is probably the biggest single thing we could do to ease traffic congestion.

My earlier post on the topic of traffic discussed Level of Service (LOS). I only add it again here to point to 2 great blogs about LOS. The Beginning of the End for Level of Service, on Streetsblog and a description of LOS and why we should not be using it to design our streets from the Project for Public Spaces. LOS is an obstacle to creating lively, walkable urban environments. We need to recognize that there is good congestion and bad congestion and not discriminate against all congestion. Some of our most popular urban destinations are very congested and quite successful because, or in spite of it. Greenwich Village in New York and North Beach in San Francisco to name a couple. Bad congestion is generated by drive-through traffic. Unfortunately, this is a large portion of Sebastopol’s congestion. Good congestion is congestion that is caused by local origins or destinations. That is, people driving to downtown destinations to patronize those businesses which adds to commerce and support of our local economy. Someone simply driving through town in order to get to the other side adds no value, only congestion.

The traditional way to combat congestion is to increase road capacity. The primary way to do this is to widen roads. Main Street on Sebastopol is already 3 lanes wide in one direction downtown so widening further is not at all desirable. The cross-town traffic on Hwy 12 and Bodega Ave is one lane in each direction, with a third turn lane as they pass through downtown. Given the locations of the buildings along Hwy 12, widening is not possible. Widening Bodega Avenue west of downtown would require substantial right-of-way acquisition mostly from single-family homes which would be a political non-starter and would require necking down before reaching Main St.

So what are we to do? The most effective way to reduce congestion is to reduce car dependence. The way to do that is to make driving a car less convenient and create more opportunities for alternative transportation. Creating more pedestrian and bike-friendly streets would encourage the use of those transportation alternatives. Developing a more mixed-use downtown is vitally important. Our downtown is primarily retail with some limited office, light manufacturing in The Barlow and almost no residential. More living alternatives in particular, but also more office space so people would not have to commute to other near and far communities for employment would help. Downtown Sebastopol is also very low density. Most buildings are single-story. However, higher density is not a means in itself. It must be partnered with useful destinations. We have the destinations downtown. We have a Whole Foods, Safeway and Rite Aid all right downtown. We also have a multi-screen movie theater, live theater, good restaurants, library, schools, Center for the Arts, independent bookstores and other locally owned businesses. Downtown Sebastopol has a Walk Score of 98 for crying out loud! Let’s give people the opportunity to live and work there. More people living and working downtown will also help support increased transit service which is limited and highly dependent on transit patrons living close to stops. This is the only way we will be able to combat the congestion downtown. Until then, plan your trips accordingly.

Looking East on Hwy 12 from the intersection with Petaluma Ave.

Looking East on Hwy 12 from the intersection with Petaluma Ave.

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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.

Red indicates state highways
Blue indicates other entry roads
Yellow indicates connecting routes in 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.

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