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Posts Tagged ‘transportation’

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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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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I’ve recently read ‘Walkable City’ by Jeff Speck. It’s a great book with a lot of information and inspiration about how to create more walkable places. There is chapter in the book entitled ‘Getting the Parking Right’. When creating a walkable urban environment, it is extremely important to ‘get the parking right’, and many of our communities have been getting it wrong for decades at the expense of the pedestrian. Jeff acknowledges Donald Shoup as being the inspiration for much of the information in the chapter. Donald Shoup is a parking ‘guru’ who has written a book called ‘The High Cost of Free Parking’ which goes into great detail (in 751 pages) on how we’ve been getting parking wrong, and what we need to do to get it right.

Jeff spends a good deal of the chapter discussing the economics of parking. Because parking is so plentiful and, more often than not, free, most of us take it for granted and assume it must cost little to build and maintain. As Jeff points out, this is far from the truth. Parking is expensive to construct, especially when it is structured parking, and maintain. A space in a surface parking lot on inexpensive land costs about $4,000 and parking space in a structured parking garage can cost over $15,000 per space. And land in most urban locations, even a small town like Sebastopol, is not inexpensive; it’s generally some of the most expensive land in a community. And the long and the short of it is we all end up paying for these costs, even if we do not use it. Developers do not build parking spaces and donate them. They pass the cost on to the tenants who then pass on the costs to their clients. We all end up subsidizing the ‘free’ parking when we shop in a business with a parking lot, even if we walked or biked. Maintenance of public parking lots and street parking comes from the city’s coffers. So a portion of your tax dollars are used to subsidize the ‘free’ parking whether or not you ever use a public parking space. As Speck writes, ‘People who walk, bike or take transit are bankrolling those who drive. In so doing, they are making driving cheaper and thus more prevalent, which in turn undermines the quality of walking, biking and transit.’ It becomes a downward spiral.

Now obviously there are other city services my tax dollars pay for that I do not necessarily benefit directly from. I hope to never need to use the fire department, for example, but I’m happy my tax dollars go to the support of one. But parking is an easy ‘service’ the city can change to a fee-for-use format rather than fully subsidizing. People don’t expect city provided water service to be free. I may grumble about the cost, but I pay my water/sewer bill each month, based on the amount I use and I’m happy that city water is available. Why should I have to support someone the parking habits of drivers when I walk or ride my bike around town?

It is generally assumed that merchants will do all they can to prevent the implementation of paid parking whether it be street parking or parking lots. They are concerned that as they compete for clients with suburban shopping centers with seas of free parking that they will lose business. Jeff discusses the situation of Old Pasadena and Westwood Village in his book. Both these shopping districts, located in Southern California were economically challenged in the 1980’s. In the early ’90’s, Old Pasadena installed 690 new parking meters and it allowed developers to pay in-lieu fees in support of municipal parking lots rather they build the parking required for their projects themselves. While the merchants of Old Pasadena were originally vehemently against the installation of the meters and the elimination of free parking the change was the beginning of a revival of the neighborhood. The city committed to spending the revenue from the meters on physical improvements and services in Old Pasadena. Millions of dollars a year were put into improving sidewalks, new lighting, landscaping and street furniture. As evidence that the meters were not in fact keeping shoppers away, sales tax revenue tripled the first six years after the meters were installed. Westwood Village’s response was to cut the price of on-street parking and enforce its ‘replacement parking’ policy which requires developers building on a parking lot to both meet their parking requirement in addition to replacing half of the removed spaces. This effectively makes redevelopment cost-prohibitive forcing construction of expensive parking garages in an area with a demonstrated over-supply of parking.

I do not believe that making drivers pay for parking would harm business in downtown Sebastopol in the least. It is a desirable and unique shopping experience and people in the area are very committed to shopping locally and supporting our local businesses and would continue to do so even if required to pay a nominal parking fee. And we continue to attract more tourist traffic which would not avoid Sebastopol if they were required to pay to park. If the money collected by the city for parking were put into improving sidewalks and crosswalks, installing nice lighting and landscaping and put into a fund that would be available to businesses for facade improvement grants, or low-interest loans it would be a huge benefit for the community in the creation of a more pedestrian-friendly experience which would most certainly translate to increased business at downtown merchants.

A central argument  by Shoup and Speck is that parking should function based on free-market principles of supply and demand. They propose to set the cost of parking to influence the behavior of people who drive. Parking, they suggest, should be priced such that the cost of parking should be set at a level such that an occupancy rate of 80% is established. This would allow that 1 or 2 spaces per block would be available at all times which would reduce the amount of time (and gas) people spend looking for parking. In many communities people are willing to circle in search of the inexpensive street parking space. This increases congestion and pollution and decreases the safety of pedestrians due to more cars on the road (plus the fact drivers looking for parking seem to be so focused on their mission that they tend to ignore pedestrians even more than usual). San Francisco is experimenting with a system that prices public parking in response to demand. SFPark has been adjusting rates at 7,000 parking meters and 12,250 parking garage spaces in response to demand with the goal to encourage drivers to park in underused areas reducing demand in overused areas.

Public parking lots in Sebastopol. The Chamber and South High street lots are near the bottom of the image.

Public parking lots in Sebastopol. The Chamber and South High street lots are near the bottom of the image.

In Sebastopol, all parking is free, but people still spend time circling looking for the closest parking space to their destination, rather than park in a parking lot where they are all but assured of getting a parking space. Preferred parking lots are the lot around the plaza, the North High Street lot adjacent to the library and the South Main Street/Burnett Street lot and of course the street spaces on the 2 center blocks of Main Street. There are 2 public parking lots in Sebastopol that pretty much always have availability, South High Street and the lot behind the Chamber of Commerce. They are both located toward the southern edge of what I would call the downtown core of Sebastopol, but certainly within a 5-10 minute walk of most downtown destinations. A parking study undertaken by the city in 2011 showed that these lots have an average occupancy of 22% and 10% respectively. The only parking lot with an average usage above 80% is the plaza parking lot (87%).

Chamber parking lot at 4:00 on a Friday afternoon. There was probably someone looking for a parking space on Main Street and cursing how there is not enough parking downtown.

Chamber parking lot at 4:00 on a Friday afternoon. There was probably someone looking for a parking space on Main Street and cursing how there is not enough parking downtown.

South High Lot Friday 4:30. Again, someone was probably cursing the lack of parking in Sebastopol during this time. And if not this specific time, then some other time when this parking lot looked like this.

South High Lot Friday 4:30. Again, someone was probably cursing the lack of parking in Sebastopol during this time. And if not this specific time, then some other time when this parking lot looked like this.

I almost always see vacant spaces downtown, in lots and on the street, but people do complain that parking is difficult here. To those people I say, park in the South High Street or Chamber parking lots and you will find a space. Years of parking in suburban parking lots have led to a belief that we should be able to park adjacent to any destination. Even though we are willing to walk 200′ or more from a parking space at Costco, then another 1,000′ or more walking to the back of the store and back to the register and then 200′ back to our car, for some reason, walking the same distance from the South High Street or Chamber parking lots to the Main commercial block of Main Street seems ‘too far’. I suppose this is part of what defines us as Americans.

As happens far too often in our communities, our parking system favors convenience for the automobile driver at the expense of the pedestrian. Surface parking lots, parking garages and driveways are detrimental in the creation of good walkable places. Surface parking lots are particularly deadly in the impact they have on the pedestrian. Streetscapes need to be interesting to keep the pedestrian engaged and there is not much less interesting than walking along the edge of a parking lot. Surface parking lots create dead zones that discourage pedestrian crossing. A commercial street with surface parking on its frontage creates a dead zone that pedestrians will avoid to the detriment to the businesses on the opposite side of the parking lot. Surface parking lots spread out destinations making it further to walk between destinations.

Parking needs to be carefully considered when trying to create a walkable/bikeable/transit friendly environment. Too often we require suburban parking standards in these areas to the detriment of the pedestrian experience. Parking needs to be looked at wholistically, and should be made available and priced to reflect the market demands for it. Too often our communities are overparked and underpriced because that is what we’ve been doing for years. And because lack of parking availability is such a common complaint city leaders are often adverse to doing anything that might be construed as to be anti-parking. Even in light of the parking study in Sebastopol that showed less than 80% average occupancy in almost all the city lots some city leaders feel we need more parking.We must change our parking policies so that they support communities designed to the benefit of people and not cars.

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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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For being at the intersection of 2 state highways and the fact Main Street is 3 wide lanes wide with the traffic heading in one direction, Sebastopol is a surprisingly walkable place. After growing up in a suburban environment I have spent most of my adult life living in places where it is possible to walk for much of what I need and I cannot imagine living in a non-walkable environment. Walk Score is a website that lets you look up the walkability of any address (currently only in the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand). Locations are scored from 0-100 with 100 being the most walkable location. The neighborhood I grew up in has a walk score of 18 – not very walkable, although I was able to walk to elementary school. My current home has a walk score of 89. I live within a 20 minute walk of 5 grocery stores, a movie theater, independent bookstore, used bookstore, other shops, good restaurants and cafes and more. I have a personal goal to walk or bike to any destination in town and being able to walk to much of what I need daily gives a real sense of individual freedom that cannot be matched by a car.

The desire to live in walkable locations is on the rise, with more teenagers waiting to get their licenses and young adults driving less and choosing to live in walkable communities served by public transit. Among 16-23 year olds driving is down 23%, public transit use is up 40% and bicycling is up 24%. Many Baby Boomer retirees are looking for the same. Walk score has shown measurable economic benefits to being in a walkable neighborhood. For example, a 1 point increase in walk score has been shown to increase home value between $700 and $3,000 depending on the market (Walking the Walk). Cities with the highest Walk Scores like New York, San Francisco, Boston and Washington, D.C. also have some of the highest property values in the country.

Walking can provide us with myriad health benefits and living in a walkable community makes us much more likely to walk on a regular basis. Two in 3 adults are now considered clinically overweight or obese, and childhood obesity has risen nearly 30% since the 1960’s. Diet has much to do with this, but a lack of regular exercise is also a prime factor. Regular walking can lower blood pressure, reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, stroke, colon and breast cancer, osteoporosis, diabetes, depression and anxiety. When we live in a walkable community we are more likely to integrate walking into our daily routines rather than get in a car for all our errands. Diverse nearby destinations and an attractive environment to walk in will encourage us to leave the car behind. Rather than exercise for the sake of exercising, we are able to exercise while making a trip to the grocery store, going to work or out for dinner. And we are much more likely to stick to this routine rather than exercise for exercise sake. Plus it’s free (as opposed to a gym membership). Many people, including the Center for Disease Control, are beginning to recognize that the design of our built environment has much to do with the obesity epidemic, and are advocating for the creation of more walkable communities.

In addition to the health benefits, walking is fun and has many positive social benefits. I’ve lived in Sebastopol for over 11 years now. Being a small town (pop. around 7,200) it’s near impossible for me to walk downtown and not run into someone I know. What could start as a quick 15 minute trip to the video store can easily turn into a 30 or 40 minute trip taking into account the chance meetings that happen along the way. I genuinely enjoy those spontaneous interactions which are vitally important in a strong and connected community. It is much more difficult to make those personal connections in an unwalkable community. I believe that is a reason many people today, particularly in sprawling environments, feel less connected to their neighborhood and community. Many of our built environments do not encourage this connectivity with one another. Walkable places do.

In contrast, driving in a car is incredibly anti-social. We get into cars and feel a complete disconnection from the surrounding environment. The environment becomes something to ‘get through’ as we travel from point A to point B and we are completely disconnected from it. We pass through our communities at speeds that do not allow us to really observe our surroundings, and in ways that do not allow us any personal interaction, other than the possibility of road rage directed at our fellow drivers. Although I have not seen any studies to back me up I would imagine that sidewalk rage is a relatively rare occurrence. I have, however, witnessed, and even participated in, pedestrian rage directed at cars cutting people off in a crosswalk.

We are also much more observant of our environment when we walk through it rather than drive. Walking can be truly enjoyable when you have something interesting to look at. Walkable places must have interesting buildings, close to the sidewalk to stimulate our eyes. When I lived in San Francisco and walked to work from Russian Hill to the Financial District I was constantly seeing new details in the buildings along my various walking routes. It was a visually stimulating environment. I recently noticed a home in my neighborhood tucked behind a rather large garage that I have never noticed before. It seems like there is always something new to observe. On the other hand, sprawling subdivisions of cookie-cutter houses are boring to walk through. After walking a couple of blocks, you’ve seen all the variety there is.

Walking is much more freeing for those that cannot drive, particularly children. I have been trying to raise my daughter to show her that she can be responsible for getting herself around town. She has been walking to school since kindergarten and is able to walk to after school activities, and knows that she can get herself around town without depending on her parents for a ride whether that be by walking or biking. Unfortunately her school is moving to a less walkable location (see 2 previous blog posts on the issue here and here). Thankfully it won’t happen before she moves on to high school. Not only does this give children a sense of freedom, it is also freeing for the parents in that they do not have to spend so much time driving their children from destination to destination.

It is commonly accepted that the private car provides us a great deal of freedom in regards to personal transportation. While the car does provide freedom to travel long distances on our own schedule, it is very limiting in some ways. The increase in car ownership over the course of the 20th century has transformed our built environment. Cities and towns used to be built to the scale of the pedestrian and our need to be able to walk to satisfy all our daily needs. We walked to work, school, parks and stores. With widespread car ownership we were ‘freed’ from the limitation of how far we could walk to satisfy our daily needs and our daily destinations were spread farther and farther apart. This separation has been reflected in our zoning codes which often separate uses from one another so that residences are separated from workplaces, schools and shopping so that in many places it is simply not possible to walk between destinations. And even when it is physically possible, it is often not desirable as auto-oriented environments are often at best not pleasant for pedestrians, and at worst downright dangerous.

I don’t ever recall being delayed to a destination due to a pedestrian traffic jam. By walking to a destination I am able to predict exactly how long it will take me. When driving, there are far more factors to affect the time of the trip that are out of my control that you cannot always predict trip length. I had a discussion recently with someone who was late to a meeting because she could not find a place to park nearby and had to circle until she found a parking space. I walked to the same meeting from my office in the 6 minutes it always takes me. If I had driven (which would be absurd for a 6 minute walk) it probably would have taken longer as I would have had the same parking issue. As a pedestrian, I am not beholden to traffic or parking when transporting myself.

And car ownership can be a financial burden. Car payments, insurance, gas and maintenance are typically the second highest household expense after housing. AAA provides an annual estimate of the cost of car ownership which in 2013 $9,122 for an average sedan (costs ranged from $6,967 for a small sedan to $11,599 for an SUV) which is based on driving 15,000 miles annually. The AAA study does not take into account costs associated with driving like tolls and parking which in some areas can be substantial. Parking in private garages in some urban areas can cost up to $300 per month. Not to mention the environmental burden caused by cars of which there are many.

I am fortunate to live in a place where my need to use  my car is limited to trips out of town, which can be as infrequent as once per week. I believe many other people would live in similar communities if they were able. Is is vitally important to our future from health, social, economic and environmental perspectives to create more walkable environments.

Many of the ideas in this blog entry were inspired be the book ‘Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time’ by Jeff Speck. Available at Amazon, or better yet, walk down to your local bookstore. Jeff has given a TED talk that gives a good synopsis of the book. I’d highly recommend it to anyone interested in making a more walkable environment. The Ten Steps of Walkability as described in his book:

  1. Put Cars in Their Place
  2. Mix the Uses
  3. Get the Parking Right
  4. Let Transit Work
  5. Protect the Pedestrian
  6. Welcome Bikes
  7. Shape the Spaces
  8. Plant Trees
  9. Make Friendly and Unique Faces
  10. Pick your Winners

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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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