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Posts Tagged ‘walkable streets’

I am often troubled by the complete disregard many drivers have for pedestrians.

A situation I encounter on a regular basis is vehicles parking on the sidewalk. On my route between home and work, I walk by The Grateful Bagle, a bagel shop on Main Street. Given the form of the building my guess it was a service station back in the day. But today it’s a popular bagel shop. There is no indoor seating but there are tables in front of the store that are often filled with patrons.

I suppose it’s because of the former service station life of the property that drivers feel entitled to pull up in front of the shop, but many of them end up parking on the sidewalk. This happens all the time. img_20151012_101352009.jpgimg_20151022_080737406.jpgimg_20150914_081231457.jpgimg_20151209_082841202.jpgimg_20160127_130544562.jpgimg_20150910_082508032.jpgimg_20151015_134315108.jpgimg_20150914_081326859_hdr.jpgimg_20151214_082942606_hdr.jpgimg_20151015_134150526.jpgimg_20160411_081812938.jpgimg_20160406_123126960_hdr.jpgIt’s not that it’s impossible to get around the car, but I do feel that it shows a disregard for the pedestrian and the small amount of space in the public realm that is allotted to us. Most of the space on our streets is devoted to the car. the curb-to-curb width of Main Street in front of The Grateful Bagel is 50′. There are two 8′ parking lanes and two 17′(!!!) drive lanes. The sidewalk is about 6′ wide.

The Grateful Bagel does have parking in the back, and there is generally space nearby on Main Street. But still, people park on the sidewalk. And given the extensive curb cut along the side street it’s easy to pull right in. (It’s interesting to look back at these photos and notice that most of the offenders seem to be driving pick-up trucks…).

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I admit the parking lot is difficult to access from the side street as the curb cut is in the wrong location, but there is a curb cut on Main Street which leads to a driveway on the opposite side of the building from where the photo is taken. And it would not be difficult to add a curb cut on this street as well.

It would be easy enough to add a planter along the backside of the sidewalk along the side street and expand the amount of outdoor seating. I don’t believe this would hurt business, but actually would improve it as it would be a nicer place to sit without the imposition of a car or truck adjacent to your table.

I’m sensing an opportunity for some tactical urbanism…

 

 

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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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The blog today comes from a parklet constructed by the CORE Project for PARK(ing) Day. The original PARK(ing) Day was started by Rebar, a San Francisco art and design studio and has now spread around the world, always occurring on the third Friday in September. The idea is to concert a public parking space into a park for a day. Taking space away from the cars and giving it back to the pedestrian. We hope the parklet will spark ideas about the use of our streets and reconsider how we think about urban design and placemaking in our communitites.

 

Sebastopol PARK(ing) Day 2014

Sebastopol PARK(ing) Day 2014

The parklet has been well received so far by locals. People are of course curious to see what this structure is in the parking space. We setup the parklet in front of West County Cycle Service, our Main Street bike shop. The owner is a very enthusiastic supporter of the idea. Several nearby business owners asked us if we could move it in front of their business. Most people are disappointed to learn the park will only be up for the day.

Sebastopol PARK(ing) Day park on Main Street

Sebastopol PARK(ing) Day park on Main Street

The CORE Project has been trying to support the idea of permanent parklets in Sebastopol. They would be a great addition to our downtown and help reclaim some of our right-of-way for people. The city council is supportive of the idea, and wants to create an ordinance to allow people to construct parklets in downtown, similar to the successful Pavement to Parks program in San Francisco.

This has been a fun place-making exercise and it’s been great to see the community’s response. Hopefully this will push the idea of a permanent parklet in Sebastopol a bit further.

Sebastopol PARK(ing) Day at West County Cycle Services

Sebastopol PARK(ing) Day at West County Cycle Services

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Cittaslow Sebastopol is exploring a method of encouraging people to walk to various destinations around town in order to ‘reduce traffic and help make Sebastopol a more walk-friendly community.’ Dubbed ‘The Sebastopol Ped Line‘ they have designed 3 different walks that begin and end at the downtown plaza and loop you through the surrounding neighborhoods.

The Blue Line to Ives Park

The Blue Line to Ives Park

The Blue Line takes you to Ives Park, Sebastopol’s ‘Central Park’. Ives Park has a public pool, playgrounds, baseball field and picnic areas. It is in need of a serious facelift which the city has recognized in the adoption of a master plan for the renovation of the park, but it functions well enough for an urban park. The park is used for a variety of festivals throughout the year including the Apple Blossom Festival, Roma Festival and this weekends Renaissance Faire to benefit the public school district.

The Florence Avenue Art Walk

The Florence Avenue Art Walk

The Red Line takes you to Florence Avenue, home of sculptures by local artists and Florence Ave. residents Patrick Amiot and Brigitte Laurent, passing city hall and the library on the way. The most common question I get from visitors to Sebastopol is ‘How do I get to Florence Ave./the street with the sculptures? Now instead of describing the route I can tell them to follow the signs of the Red Line.

Florence Avenue Art Walk Sidewalk Stencil

Florence Avenue Art Walk Sidewalk Stencil

The Green Line takes you from the plaza, through The Barlow and to the community center which sits in a park on the edge of the Laguna de Santa Rosa. In summer months there is a floating bridge that takes you across the laguna to trails on the opposite bank. On the way back to the plaza the route passes the skate park, community garden and police station.

The project is currently in its trial period. There are temporary signs attached to light posts, street signs, etc. and sidewalk stencils providing directions along the route. Cittaslow Sebastopol is soliciting input on the project through a survey. The plan is to apply for funding to make the signage more permanent and support an online application.

In general I think it’s a great way to make residents and visitors alike more aware of how easy it is to get around town. One comment I plan on making is that I think it would be helpful to have distances in minutes to get to various destinations. I know that each destination is no more than 10 minutes from the plaza, but visitors, and some residents, wouldn’t necessarily know this from looking at the maps. The concept is similar to Walk Your City and I hope it will encourage people to get out of their cars, get some exercise and explore our community on foot.

Green Line to the Laguna de Santa Rosa and Sebastopol Village Building Convergence Announcement

Green Line to the Laguna de Santa Rosa and Sebastopol Village Building Convergence Announcement

This photo is a good segue to another placemaking event that begins in Sebastopol today and runs through September 21. The Sebastopol Village Building Convergence will bring a variety of placemaking events to Sebastopol including the creation of street murals, community gardening projects and other community building events. The full schedule is here.

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

main street aerial

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

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

existing main street section

Existing Main Street Section

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

proposed main street section

Proposed Main Street Section

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

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

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

columbus_parklet1

Parklet on Columbus Ave., San Francisco

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

Oakland Parklet

Oakland Parklet

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

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

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

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