Monday, December 19, 2016

Continuing the Road Diet Conversation

Current configuration of Petaluma Boulevard South
With help from a guest writer, I’ve recently written twice about a proposed road diet on a major arterial in my town.  First, I wrote about the history of road diets, both in my town and elsewhere in the country, and then professional planner Bjorn Griepenburg wrote about how a four-lane to three-lane road diet reduces conflict points between drivers, bicyclists, and pedestrians, yielding a road that is safer with little or no loss of traffic capacity.

The posts, and an upcoming City Council hearing on whether to submit a grant application for a road diet on Petaluma Boulevard South, triggered active conversations.  Not everyone agreed with the proposed road diet, but the discussions have generally been respectful exchanges of facts, suggestions, and opinions.

However, I was traveling much of last week, so missed the opportunity to participate in the discussions.  Others did a fine job of explaining and defending the road diet concept, but there were a few points I wish I could have added to the discourse.

So I identified a few particular comments on Facebook and Nextdoor that caught my eye, copied them below, and will provide the follow-on that I was unavailable to do last week.  I haven’t noted the authors of the comments.  Indeed, I’ve already forgotten who most of them were.  But I have touched up their grammar at a few spots.

Petaluma Boulevard North after road diet
Regarding the previously completed road diet on Petaluma Boulevard North through downtown and extending further north:

“Visit Petaluma Boulevard North between Payran and D Street any afternoon and you are likely to find long backups extending all the way from E. Washington Street to D Street or a block or so south of D Street.”   The author is likely correct, but there are at least three reasons why the observation doesn’t argue against road diets.

First, there was always been some level of congestion on Petaluma Boulevard North.  We don’t have good measures of what the congestion was before the road diet, so can’t necessarily say that it’s worse now.  And recollections to make a point are often based on selective memory so are untrustworthy.

Second, traffic in general is again climbing as the recession retreats into the rearview mirror.  Even if we had perfect data from before the downtown road diet, the data would have been at the depths of the recession and can’t be compared to the congestion today, well into the recovery.

Third, the length of a queue at a red light is inversely proportional to the number of lanes.  A 200-foot single-lane queue today may look worse than a 100-foot queue in the past, but if the shorter backup was in two lanes, the number of cars would be the same. 

“A road eliminates any excess capacity from the system.”  This is an excellent point in some settings, although it may have limited applicability to Petaluma Boulevard South.

Let’s take the example of a well-configured four-lane road that might have a daily traffic capacity of 30,000 trips.  If the current traffic load is 18,000 trips, conversion to a three-lane configuration, usually considered to have a traffic capacity of 20,000 trips, wouldn’t increase near-term congestion, but would eliminate the capacity of road to accept more trips as conditions change.

But Petaluma Boulevard South isn’t a well-configured four-lane road.  I don’t have an engineering estimate, but with the constricted lanes and with cars stopped for left turns blocking following vehicles, its current capacity may not be much more than 20,000 trips.  So there may be little or no excess capacity being eliminated.

Plus, a well-designed road diet can move some trips from driving to biking or walking, reducing the number of trips that must be accommodated.

“If you are going to squeeze two lanes away and turn a major road into a two-lane road, then put in nice bike paths on both sides.”  Most would agree with the sentiment in the abstract, but reality often doesn’t conform to the abstract.

Much of Petaluma Boulevard, both North and South, has a 52-foot curb-to-curb width.  Widening the street isn’t an option because of existing buildings, a desire to retain friendly sidewalks, and the unavailability of grant money for the much greater expense of widening.

So the designers are stuck with the 52 feet.  After allocations are made for parking, without which merchants and shoppers would riot, and the three lanes needed for a road diet to function, there just isn’t room for bike lanes.

City engineers aren’t anti-biking; they just don’t have enough street width to accommodate every desirable street element.  Sometimes the best they can do is to make a street a little bit safer for bicyclists.

Petaluma Boulevard North with center pocket
"The two-car wide parking lane in the middle is too wide.  If they are going to do a road diet, do it, but use the extra space for bike lanes.”  This is another way of lobbying for bike lanes.  However,  the center pocket, generally used by delivery trucks is only 14 feet wide, two feet  wider than most travel lanes, but far short of “two-car wide”.

And the center pocket is absolutely needed for deliveries.  Some argue that all deliveries should be done from the alleys that parallel Petaluma Boulevard North through downtown, but not all retail spaces extend all the way to the alley.  Also, UPS and FedEx won’t use alleys where they might end up stuck behind a truck doing a large delivery.

At least some trucks must do deliveries from the Boulevard side and the road configuration therefore needs to accommodate those trucks without blocking other users of the street.  The center turn pocket is essential.

“Driving practices need to change before road diets can work.”  I once worked with an engineer who, when someone argued that the users of a proposed project needed to change their behavior so the concept could work, who look deeply thoughtful and then ask, “So, our goal is to change human nature and then design the project?”  She was of course correct and her slyly expressed realism forced others to remember that we can only deal with human beings as they are and as they behave.  They may reengineer themselves over time, but we can’t manage or accelerate that change.

Driving is one of those behaviors that we can’t change easily, if at all.  We have to accept driving Behaviors as they now are and to design roadways to accommodate that reality.  Luckily, road diets have often been shown to work with drivers as they now drive.

Turning attention to comments that were directed at the proposed road diet on Petaluma Boulevard South:

“Bike lanes need to be included.”  To the extent that the road widths permit, I agree.  And there are road segments where bike lanes seem a real possibility.  The final decisions won’t be made until after the grant is hopefully approved and design is underway, but I hope that some bike lanes will be included.  But to insist on bike lanes everywhere puts the unattainable perfect above the achievable.

“Without bike lanes, it is a waste of money.  Just lower the speed limit.”  I’m a huge proponent of lower speed limits and have often written about Twenty is Plenty.

But I’ve also written that we can’t lower speed limits arbitrarily.  Speed limits are set by how drivers perceive safe speeds, so to lower a speed limit, we must change how drivers perceive a street.  It’s a goal I hope can be accomplished through the road diet, and I’ve already begun lobbying for a design standard that would help, but under state law the city isn’t allowed to just post a new speed limit.

“Safer for bikes and pedestrians = good; including bike lanes = Great!  <hopeful>.”  This was my favorite comment and captures my position exactly.  Even where a perfect solution is precluded by existing constraints, incremental improvements are still desirable and essential.

Schedule reminder: The road diet hearing will be this evening, Monday, December 19, 7:00 pm, in the City Council Chambers at 11 English Street.  Regardless of how you feel on the subject, try to attend with an open mind.  New and pertinent information will certainly be offered.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

Monday, December 12, 2016

Another Perspective on Road Diets

Mid-Block Conflict Points for
Four-Lane Undivided Roadway
versus Three-Lane
A few posts back, I wrote about a road diet that’s being proposed for an arterial into my town, a well-traveled route into the heart of downtown used by both residents and visitors.  While not without its negatives, I think the proposal is reasonable, although other don’t agree.  Today, a friend is going to take over this space to write about the traffic engineering behind road diets, engineering that applies directly to the Petaluma Boulevard South proposal.

Bjorn Griepenburg is a Petaluma native, recently returned to his hometown after an academic career that included stops at UC Santa Barbara and the University of Oregon, concluding with a Masters in Community and Regional Planning.  After a year with Muni in San Francisco, he’s recently become the Policy Director for the Marin County Bike Coalition.

Here’s Bjorn:

Correcting Misconceptions about the Road Diet

Petaluma Boulevard South does not work well for anybody.  In its current configuration, it has four travel lanes and two parking lanes—about 60 feet worth of lanes—crammed into a 52 foot space.  It’s not uncommon to see cars parked on sidewalks or driving between the two travel lanes due to the constrained space.  The pavement is in deplorable condition.  Most importantly, it’s an uninviting and unsafe corridor for people traveling by foot and bike.

Luckily, there exists a well-established solution to all of these problems: the road diet.  Road diets have become the silver bullet of transportation engineering across the country, correcting four-lane roads like Petaluma Boulevard by eliminating a through lane in each direction and replacing them with a bi-directional center turn lane--improving safety for all users, and doing so with negligible impacts on traffic.

With the number of travel lanes dropping from four to three, a common question raised by skeptics follows some form of the following: how doesn’t dropping a lane lead to increased congestion?  I’ll do my best to explain why and how, calling out benefits of the reconfiguration along the way.

The Problem with Four Lanes – and the Case for Three

Petaluma Boulevard South’s four lanes don’t benefit anyone, drivers included.  Studies of road diets suggest that corridors with average daily traffic (ADT)—the number of vehicles that traverse a corridor in a given weekday—of 20,000 or below are strong candidates for road diets.  (http://safety.fhwa.dot.gov/road_diets/info_guide/ch3.cfm#s335)

That’s because there simply isn’t enough traffic to necessitate having multiple lanes in both directions. Petaluma Boulevard South falls far below this threshold, even under future build-out scenarios. Even if you head to the Boulevard in its peak hours, you’d be hard-pressed to find the corridor congested with cars clogging up both lanes in either direction.

Crossing and Through Traffic
Conflict Points at Intersections
for a Four-Lane Undivided Roadway
versus Three-Lane
One of the instances in which you will see cars backed up in a single lane on Petaluma Boulevard South is when a vehicle signals for a left turn and must wait for oncoming traffic to clear.  At those times, the cars behind will either queue up behind the left-turning vehicle or pass on the right. The road diet creates a designated space for left-turning vehicles, preventing these backups and the dangerous weaving patterns that they often induce.

Major-Street Left-Turn Sight Distance
for Four-Lane Undivided Roadway versus
Three-Lane
Also, as anyone who has turned left off of the Boulevard or crossed it by foot, bicycle, or vehicle can attest, the presence of two lanes in each direction can dangerously obstruct sightlines.  In my daily crossings of the Boulevard at G Street, a far-too-common occurrence involves a driver in the nearest lane stopping to allow me to cross, only to have a car speed by them in the second lane, unaware of my presence in the crosswalk. In the three-lane configuration, those crossing or turning left off of the Boulevard only have to worry about one car in each direction, dramatically improving sightlines. The Federal Highway Administration illustrations above
and to the right highlight these and other conflict points reduced by the conversion.

With each conflict point removed, the chances of a completely preventable tragedy are reduced. Studies have found crash reduction rates ranging from 20 to 50 percent along corridors similar to Petaluma Boulevard South after implementation of a “4-to-3” road diet.  (http://safety.fhwa.dot.gov/road_diets/info_guide/app_a.cfm)

Even if the road diet had negative traffic impacts—and it doesn’t—it would be absolutely ridiculous to argue against a project that makes a corridor safer for people walking, bicycling, AND driving. It’s time to start honoring our commitment to public safety through road design. In the case of the road diet on Petaluma Boulevard South, it’s a no-brainer.  – Bjorn

My recent post on road diets triggered extensive comment chains on both Facebook and Nextdoor, a conversation in which Bjorn participated.  I didn’t have the opportunity to join the discussions, but will use my next post to respond to a few of the comments.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

Pointing the Ghost Ship Finger in the Right Direction

Building on International Boulevard near the Ghost Ship
I'm usually not one to talk back to the television during news broadcasts.  I may arch an occasional eyebrow if I find the understanding deficient on a key point, but that’s usually my limit.

However, there are exceptions.  One recently occurred during the reporting on the Ghost Ship fire.  For those who don't live in California, or have been in a monastery for the past week, a warehouse that had been illegally converted into residential space near the Fruitvale BART station in Oakland burned a week ago at the loss of 36 lives. 

During a news broadcast a couple of days after the fire, an Oakland City Councilmember took advantage of his 15 minutes of fame to describe the tragedy as a failure of the code enforcement role of the Oakland Fire Department.

His comments missed the fundamental point. And I expressed my thinking in strong words, interrupting my wife's viewing of the broadcast.

The problem is ultimately much deeper than whether the nine Fire Marshals of the Oakland Fire Department should have somehow inspected 20,000 commercial properties every year.  Instead the two root level issues are that we don't provide enough funds to many civic functions such that there can be any reasonable chance of complying with the multiplicity of laws and that we don’t have a commitment to provide housing for all.

Our cities are severely deprived of funds, a situation that has been inescapably and inexorably getting worse since the 1978 passage of Proposition 13.  We know this to be true, the civic balance sheets show it clearly, and yet we don’t accept responsibility for the shortfalls.

There have been letters in the Bay Area papers arguing that excuses of inadequate resources or staffing aren’t appropriate responses to a loss of human life in the Ghost Ship.  Poppycock.  We can’t ask public employees to perform their duties at impossible speeds so our tax bills can be a little lower, especially when none of us work at superhuman rates at our jobs.  Municipal services have reasonable costs and we must be prepared to pay them.

And with regard to the availability of housing, as long as we allow housing to be the product of a free market and a patchwork of subsidies, public and private, there will be people who fall through the cracks and needs the low rents of places like the Ghost Ship to avoid living on the street.  This is particularly true in a region that has a chronic housing shortage.

So, what are the connections between these two issues and the walkable urbanism which is the primary topic of this blog?  Walkable urbanism is a less expensive way of building cities, freeing up funds for other civic obligations such as fire inspections.

And walkable urban settings are the least expensive places to add new housing.  Walkable urban place won’t solve housing shortages just by existing, but they make it easier to solve the shortages if we choose to do so.

Walkable urbanism is the answer to many questions.  And the Ghost Ship fire illustrates exactly that if only we will listen and not blabber about simplistic and unhelpful answers such as the failures of overwhelmed fire marshals.

My next post will return to the proposed road diet in my town.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

Friday, December 9, 2016

Where I’ve Been, What I’ve Been Doing, and Where I’m Going

With my last post, I returned to the world of blogging after a three month absence.  I promised to explain in this post how I came to step away, although I suspect long-time readers sensed my impending hiatus.

After many years of hitting my goal of a new post every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, I began struggling during the month of August.  Sometimes my posts weren’t published until the late evening or early morning hours. Sometimes they were a day or two late.  I found it increasingly difficult to set aside the time and concentration to finish a post.

Eventually, near the end of August, I missed a deadline, couldn’t get back to complete the post, and abruptly found myself an ex-blogger.

It’d be easy to point at the obvious reasons for my absence from this space.  Continually increasing obligations in my personal life.  An overwillingness to say “yes” to opportunities to be involved in civic life, resulting in too many obligations.  A need to recharge whatever batteries I have that allowed me to blog as long as I did.

But, as I see it, the real reason is more subtle.  It pertains to local politics and my role in a recent race.

I’ve written before (here and here) about my involvement in the early stages of a political campaign.   As recounted in those posts, I helped found a committee tasked with finding a candidate to contest a now-completed City Council race.

Since I last wrote on the subject, we found a candidate.  He was the best possible candidate.  Indeed, he was the candidate for whom I had hoped when I first suggested the committee.  I was thrilled with our initial prospects.

As the campaign got underway, the candidate asked me to serve as his campaign treasurer.  I also slipped into a role as a campaign strategist, helping to craft positions, editing materials written by the candidate and others, and contributing some of my own words.

 But it wasn’t the time I spent on the dollars of campaign finance or the words of campaign rhetoric that broke the camel’s back.  It was the challenge of keeping the voices straight.

I’ve known the candidate for more than a decade.  In that time, we’ve had many opportunities to converse about land use theories.  I’ve educated him and he’s educated me to the point where our beliefs are largely aligned.  But they’re not completely aligned.  We differ on some points of emphasis, on some social issues, and on our perceptions of the positions taken by others in the community.  We’re fine allies, but we’re not the same person.

And that near, but not complete, alignment creates a challenge, especially with the written word.  It was important that I get the candidate’s voice right when I when I was working on his campaign.  It was equally important to find my own voice when I returned to this soapbox.  And I found it increasingly difficult to find both voices with their subtle differences and to keep them distinct.

If this blog had been about something completely divorced from local politics and land-use theory, perhaps the reduced role of the screwball in baseball or the myriad uses of earthworm castings, I could probably have continued with the blog.  But that wasn’t my reality and the challenge of keeping two nearly-aligned voices well-defined became more than I could accommodate in my schedule.  So I took a hiatus.

But the campaign is now over.  I’ve taken another month to catch my breath and to rediscover my own voice.  And I’m ready to resume this blog.

But things will be different than they were before.  Even with the campaign complete, my plate of civic involvement remains well-filled.  My goal will remain three posts per week, but Monday, Wednesday, and Friday will now only guidelines.  I’ll still count Tuesday, Saturday, and Sunday as a win.  (Indeed, this post is two days later than I hoped.)  And I’ll try, once again, to write some posts with fewer words, a promise I’ve often made to myself only to fail equally often.

Before I close, I suspect there is one other question about which many are wondering.  Did the candidate win?  To my chagrin, no, he didn’t.  We mounted a solid effort, raised more funds than any other candidate, made many new friends and supporters, and ran a campaign of respect and quiet good sense.  But we ultimately failed to overcome the power of incumbency and the status quo, falling short by about two percent.

Despite the failure, lessons were learned, many of which will be shared here in the coming weeks and months, and enthusiasm was created for a long-term commitment.  Planning for the 2018 election has already begun.  The same candidate may or may not run, but the group we founded will put at least one candidate into the field.  And next time, we won’t lose.

So, I’m back to blogging.  I’ve missed chatting with you, apologize for my absence, and look forward to rebuilding our connection.

When I next write, it will be about the recent tragic fire in Oakland.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

Monday, December 5, 2016

I’m Back and I Want to Talk About a Road Diet

Petaluma Boulevard South
(note truck using both 10-foot lanes)
Let me start by apologizing for my long absence from this soapbox.  It wasn't a planned absence, although in retrospect it does feel as if it were inevitable.

In my next post, I’ll talk about the reasons for my temporary disappearance after nearly five years of thrice weekly posts.  But today I have a subject of more immediate importance.

I’ve previously written about road diets, modifications to existing streets to readjust the balance between cars, bicyclists, and pedestrians.

The most common version of a road diet, one that has been implemented in communities across the country, converts two lanes of traffic in each direction into single travel lanes, a center turn lane, and, depending on the geometry of the existing street, added accommodation for bicycles, pedestrians, parking, and/or street beautification.  As long as the traffic doesn’t exceed 20,000 daily trips, these “four-to-three” road diets have been found to have little to no impact on traffic capacity.

Wikipedia provides a summary of road diets in the U.S., although the list of completed projects is deficient.

In Petaluma where I live, a road diet was implemented a few years back on Petaluma Boulevard through the heart of downtown and continuing a little further north.  As I described in the post linked above, the project was controversial.  There was significant opposition before construction and many were willing to decry the road diet as a failure immediately after completion.

The debate has largely died away, although occasional pockets of obstreperousness remain.  But by most objective and subjective measures, the downtown road diet has been a success.  Traffic counts are higher now than they were before the road diet, showing that capacity wasn’t harmed.  Traffic accidents are reduced.  Pedestrians generally report a more comfortable experience.  And bicyclists, although still bemoaning the lack of bike lanes which weren’t possible because of the narrowness of the road, admit that the riding experience is better than before. 

Encouraged by that success and motivated by the availability of grant funds that can repave deteriorating streets as a part of implementing road diets, city staff has been alert to the possibility of more road diets.

They identified South Petaluma Boulevard as a suitable project.  The work would begin at the southern end of the previous road diet and continue another mile south.  Indeed, they found that it was the road section in Petaluma that best fit the criteria for a newly announced grant program.  With staff having identified the opportunity, a City Council hearing is scheduled for December 19 to consider giving direction to city staff to apply for the grant.

As a long-time user and observer of Petaluma Boulevard South, I’m pleased with the progress.  The street needs a change.  The roadway segment nearest to downtown has four 10-foot travel lanes and two six-foot parking lanes.  Although there are places where 10-foot lanes can work, and may even be desirable, four 10-foot lanes bracketed by narrow parking isn’t one of those places.  And six-foot parking lanes, compared to more common widths of seven or eight feet, often induce drivers to park with two wheel s on the curb, diminishing the pedestrian experience.

Adding in the aging and heavily patched pavement, the street is an uncomfortable drive for motorists.  It’s even worse for bicyclists and pedestrians, especially for walkers trying to cross the boulevard from the residential neighborhoods south of the boulevard to the restaurants and riverside parks to the north.

Also, Petaluma Boulevard South is the designated multi-use path (MUP) for the SMART train that is coming soon to the North Bay.  The MUP, which was essential to voter approval of SMART, is the route by which bicyclists are directed to reach SMART stations or to tour the North Bay.  It’s an embarrassment to both SMART and Petaluma to have the MUP aligned along a road that is so unwelcoming to bikes.

Despite the logic for the Petaluma Boulevard South road diet, some opposition nonetheless arose, offering many of the same arguments that were used against the downtown road diet, largely focusing around traffic capacity.  And there were indications that some Councilmembers might pay heed to the opposition.

Anticipating this resistance, a group, to which I belong, came together to argue for the road diet.  We’re currently walking door-to-door in the neighborhoods that are most likely to be benefited by the road diet, educating the residents about the benefits of the road diet and asking for their support.

This is where the readers come in, at least those readers who remain here after my three- month sabbatical.  If you live in or near Petaluma and believe a road diet on Petaluma Boulevard South might be a great idea, I have three suggestions for you.

1) You can attend a question-and-answer session at the Aqus Café, 2nd and H Streets in Petaluma at 5:00pm on Wednesday, December 7.  Thus far, city staff hasn’t committed to participate, but others can hopefully answer any questions you might have.

2) If a road diet still sounds like a good idea, you can visit flutterby.net/roaddiet/ to share your opinion with whichever Councilmembers you select.

3)  Lastly, you can attend the Council meeting on Monday, December 19 to express your views.  Or at least to show a common purpose with those who will be attending to support the road diet.     

This isn’t the last time I’ll write about road diets between now and the Council hearing.  In particular, I’ll let a friend, professional planner, and bicycling advocate use this space next week to more fully explain road diets.

But this introduction will hopefully suffice for now.  And if it triggered any questions, let me know.  I’ll be happy to answer as best I can.

When I next write, it will be to explain a little about where I’ve been for the last three months.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Taking the Next Step - Opportunities to Get Involved during the Week of August 28

Last week, I wrote that the number of public meetings with urbanist overtones seemed to be increasing as Labor Day approached.  I may have reached that conclusion too soon, with next week coming up nearly dry.  But perhaps fifth weeks of months are always deficient on meetings that are scheduled on a monthly basis.  And there are still a couple of meetings by which to get involved, along with some longer term opportunities on the horizon.

Meetings this Week

Cotati Design Review Committee, Monday, August 29, 4:30pm, Cotati City Hall, 201 West Sierra Avenue – With much of the surrounding land already occupied by medium-density single family homes and industrial land uses, Cotati will have little opportunity for transit-oriented development around the its new station on SMART rail line.  The Cotati Station Lofts and Apartments, about 1,000 feet away, will be the only TOD, at least in the near term.  (My first foray into home ownership, four decades ago, was a condo about 2,000 feet from a BART station.  I rarely used my car from Monday through Friday, so 1,000 feet isn’t far at all.)

Much of the project is already constructed, but some details are still being finalized, including consideration at this week’s Cotati Design Review Committee meeting.  The agenda is sketchy on details, but it might be interesting meeting for some to attend.

Windsor City Council and Planning Commission, Thursday, September 1, 6:00pm, Windsor Civic Center Council Chambers, 9291 Old Redwood Highway, Building 400 – As I first noted last week, the Windsor City Council and Planning Commission are conducting joint sessions to continue their consideration of the draft 2040 General Plan.  This week, they’ll focus on the transportation and mobility elements.  In the one meeting I attended, I found the discussion high-level and engaging, so encourage others to partake.

Meetings in the Weeks and Months to Follow

Petaluma City Council, Monday, September 12, 7:00pm, Petaluma City Hall, 111 English Street – The Petaluma Planning Commission recently rejected the site design for the proposed Marina Apartments on Lakeville Highway east of Highway 101.  The reasons cited were concerns over building massing and architecture, but disappointments were also expressed about the recent Council decision to relieve the applicant of a requirement to build a segment of multi-use path.

The applicant appealed the Planning Commission rejection.  The appeal will be heard by the City Council on September 12.  Although the primary focus will be the design of the building, it’s likely that the multi-use path will also be a subject of public comment.  Legally, the City Council could re-impose the multi-use path condition, although it’s unlikely barring a public outcry in support of the path.

Petaluma City Council, Monday, September 19, 7:00pm, Petaluma City Hall, 111 English Street – Petaluma staff will return to the Council for approval to submit a grant application for street improvements.  To best conform to the standards of the granting agency, staff initially proposed a road diet for Petaluma Boulevard South.  The Council, in asking that the item be removed from the Council agenda back in June, asked staff to look at other possible street projects as possible subjects for the grant application.

The Petaluma Boulevard South road diet reportedly remains the preferred project for City staff, setting up a potentially interesting discussion when the matter returns to the Council agenda.

I’ve been working with a group of citizens who are passionate supporters of the Petaluma Boulevard South road diet and have been working toward ensuring that the road diet returns to the Council with a strong public endorsement.  If you wish to help with the effort, please email me.  There is a role for additional helping hands.

Joe Minicozzi Digs into the Municipal Finances of Urbanism, Week of September 26 (note date change), Multiple locations - Many readers attended three evening of talks by Chuck Marohn of StrongTowns and Joe Minicozzi of Urban3 this past January in Santa Rosa.  The two spoke about the theory of why suburbia often fails and the data that supports the theory.  Plans are being firmed up for a return visit by Minicozzi about a month from now.

Meetings will be held in Santa Rosa and Windsor, with the possibility of a further meeting elsewhere in Sonoma County.  Details will be noted here as soon as available.

I encourage everyone to block out as much time as possible for Monday, September 26 through Wednesday, September 28, both to listen to Minicozzi and to build relationships with other North Bay urbanists.

Rail~Volution, October 10-12, Hyatt Regency, San Francisco – The leading conference on the use of rail for community building is coming to San Francisco this fall.  The coming role of SMART in the North Bay will surely be discussed, as will the increasing density around BART stations.

Lots of opportunities to get involved.  Please grab at least one and hopefully more.

When I next write, I won’t write.  Instead, I’ll turn this space over to an urban planner trained in bicycle transportation who will write about road diets and bicycles.  I had the same expectation a week ago, but I’ve been assured that it’ll work out this time.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Free-Range Kids: Part 1, Framing the Discussion

Children at play in Spokane
In my last post, I argued that warnings to be alert to children on back-to-school day were three months too late because more children are on the street during the summer.

But in the course of making that argument, I acknowledged that, regardless of the season, there are fewer children on the street than when I was young.  (Yeah, that probably makes me a curmudgeon, but sometimes even curmudgeons are accurate about the shortfalls of the modern world.)

This reduction in the numbering of roaming children is often described as the loss of “free-range kids”.

Over the years of attending urbanist conferences, I’ve heard several people tell similar stories of the multi-generational loss of childhood autonomy.  If I recall correctly, one of the speakers was Sarah Susanka of “Not So Big House” fame.  However, being unable at the moment to put my fingers on the exact details of Susanka’s or others’ stories, I’ll offer a composite of the stories I’ve heard.

When the speaker’s great-grandfather was a child, he was allowed to bicycle six miles, with sandwiches in a knapsack, to spend a day fishing.

The pond became off-limits to the next generation, but the speaker’s grandfather was still allowed to pedal into the township a couple of miles away to gather with friends.

The speaker’s father could only venture along the length of the road where the family lived.

And the speaker wasn’t allowed to leave the frontyard without parental supervision. 

I suspect that many readers can trace similarly reducing circles in their family histories.

In my case, my father would often tell the story of wandering his small hometown all day, playing with childhood friends and making his own lunch, while his mother ran the downtown soda fountain.  (In his later years, he also came to realize that the entire community had been watching over him.  Whenever he misbehaved, the story would be quickly relayed to his mother at the soda fountain, with judgment rendered before he could return with his side of the story.  He didn’t get away with much, but he felt protected.)

I didn’t have quite that much freedom as a child, but wasn’t far behind.  I often rode my bike to visit friends, even if it meant crossing a busy street.  And I recall being given a few dollars at age ten to bike three-quarters of a mile to buy a missing ingredient for dinner, an errand that also included buying a few baseball cards from a vending machine in front of the store.

Having no children, the story ends with me except to the extent I can observe the world around me.  And I can report never seeing a ten-year-old child ride up on a bicycle to buy groceries at the store in my neighborhood.  (Nor are baseball cards still sold in vending machines.)

The loss of free-range childhoods matters to urbanists because, along with children who never leave the house, an antithesis of free-range children is children who are driven everywhere.  Two major elements of urbanism are the sufficient closeness of the various needs of life such that walking and bicycling are the superior transportation options and streets that are balanced between drivers, pedestrians, and bicyclists such that the latter two feel safe.  Having Mom back an SUV out of a three-car garage to drive Junior to a play date a block and a half away works against both of those elements.

Furthermore, the lost of free-range childhoods should matter to all of us because childhood freedom to explore, whether ideas or surroundings, seems to correlate with greater creativity in adulthood.  With creativity being perhaps the most valuable commodity that U.S. offers to the global economy, anything that lessens creativity should be a cause for alarm.

Okay, if free-range kids are good on multiple levels, why have they become scarce?  Several reasons can be given, starting with increased attractions at home such as video games, better televisions, and the internet and over-estimated stranger danger.

But the reason I want to note today is enforcement of cultural norms.   Many citizens are willing to call authorities if they believe children are being given more freedom than appropriate, making parents timid in their parenting decisions.

Let me give another example from my own life.  From kindergarten through third grade, I attended an elementary school a half-mile from my home.  The walk was along a moderately-used local street.  A guard-assisted crossing of a collector street was also required.  There was little sidewalk, so most of the walk was on paved and unpaved shoulders.

My parents thought it was fine if I walked to school, but not on my own, at least for first grade.  So they set me up with a nearby third-grade girl.  The two of us walked together along the shoulder, a six-year-old and an eight-year-old, as cars drove past us.  (And yes, there was a certain thrill in showing up for first grade in the company of an older woman.)

My parents weren’t pushing the envelope and I don’t recall anyone ever questioning their judgment.  It was how things were in 1959.

It’s very different today.  A Washington, D.C. couple who believe in free-range kids have been investigated multiple times by the police and child services for allowed their ten-year-old and six-year-old to explore their neighborhood by themselves, including a recent incident during which the children were held in the back of a police cruiser for three hours.  

As the writer of the linked article in CityLab correctly notes, specific circumstances matter greatly.  Allowing a six-year-old to walk by himself to play in a neighborhood park with friends is very different than sending the same child for a quart of milk at a convenience store that has been robbed three times in recent weeks.

But our default has too become excessive caution and that mindset undermines our children and our cities.

It needn’t be this way.  The culture in Japan expects children to venture out on their own at a much younger age.  There is even a television show that films two- and three-year-olds heading out to complete their first family errands.

Even if the U.S. can’t fully emulate the Japanese model, we should at least ponder it.

This is a rich topic to which I’ll return as soon as possible.  But my next post will be another summary of upcoming opportunities to publicly espouse urbanism and that post will be followed by a discussion of road diets.  Lots of good stuff coming up.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

Monday, August 22, 2016

Stay Alert for Youthful Users of the Street All Year Long

Harmar Elementary School
in Harmer, Ohio
I promised a guest writer today, an expert on road diets.  Unfortunately, he’s still hard at work on his post, so you’re instead stuck with me.  The road diet post, or hopefully two, will run next week.

But it’s okay that today’s authorship reverted to me because I have a topic about which I want to vent.

Most schools in my town reopened last week.  And, as seems to happen every year, many wrote warnings to drivers about being aware of children on their way to school.

Obviously, I’ll fully in support of not running over students.  But isn’t the warning mistimed?

I can’t speak to everyone’s youth, but let me share a fairly typical day from the summer between my sixth and seventh grade school years.

After a slow start to the day, usually cereal while watching morning reruns of “The Andy Griffith Show” and “The Dick Van Dyke Show”, I’d join a group of boys near the north end of my block for games played in the street and involving bat and ball.  We never had enough bodies for a full game of baseball, plus we had a grouchy neighbor who complained if we got too noisy, but we have a variety of alternatives with which to entertain ourselves until the early afternoon.

As the day got warmer, I’d often ride my bicycle to the nearby pool club, where I’d spend an hour or two hanging out and getting wet.

In the evening, after dinner, I’d sometimes join a different group of youths on the south end of my block for more street play, often a variant of softball that wasn’t high level, but was enough to keep me outside until the streetlights came on.

Now, compare that to my routine when school resumed.  Walk sleepily and sullenly to the corner to await a school bus.  Reverse in the afternoon, perhaps with less sleepiness.

Wouldn’t it have been ridiculous to warn drivers to be alert to my twice daily half-block walks during the school year while letting me play ball in the street and wander all over my neighborhood, on foot and on bicycle, all summer long with nary a warning to drivers?

Some will note that there are fewer children out and about on their own these days, with streetball games almost never seen.  They’re right on both points, which is a separate subject worthy of its own discussion, but I’ll also note that walking and bicycling to school are at historic lows, with many more students getting rides to school.

I know this will be only one data point, but I think it’s a good one.  My wife and I live on a moderately busy street.  Our home is nearly equidistant and within walking distance of three schools, a high school, junior high, and elementary school.  And we see more youths walking and bicycling during the summer than we do when school is in session.

The first day of school warnings are a clichéd remnant of a time that never was.  They’re not a bad thing, but the more useful reminder is to be aware of all street users on foot and on bicycle year round.

Okay, grumble complete.

However, the grumble had the upside of broaching the fact that fewer children are using the streets on their own these days, a problem that many describe as the loss of free-range childhoods.  It’s the topic that’s important to urbanism and into which I’ll dig next time, while still awaiting the road diet posts.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

Friday, August 19, 2016

Taking the Next Step - Opportunities to Get Involved during the Week of August 21

The number of North Bay public meetings with urbanist overtones seems to be increasing as we approach Labor Day.  Hopefully this will portend a winter of paradigm shifting.  It’s time to get onboard and to begin making your voice heard.  Also, with issues such as municipal elections and the road diet in Petaluma looming, there are also chances for neighborhood outreach.  If you want to make a difference in the world, there are opportunities to do so.

Meetings this Week

Cotati Planning Commission and Rohnert Park Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee, Monday August 22, 5:30pm, City Council Chamber, Rohnert Park City Hall,  130 Avram Avenue – A few weeks back, I puzzled in this space about a joint meeting that had been scheduled and then cancelled involving public bodies of the adjoining cities of Cotati and Rohnert Park.  I couldn’t imagine what topic could have been of joint interest.  I now have my answer.  They would have assembled for a study session of the “Bicycle and Pedestrian Network Adjacent/Interconnected Facilities.”

And the previously canceled meeting has now been rescheduled for Monday.

Given the adjoining boundaries of the two cities and the moderately continuous land-use pattern, I think a joint study session is a great idea, applaud the two cities for their foresight, and encourage the interested members of the two communities to participate.

Petaluma Planning Commission, Tuesday, August 23, 7:00pm, Petaluma City Hall, 11 English Street – I’m not sure I can truly characterize this as an urbanism issue, but I’m also not sure that it isn’t.  To buttress attendance, the downtown Petaluma movie theatre is asking permission to begin selling beer and wine to moviegoers.

The land-use entitlement angle is sufficiently complex that the Petaluma planning staff had to discourse at length before recommending approval.

But I find the urbanist issues even more complex.  On one hand, I want the theatre to thrive because theatres can be important elements of downtowns, adding to sidewalk vitality.  On the other hand, I remain unconvinced that the ability to buy a beer will attract more patrons.  Also, movie theatres are a great place for youth to learn socialization away from parental oversight and I fear that adding alcohol to the mix, even if the youth aren’t the ones consuming, could be counterproductive to those learning experiences.

And on a personal level, I’m not eager to have more people climbing over me mid-movie to visit the restroom.

I’ll likely attend this meeting to see if I can find personal clarity.

Windsor City Council and Planning Commission, Tuesday, August 23, 5:30pm, Windsor Civic Center Council Chambers, 9291 Old Redwood Highway, Building 400 – Windsor, in a joint session of the City Council and Planning Commission, will continue their consideration of the draft 2040 General Plan.  This week, they’ll focus on the economic development and public facilities elements.

General plan study sessions will never be riveting experiences, but I attended the study session earlier this week on land use and community design and found it unexpectedly compelling.  Windsor has been more aggressive in adopting urbanist concepts than many North Bay cities and it shows in both the urban fabric around the civic complex and in the general discussion.

To be sure, there are still folks asking for down-zonings because they claim the market won’t support higher densities, but the down-zonings for which they’re asking are less extreme than similar requests in other communities and the tenor of the discussion seems more urban, and urbane, in tone.

This doesn’t mean that Windsor has reached financial stability through urbanism.  As a local urbanist assured me as I was taking my leave, Windsor still has a long ways to go.  But they’ve already reached a higher level of urbanism and a higher level of debate, both of which were enjoyable to observe.

I won’t make the meeting this coming week, but encourage others to attend who may need to have flagging urbanist spirits raised.

Meetings in the Weeks and Months to Follow

Petaluma City Council, Monday, September 12, 7:00pm, Petaluma City Hall, 111 English Street – The Petaluma Planning Commission recently rejected the site design for the proposed Marina Apartments on Lakeville Highway east of Highway 101.  The reason was concern over the building massing and architecture, but disappointments were also expressed about the recent Council decision to relieve the applicant of a requirement to build a segment of multi-use path.

The applicant appealed the Planning Commission rejection.  The appeal will be heard by the City Council on September 12.  Although the primary focus will be the design of the building, it’s likely that the multi-use path will also be a subject of public comment.  Legally, the City Council could re-impose the multi-use path condition, although it’s unlikely barring a public outcry in support of the path.

Petaluma City Council, Monday, September 19, 7:00pm, Petaluma City Hall, 111 English Street – Petaluma staff will return to the Council for approval to submit a grant application for street improvements.  To best conform to the standards of the granting agency, staff initially proposed a road diet for Petaluma Boulevard South.  The Council, by directing that the item be removed from the Council agenda, effectively asked staff to look at other possible street projects as subjects for the possible grant application.

The Petaluma Boulevard South road diet reportedly remains the preferred project for City staff, setting up a potentially interesting discussion when the matter returns to the Council agenda on September 19.

I’ve been working with a group of citizens who are passionate supporters of the Petaluma Boulevard South road diet and have been working toward ensuring that the road diet returns to the Council with a strong public endorsement.  If you wish to help with the effort, please email me.  There is a role for additional helping hands.

Joe Minicozzi Digs into the Municipal Finances of Urbanism, Week of September 19, Multiple locations - Many readers attended three evening of talks by Chuck Marohn of StrongTowns and Joe Minicozzi of Urban3 this past January in Santa Rosa.  The two spoke about the theory of why suburbia often fails and the data that supports the theory.  Conversations are underway for a return visit by Minicozzi to the North Bay later this year.

Exact dates and meeting locations are still being developed, but I encourage everyone to block out much of the week.  Minicozzi’s message could have profound consequences for North Bay cities.

Rail~Volution, October 10-12, Hyatt Regency, San Francisco – The leading conference on the use of rail for community building is coming to San Francisco this fall.  The coming role of SMART in the North Bay will surely be discussed, as will the increasing density around BART stations.

Fun stuff coming up, with lots of opportunities to get involved.  Please grab at least one and hopefully more.

When I next write, I won’t write.  Instead, I’ll turn this space over to an urban planner trained in bicycle transportation who will write about road diets and bicycles.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

Thursday, August 18, 2016

The Shrinking Role of Retail in Planning Cities

Office over retail mixed-use in downtown Napa
In 1962, when I was a nine-year-old living in south Sacramento, Macy’s announced plans to build a store in downtown Sacramento.  It was big news for the adults in my world.  It was also big news for Sacramento, a point of new-found pride in a town that often thought of itself as falling short in comparisons with San Francisco and Los Angeles.

I wasn’t quite sure I knew what Macy’s was.  I doubt I’ve yet seen “Miracle on 34th Street”.  But I sensed the buzz of excitement about Macy’s coming to town.  Retail stores mattered.

I thought back on those days of innocence this week as word came out that Macy’s would close another 100 stores to instead focus on its internet businesses.

Macy’s isn’t a factor in most walkable urban districts, but the message still stands.  Retail stores are shrinking in importance and shrinking quickly.  And it’s not just the old-line department stores like Macy’s.

The failure of enclosed malls is well-known, with photos of derelict malls rivaling abandoned industrial plants as ruin porn.

Downtown retail is increasingly antique stores and boutiques rather the diapers and canned soup that make up daily shopping lists.

Many strip malls have storefronts lined with butcher paper and leasing signs out front.

The new generation of open malls, whether the conventional configuration with giant parking lots fronting on supersized strip malls or the downtown-emulating lifestyle centers, struggle to fill their space.

Even residential over retail mixed-used, the backbone of many walkable urbanist plans, often can’t find enough tenants to fill the retail space created.

We needn’t like this direction, much as many bemoaned the abrupt loss of a great number of newspapers a few years back.  But lamenting the shrinking role of retail won’t make a difference, just as it didn’t with the newspaper downward spiral.

Instead, our role is to accept the inevitability of the change and to adjust to it.  (Earlier this week, I listened as the Windsor City Council and Planning Commission debated whether to give developers the option to substitute horizontal mixed-use for vertical.  I agreed with those who argued to hold firm on vertical, but at the same time wondered if they weren’t fighting over a corpse.)

Petaluma had the dual good fortune of updating their downtown development code just as the slide in retail was becoming evident and of having a far-sighted planning firm, Opticos Design, doing the update.  As a result, the amount of required sidewalk retail was reduced to levels that will hopefully be more consistent with future demand.

The reduction of sidewalk retail has urban design implications.  Although a level of pedestrian interest must be maintained to promote walkability, with interest being one of Jeff Speck’s four keys to walkability, the relationship between the sidewalk and a home is fundamentally different than between a sidewalk and a store.  (Long ago, I noted some examples at BART TOD projects.)  Opticos understood this and gave good design direction in the Station Area Masterplan.

Macy’s isn’t coming back nor is the number of local bookstores likely to rebound.  The future will belong to those who quickly accept this new reality and adjust their planning to accommodate it.

When I next write, it will be to offer my weekly list of opportunities to get involved in the public advocacy for urbanism.  As fall creeps closer, the list is beginning to grow.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)