Sebastopol has a traffic problem. And It’s not the number of cars passing through downtown and backing up at times as concerns many people. The traffic problem has to do with the one-way street couplet created by Petaluma Avenue and Main Street. These streets were originally two-way streets but were converted to one-way in the mid 1980’s. I believe this was done to improve vehicular traffic flow, which it may or may not have improved. It also may have been a response to the removal of the train tracks (there had been a train running down the middle of Main Street, which is partly to blame for it’s extra-wide width). Sitting at the intersection of two state highways, Sebastopol has had it’s issues with pass-through traffic congestion. And there is a limit to what can and should be done to alleviate this. We need to choose if we want a pedestrian-friendly downtown, or one that caters to cars. Our current one-way street network caters to the car at the expense of the pedestrian.
Given the limited street network, the one-way streets further limit choice for maneuvering through town. Everyone entering downtown from the south has to travel on Petaluma Ave. heading north. Traveling through town to the south you have to take Main Street. Changing the one-way streets to two-way streets will provide more choice for motorists moving around downtown. It also will limit the amount of backtracking required to get to your destination inherent in a one-way street network which can be particularly confusing for visitors to our community.
The one-way streets are also detrimental to the pedestrian and bike experience in town. I live one block from South Main Street and walk this stretch of road on a regular basis. Once cars cross the main intersection downtown at Bodega Ave. there are no traffic controls other than crosswalks. The speed limit is 25 MPH transitioning to 30 MPH as you head further south. These posted speed limits are difficult to abide by on the straight extra-wide travel lanes. The travel lane width along this stretch of Main Street is 17′! That’s crazy! The minimum recommended lane width for interstate freeways is 12′, and that is generally the width they are designed. This is for design speeds of 65 mph. The travel lane width on South Main is 5′ wider than the standard for a freeway! Two 17′ wide lanes, side-by-side, and we somehow expect drivers to adhere to 25-30 mph. People will drive at the speed they feel safe at and a 17′ wide lane allows a lot of room for error, encouraging fast driving. The police regularly sit in wait for speeders along this stretch of road, but tickets alone do not discourage fast driving. The design of the street has much to do with how fast people feel comfortable driving.
One way roads also encourage fast driving because drivers do not have to concentrate on oncoming traffic. We tend to get more distracted when we don’t have oncoming traffic to pay attention to and often engage in risky driving behavior when on one-way streets, particularly when the lanes are 17′ wide!
Speeding along this one-way road is further exacerbated by the fact only the right lane continues south out of town, so drivers in the left lane speed up to pass traffic in the right lane in order to continue south. The same things happens on Petaluma Ave. as most traffic continues north which requires you to be in the right lane. To attempt to bypass the often backed-up right lane, drivers stay in the relatively clear left lane and try to cut back in to the right at the last possible minute. Northbound Petaluma Avenue is narrower, but the lanes are mostly 12′ minimum, and are 13′ in some locations.
Even on the main commercial block of Main Street the 3 driving lanes are 12′, 18′ and 12′. With an 8′ parking lane on each side the curb to curb width is 58′. And yet the sidewalks are only 9.5′ wide. Who is prioritized on the downtown Sebastopol street system, pedestrians or cars? Clearly it is the cars. If we want Sebastopol to become a pedestrian-friendly environment, we need to take back some of the right-of-way for pedestrians. And do we really need 3 lanes of traffic all heading in the same direction? We are a town of 7,200 people. Granted, we serve a much larger market area, but how many small towns have 3 lanes in one direction. This is certainly a street that could benefit from a road diet.
It has also been shown that two-way traffic is better for business. With one-way streets, you only get half of the potential exposure by passing vehicles. Communities that have converted one-way streets to two-way streets often see an increase in revenue for the businesses along the route. A one-way street system is confusing for visitors. As Sebastopol becomes more of a tourist destination we need to make the experience of circulating downtown as easy as possible. I have seen people drive the wrong-way on more than one occasion. Here is an interesting article about the conversion of many one-way street systems to two-way. And another urban design blog about one-way streets
The problem with the road design in downtown Sebastopol is that the streets have been seen as tools for traffic engineering only. They have not been viewed as an important piece in the creation of a good urban experience for a variety of users, or for being able to enhance the quality of urban life. This happens all the time. Streets are designed to move vehicles as efficiently as possible, often to the detriment of other users. One of the recommendations of the SDAT was to return downtown Sebastopol to a 2-way street network (see pages 70-72 of the report). You could convert Main Street to two ways with an 8′ parking lane on each side, a 6′ bike lane in each direction and an 11′ wide travel lane in each direction which is plenty wide for an urban thoroughfare. Imagine how this would improve the pedestrian experience. Bulb-outs at the intersections would reduce pedestrian crossing distance further enhancing the pedestrian experience.
Sebastopol is a crossroads community with a street network that is currently designed to move the most through-traffic as efficiently as possible at the expense of the pedestrian experience. Even with the one-way streets designed to move the most traffic, we still have traffic congestion at certain times and a pedestrian-unfriendly environment. We should move to a city-first approach as discussed in the SDAT report. A two-way street network will benefit the city-first approach. It may not help traffic congestion, but are we designing our communities for people or for cars? For a long time we have been designing our communities for cars. It’s time to for our cities and towns to welcome back pedestrians and bikes and share the space with cars. Returning the downtown Sebastopol street system to two-ways will go along way in rehumanizing downtown.
I’ve reblogged another post which discusses some general issues surrounding one-way streets.