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