More Traffic Thoughts
Probably the number one complaint of residents of Sebastopol and West County, as mentioned in an earlier post, is traffic. This is a common lament of people in communities across the country from large urban areas to small towns like Sebastopol. People just hate traffic. And who could blame them. No one wants to be trapped in a car in a line of other cars moving at a snails pace, or not at all. We want to be moving when we’re in cars, that’s what cars are for after all. Why be in a car if you’re just going to sit. Even the nicest luxury car is not really all that comfortable for extended periods of time (not that I have a lot of experience of sitting in luxury cars). We expect that once we get in a car, we should be able to move freely to our destination. Traffic disrupts this flow.
What I always find interesting is that the people that complain about traffic are usually, if not always, drivers. Pedestrians and cyclists don’t complain about traffic. A stationary car is preferable to a moving car from a pedestrian and cyclist standpoint. Free-flowing traffic is more dangerous for bikes and pedestrians. I love passing cars stuck in traffic while on my bike. It’s immensely satisfying. To the drivers who complain about traffic I would like to say ‘Guess what, by driving your car, you are creating traffic.’ We seem to have this expectation that once we get in our car we should be able to get wherever we want as fast as we want. This is simply not always the case.
I think a reason many people move to Sonoma County is to live in a semi-rural setting, on a large plot of land. That is fine, but it comes with consequences. Today, there are an incredible number of homes in the ‘rural’ countryside to the north, south and west of Sebastopol. And most employment opportunities are to the south and east. Because of the limited road network surrounding Sebastopol, most of the trips must pass through downtown. Hence, much of Sebastopol’s traffic is generated by people driving through town to get to a destination on the other side. To be honest, I really have no patience for people that live in these completely car-dependent locations who complain about traffic when they come into town. It is precisely because of their decision to live outside of town that we have the traffic we do today.
I’m sure there are some people who live out of town simply because the amount of housing stock in town is limited and more people would live in town if they could. I personally know several families looking to move into town but are having a difficult time due to the laws of supply and demand. Limited supply and high demand have served to drive up prices. Due to it’s geography and Urban Growth Boundary, Sebastopol’s best opportunity to increase it’s supply of housing lies in the creation of higher density housing downtown. Because downtown Sebastopol is located on the edge of the Laguna de Santa Rosa, it has not been possible to develop to the east. As town developed to the north, south and west it did so in the pattern of early 20th century of single-family homes. There has been very little multi-family development. Even on Main Street today, there are only 2 buildings, that I am aware of, that have any housing above them amounting to probably no more than 10 units total, if that. Most of the housing downtown is of the single-family variety. This has been a missed opportunity to this point and a great opportunity for the future to build more housing in a walkable location. Housing downtown is probably the biggest single thing we could do to ease traffic congestion.
My earlier post on the topic of traffic discussed Level of Service (LOS). I only add it again here to point to 2 great blogs about LOS. The Beginning of the End for Level of Service, on Streetsblog and a description of LOS and why we should not be using it to design our streets from the Project for Public Spaces. LOS is an obstacle to creating lively, walkable urban environments. We need to recognize that there is good congestion and bad congestion and not discriminate against all congestion. Some of our most popular urban destinations are very congested and quite successful because, or in spite of it. Greenwich Village in New York and North Beach in San Francisco to name a couple. Bad congestion is generated by drive-through traffic. Unfortunately, this is a large portion of Sebastopol’s congestion. Good congestion is congestion that is caused by local origins or destinations. That is, people driving to downtown destinations to patronize those businesses which adds to commerce and support of our local economy. Someone simply driving through town in order to get to the other side adds no value, only congestion.
The traditional way to combat congestion is to increase road capacity. The primary way to do this is to widen roads. Main Street on Sebastopol is already 3 lanes wide in one direction downtown so widening further is not at all desirable. The cross-town traffic on Hwy 12 and Bodega Ave is one lane in each direction, with a third turn lane as they pass through downtown. Given the locations of the buildings along Hwy 12, widening is not possible. Widening Bodega Avenue west of downtown would require substantial right-of-way acquisition mostly from single-family homes which would be a political non-starter and would require necking down before reaching Main St.
So what are we to do? The most effective way to reduce congestion is to reduce car dependence. The way to do that is to make driving a car less convenient and create more opportunities for alternative transportation. Creating more pedestrian and bike-friendly streets would encourage the use of those transportation alternatives. Developing a more mixed-use downtown is vitally important. Our downtown is primarily retail with some limited office, light manufacturing in The Barlow and almost no residential. More living alternatives in particular, but also more office space so people would not have to commute to other near and far communities for employment would help. Downtown Sebastopol is also very low density. Most buildings are single-story. However, higher density is not a means in itself. It must be partnered with useful destinations. We have the destinations downtown. We have a Whole Foods, Safeway and Rite Aid all right downtown. We also have a multi-screen movie theater, live theater, good restaurants, library, schools, Center for the Arts, independent bookstores and other locally owned businesses. Downtown Sebastopol has a Walk Score of 98 for crying out loud! Let’s give people the opportunity to live and work there. More people living and working downtown will also help support increased transit service which is limited and highly dependent on transit patrons living close to stops. This is the only way we will be able to combat the congestion downtown. Until then, plan your trips accordingly.