Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Road Diets Lose a Round in Petaluma

In a blog post of five months ago, I wrote about road diets.  In particular, I was writing about a pending road diet revision in downtown Petaluma.  From that post:

“A road diet is a reduction in the travel lanes of an existing street, converting some of the pavement area to other uses, such as additional parking, center turn pockets, or sidewalks bulbs for traffic calming.

“Although reducing travel lanes would intuitively seem to reduce traffic capacity, the reduction can be less than expected.  If the existing lanes are unusually narrow, as is true of Petaluma Boulevard, the current capacity may be less than indicated by the lane count.  Meanwhile, the revised configuration can improve vehicle and pedestrian safety.

“I find the road diet to be a reasonable traffic modification for downtown Petaluma.  I’m pleased that it’s proceeding.  But I’m not surprised that it’s been controversial.”

Several weeks ago, the Petaluma City Council considered the possibility of applying for a grant from the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) to continue the road diet on Petaluma Boulevard South.  The suggestion by City Public Works was to continue the road diet from its current end between D and E Streets to the vicinity of McNear Street or perhaps to the recently completed roundabout at the new Quarry Heights subdivision.

I describe the Public Works position as a “suggestion” because their endorsement was tepid.  They found that the extended road diet was the best fit for the MTC grant, but were unsure if the community was ready for a further road diet on Petaluma Boulevard.

Their caution was justified.  Both the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat and Petaluma Patch ran articles that attracted community concern.  At the hearing, further worries were expressed on behalf of downtown merchants, who feared the effect of ongoing construction on the boulevard.

The opposing perspective was offered by a member of the citizens committee for the Central Petaluma Specific Plan (CPSP), who articulately described the compromises during the CPSP process that envisioned the road diet.  She also evoked the vision of a more bicycle and pedestrian friendly boulevard.  I failed to add my voice to hers.  I regret my silence although I couldn’t have matched her eloquence.

In any case, her passion was insufficient.  The motion to pursue the grant for Petaluma Boulevard South failed on a 3-3 tie.  Instead, the Council directed city staff to purse the grant for other parts of the city even those the alternative locations wouldn’t conform as well to the MTC guidelines, reducing the probability of grant award.

In the weeks since the decision, I’ve looked with a critical eye at the segment of Petaluma Boulevard South that would have been affected.  It truly is pedestrian and bicycle unfriendly.  Although pedestrians and bicyclists can use the parallel local streets, many trips require crossing the boulevard and the road diet would have helped those crossings.

Ultimately, the City Council’s failure to pursue the grant for Petaluma Boulevard South was symptomatic of a failure to have a vision for downtown that includes non-vehicular transportation.  Perhaps they’re correct in thinking that pedestrians and bicyclists wouldn’t be a key element of downtown in the future.  But I think they’re wrong.  And if another grant becomes available for a road diet extension, I’ll back it with enthusiasm.

Follow-Ups and Schedule Notes

Petaluma Urban Chat: December 11 was the first of two meetings at which Petaluma Urban Chat will talk about the StrongTowns Curbside Chat booklet.  The discussion was well-attended and a good sharing of ideas.  Everyone is invited to join us on Tuesday, January 8, 5:30pm.  Charles Marohn of StrongTowns may be able to join us by Skype.  Therefore, we’re looking for an alternative location in which a video chat can be as productive as possible.  More details will follow here.  If you haven’t yet read the booklet, it can be found here.

StrongTowns: The Curbside Chat booklet is a good introduction to the StrongTowns philosophy.  But there is much more to be found on StrongTowns website.  For anyone looking for a supplemental reading assignment, I suggest the Rogers Interchange links on the StrongTowns Case Studies page.

Although the facts in the Rogers situation seem worse than in most California communities, the case study has the most similarities to California land development patterns.

The case study concludes with a suggestion of a zoning code that includes more urbanism.  I agree completely with the advice, but it’s an interesting recommendation because the StrongTowns founder Marohn is a registered Republican and urbanism is often, although incorrectly, equated with liberal social engineering.  But Marohn sets off on a path of financial conservatism and arrives at urbanism.

It’s a funny thing about urbanism.  It’s the solution to a wide range of social concerns.  Looking to accommodate the growing lifestyle preferences of the young and the seniors?  Urbanism is an answer.  Looking to apportion government resources in a more financially conservative way?  Urbanism is an answer.  Worried about climate change?  Urbanism is an answer.  Concerned about sending petroleum dollars to unstable regimes?  Urbanism is an answer.  Prefer to preserve green space?  Urbanism is an answer.

And yet urbanism doesn’t receive the support that it often needs and often it struggles to succeed at the ballot box.  As successful downtown Berkeley developer Patrick Kennedy says, “Urbanism solves so many problems it's like a superhero. But a vilified one like Batman.”

And that is the problem that we must face.  Hopefully together.

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

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