Friday, April 25, 2014

Who Owns Our Streets?

While behind the wheel yesterday, I came across a group of dozen teenagers trying to cross a street between intersections, an action that is generally called jaywalking.  I was driving on an arterial in a Central Valley city, a street with five lanes and a 40 mph speed limit.  It wasn’t a safe place to cross mid-block.

I slowed to let the first half complete their crossing, then came to a complete halt, allowing the other half-dozen, who were huddled in the center turn lane, to also reach the safety of the sidewalk.

Most of the remainder hustled across, but one was so focused on disentangling the cheese on his pizza slice that he came to a near halt in my lane.  One of his friends finally took him by the sleeve and got him moving again.

I was willing to stop for the youths, and not to honk at the wayward one, for several reasons.  I wasn’t sure if my wipers could clean a pizza slice from my windshield.  There was no traffic behind me.  I had a long drive in front of me and wasn’t in a particular hurry.  And perhaps most importantly, I felt empathy for teenagers who must deal with streets filled with speeding cars in the midst of their environment.  It’s a challenge that neither their great-grandparents nor many of their peers in other countries face.

In “Happy City”, Charles Montgomery writes about the rise of drivable suburbia.  Most of the characters he lists are familiar to those who’ve studied the history.  Le Corbusier, Ebenezer Howard, Robert Moses, and others.   But Montgomery added a player about whom less had been written, the American Automobile Association.

Montgomery writes that the AAA blossomed during the 1920s, riding along on the concept of “motordom” as an essential form of freedom and arguing that all other road users should be subordinated, which is an ironic view of freedom.

By the end of the decade, that battle was largely over with the AAA victorious.  Roads were being reconfigured for high-speed travel, free parking subsidized by city coffers was becoming commonplace, and pedestrians were reduced to scurrying across the street at restricted locations, with other crossings now called “jaywalking”, a term coined by the AAA.

Although other countries also made accommodation for motor vehicles in the same era, none were as sweeping as in the U.S.

It was a resounding sea change.  After centuries in which neighbors could shake hands in the middle of the street and chat for a few moments about the proposed British tax on tea or the reports from California about rivers of gold, neighbors were now forced to scurry to the dusty edge of the road before discussing current events, looking all the while for vehicles hurdling toward them.   With little fight, our predecessors gave up rights to a common land that had been essential to community building.

The situation came into focus on a recent situation in Petaluma.  A regular reader contacted me about a block party that he and his neighbors were planning for the Fourth of July.  They hoped to barricade off their street for the day.  His neighborhood was of recent design and construction, with short blocks and multiple alternative routes, specifically designed to promote interaction between neighbors.  Temporarily blocking off one street, especially if all the neighbors concurred, seemed reasonable.

But the reader was unsure whom to contact at City Hall for a permit.  He thought I might be able to help.

I was also unsure of the answer, but at least had an idea where to start.  I fired off an email that bounced among computers in the Public Works and Police Departments.  I was given multiple preliminary responses that were vaguely encouraging or vaguely discouraging, but the final determination remained uncertain.

Finally, someone in the Police Department dug into the Petaluma Municipal Code and found the definitive answer.    Paragraph 13.32.090(K) reads “An application for a special event permit to conduct a block party may be conditioned on notice and approval by fifty percent of the residents of dwellings along the affected street(s).  Block parties must be located in a cul-de-sac to be approved.”

The reader lived in a neighborhood without cul-de-sacs, therefore he and his neighbors, although they easily met the standard for neighborhood approval, were barred from hosting block parties.  A neighborhood that was specifically configured to promote neighborly relations was barred from holding a common area party.

This isn’t meant as a diatribe against Petaluma City Hall or the Petaluma Municipal Code.  I’m guessing that the troublesome paragraph was written decades ago, when it was generally understood that cars deserved primacy over people and when it was expected that every neighborhood would have a cul-de-sac where parties could be held.  The paragraph doesn’t indicate that we’re collectively stupid, only that we have blind spots that can become glaringly apparent.

I also understand that emergency vehicle access is the likely rationale behind the rule.  However, it seems unlikely that neighbors gathered in the street to grill hotdogs would impede an ambulance attempting to reach someone choking on one of the dogs.  Instead, I would expect the neighbors to quickly move barricades and barbecues to allow emergency care to reach their neighbor.

I’m not going to try to change the Petaluma Municipal Code.  I already have too many crusades and too little time.  But if someone else wants to take on the burden, I’ll happily join the rooting section.

And I’m still hopeful of an invitation to the block party, even if we must hang out in driveways and look both ways before crossing the streets.

Lastly, I’ll remain willing to accommodate street crossings by pizza-toting teenagers not using crosswalks.  I won’t encourage those crossings, but neither will I honk or express exasperation.  The teenagers are doing their little bit to reclaim common land and needn’t be condemned.

Schedule Notes

Petaluma Transit: The first of the Petaluma Transit meetings about evening service and a possible fare increase were held on April 23.  I had planned to attend one or both, but other obligations arose.  However, I’ll definitely drop by both outreach sessions on May 6, 10am to noon at the Petaluma Senior Center and 1pm to 7pm at the Petaluma Community Center.  If one or both of the Petaluma Transit issues interest you, I suggest you also stop by.

Parks: My recent posts on park usage elicited a range of comments.  I told several readers that I planned to continue the conversation this week, but other commitments interfered.  I’ll write further about streets to begin next week and then slide back into parks.

Petaluma Urban Chat: The next meeting of Petaluma Urban Chat will be held on Tuesday, May 13. I anticipate another fine conversation about “Happy City.”   If you think you’d enjoy further discussion of the book, I suggest you plan to join us.  I must be away that day and regret my absence, but am sure that the remainder of the group will carry on well.

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


  1. Thanks Dave! (regardless of our outcome a invite will be coming your way!)

    1. Blake, thanks for comment and the promised invitation. I'm sorry your block party request didn't find more fertile ground.