Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Finding Urbanism in the Local Paper

Once one begins to look at the world through urbanist glasses, there are urban-related stories all over.  There were two examples, one on downtown development and one on street speeds, in the most recent edition of the Argus Courier, the weekly Petaluma newspaper.

A year and a half ago, several members of Urban Chat took a Saturday morning walk through Petaluma.  The goal was to emulate the Jane’s Walks being taken throughout the country on the same day, honoring the contributions of urbanist pioneer Jane Jacobs.

Over the course of walk, a moment of insight came as we walked down the passageway from Kentucky Street toward Putnam Plaza.  We stopped to look both directions down American Alley and realized what a potentially great urban place it could be.  In the heart of downtown, lined with solid old buildings and interesting street art, close to transit and numerous retail stores.  Admittedly, the service uses of the alley, including store deliveries and garbage collection, would be a challenge to overcome, but other cities have found ways for urban life and urban services to coexist.

Eighteen months later, Frances Rivetti’s column in the Argus Courier is about new businesses coming to American Alley, with a new art gallery already open and a specialty food shop and a jazz club coming in the New Year.

I won’t claim that our walk or the resulting blog post had any role in the new development.  Instead, I’ll only note that our observations and the new economic activity are parallel signs that urbanism is becoming a shared vision.

Even with the good news of the businesses coming to American Alley, my favorite part of Rivetti’s column was her description of the alley as having “the quintessential urban chic of a backdrop for more student photo shoots than probably anywhere else in the area.”  One more piece of evidence that the coming generations are breaking free of the suburban model.

The same edition of the Argus Courier had a story about a family living on upper B Street whose cat had been killed by a passing car, a car that may have travelling faster than the 30 mph speed limit.  Upset by the feline death, the family was arguing for stop signs along their stretch of street to slow the traffic.

Although the City Engineer determined that the street didn’t meet the warrants needed to justify a new stop sign, the City Council expressed sympathy for the family along with a willingness to look for solutions.

To begin, I’m fully sympathetic with the family’s loss.  My wife and I have three dogs and live on a local street not far from B Street.  We’re constantly aware of the risks from the passing traffic and work hard to keep the dogs safe.

But with that said, the family has identified the wrong solution.  Stop signs don’t noticeably slow peak travel speeds.  Where my wife and I live illustrates the point.  Our block has a 25 mph speed limit and stop signs at both ends of the block.  And yet we often note travel speeds of 30 mph or above, as drivers accelerate to make up for the time they’ve lost by obeying the stop signs.  (Being a prime driving route to Petaluma High also doesn’t help.)  The problem is sufficiently evident that the Police Department occasionally stations cruisers on the street.

So stop signs aren’t a solution.  The real problem is the speed limit itself.  At the 30 mph speed limit on B Street, not only are people more at risk, with pedestrians far more likely to die in collisions with cars than when speed are lower, but drivers are less likely to see loose pets and pets have fewer opportunities to dodge approaching cars.

However, speed limits the direct result of the road design.  As I’ve written before, California speed limits are set by the speed at which we drive.  Build a wider street with fewer elements to reduce speed and people will drive more quickly, resulting in higher speed limits.

By my measurement, B Street is 44 feet wide, unfortunately wide for a street with its level of traffic.  On a recent afternoon, I observed B Street traffic for a few minutes, during which eight cars passed me traveling downhill, a direction for which a City-installed speed measuring sign was displaying velocities.  Of the eight cars, only one exceeded 30 mph, with the others traveling from 2 to 10 mph slower.  It was a small sample, but if a larger sample maintained the same pattern, a 30 mph speed limit would be consistent with the data.

But what if 30 mph isn’t good for the neighborhood or for the pets in the neighborhood?  What can we do?  Under the law, the options are limited, but there may be a few possibilities.  Drivers are sensitive to their travel space and will drive slower when they feel more confined.  For B Street, my suggestion would be start with a couple of gallons of paint.

Today, B Street is divided into two 12-foot driving lanes and two 10-foot parking and bicycle lanes.  It’s a fairly common pavement allocation, but it’s worth noting the most freeways also have 12-foot lanes.  What if we repaint the bike path lines two feet closer to centerline, reducing the travel lanes to 10 feet and widening the bike/parking lanes to 12 feet?

Bicyclists certainly wouldn’t complain about the extra width and the reduced chanced of being “doored” by newly parked drivers.

And ten feet for cars isn’t unreasonable, with the SmartCode that governs much of downtown Petaluma calling for 10-foot lanes on many streets.  (Please ponder the irony for a moment.  The travel lanes on B Street, a quiet residential neighborhood, have more in common with freeways than downtown.  That’s not right.)

It’s been shown that drivers faced with a more confined space, even if only in paint, feel more confined and reduce their speed.  It’s possible that ten-foot lanes on B Street would reduce the speed limit to 25 mph.

And the paint is cheaper than the stop signs, along with likely being more effective.

But perhaps 25 mph, although the lowest speed limit generally allowed in California, still isn’t slow enough.  I’ve previously written that many argue for 20 mph on most streets under the slogan “Twenty is Plenty”.  A speed limit that low would take legislative action, but could change our communities.

And there’s a precedent for an all-encompassing change to lower speeds.  Recently, the administration of New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio implemented new rules reducing the speed limits on most New York streets to 25 mph.  It’s not 20 mph, but it’s a step in that direction and shows the growing momentum of the “Twenty is Plenty” movement.  (It also provides another point of irony to ponder.  While most of New York City now has a 25 mph speed limit, we continue to allow cars to drive through North Bay residential neighborhoods at 30 mph.)

We don’t need any more cats killed. And we don’t need any more pedestrians at risk.  But stop signs aren’t the solution.  Lower speed limits are, whether by paint or by legislative action.

As I was buttoning up this post, an email arrived from StrongTowns with a new post from founder Chuck Marohn about road design and traffic safety.  The pedestrian fatality that he uses as the focus of his post was the result of a different traffic problem than B Street, but the comments that Marohn makes about the state of roadway design are dead on target and worth your time.  Read it.  It may change how you think about traffic safety.

And as you continue your day, keep your eyes open for urbanist insights.  They’re all around us.  I know I’m eagerly awaiting the next edition of the Argus Courier.

Next time, I’ll share a story about an attempt to implement the “fine-grained urbanism” endorsed by Jane Jacobs.

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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