OPINION by T. KEITH GURNEE
Could it be that the city of San Luis Obispo– once considered the “happiest place in America”– is now declaring war on its neighborhoods? Despite the seemingly good intentions of our council members, it would appear so. And if it can happen to our neighborhood, your neighborhood could be next.
After a long career spent in the planning and designing of neighborhoods, I’ve grown very concerned about what is happening to our neighborhoods at the hands of this SLO City Council and their powerful supporters among the bike lobby. But before going there, let’s talk about what “neighborhoods” are and what they mean to a community.
What makes a “neighborhood”?
The term “neighborhood” was first coined in England during the early 1400s to describe an identifiable section of a town or village that had its own defining physical, social, functional, and historical characteristics. In the early 1900s when neighborhoods were defined as the building blocks of community planning by such pioneers of community planning as Ebenezer Howard and Clarence Stein of the Garden City movement. By the 1960s, Jane Jacobs and Louis Mumford carried those ideas further to embrace fully functioning neighborhoods as the essential units of urban planning and community health.
San Luis Obispo is a city of neighborhoods. Whether it is the city’s Old Town neighborhood with its own association, the Goldtree Tract near Sinsheimer School that was established by the neighbors themselves, or the Mitchell Park neighborhood near Railroad Square, our varied neighborhoods have been critical components of our community with their own sense of place.
Take my neighborhood, the Anholm Tract located between Highway 101 and Foothill Boulevard in the northwest portion of the city. My wife and I have lived on North Broad Street for over 45 years.
To those of us fortunate enough to live in such an attractive neighborhood with the character all its own, it has defined who we are. It’s where we raised our children, where our kids developed their first friendships, where they and our grandkids could safely set up a lemonade stand on the street corner. It’s where we got to know and socialized with our neighbors and where we have looked after each other. Our neighborhood has provided us with a sense of social cohesion and belonging that is endured for years.
Yet while these neighborhood qualities of ambience, peace, and tranquility have traditionally been respected by those elected to represent our community, those qualities are now in jeopardy. Our city council, driven by that bike lobby, seems determined to ram an exclusive “bike highway” down the throat of our neighborhood over the overwhelming objections of those of us who live here.
The threat to the Anholm neighborhood
The city’s proposed “bike boulevard” project for Broad and Chorro streets would penetrate our neighborhood’s local streets by installing “cycle tracks” or “protected bike lanes” that would remove much-needed and much-used on-street parking that serves local residents.
Our local streets were designed according to the development standards of the time, including the provision of on-street parking on both sides of the street. Retrofitting our long-established neighborhood streets with these wonky proposals– again over the overwhelming objections of the neighborhood– will cheapen our neighborhood, threaten its safety, and destroy its ambience.
But what is most disconcerting about these proposals is that they are simply unnecessary. Broad and Chorro streets are already “sharrows” where cars and bikes share the travel lanes. As an avid cyclist in my earlier years, I never had a problem safely negotiating these streets on my bicycle.
With the city vetting three different alternatives this past summer, and after the city council held a hearing on Aug. 15 on those concepts, the council rightfully rejected all three. But they unanimously persisted in coming up with another alternative that makes no more sense than the previous three.
That new alternative is taking shape and will shortly be considered at another neighborhood meeting later this year before going to the city council in early 2018.
That latest alternative proposes a “road diet” consisting of five different segments along Chorro, Mission, Broad, and Ramona streets as follows:
- Chorro Street from Palm to Lincoln: Protected bike lanes on both sides of Chorro Street buffered from vehicle travel lanes with white plastic pylons.
- Chorro Street from Lincoln to Mission: A protected two-lane cycle track again buffered from traffic by those white plastic pylons and the elimination of on-street parking on the west side of Chorro Street.
- Mission Street from Chorro to Broad: Would be designated as a “sharrow” with no restrictions on on-street parking, similar to the way Broad and Chorro are used today.
Broad Street from Mission to Ramona: Provision of a northbound Class 2 bike lane against the curb with an adjacent on-street parking lane along the west side of Broad Street, and the elimination of parking along the east side of Broad Street in favor of a “sharrow” lane to be used by both cars and bicycles.
- Ramona Street from Broad to Palomar: A protected two-way bike lane adjacent to the curb on the north side of Ramona Street buffered from vehicular traffic by plastic pylons and the elimination of parking along the north side of Ramona Street.
So what will these “improvements” do to our neighborhood. Plenty and none of it good. But most importantly, this is not a threat to just our neighborhood, it’s a threat to all of our neighborhoods.
The consequences of the latest plan
The consequences of forcing these type of changes upon our neighborhoods will be dire. The reasons to defeat San Luis Obispo’s latest plan for our neighborhood and our greater community are clear. Consider the following:
- These so-called “improvements” just aren’t needed: Broad Street and Chorro Street work just fine today as “sharrows” where both bikes and cars are entitled to use the travel lanes, despite the fact that most cyclists ignore the stop signs. If it is okay to designate Mission Street and the southbound lane on Broad Street as a “sharrow”, why not keep Broad and Chorro streets a “sharrow”?
- The elimination of on-street parking will create a severe hardship on the residents of and visitors to our neighborhood: The on-street parking along the section of Broad Street between Mission and Ramona is already heavily used. With the on-street parking on such side streets as Serrano and Murray frequently jammed with parked cars, where will Broad Street residents and visitors park?
- Living directly across the street from Serrano Drive, much of the parking is already spoken for, besides the fact that my disabled wife would not be able to negotiate parking on such a steep road that does not meet ADA requirements. Ramona Street is also heavily used for on-street parking by students of the Valencia project as well as employees in the Foothill Avenue commercial center. Where will they park? And where will such vehicles as mail trucks, meter readers, landscape maintenance vehicles, plumbers, UPS drivers, etc. park their vehicles to serve our neighborhood?
- This “road diet” will not improve public safety: If anything, it will jeopardize it. Take the two-way bike lane on Chorro St. Users of the southbound bike lane approaching Lincoln St. would have to veer across the intersection against traffic — most likely at speed– to gain access to the southbound bike lane under the Highway 101 and Chorro Street overpass. Is that safe?
- The proposal to place a bicycle lane between the curb and a lane of on-street parking along Broad Street could be dangerous: Cyclists will have to negotiate storm drains, the excessive leaf debris that falls out from the curb that is now cleaned only once a month by city street sweepers, passengers opening the side doors of their cars, and my disabled wife who will have to haul groceries from her car across the bike lane. Further, because no cars would be allowed to park next to the curb, you can say goodbye to the kid’s lemonade stands.
- Our cars aren’t going away anytime soon: Despite one councilmember’s prediction that Americans will eventually be “car-less”, I’m not buying it. Even if all of us who drive cars today were to convert to electric vehicles, they will still need places to park.
- These “road diet” improvements will be a blight on a quality neighborhood: A stripe of bright green paint down our streets festooned with a forest of white plastic pylons will bring nothing but visual clutter to our neighborhood. Such “improvements” were already tried once back in the 1990s, only to be vandalized and eventually removed by the city.
- This “road diet” will not reduce accident history: While cyclists would have us believe that our neighborhood streets are dangerous without these “bike boulevard” improvements, the facts don’t lie. Just last month, a Public Records Act request was submitted to the SLO City Police Department to determine the number of motor vehicle vs. bicycle accidents on Broad and Chorro streets between Meineke and Lincoln over the last five years. The results? In searching the city’s database for bicycle collisions on both streets between 9/1/2012 to 7/31/2017, the police department’s response to the PRA request stated that “There were no collisions involving bicyclists and moving vehicles. The only one involving a bike and a vehicle was a hit and run where the bike hit a parked car and left the scene.” There you have it. No car-on-bike accidents. Zero. Zippo. Nada.
- This proposal is not responding to a “need”: Instead it is responding to an unnecessary “want” on the part of a narrow special interest group, the residents of our neighborhood be damned. It’s a solution looking for a problem that does not exist. It represents nothing more than an imposition of dogmatic ideology upon one of the nicest neighborhoods in the city.
With its road diet proposals, this city is heading down a path that others have tried and failed. Cities like Los Angeles and Baltimore have tried similar “bike boulevard” and “road diet” projects, only the result in angering affected neighborhoods and commuters. As a result of the backlash, these cities are now in the process of reversing those projects at great expense– both politically and financially.
Take the city of Los Angeles were Councilmember Mike Bonin, who championed the installation of “road diet” projects in his district for the same reasons our council is pursuing such projects. Bonin became a friend of mine that I worked with on refurbishing the Venice Beach Oceanfront Walk when he was a legislative aide for Councilwoman Ruth Galanter.
Now Bonin has found himself having to publicly apologize for those projects while advocating budget increases to remove those “road diet” improvements just months after their installation. While taking responsibility for what he now recognizes was a mistake, bondin is now facing a mounting recall campaign against him.
Will our council come to its senses?
There is still time for our City Council to embrace common sense and change its mind to protect our neighborhoods. A case in point is the recent Council decision to keep a street near our neighborhood closed—Luneta Drive. Thanks to the efforts of the neighbors who organized, conducted a petition drive, and attended a Council hearing en masse, they were able to get the Council to unanimously back off its previous position to open Luneta Drive to through traffic. The Luneta Drive neighborhood has revealed the potential path to success in preserving the ambiance of the Anholm neighborhood.
On the other hand, if the Council succeeds in ramming these “bike boulevards” down our throats, remember this: if it can happen to our neighborhood, yours could be next. It’s time for the Anholm Tract to stand up and organize to defeat this plan, not only for the sake of its own neighborhood, but for the sake of all of our neighborhoods.
Rather than howling at the moon, someone needs to offer a better solution, so here’s my stab at one. Outlined below are the principal ingredients of a workable solution that should resonate not only with our neighborhood, but with the other neighborhoods who are next in line for “bike boulevards”:
- Keep Broad and Chorro streets as “sharrow” streets where both bikes and cars can share the travel lanes. It works today, and if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
- Keep the on-street parking along Broad and Chorro streets: That’s a better solution than forcing the existing users of those parking spaces to impact those residents who live along the side streets of Broad and Chorro that are already extensively used for on-street parking.
- Retain the existing stop signs and speed bumps to control traffic speeds.
- Enforce the stop signs and traffic laws along Broad and Chorro for both motor vehicles and cyclists alike. Daily, I have observed cyclists consistently blasting through those stop signs at full speed without hesitation. It’s time that all obey these laws.
- Make improvements to the Broad/Chorro corridors that will increase Public Safety: Such improvements would include painted crosswalks across both streets at key intersections to give both motorists and cyclists pause while entering into intersections, improving the foreboding appearance of the Chorro St. underpass with lighting and aesthetic improvements, completing the sidewalk along the western edge of Broad St., improving ADA accessibility to neighborhood sidewalks, and improving nighttime lighting along key stretches of both roads.
- Rather than retrofitting older established neighborhoods with Bike Boulevards, focus such requirements on new development projects: That way the City Council can take out their ideology on the new large development projects they have recently approved.
- Concentrate on providing bike lanes on the arterial streets that frame our neighborhoods rather than the local streets within our neighborhoods. Residential collectors and local streets should not become bike highways. Rather they should be used to accommodate both bikes and cars as Broad and Chorro streets do today. By focusing bike boulevards on select sections of arterial streets such as Foothill, Santa Rosa, Madonna, LOVR, Grand, etc., perhaps the city can help address improving the safety of the 26 most dangerous intersections in the city that have been cited along our arterial streets.
- Concentrate on completing Class I backbone bike infrastructure that does not interfere with traffic: That would include completing the rail trail from the Edna Valley to the Chorro Valley with the creation of a bicycle bridge connection over Monterey Street adjacent to the railroad bridge. This could become both the east-west and north-south bike highway to serve our city.
- Require that all proposed projects to implement the Bikeway Master Plan require approval of the city’s Planning Commission and the Architectural Review Commission: Such high profile projects as Bike Boulevards that propose changes to our circulation system and public realm improvements should require review and approval of these bodies. The city should not allow its Bicycle Committee to have exclusive review over bikeway projects that make changes to the public realm.
- Have the City Council revisit the 2013 Bikeway Master Plan and the expenses associated with implementing it. At a time of a growing deficit for funding pensions of past and present city employees, the Council should think twice about continuing to fund such unnecessary projects. That Master Plan still contains a proposal for a pedestrian and bikeway bridge over Highway 101 and two creek systems when the Broad St. on and off ramps are eventually closed, if they ever are. Can you imagine our financially strapped city paying millions of dollars for such an “improvement” just one short block away from the Chorro Street underpass with its Class II bike lanes!
- Ask the state of California to adopt an excise tax for the sale of bicycles of 10 speeds or more to provide a source of funding for bike related improvements. At present, only motorized vehicles are paying or the gas tax, the primary source of revenue for road improvements. It’s time that cyclists had some skin in the game as well.
- Have the city consider amending the city charter to require the formation of council districts. Under such a scenario, the mayor would be elected at large while the council members, each with their own neighborhoods, would be elected by districts. Perhaps this would result in the election of councilmembers who might better represent, respect, and protect our neighborhoods.
By embracing these ideas, the City Council would be allowing peace to break out in our neighborhood. To do otherwise would be to encourage the wrath of those of us who live in the Anholm Tract as it becomes the unhappiest neighborhood in what once was the “happiest place on earth.”
Hopefully, logic, compassion, and common sense will prevail.