Durable Growth, Transportation

The futile search for “achievable alternatives”: Defining the problem

E. Washington Street

E. Washington Street

I recently attended a meeting of North Bay writers talking about the business of writing.  Among folks with filmed screenplays and published novels, I felt presumptuous calling myself a writer based on this modest blog, but hoped that, if I can kept my ears open, I might learn something.

I was correct.  Among other insights from the evening, a novelist suggested that I should remain continually aware of barriers to new readers.  Readers who don’t have a grasp on the rudiments of urbanism might not glean as much from a blog post, so might be less likely to become regular readers.

Her comment was appreciated.  Within the constraints of relatively short blog posts, I think I do reasonably well at staying in touch with the fundamentals of urbanism, but it would be impossible to begin each blog post with a complete recap of urbanist principles.  Therefore, I’ll begin 2015 with a series of posts laying out the urbanist philosophy as perceived and expounded by me.  My hope will be to attract new readers whose New Year’s Resolutions included greater community involvement.

Meanwhile, the exercise will also be good for me because my grasp of urbanism has deepened, broadened, and evolved since I began this blog.  It’ll be helpful for me to recheck and to solidify the fundamentals of my own understanding.

So if you have friends who have been interested in this blog, but have been unsure where to start, tell them to mark January 5th on their calendars.  On that day, I’ll begin a recap that will hopefully provide benefits to all.

But even while acknowledging that some potential readers might need a remedial symposium on the fundamentals of urbanism, I felt comfortable that my current readers had a good grasp on the principles and the logic of urbanism.

It’s possible I was wrong.

In an email exchange about Measure Q and the proposed Rainier Connector in Petaluma, a reader advised me that traffic congestion was a continuing concern to him and that he was likely to support the Rainier Connector “in the absence of a good achievable alternative”.

The reader was someone with whom I’ve chatted many times, both electronically and face-to-face, so his position surprised me.  And to the extent it reflected a misunderstanding of the nature of traffic congestion, it was a rebuke to me and my apparent inability to correctly convey the pertinent information.

Accordingly, I’ll use the Rainier Connector as an example to present urbanist thought on traffic congestion.  It’s a bigger topic than I want to cover in a single day, so today I’ll define the problem as created by town planning and as generally understood by the public and then identify the generally perceived “solution”.  In my next post, I’ll explain why the solution doesn’t work and what urbanism offers instead.

The Problem: Like most cities that grew in the years after World War II, the street system of Petaluma is largely organized in a hierarchical form, with arterials at the top and local streets and alley at the bottom.  The expectation is that drivers will use local streets to access collectors and then arterials which they’ll use to reach their general destination, at which point they’ll return to local streets for the final distance.

(In comparison, consider older cities such as San Francisco or New York.  A street hierarchy still exists, but the extent of the differentiation is reduced.  Market Street is still a major arterial, but Mission, Folsom, and Howard offer alternative routes that more hierarchical towns don’t.)

When a town such as Petaluma is divided by a river or another geographical feature, traffic is further concentrated on arterials.  The costs of bridges or tunnels allow fewer crossings, forcing all traffic to the limited crossings available.  That concentration becomes troublesome as population growth, increased affluence, and land use decisions result in increased traffic.

Which brings us back to Petaluma.  Many destinations are clustered in two areas, the downtown and the development around the freeway.  E. Washington Street, which crosses over the Petaluma River, is the most direct route between the two, so is the logically preferred route for many.

There are three alternatives to E. Washington Street that also cross the river.  However, Corona Street is too far north for many drivers, Lakeville Street is oddly skewed across the city grid and doesn’t meet the needs of many drivers, and D Street is well located, but heads into a limited capacity residential neighborhood east of the river.

So, E. Washington Street remains the preferred route for many.  And, as traffic grew over the years, many became convinced that the street was impossibly congested.

(To be fair, the congestion can be a matter of perspective.  The traffic consultant on the Petaluma Station Area study, having heard horror stories about E. Washington, spent time studying it.  He reported back that he found the congestion far less than reported.  Instead, he noted that the development pattern along the street is ugly and that drivers are more frustrated by congestion when their surroundings are unappealing, so over-report congestion.  He thought that E Washington was an aesthetic problem as much as a traffic problem.  I suspect there is at least some truth in his comments, although I doubt that public perception was swayed by his argument.)

So that brings us to today.  E. Washington Street is perceived as congested and the existing alternatives don’t provide much relief.

The Solution: The most generally understood solution is the Rainier Connector, a new street that would cross the Petaluma River between E. Washington and Corona and connect into the existing street grid on both ends.  (The Caulfield Extension and Bridge might actually be more effective than Rainier, but hasn’t grabbed the public attention.)

The Rainier vision is appealing, but the likely practical effect is less promising.  The reasons for the shortfall are complex, but I’ve already taken too much of your attention today.  I’ll defer the discussion to my next post.

And be sure to remember January 5.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. – Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

Written by Dave Alden

Dave Alden

Dave Alden is a Registered Civil Engineer. A University of California graduate, he has worked on energy and land-use projects in California, Oregon, and Washington. He was also the president of a minor league baseball team for two seasons. He lives on the west side of Petaluma with his wife and two dogs. The blog that he writes can be found at http://northbaydesignkit.blogspot.com.

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