Durable Growth, Transportation

We’ll talk about murals, but only after transit

151112002 American Alley MuralI promised that today’s post would be about the murals newly adorning American Alley in Petaluma.  And it will be, but only after I chat about a transit issue that is even more essential to the future of Petaluma.  It’s a challenge that will be faced by many North Bay communities in the coming year.

I sit on Petaluma’s Transit Advisory Committee.   As such, I’ve had a front row seat for the magic that the Petaluma Transit staff has worked over the past few years.  With less than two-an-a-half full-time employees, transit ridership had nearly tripled since 2010.  Rider satisfaction is increasing.  The bus maintenance facility was expanded.  And technology such as an automatic vehicle locating system for the buses is being rolled out.  (While the Transit Committee has made a handful of useful suggestions, most of the credit must go to the staff.)

But the most significant opportunity yet may now be arriving at the two Petaluma train stations.  Late in 2016, the Sonoma Marin Area Rail Transit (SMART) will begin running trains between San Rafael and Santa Rosa.  With the Petaluma prospects for station parking ranging from inadequate to non-existent, with bike routes degraded by hazardous segments that deter casual riders, and with transit-oriented development still nothing more than a glimmer on the horizon, there is a potential deficiency in the delivery of passengers to the train stations.  Petaluma Transit may be able to help.

Furthermore, with the success of the SMART likely to span transit-oriented development and walkable connections into existing neighborhoods, Petaluma Transit’s ability to deliver passengers to the train, if it can make the train successful, could be a critical step toward a more urbanist future.

But Petaluma Transit is already heavily stretched in meeting its current obligations of serving the segments of the community that rely on local transit to live their daily lives.

And there are few if any resources evident to help Petaluma Transit stretch even further.  At one time, it was expected that SMART would help in funding shuttles between train stations and destinations such as places of work and residential districts, but the recession and the resulting reduced SMART-funding sales tax proceeds forced numerous cutbacks, including the length of the system, several stations, and any hope of train-connecting shuttles.

So the a large portion of the burden of delivering people to the Petaluma train stations will fall solely on  the Petaluma Transit, who will try to pull yet another rabbit or two of their hat.  (And perhaps the Transit Committee will again be able to provide a few constructive ideas.)

The Petaluma Transit planning effort is just getting underway, but there is a way that readers can help.  If you live in Petaluma and expect to ride the SMART train, even if only occasionally, you can respond to this poll about the location of your home, how often you expect to ride the train, and how you hope to reach the station.  Your assistance will be appreciated.  This may even be the beginning of a long-running dialogue about how to tackle this puzzle.

151112003 American Alley MuralOkay, now we can move onward to murals.

I previously wrote about a proposal to paint eight murals along American Alley in downtown Petaluma.  The Petaluma Planning Commission saw the opportunity as I had, approving the murals unanimously after only a short conversation.  The murals were completed over the weekend of November 7 and 8.

I wasn’t able to visit downtown during the mural painting weekend, but recently walked the alley, camera in hand, on a weekday afternoon.

It was an insightful experience.  The murals were much as had been proposed to the City, so it was like seeing old friends to amble down the alley and to come upon each mural looking both familiar and new.  But those who might have expected the murals to transform the alley would have been disappointed.  It was the same old American Alley, still utilitarian and still slightly dirty and smelly, but now with a hint of promise.

As Chuck Marohn of StrongTowns explained in a webinar early this week, the best urbanism is the urbanism that evolves slowly over time, incremental step after incremental step.  Urbanism that is brought to life fully formed will wear thin uniformly and may not adequately induce reinvestment thirty years hence.  But urbanism that is built incrementally and ages on a range of schedules will always be able to justify upkeep and regeneration.

The murals are one of those incremental steps.  They don’t completely change the alley, but they encourage more people to wander down a slightly tawdry alley.  And some of those people will visit the handful of shops along the alley.  And building owners, noting the increasing pedestrian activity, will find nooks and crannies for yet more shops.  If, ten years from now, American Alley is a bustling place, the weekend the murals were painted may be seen as a key step in the history of the alleys.

151112004 American Alley Mosiac MuralAnd, as recently noted by Sarah Goodyear in CityLab, the murals can serve to mark the alley as off-limits to the disreputable handful who would deface it with graffiti.

My favorite mural is the mosaic.  It’s not so much the design as the material choice.  I like adding one more texture to the range of textures already filling the alley, from the rough bricks with aging grout to the worn concrete driving surface to the newer stucco walls.  The mosaic seemed to add a grace note.

I can’t recommend visiting to downtown Petaluma to see the murals.  They’re not that impressive on their own.  But there are enough interesting places to shop and to eat in downtown Petaluma that I can recommend an outing there.  And as a part of your adventure, you really should wander over to American Alley to check out the new artwork.

In my next post, I’ll return to the subject of induced traffic.  I recently came across an article that does a fine job of explaining the concept in layman terms.  And I had a conversation with the staff of the Sonoma County Transportation Agency who gave me a different way to look at the subject.

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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