Durable Growth, Transportation

Making good urbanist decisions with less kerfuffle

Typical pedestrian rail crossing

Typical pedestrian rail crossing

Coming up in days is a public hearing in Santa Rosa on a proposed Jennings Avenue pedestrian crossing of the railroad tracks.  The hearing is worth the attention of those who support walkable urbanism.  But urbanists should also be concerned about the extended process that led to the hearing, a process conducted under rules that result in tortuous advances and a too frequent reliance on the automobile as the default solution.

I’ll write first about the automobile dependence.

Among the many problems that the drivable suburban paradigm has bestowed upon us, such as climate change and municipal financial dysfunction, is a decision-making process in which proposed solutions are too often reliant on the automobile.

Concerned about the noise of a manufacturing plant interfering with the quiet of residential neighborhoods?  Put the industrial zoning at the urban fringe, buffered from homes, with the unavoidable result that employees will all drive there.

Unsure about making repairs to aging and overcrowded schools?  Combine several schools into a new supersized campus at the outskirts of town, with provision for the drop-off for the children who now must be delivered by car.

Unhappy with the occasional traffic jam in the downtown core?  Add traffic lanes even if the additional pavement saps the pedestrian vitality of the district.

Three perceived problems.  Three heavy-handed automobile-oriented solutions, none of which are urbanist and all of which promulgate the drivable suburban paradigm.

Even worse, these solutions, as ill-conceived as they are, are usually the result of an increasingly burdensome and lengthy process that is designed to spit out the least objectionable answer rather than the best solution.  I usually point to CEQA as the prime villain in the process, but the state and local approval processes that run parallel to the CEQA process are scarcely better.

To be clear, I don’t object to the increased environmental and public participation elements of the CEQA and parallel processes.  But I’m deeply concerned with the time they require and the often unsatisfactory and auto-oriented results.

Today’s case in point, that illustrates both the automobile reliance and the slow process, is the proposed Jennings Avenue pedestrian crossing in Santa Rosa, near the coming Guerneville Road SMART station.  The crossing is currently enmeshed in the CEQA and approval processes.

The automobile connectivity of Jennings has long been severed by the railroad tracks.  But for many years the opportunity to clamber over the tracks and to save a detour of more than a half-mile was irresistible for pedestrians and bicyclists heading to the nearby junior college, elementary school, or regional mall.  Daily counts of more than a hundred crossings were noted.

As long as the tracks were unused, the casual trespassing wasn’t an issue.  But with freight use of the tracks now reestablished and with SMART revenue service beginning later this year, the Jennings Avenue crossing moved into the spotlight, with one of the first steps being fences that blocked the access and forced many to rely on cars for trips that had previously been completed on foot.

Walkable urbanists responded to the closure and quickly noted the need for a pedestrian crossing, designed like the one shown in the photo.  But the rules of the California Public Utility Commission weren’t ready to accommodate that solution.

The CPUC interpreted their precedent as a no net gain standard, requiring closure of another approved crossing before allowing an approved crossing at Jennings.  When the crossing to be closed was identified in another neighborhood, the residents and business owners in that neighborhood quickly objected, some even retaining attorneys to argue their side.

A pedestrian overcrossing at Jennings was suggested as a workaround.  But the estimated cost was $8.2 million, with the likelihood that the city would lack the funds for maintenance  and the probability that many pedestrians and bicyclists would object to the long climb and descent, instead cutting the fence and continuing to cross the tracks at grade.  Perhaps luckily, the construction funds never became available.

Eventually, a CEQA EIR was initiated, with its hundreds of pages of project descriptions, comments, and responses, adults arguing as children continued to be blocked by fences denying them the freedom of crossing the tracks and expanding their world.

Both within the EIR process and outside of it, the neighbors voiced comments in support of the pedestrian crossing.

“My friend and I live on opposite sides of the tracks, and we like to visit each other’s homes often.  We are climbing over the fence because we don’t want to walk a half-mile to see one another.”

“The new fence requires cyclists from west Jennings to ride on Dutton, which is a very busy street, to reach Coddingtown; the bike/pedestrian pathway along the SMART Tracks no longer works for them.”

“For years we have walked across the tracks to get from our home to the Coddingtown shops.  It’s safer to cross the tracks at Jennings than walking along Dutton to Guerneville Rd.  The sidewalks along Dutton expose us to a lot of turning traffic, and drivers seem unaware of pedestrians.”

Despite the strong neighborhood support for the crossing, the process still moved forward at a stultifying pace.  But a milestone has been reached.  After years of preamble, the CPUC will hold a public hearing on Monday, February 1 at the Helen Lehman School, 1700 Jennings Avenue, Santa Rosa.  The hearing will begin at 7:00pm.

I intend to be there.  Whether or not I speak, I’ll be there in support of the pedestrian crossing.  But my bigger issue will continue to be the time it took us to get this far.  And the extent to which car travel became the default solution during the process.

It’s often said of the criminal justice system that “Justice delayed is justice denied.”  And it’s true.  Someone who lives under a cloud of pending prosecution for three years before being exonerated has still lost three years during which the full vitality of life has been denied.

The same can be said of land-use actions.  A good solution three years hence is worth less than a good solution today.  Imagine a sixth-grader, beginning to spread her wings and to experience the world beyond parental oversight.  Perhaps the wing-spreading includes walking to school by herself, including a careful crossing of the railroad tracks.

Now imagine that the crossing is denied to her for several years as adult battle under their arcane rules, during which time her parents continue to give her rides to school.  By the time the issue is decided, she has lost that first breath of walkable independence and instead remained car-dependent.  Personal growth has been lost and may never be reclaimed.  A potential urbanist has been stunted.

If the Jennings Avenue crossing matters to you, please attend on Monday.  But even more importantly, if you’re troubled by the process to which this matter has been subjected, continue to work toward changing the rules to allow more expedient solutions and to default less often to the automobile as a band aid.

In my next post, I’ll write about the “last mile” problem, the Achilles heel of transit systems.  People may have an interest in using transit for daily activities, but can be deterred if there is a difficult final link between the transit stop and their destination.  There are many solutions to the last mile problem, from transit-oriented development to improved walkability to allowing bikes on transit.  The staff at Petaluma Transit has been working to address the problem with well-targeted bus routing.  Their ideas will soon be rolled out for public comment.  I’ll give details when I next write.

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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