The roundabout at the end of the Santa Cruz Wharf.
(Via Google Street View)
Opinion from Community Voices

We need wider sidewalks and protected bike lanes in Santa Cruz: Let’s rethink our rights-of-way

We should be using 20 to 30% of our city land better, write urban planner Stephen Svete and Strong Towns advocate John Mulry. They believe in prioritizing bikes over cars, walking over parking and creating communities rather than transport corridors. Locally, that would mean narrowing our roads and adopting protected bike lanes, investing in more tree planters, curb extensions and more. “As Santa Cruz undergoes its biggest facelift since the 1989 earthquake, this is an ideal time to be talking about this,” they say.

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The amount of land we dedicate to vehicles in our cities is staggering. Think about the combination of surface and structured parking lots for cars, driveways and garages in low-density neighborhoods.

From a land use perspective, public streets, sidewalks and parkways — or rights-of-way (ROWs) — generally comprise about 20 to 30% of land in urban areas.

This land is a finite resource and small changes will allow our cities to be significantly more efficient with it. The City of Santa Cruz is moving forward with its grand downtown urban renewal along with other large transformative projects, with the overwhelming support of the state of California.

As Santa Cruz undergoes its biggest facelift since the 1989 earthquake, this is an ideal time to be talking about this. It’s our opportunity to modernize our ROWs and preserve the local character of our walkable neighborhoods.

The Santa Cruz bike-share program ribbon-cutting this week highlights our community commitment to the well-being of our residents. Retrofitting our ROWs is the next step forward toward fostering socially inclusive and environmentally responsible public spaces.

We can center ROWs on welcoming humans, green design, clean travel and wealth creation.

Let us illustrate with some affordable, easy-to-implement ideas.

The majority of our road lanes are wider than necessary — often up to 14 feet wide, when 10 feet (the minimum required) would suffice. The benefits a reclamation project would yield are numerous. Repurposing an additional 4 to 8 feet of the curb-to-curb cross section of a typical Santa Cruz collector street — roads that see moderate traffic but aren’t main arterials — with wider sidewalks and protected bike lanes will increase perceived and actual safety for pedestrians and cyclists.

Studies, most notably from the Netherlands, but also from Oakland and San Francisco, have shown that when bike and pedestrian facilities are incorporated into urban infrastructure, a significant number of drivers will shift their travel mode from cars to walking and biking — especially for short trips.

Another street retrofit concept that would address pedestrian safety and urban heat island effect is the installation of generous tree planter zones in parking lanes. Depending on the street and the design constraints, these could be in either a random pattern or at standard intervals. This practice was once common in Santa Cruz, as evidenced on the lovely Walnut Street corridor between Chestnut and Center streets.

These resulting tree planters provide permeable surface area for rain absorption, and can be designed to function as stormwater runoff catch basins, both reducing the quantity and improving the quality of runoff prior to discharging into creeks, rivers and the ocean.

Walnut Avenue between Chestnut and Center streets downtown
Walnut Avenue between Chestnut and Center streets downtown boasts tree planter zones breaking up the parking lanes on either side.
(Via Google Street View)

Curb-raised planters offer tree canopy, mitigating the urban heat-island effect induced by large paved surfaces. Shaded streets can be as much as 10 degrees cooler than unshaded ones — a serious number as we march toward a warming planet. Our University of California scientists and researchers are urgently studying methods to cope with the warming urban landscape, and planting trees today to cool the future is proving most effective.

Retrofitted urban street systems not only deliver a green urban design feature for neighborhoods, these linear urban forests provide visual “friction” for passing motorists.

The perceived — and actual — narrowing demonstrably reduces traffic speeds. When designed properly, street trees reduce speeding and automobile accidents involving pedestrians drop by up to 60%, according to the Institute of Transportation Engineers and the American Society of Civil Engineers. The planters themselves also serve as pedestrian refuge zones, much like raised medians in street centerlines.

Curb extensions or “bulb-outs” at intersections are another urban design technique to yield a safer and better balanced mobility system. Our current wide curb radius designs from the 1950s were intended to minimize slowing for motorists maneuvering corners. Urban planners in the present know that slower vehicular corner-turning is beneficial for drivers, passengers, pedestrians, other street users (wheelchairs, strollers, skateboards) and the environment.

Bulb-outs expand the pedestrian zone for street crossings while correspondingly shrinking the vehicular zone. Again, this inserts more physical “friction” for motorists.

Speed bumps and speed tables on collector streets can also ensure cars travel at reasonable speeds. This method has proved effective on Jade Street in Capitola, and along California Street in Santa Cruz. Retrofitting target intersections with roundabouts — like the award-winning couplet on Pacific Avenue near the Santa Cruz Wharf — can eliminate inefficient and flow-interruptive traffic signals while slowing cars moving through them.

They serve as beautifying urban design features while increasing surface area to minimize stormwater runoff. These and similar traffic calming measures cost little but pay daily dividends in terms of the environment, the climate and quality of life.

Converting a limited number of spaces in private parking lots and along public streets to bike parking encourages cycling. In the Netherlands, such conversions can yield as many as 10 bike spaces per vehicle space.

Per the U.S. Green Building Council, such spaces in parking lots should be placed in preferred locations close to the entrance, much as parking for those with disabilities is. The more we balance the street system to accommodate and encourage cycling and walking, the better for everybody, since less automobile traffic produces fewer emissions and congestion.

Parking-protected bike lanes, as built in Oakland, San Francisco, Montreal and other cities, could be greatly expanded in Santa Cruz. These Class IV lanes are far superior to the Class II striping design. By relocating the parking lanes adjacent to the vehicular travel lanes, and placing the bike lane between the curb and the parking lane, parked cars serve as physical protection for cyclists from moving traffic, rather than cyclists protecting parked cars, as is the case on most Santa Cruz County striped bike lanes.

John Mulry is the local lead for Strong Towns Santa Cruz.
(Via John Mulry)
Steve Svete is a Santa Cruz urban planner.
Steve Svete is a Santa Cruz urban planner.

Closing targeted streets to cars entirely is a successful and popular methodology for balancing ROW use. The practice is growing, particularly in Europe and Latin America, and has proved effective in urban centers.

As a demonstration project, the City of Santa Cruz should consider prioritizing the short segment of Cooper Street downtown for pedestrian use. This short street is often car free during special events, like the recent Dance Week. Vehicle closure of Cooper Street would have a minimal impact on traffic flow and expand the lively public space adjacent to the popular Abbott Square plaza, resurrecting some of the magic and warmth of the Cooper House scene era from the 1970s and 1980s.

These ideas are a beginning. They’re inexpensive to implement incrementally, and align with many existing directives, including the numerous city and county climate action plans, the state of California’s Sustainable Communities Strategies initiative, and the City of Santa Cruz Health in All Policies.

We need our elected representatives to champion these fiscally and environmentally responsible policies. Advocates, too, must engage in collaborative citizen planning and direct democracy, campaigning for local politician allies and crafting ballot initiatives so voters can express their will through popular referendum.

A thorough, ongoing analysis and retrofit of our ROW systems will help us create the safe, vibrant, sustainable cities our communities deserve.

Stephen Svete is a certified professional urban planner and LEED-accredited professional in sustainable neighborhood design. A planner with Strong Towns Santa Cruz, he sits on the board of Bike Santa Cruz County. He has lived in Santa Cruz since 2015.

John Mulry is the local lead for Strong Towns Santa Cruz and director of Santa Cruz WIMBY. Capitola is his current home and favorite place to be since 2002.