Traffic calming. It may sound like it belongs in the Classic Oxymoron Hall of Fame, alongside "military intelligence," "Great Depression" and "pretty ugly," but planners in the communities spanning Balboa Park's west side want residents there to take it seriously.
The reason? With an ongoing construction boom occurring in Hillcrest, Bankers Hill and Park West, folks there need to realize that, if left unchecked, conflicts between pedestrians and motorists will only become more frequent.
So, it surprised no one last week when about 80 residents attended a community meeting in the cramped confines of a conference room at St. Paul's Episcopal Church to hear various presentations about so-called "traffic calming" solutions proposed for the area. The debate, however, was anything but calm.
For years, complaints have rolled in about traffic along Fourth, Fifth and Sixth avenues, major arterials that run up the spine of the communities and host a plethora of travelers-from downtown commuters trying to avoid the late-afternoon bumper to bumper on Highway 163 to tourists attempting to navigate into Balboa Park, one of San Diego's prime attractions for out-of-towners.
Jeffery Tom, executive director of the Uptown Partnership, which is spearheading the area's efforts to update its community plan within a couple years, has heard the complaints for nearly a decade. "Speeding on the one-way streets of Fourth and Fifth avenues; conflicts with pedestrians trying to cross Sixth Avenue going into the park; [traffic] lights not timed correctly; signage that was improper," Tom said.
He also noted the hot spots where cars and people don't mix well: at Fifth and Spruce; at Fourth and Quince (where the Quince Street pedestrian bridge spans one of the numerous canyons in the area); and the stretch of Fifth Avenue north of Laurel Street, where cars speeding out of downtown and a boom in residential construction make for some unpleasant encounters between motorists and pedestrians.
At one point during the two-hour meeting, Tom asked the audience how many had seen pedestrians running across Sixth Avenue take refuge on the puny concrete islands midway across to avoid getting hit by some wannabe Speed Racer. Most in the crowd raised their hands. One resident spoke up: "I do it, too."
Said Tom, "We're seeing pedestrians take their lives into their own hands."
And so it went. Various planners got up before the audience to offer their insight into what can be done to relieve traffic woes, and some were met with applause-most significantly when one planner suggested converting Fourth and Fifth avenues into two-way streets.
Mike Singleton, an Uptown community volunteer and community planner by trade, offered some preliminary data on the early studies. While most of the area is posted at 30 mph, vehicular speed runs closer to 40 mph in stretches along Fourth Avenue between Walnut and Laurel and to the south along Sixth Avenue between Elm and Juniper. The culprit? Unusually wide lanes and few traffic lights give drivers the impression that these are, in essence, drag strips.
"I don't know many other places in the city," Singleton said, "where you can go as many blocks as you can on these corridors without hitting a single traffic light." He also noted that traffic congestion tends to gravitate near Hillcrest, along Fourth, Fifth and Sixth between Washington and Robinson, where commuters are trying to get to the 163 onramp. Dave Schumacher, a planner by day with the Metropolitan Transit Development Board who also sits on the board of WalkSanDiego, which promotes walkable communities, told the audience that, yes indeed, the city has been poorly planned for years.
While he described the area as one of the most walkable in San Diego, he acknowledged that more could be done. "Ironically, older areas tend to be the most walkable," he said. "In the new areas, and here you're talking about the I-15 corridor, people don't even bother coming to meetings like this, because they feel like it's not even worth the bother. The communities are so designed around the automobile that they make walking not a pleasant and safe experience."
But with the city's recent adoption of a new street-design manual, hope for pedestrians is in the offing. And that's where traffic calming comes into play. The planners all agreed that methods to slow down traffic are numerous-even the new manual speaks only to a handful of solutions, from curb pop-outs that shorten the distance pedestrians must traverse at intersections, to a host of new vocabulary terms-road humps, speed tables, channelization, traffic diverters, chicanes and roundabouts. (The manual is available on the city's website.)
But some audience members, while pleased with the attention, nevertheless questioned the presumption by planners that good design makes for good drivers. One 12-year resident of the area noted that he and his partner "every night after dinner... engage in a high-risk activity: We walk the streets near which we live." He said speed violators "have almost zero expectation of being pulled over and given a traffic citation," a comment that drew a sizable round of applause from the audience.
"Why doesn't this financially strapped city raise revenue by pulling over violators en masse?"
When asked by a planner if he had a specific question, the resident continued: "I'm telling you that certainly after the fall of darkness, no one in this zip code... believes that they're going to get pulled over and cited for speeding, running a red light or running a stop sign."
One ex-Marine noted that traffic cops exit the area at 4:30 p.m., leaving the area vulnerable to a kind of motorist free-for-all.
City Councilmember Toni Atkins, who kicked off the meeting in place of the area's council representative, Michael Zucchet, said she wasn't surprised by the turnout-or even the occasional raised voice of concern. (One particularly grumpy man continually yelled, "No, no, no! You don't know what you're talking about!")
"Anytime we're dealing with traffic-related issues, I can expect that we're going to have a good turnout because these are serious issues affecting the quality of life," Atkins said. She also relayed her own personal experiences with trying to navigate the area as a pedestrian. While trying to get to Earth Day a couple weekends ago, she found herself stuck at the base of a condo high-rise that is nearing completion."I walked up to it and saw a sign that said cross the street, but there was no safe way to do that," she recalled. "For disabled people, they've got nowhere to go. They're stuck. We will follow up on that."