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Paul Wellman

Shoot-Out at the Roundabout Corral

Traffic-Calming Critics Cry Foul, Jam City Hall


Members of the Santa Barbara City Council had no idea what was about to hit them as they entered their chambers before last Tuesday’s meeting. On the agenda was the fate of several mini-roundabouts and other “traffic-calming” devices that had descended like crop circles two years ago on Santa Barbara’s upper Eastside near St. Francis Hospital. A group calling itself Santa Barbarans for Safe Streets was appealing the final design approval bequeathed upon permanent roundabouts - as opposed to the temporary ones now in service - by the Architectural Board of Review (ABR).

They Were Really Pissed”

It had been a long day and many of the councilmembers were looking forward to a slam-dunk that evening. After all, the council had unanimously approved the traffic-calming plan the previous April. The only point up for appeal was whether the ABR had made them pretty enough, as they had been assigned to do. With that history in mind, some councilmembers entered Tuesday’s meeting expecting to confront a small smattering of politically marginal pro-car ideologues. Instead, they encountered a standing-room only crowd. “They were really pissed,” said councilmember Brian Barnwell afterward. “And they did a great job.”

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Ultimately, the council would deny the appeal and uphold the new designs for the roundabouts. But while Santa Barbarans for Safe Streets clearly lost the war, there’s little doubt they won the battle last Tuesday night, hands down. For nearly 90 minutes, one speaker after the next unloaded on the mini-roundabouts and the city’s traffic engineers. They charged City Hall had rammed these devices down the community’s unwilling throat and flagrantly violated the integrity of the city’s design review process.

It wasn’t just that the mini-roundabouts, bulb-outs, and other intrusions into the narrow neighborhoods roads were “butt ugly,” as more than one speaker noted; they were dangerous to fire trucks, ambulances, and other emergency vehicles. Dale Francisco, an articulate 53-year old software engineer who lives near the Mission, accused city traffic engineers of deliberating withholding critical safety information from the ABR when they finally signed off on the controversial traffic control project. Francisco revealed how last November, city fire marshal Russ Cole wrote a memo expressing the department’s unequivocal opposition to two of mini-roundabouts in particular. Cole objected they were too narrow for the city’s fire engines to safely navigate.

As the councilmembers sought to choke down that incendiary revelation, Francisco further charged that high-ranking city planners had leaned on ABR members after that design review board rejected a motion to approve the roundabouts in a vote late last December. Even worse, Francisco claimed city staff rewrote the minutes of that vote to make the results appear less damaging than they really were. And finally, Francisco denounced as a sham the three City Hall surveys purporting that 85 percent of the property owners in the affected neighborhood supported the roundabouts and other traffic-calming methods. Two of those surveys, Francisco pointed out, only included boxes allowing the property owners to indicate their support for the project. No boxes were provided to allow residents to express their opposition.

In the face of such serious accusations, City Hall administrators mysteriously chose not to respond. In hindsight, many councilmembers, planners, and engineers say they were armed with a 40-minute staff presentation that would have effectively rebutted many of their critics’ most damaging claims. But in deference to the long hours the councilmembers had already worked - and perhaps a sense that the outcome was preordained - assistant city manager Joan Kent reportedly ordered her traffic engineers and planners to stand down and keep their lips zipped unless called upon to answer specific questions. By the time anyone got around to asking questions, however, many on the council were already in full retreat. Iya Falcone and Brian Barnwell, for example, declared in vivid terms how they never liked the roundabouts in the first place, and only went along with them because the experts persuaded them they would work. Falcone called them “garish” and “ugly,” saying they “do violence to the historic neighborhood.”

Toward the end of the meeting, traffic planner Dru Van Hengel could bite her tongue no longer. A former Olympic kayaker and bicycle advocate, Van Hengle presented some startling statistics that demonstrated that the mini-roundabouts were dramatically effective at reducing the speeds at which motorists careened through the streets. The roundabouts are designed to be traversed at speeds no greater than 18 miles per hour. (The posted speed limit is 25 miles per hour.) Such statistics had never been presented before. But by then, it was already “too rosy, too late,” as one councilmember put it.

A few days after the dust had settled, one traffic engineer noted with some surprise that the hearing was not as one-sided as it seemed. At least 10 members of the public - fully one third of the speakers - had actually voiced support for the project. Ralph Fertig with the Santa Barbara Bicycle Coalition was unusually pointed in his remarks. “How many parents email you saying their kids are too safe walking across the streets to school, can’t more traffic be diverted for them to dodge as they run across the street?” he asked. Fertig cited statistics by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety indicating that traffic injuries and fatalities dropped 76 percent and 90 percent, respectively, at intersections where roundabouts were placed.

Slowing Down

The story behind the roundabouts and how they came to be is almost as long as it is politically charged. According to city traffic engineers and planners, the mini-traffic circles evolved out of neighborhood cries for help in controlling speeding motorists. Residents living along Garden and Olive streets have long complained that too many drivers confuse their stretch of paradise with the Indianapolis speedway. And some residents living near St. Francis Hospital had been especially vocal about the traffic impacts they associated with that now-closed medical facility. Those concerns were only exacerbated several years ago when the City Council approved a plan to allow St. Francis to open 30,000 square feet of new medical offices. (That plan was been withdrawn with St. Francis’s closure.)

To calm such fears, City Hall ordained that this area would be the first guinea pig to test out the Neighborhood Traffic Management Program, established in 2001. The crux of this effort was rooted in controversy; it allowed specific neighborhoods a new degree of control over traffic engineering even though motorists throughout the entire city relied on their streets. Instead of more stop signs and more traffic cops, City Hall would install “traffic-calming” devices that pinch into the street and force motorists to reduce their speeds.

Such novel approaches - long popular in cities like Seattle and Portland - had been implicitly embraced in the revised version of the city’s Circulation Element, approved nine years ago. That planning document - the product of many years of laborious, contentious work - articulated the novel concept that the convenience of the automobile should not be the primary objective of Santa Barbara’s traffic policy. To maintain and enhance the city’s “livability,” significant weight should be given to buses and bicycles. That in itself was a radical policy departure, and one bitterly denounced as “social engineering” by car advocate groups likes of Cars Are Basic.

According to traffic planner Rob Dayton, City Hall initially resisted the idea of placing any traffic-calming devices in the neighborhoods, but the demands by activists eventually prevailed. One of those neighborhood activists - Joe Rution with the Bungalow District Homeowners Association - called it somewhat differently. He said City Hall, not the neighbors, hatched the idea for the mini-roundabouts and the bulb-outs, but said that his group latched onto them enthusiastically. Rution, who spoke in favor of the roundabouts at last Tuesday’s meeting, stressed the public process by which the roundabouts were discussed had been nothing if not exhaustive. He explained that more supporters of the project didn’t come out Tuesday night because they didn’t think they were needed. “We’ve showed up en masse for six meetings now. How many times do we have to belabor the obvious and argue the same points?”

Rution said his group papered the neighborhood with flyers and mailers about the roundabouts, held several meetings, and held a vote at which the roundabouts passed with flying colors. Dayton was more detailed in his description of public outreach: six neighborhood meetings, a three-day workshop, eight newsletters, and 23,000 pieces of mail. Of those were three separate surveys mailed to about 1,100 property owners. With a rate of return of about 30 percent, support for the roundabouts averaged at 85 percent. But on the first two, there was no box for opponents to cast a no vote. (In hindsight, city engineers and planners concede this was a significant mistake.)

A similar campaign was taking place in Oak Park, as neighbors there sought pre-emptive refuge from the additional traffic generated by Cottage’s Hospital’s massive remodel. But there, the roundabouts were resisted by a determined neighborhood activist named Michael Self. She went door to door, decrying the roundabouts as both dangerous and impractical. When City Hall sent out the surveys to gauge the degree of neighborhood support, the impact of Self’s labors became evident. By an unambiguous margin, the neighbors rejected the plans. As Self made the pages of the local newspapers, she came to Francisco’s attention. “I thought people were unfairly ganging up on her, so I decided to find out what was going on,” he said. He would later be joined by Jim Westby, a retired General Motors executive who recently moved to Santa Barbara’s lower Riviera. Together, they would become the voice of Santa Barbarans for Safe Streets in the fight against the roundabouts.

Activists with Santa Barbarans for Safe Streets have acknowledged that there’s a speeding problem in the neighborhood. But instead of traffic-calming devices, they’ve advocated for more stop signs and traffic cops. But traffic planner Rob Dayton said stop signs don’t work; motorists speed up between stop signs, he said, increasing the risk to pedestrians, and generating more noise and air pollution. Traffic cops are notoriously expensive, and the police department is still recovering from a substantial drop in personnel.

Round and Round We Go

The first mini-roundabouts unveiled in Santa Barbara were all but designed to fail. They were located at the front of Santa Barbara High School, where the stop-and-go rhythm of parents dropping off their kids clashed with the non-stop slow-flow needed to properly navigate roundabouts. For the city traffic engineers, it was an inauspicious start. The roundabouts were yanked almost immediately.

About two years ago, city traffic engineers installed the constellation of temporary roundabouts on the upper Eastside. The plan was to provide immediate relief from speeders while the final design details were hammered out during the city’s time consuming design review process. In hindsight, everyone involved within City Hall now agrees the temporary structures were a huge mistake; their awkward ugliness certainly inflamed much of the subsequent opposition.

Last April, the Santa Barbara City Council unanimously voted to affirm their support for these traffic-calming devices and to replace the ugly and the temporary with the permanent and pretty. The council left the design details to the ABR. By then, Self, Francisco, and Westby were fully engaged. They bird-dogged the process with impressive vigilance, making up their lack of civic experience with a combination of determination and suspicion.

Francisco said that as he began looking into the roundabouts - which he concedes he can drive with no difficulty - he began to suspect other agendas were involved beyond slowing down the cars careening though the neighborhood. “I felt that they’re really about is to push people not to use their cars and to use alternative transportation instead,” he said. Francisco said he had no objection if City Hall wanted to encourage people to walk or ride their bicycles, but didn’t think it was realistic to expect people to give up their cars. “Don’t try to force people who feel they need to drive not to. That’s not appropriate,” he said.

Rution, who supports the traffic circles, said this suspicion - coupled with a powerful belief in the primacy of the automobile - is driving much of the opposition to traffic-calming devices. He said he regularly works with members of Santa Barbarans for Safe Streets in other neighborhood organizations and has been struck by the fervor of their belief. “They are adamantly opposed to anything that gets in the way of driving a car,” he said. “It’s tantamount to being a communist. They are nice people, but on this issue they are very tough.”

City Traffic Planner Rob Dayton - no stranger to the ideologically pitched battles between car advocates and alternative transit supporters - sought to put a somewhat softer spin on the debate. The number one complaint City Hall gets from almost every neighborhood, Dayton said, involves speeding. “It’s always been that way, but it’s getting worse not better,” Dayton said. “Everybody wants the motorists slowed down. But we talk about ‘the motorist’ like it’s somebody else. But it’s not. We’re really talking about ourselves.”

Aesthetics Versus Design

Many members of the ABR were alarmed when the city traffic engineers submitted their first set of designs. “There was no design,” said Bruce Bartlett, then the chair of the ABR and now a member of the Planning Commission. “It was a collage of signage that was utterly confusing.” According to professional stereotype, few traffic engineers have the temperament to finesse the design review process, where give-and-take is the order of the day. Bartlett said that stereotype certainly held true with engineer Cliff Tulley - now with the City of Solvang - with whom the ABR found itself butting heads almost from the start. “We’d meet two, three, four times, and it was clear he wasn’t listening to our advice. We’re a group of trained professionals who donate our time to make plans look better. For us, it was kind of a slap in the face.”

Some ABR members also doubted that the roundabouts - located in such narrow residential streets - were either functional or safe. When they sought reassurance that the Fire Department, for example, had signed off on the plans, Bartlett said they were rebuffed. “Typically, when we review plans, we have documents from traffic and the fire department saying that they’re technically OK. In this case we were expected to trust them.” When the matter came up for a vote at the end of last December, it quickly became clear that the roundabouts could not pass. Instead, the ABR voted to support the bulb-outs and other traffic-calming structures, but held the controversial roundabouts back. Boardmember Dawn Sherry acknowledged that part of her discomfort was based on function, not design. City planners had to remind the ABR that their purview was aesthetic, not engineering-related.

After the December vote, Sherry would drive the roundabouts in her Chevy Suburban SUV, and discover they could, in fact, be navigated in a large vehicle. “You could do it, but you had to drive really slow,” she said. “But that was the whole point.” This realization would soften Cherry’s opposition to the roundabouts. But it turns out that the Fire Department shared many of the ABR’s concerns about at least two of the roundabouts. Last November, the Fire Marshall submitted a memo that expressed the department’s opposition in no uncertain terms. “We wanted them gone,” explained Fire Chief Ron Prince. “We drew a line in the sand.” Prince said his fire trucks could not navigate the turn of two of the roundabouts without driving into the face of oncoming traffic.

Only on May 14, Prince said, did city traffic engineers finally back down. Prince said he physically demonstrated his point by taking the top brass of the city’s Public Works Department out to the roundabouts in question and showing them what happened when a fire truck tried to navigate their narrow confines. At that point, Public Works agreed to trim back the bulb-outs to give the fire trucks more room. In addition, Prince said Public Works agreed to abandon its plans to build sandstone roundabouts with six-inch high vertical curbs. In their place will be beveled circular “buttons” in the middle of the road that fire trucks can drive over if need be. “It’s a compromise both sides can live with,” said Prince.

Mindful that critics of the roundabout cite public safety as a key concern, Prince stated that the roundabouts will add seconds to the response time of fire trucks, not minutes. He also said speed bumps - another popular traffic-calming device - “were much, much worse.” None of the details of this debate were shared with the ABR, however. And the final changes needed to win the Fire Chief’s support were achieved well after the ABR would eventually give their final approval.

City planners denied they were trying to withhold critical information from the ABR. They stressed that ABR is charged with design and aesthetics only. They acknowledged Prince was late endorsing the project, but Dayton said Prince is relatively new to the job - 18 months - and that his predecessor had, in fact signed off on the project earlier.

The Minutes in Question

Among Francisco’s complaints is the charge that City Hall tinkered with the minutes of the ABR’s vote in December to withhold support from the roundabouts in order to soften the impact. It is a fact that the minutes were changed, but there’s a wide range of opinion if those changes constitute real mischief. Paul Casey, the city’s Community Development Czar, noted that the ABR begins every meeting reviewing the minutes of the previous one. He said it’s not uncommon for clarifications to be made. And that’s exactly what happened, he said, during the ABR’s first meeting this January. It was unclear whether the ABR intended to affirmatively reject the roundabouts’ designs and send the city traffic engineers back to the drawing boards, or merely to continue the matter so that ABR could work on it some more. At the January meeting, the ABR voted unanimously that its intent was to continue the matter, not to kill the project. But that’s not what Francisco said he saw. “I was there. Nobody talked about continuing this indefinitely. Nobody used those words. Instead they said the roundabouts were ‘aesthetically detrimental.’”

If Francisco was hoping that vote would be the stake through the project’s heart, he was keenly disappointed. ABR member Randy Mudge said it’s not uncommon to amend the minutes, and noted the vote to do so this February was unanimous. But Bartlett - who had moved to the Planning Commission in January and was not present for the vote in question - remains convinced that the minutes were doctored. While the December vote did not explicitly reject the city’s roundabout design, he said that was clearly what the vote was about. “You’re not supposed to care who the applicant is - whether it’s a private developer or the city itself. But with this applicant, we had the sense we had to play by a different set of rules.” Ironically, Bartlett noted that the changes made to two of the roundabouts in order to win Fire Department support involved an idea - the buttons - proposed by the ABR the year before. “I’m glad to see they paid attention to our suggestions,” he said.

Temporary to Permanent

In the meantime, construction will soon begin on the permanent roundabouts. Most will appear as big round sandstone planters in the middle of the intersection. Some will have trees. And regardless of what role they may play in the larger battles over transportation policy or smart growth, it appears they are exceptionally effective at slowing traffic down - the immediate task at hand. It used to be 43 percent of the drivers passing through the intersection of Garden and Islay streets went 35 miles an hour or faster. But now that a roundabout has been installed, the volume of speeders has dropped to just five percent. The number of speeders has also plunged at the intersection of Olive and Sola streets.

Naturally, Dale Francisco and the rest of Santa Barbarans for Safe Streets remain suspicious. “I’d like to see those statistics,” he said. “I don’t trust numbers coming out the traffic department.” Although Fransisco remains mindful that the council ultimately voted against him Tuesday night, he’s putting the best face forward. “I’m gratified that changes were made to two of the roundabouts to accommodate the Fire Department. Had we not brought this appeal, I doubt those changes would have happened.”

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