KULTURE KLASH: Santa Barbarans celebrated this year’s Bike to Work Week with a good, old-fashioned shootout between the petro-powered posse and the people-powered transit set over proposed changes to the way State Street flows into De la Vina Street, now akin to a waterfall pouring into a shot glass. From what I heard, the car crowd handily won the day, routing any and all pedestrians, cyclists, and traffic engineers who dared show their face.
At issue was a proposal to transform the curving “Y” turn from State Street onto De la Vina Street into something more resembling a “T.” If you reckoned that anything so dreary and mundane as a simple arterial realignment was dull, then you are obviously clueless about Santa Barbara politics. This is the stuff of which cultural jihads are made and promising political careers are crashed. For nearly three hours late Monday afternoon, Santa Barbara’s Architectural Board of Review (ABR) wrestled with this proposal, brought forth by city traffic engineers so that people seeking to cross the top of De la Vina Street-up near the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf-could do so without first having to receive their Last Rites. As an obnoxiously self-satisfied lifelong bicycle commuter, I naturally was drawn to the idea. That’s because for cyclists traveling south on State Street past De la Vina, that intersection has always been more than a little scary. Motorists turning down De la Vina Street must cross through the bike lane to make the turn, and when cars and bikes occupy the same space at the same time, the results are as bloody as they are one-sided.
Like a willfully naive chump, I had no idea that this proposal was such a colossal conspiracy of incompetence and duplicity. To me, it seemed like a no-brainer. By straightening out the top of De la Vina Street, the traffic engineers could effectively slow down the motorists coming off State Street. Given the huge volume of cars, bikes, and people going in and out of Trader Joe’s-home to one of the worst-designed parking lots in town-it seemed like a sensible plan to reduce traffic speed a little bit. And besides, the whole thing would be paid for with a state grant. So what’s not to like?
But then the Drive-Free-or-Die crowd showed up and edified everybody. Little wonder that Monday’s ABR meeting-normally staid affairs attended only by a few architects who show up, show off, pretend to listen, and move on-lasted as long as it did. When it was over, the proposed road realignment could get not one vote. To the extent that there’s a traffic problem on upper De la Vina, it’s City Hall‘s fault, the kommissars were told. After all, City Hall approved the Trader Joe’s/Surgical Center parking lot. City Hall also approved the restriping of upper De la Vina Street from four lanes to three, and then created the bike lanes with the asphalt left over. Nobody, the automobile absolutists argued, uses those bike lanes. And nobody has ever been killed-or even hit-trying to cross the top of De la Vina Street.
At least not yet.
To be fair, the car enthusiasts had some points. For example, the project will undoubtedly cost more than the $750,000 provided by the state grant. And the state grant in question was initially slated to fund projects that relieved traffic congestion. This proposed project will make De la Vina Street less dangerous by creating more congestion up by State Street. But those without a fortified sense of irony might be troubled were City Hall to use Congestion Relief funds to create more congestion, not less. And, of course, there’s the whole question of parking. Those belonging to the your-car-is-your-castle clique charge that the project would eliminate no less than seven onstreet parking spaces in front of nearby MacKenzie Park. Just as emphatically, city traffic czar Browning Allen insists no parking spaces will be sacrificed. It turns out, however, that the original plans did envision the loss of some parking spaces. And according to city planner Jaime Lim³n, the plans envision the future possibility that some parking spaces could be taken. All of this engenders more distrust among a crew of people who never had any trust to begin with, and certainly not where City Hall and Browning Allen are concerned.
City Councilmember Dale Francisco-who jumped in politically as an outspoken critic of the mini-roundabouts, concrete crop-circles, and other traffic-calming devices imposed with a maximum of insensitivity and klutziness on the upper Eastside-articulated this Cars-Were-Here-First position with admirable clarity. “This is an auto-dominated intersection in the middle of a commercial shopping district where people shop in cars,” he said. That’s true, but new businesses-like coffee shops and restaurants-have since sprouted that encourage people to hang out and walk around.
As a footnote, it’s worth noting that the transformation of upper De la Vina Street from four lanes to three was done to make the street safer for motorists turning off of De la Vina Street. Before, such efforts engendered hundreds of rear-end collisions a year. Now, that number is down dramatically. (And, not to quibble, but the bike lanes get a lot more traffic than their detractors know.) But the bigger point is that we can’t crawl into the future if we’re always staring at the past. I admit cars have their place, but preferably in the garage. The high price of gas will do more to change commuting habits than all the sanctimonious preachifying by sprocket heads like myself. If that’s not persuasive, get ready for the 15-year traffic jam that will engulf Highway 101 as a succession of “freeway improvement” projects proceed. Ground-breaking for the first four-year, $60 million installment takes place next month, so get ready for the Curb Your Commute PR blitz designed to encourage us to avoid the madness of rush-hour commuting. Or maybe we’ll get the snazzier Flex in the City approach. In the meantime, you can go crazy if you choose. Or you can grab your bike. That doesn’t mean you won’t go crazy anyway. Just that it’ll be a sweeter ride when you get there.