TAKING THE “OM” OUT OF ZOOM: Who’d a-thunk it? The sleeper issue animating Santa Barbara’s mayoral and council free-for-all fracas is not gangs, aggressive panhandlers, yawning deficits, greedy public employee unions, or fat-cat developers. No, the honor for this year’s incendiary hot-button issue goes to the modest and unassuming bulb-out, a kissing cousin of the dreaded roundabout in City Hall‘s ongoing efforts to tame lead-foot drivers zooming through Santa Barbara’s neighborhoods.

Angry Poodle

With bulb-outs, traffic engineers create a safe promontory for pedestrians to obtain a clearer sense of oncoming traffic flows by pinching the sidewalk out a little bit into the street. Because the road appears to narrow by bulb-outs, motorists tend to slow down. It’s what’s called a “traffic calming” device, and for car traditionalists who like their traffic wild and wooly, bulb-outs are part of a grand social engineering conspiracy concocted by Machiavellian city traffic engineers, BO-afflicted bicycle commuters, and hairy-pitted pedestrian rights advocates. The goal of this conspiracy is to make driving as wretchedly unpleasant as possible, thus forcing people to avail themselves of buses or bicycles. The end game, of course, is increased urban densities-needed for affordable housing-which can be more easily achieved with mass transit than private car ownership. If such a conspiracy actually existed, I’d become a card-carrying member in a heartbeat. The car truly is a miraculous creation, but it’s got serious problems. While I’ve been pretty agnostic on the issue of bulb-outs-indifferent actually-I recently have been impressed by their life-saving utility.

Just 300 feet from The Independent offices on West Figueroa Street, two pedestrians have been hit by oncoming vehicles while trying to cross De la Vina Street in the past few months. One was killed. During peak hours, De la Vina is a rushing river of traffic. Cars parked on the sides of the street block essential sight lines, forcing motorists, cyclists, and pedestrians to play Russian roulette with traffic every time they try to cross. City Hall has proposed a new light signal for the intersection, but given that there’s already a stoplight one block away at Carrillo Street, that seems kind of silly. Either remove the on-street parking, which is desperately needed, or install a bulb-out to provide those seeking to cross De la Vina a decent vantage point.

I bring this up because the pending city elections promise to provide a forum for the dueling traffic and transit tribes to shout each other hoarse. Clearly, the hardcore car supremacists have their slate: Dale Francisco for mayor, and Frank Hotchkiss and Michael Self for council. (Favoring more alternative approaches-including bulb-outs-are mayoral candidate Helene Schneider and council hopefuls Harwood “Bendy” White, Grant House, David Pritchett, and Dianne Channing.) One huge problem with the Carz-R-King approach is cost. Rather than bulb-outs, they argue, we need more cops handing out tickets. But an entry-level cop costs City Hall $120,000 a year. Look at the Granada Garage. One of the most ridiculously beautiful parking garages of all time, it cost $24.6 million to build. (By contrast, the combined cost of Lots 2 and 10 was just $10 million.) More than three years after its grand opening, only 250 of its 570 parking spaces are used regularly. During peak hours, occupancy hits 300. Admittedly, the recession has taken its toll-no one works or shops in empty storefronts-but city parking engineers frankly are baffled by the Granada’s mysterious lack of performance. What happened to the screaming need for 1,600 new parking spaces north of Carrillo we heard about-ad nauseum-to justify this extravagance?

Of course, the Granada Garage was a blatant payoff to those north-of-Carrillo business interests in perpetual pout mode because City Hall subsidized the creation of Paseo Nuevo further down State Street. (The garage was also designed to serve the new, improved, and exceptionally expensive Granada Theatre-subsidized by City Hall to the tune of $5 million-which has yet to come close to the Chumash Casino in terms of programming.) In my book, $25 million is a lot to spend on consolation prizes.

If the parking garage provides a case study in build-it-and-they-won’t-come, the same cannot be said for the bicycle parking facility shoe-horned into the Granada Garage-an alt-transit pound of flesh exacted to make the deal go through. The numbers for bicycle parking have shown steady, consistent increase since the garage first opened. With 80 slots, there now are 100 paying subscribers. (Not all subscribers park every day, allowing more subscribers than spaces.) The other alt-transit concession made to lubricate the Granada Garage deal was a free bus pass program made available to all downtown employees. It was a total bust. With 10,000 free passes to give out, City Hall got fewer than 1,000 takers. Go figure. So that money was given to MTD instead, to reduce the waiting time between peak-hour buses taking Eastsiders and Westsiders to and from downtown. Thus far, this program has been an absolute success. In the past two years, bus ridership has jumped 11.5 percent. Translated, that’s 867,696 more trips a year than before. Of those, fully half come from the “enhanced transit routes,” where the waiting periods between buses were reduced by a third.

The moral of the story? People will change their habits. Even Californians and their cars. Obviously, the spike in gas prices helped. But when prices came down, the elevated bus ridership levels have still persisted. As a result, MTD estimates it’s now keeping the equivalent of 22,676 cars off the road every day. So maybe this alt-transit stuff isn’t such a pipedream after all.

In the meantime, I’ll be meditating on the old joke: Why did the chicken cross De la Vina Street? The answer: To see if he could commit suicide.


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