Santa Barbara City Councilmember Frank Hotchkiss has never been shy about his skepticism that bicycles can ever play more than a marginal role in getting commuters to and from their jobs. So when Hotchkiss teamed up with fellow car advocate Councilmember Dale Francisco to discuss his own unofficial survey results on bicycles and cars this Tuesday, members of Santa Barbara’s Bicycle Coalition and Community Environmental Council showed up, expecting the worst and ready to do battle. Instead, they discovered their longtime adversary sounded very much like he’d taken a deep drink of their very own Kool-Aid and was asking for seconds.
More people would ride bikes, Hotchkiss said, if they felt safer on city streets. And they’d feel safer, he said, if there were greater separation between cars and bikes. Hotchkiss showed slides of various ways different cities throughout the country accomplished this separation. In some cities, there are physical barriers; in others, bike lanes are elevated a few inches higher than the roads designated for motorized vehicles.
Earlier this year, Hotchkiss had written an op-ed that appeared in most area media outlets, expressing concern that city traffic planners were eager to cannibalize on-street parking to create new bike lanes as part of the new Bicycle Master Plan that City Hall has in the hopper. In that piece, Hotchkiss stated cyclists made up only 3.5 percent of all vehicular traffic, describing much of that as recreational. Hotchkiss also asked readers to send in their thoughts, and more than 200 did. Of those, 30 said they wanted bikes and cars to be treated equally, 55 supported converting on-street parking into new bike lanes, and 145 said they opposed any such conversion.
Ed France of the Santa Barbara Bicycle Coalition pointed out that the numbers cited by Hotchkiss were 10 years old and inaccurate. For the last four years, he said the Census has reported that 6-7 percent of all vehicular traffic within city limits is made up people riding their bikes to and from their job sites. That number, he stressed, did not include all the recreational riders. Despite these differences, France expressed both relief and appreciation that Hotchkiss took the initiative to launch a genuine dialogue over what could easily become an intractable debate between warring factions.
Many of the solutions Hotchkiss cited in the slideshow he presented are ideas that France and other bicycle advocates have long embraced. In an interview, France noted that Santa Barbara is the third most dangerous city in California for cyclists based on the high number of car-bike collisions. “That’s because we have so many cyclists but so little infrastructure,” he said. Underscoring all this is the yearlong series of community workshops and stakeholder meetings City Hall hopes to sponsor prior to rewriting the city’s Bicycle Master Plan. City traffic planner Rob Dayton had warned several months ago that “all the low-lying fruit had already been picked” and nothing but tough decisions lay before them.
Since that time, initial efforts to solicit bids from consultants specializing in public outreach failed to bear results, and another request for proposals had to be sent out for a job budgeted to cost $200,000. Dale Francisco expressed concern Tuesday that the results of such outreach efforts would be both skewed and predictable. He said if the council placed a premium on rock climbing and then held a similar outreach effort, the meetings would be dominated by rock climbers. “It would be like the tail wagging the dog,” he said. He then added to the bike advocates in attendance, “I’m not calling you tails.”
Tuesday’s oddly uncontentious deliberations took place three days before this Saturday’s second annual Open Streets celebration — a Santa Barbara riff on Los Angeles’ CicLAvia bipedal celebrations — in which a 2.2-mile stretch of Cabrillo Boulevard will be declared off-limits to cars. In their place, event organizers are hoping to draw even more than the 10,000 who participated in last year’s, providing more organized events — music, dance, yoga, basketball, skateboarding, a 5K run through the zoo, lots of cycling, and food booths.