During Tuesday night’s knock-down, drag-out over efforts to install bike lanes on both sides of Micheltorena Street from Castillo to State streets — a four-block stretch — Sierra Club spokesperson Katie Davis praised the proposal, exclaiming that anything that makes Santa Barbara more bike friendly qualified as a “win-win-win-win” situation.
For the record, that’s four “wins.” In the realm of rhetorical superlatives, this qualifies as a technical breakthrough on par, perhaps, with the theory of relativity and the discovery of Tang. The old school “win-win” — first popularized in the 1970s — has become so old hat as to be utterly without impact. Elected officials — always looking for new ways to crank their amplifiers to “11” and beyond — quickly pounced on the possibilities of “win-win-win.” But Davis, in my experience, is the first to ratchet up the rhetorical Richter scale of Mutually Assured Satisfaction to such new and unprecedented heights. As much as I would like to agree with Davis here, she happens to be flat-out wrong. Unfortunately, the plan she backed Tuesday night — and she was hardly the only one — is a sure fire “lose-lose-lose-lose.” The good news is there’s still time to turn things around. Alternatives do exist that can and should satisfy all parties. Whether anyone will make the effort, however, remains to be seen. I, for one, am hoping that they do. If not, I’m willing to bet my custom-made, locally built Celmins road bike that the whole deal will become enmeshed in a quagmire of litigation.
Not only will City Hall lose, it will deserve to. It’s worth noting that the process by which key details about the Micheltorena Street proposal was released — only a few minutes before the City Council began its six-hour deliberations Tuesday night — were problematic in the extreme to put it gently. A person prone to conspiracy theories might have reasons to lay awake nights. Good thing for me I am so trusting. Regardless, the punchline of that information is threefold: First, the financial justification for pursuing the Micheltorena bike lanes — as opposed to other options — is absolutely wrongin light of the last-minute revelation that intersections will need to be widened. Second, the plan is a sitting duck for the threatened environmental lawsuit. And third, the bike lanes will provide only half the level of protective isolation as most people thought.
Here’s the deal. The plan to build the Micheltorena Street bike lane is part of the brand new Bicycle Master Plan now under review at City Hall. Bike advocates — of which I am one — agree that an east-west bike thoroughfare of some sort is essential to complete the city’s hodgepodge network of bike lanes, bike paths, sharrows, and take-your-life-in-your-hands-and-just-pedal roads. From the 30,000-foot-level, a bike lane on Micheltorena Street makes perfect sense. It’s a big, bright, and bold straight line that shoots all the way from the city’s Westside to the east. It makes the statement, “We’re riding here” better than any neon lights or billboard could hope to.
I get it.
But for people who happen to be on the ground, it’s a disaster. For the new green-striped bike lane to be built, 85-100 on-street parking spaces have to be gobbled up. If that sounds like a lot, it’s because it is. This is a high-density, high-tenant neighborhood where most of the dwellings have been cookie-cuttered into a billion-and-one apartments, each the size of a broom closet. Many of these structures were built long before off-street parking was required, some back in the day of the Model T. For better or worse, on-street parking has provided the solution. Even so, people in the neighborhood have a hard time finding spaces. Often they might have to walk a couple of blocks. When the street sweepers come on Wednesday, it can be as many as six blocks. If and when the bike lanes are painted, every day will become street-sweeping day. It should be understood this won’t merely afflict 100 people on Micheltorena Street. Their efforts to find parking spaces elsewhere will have ripple effects in the surrounding neighborhood. Think of the “butterfly effect” on nukes. For hundreds if not thousands of people it will not be pretty.
So what’s the alternative?
People riding downtown from the Westside over the Micheltorena Street bridge can hook right on Castillo for one short block, then turn left on Sola, which will escort them in pillowed pleasantness to their destinations of choice. What could be better? It’s worth noting that Sola is four feet wider than Micheltorena. Four feet! It also has one-tenth the volume of cars. One-tenth! And right now, there are no stoplights on Sola’s cross streets creating unnecessary delays for twitchy-footed cyclists who don’t like to wait. Each one of these factors is determinative for bicycle commuters in selecting their trip routes. Put them all together, and the package is irresistible.
But from the start, the bicycle community — of which I am card-carrying member with the grease stains on my pant legs to prove it — has been told Sola is a dead-in-the-water, no-go, nonstarter. In other words, “not viable.” Traffic engineers decreed that for Sola to work as an east-west bike boulevard, it would need stoplights at De la Vina and Chapala streets. This, they said, would cost $750,000, which is roughly $750,000 more than they already don’t have. As someone who has biked across Bath, De la Vina, and Chapala streets at least two times a day for more years than I’d care to acknowledge, I’m not persuaded the stoplights are really needed. But that’s a side issue.
The real reason Micheltorena Street was selected for the bike lane was cost. For $50, city traffic planners say with only slight exaggeration, they can swipe a fat stripe of green paint down Micheltorena Street and create — overnight — the brand new bike lanes. Given these choices, little wonder the Bicycle Coalition has thrown its support, feet first, behind the Micheltorena option. Why wait 10 years for City Hall to amass the money needed to put stoplights on Sola when they can get green stripes today? When you consider how previous bike master plans — one passed in 1974 and the other in 1998 — failed so utterly to deliver the east-west bike lanes promised, the Bicycle Coalition’s reluctance to entertain anything but an absolutely sure thing makes total sense.
Excepting, of course, it’s far from certain.
Here’s deal killer number one: The Micheltorena bike path will cost a whole lot more than hitherto revealed. No, we don’t have any exact numbers, but it will absolutely cost much more than the Sola Street plan. We know this based on information released by city traffic staff at the 23rd hour and 59th minute of the 364th day, better known as the day of this week’s council meeting. Only then was it revealed that the Micheltorena Street plan called for at least three intersections to be widened to keep the existing turn lanes, the through lanes, and the bike lanes. Given how skinny the street is, there’s currently not room for all three. That’s why the intersections need to be widened. No one knows how much that will cost, but it will be a lot more than the $750,000 Sola Street stoplights. It will be a whole lot more if bus stops have to moved, utility poles relocated, or any private property acquired. If the streets are not widened, then the green-striped bike lanes will imbue cyclists with the cloak of invincibility only for half of each block.
This issue was raised Tuesday night at the City Council meeting. Strangely and disturbingly, not one single councilmember saw fit to seize on this point, not even the two — Frank Hotchkiss and Randy Rowse — who voted against the Micheltorena plan.
Here’s deal killer number two: The revelation about widening the intersections makes the plan totally vulnerable to legal challenge under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). This is a little esoteric, so pay attention. Under state law, City Hall can declare its bike master plan exempt from CEQA if the plan calls for nothing more ambitious than restriping a lane or retiming a sequence of stoplights. But widening intersections goes far beyond that. Micheltorena Street business owners and residents have hired an attorney who has put City Hall on notice that he will not only sue but drink their milkshake and eat their face, though much more politely put. Under state law, he argued, City Hall had to prepare a study assessing traffic and safety issue posed by the Bike Master Plan and put together a list of mitigations if any were called for. The last-minute memo released this Tuesday was a Hail Mary effort to comply with that requirement. It was only with the release of that report that the intersection-widening component of the project became known.
So what now?
My suggestion is that city traffic planners get together with the Bicycle Coalition and Micheltorena Street neighbors and hammer out something mutually agreeable to all parties. Ideally, they’ll figure out a way to make the Sola Street project work. In that eventuality, everyone can legitimately claim victory. We’ll get a good bike lane, the neighborhood won’t get screwed, and hopefully more people will ride their bikes to and from. Should this happen, Katie Davis can legitimately exclaim over the “win-win-win-win” scenario. But if everyone hunkers down in their bunker, it’s going to be “lose-lose-lose-lose.”