State Street in June 2020 | Credit: Jean Yamamura

HEADS UP:  Rarely in the history of eternity have I seen City Hall manage to move so excruciating slowly and so perilously quickly at precisely the same time about the same thing. Clearly, I need to freshen up on my Theory of Relativity.

Let’s start with the most obvious case, the conversion of downtown State Street into a massive pedestrian mall, love-me-love-my-barking-dog park, bicycle zig-zag course, and extended outdoor drinking and dining extravaganza. I’d suggest expanding the farmers’ market, bringing back food trucks, encouraging more street musicians, and adding weekly swap meets while you’re at it.

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For those who don’t believe change is possible in Santa Barbara, I’d offer this overnight transformation as proof positive to the contrary. Although I’ve yet to find incessant barking cute, I’d say the whole experiment has proved such a screaming success that it’s impossible imagining this genie getting crammed back into its bottle. In fact, we’ve already come to take the whole arrangement — a wonderfully messy, cluttered, improvised hodge-podge of this and that — for granted. 


Some perspective is called for.

The idea of a pedestrian State Street was first brought to the City Council back in October 1992. It was not a happy event. The Chamber of Commerce, the Downtown Organization, and about 35 self-appointed guardians of the business galaxy showed up — rakes and pitchforks at the ready — demanding that even the theoretical possibility of such an abomination be expunged from all planning documents.

Only one speaker — architect Barry Berkus — liked the idea, suggesting a car-free State Street could become “an urban meadow.” City transportation planner Rob Dayton — then still a squeaky voiced alt-transit visionary — sought to calm the mob, predicting the idea won’t get off the drawing boards for 20 or 30 years. That prediction, it turns out, was amazingly precise. 

Earlier, in 1984, the mere idea of tables on the sidewalks — let alone on State Street — was considered so unspeakably radical, it died an ignominious death when it went before council. Restaurateurs loved the idea, but City Hall lawyers fretted about possible litigation and nixed it. 

So that’s where we’ve come from. Where we’re going, I don’t pretend to know. But I am alarmed at the recent numbers.

This Tuesday, county public health officers reported 63 new COVID cases. There are 61 COVID patients sick enough to warrant hospitalization. Of those, 19 were placed in intensive care units. That’s a jump. On June 1, by contrast, we were reporting just 10 new cases, only 29 COVID patients in the hospitals, and just nine in intensive care.

Our increased caseloads are not breaking the bank. But when you have hospital clinicians telling County Public Health czar Dr. Henning Ansorg — known for a his dead-pan style — “Dude, do something,” we’d all best pay attention.

I love State Street’s new frolicsome vibe. It’s good for the soul. But I also worry about short-sighted stupidity. Masks, anyone? Your right to cut off my nose to spite your own face ends just before my lungs are engulfed by a COVID-induced cytokine storm and I’m placed in an induced coma, with a rubber breathing tube shoved down my throat. I’m touchy that way.

In all this forced solitude and isolation, people are rediscovering the simple joys of one of mankind’s greatest inventions: the bicycle. Not to state the obvious, but there are few better ways to get out and about while maintaining a safe social distance. Hazards and Bicycle Bob’s report their bike repair waiting lists longer than Trump’s Tulsa rally reservation list — only there are no K-Pop agitators and saboteurs involved. Bikes that sell for $500 flew out the door a month ago. Electric bikes are everywhere.

With so few cars on the road, the streets are safer. For a while, every day felt just like Sunday morning.

Who would want to mess with this? City Hall, of course — where great minds are now considering whether cyclists should be banned from State Street. That would be hilarious if it weren’t so crazy. Yes, some young dudes are popping wheelies three blocks long. But just like people who forget — as oppose to refuse — to wear masks, these riders can be approached. Perhaps even ticketed.

Ironically, Santa Barbara just won a major, prestigious national cycling award. The city ranked third in the country for best bicycling by Peopleforbikes, a bipedal advocacy group hatched by a consortium of major bike manufacturers. Last year, we came in 12th. 

Making this award curious, Santa Barbara’s numbers (pre-COVID) for bicycle commuters has actually been going down. But bicycle-related accidents have been going up. Offsetting these wrong-way stats has been the $40 million in state transportation grants that City Hall has secured for new bike lanes. There’s hope. Humans, after all, remain the only species that can ride a bike or snap their fingers.

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