Greg King: It’s time to free Arcata from automobile dominance – here’s how

Recently the Union printed the surprising revelation that the City of Arcata’s Community Development Department on Dec. 17, 2020 hosted a “Community Vision Listening Session” in preparation for a General Plan Update. The revelation was surprising because I had seen no public outreach from the city on the General Plan Update, nor anything about the possibility of contributing.

Understandably, City officials can’t do widespread outreach on every issue. But an update of the General Plan is a critical enough issue that I would hope to see, at the very least, a postcard, sent at the City’s reduced postal rate, to every home and post office box in Arcata. The postcard would be a one-time event, and would offer residents the basic fact that such an update is occurring and a dedicated web address for the update, where residents can learn more and remain appraised of the ongoing process, and how to contribute.

Following is a lengthy discussion of what may be the most important issue facing Arcatans today (aside from Covid): the crush of automobiles. Arcata is currently pursuing policies that promote increasingly dense levels of infill without addressing a promised exponential growth of negative issues commensurate with increases in traffic.

The problem

Arcata is becoming a densely packed, bike- and pedestrian-unfriendly city. As the city adds more housing (and yes, affordable housing is critically important) without addressing this major flaw of its in-fill policies, the crush of cars is reaching crisis levels. The problem is compounded as outlying areas continue to grow and add more regular visitors to the city. The city’s approach to in-filling Arcata is apparently conjoined with laissez faire policies toward cars. Come one, come all, appears to be the attitude.

The danger of failing to address the clear and oncoming crisis of too many cars is that the consequent increase in automobile traffic will in turn also increase the threat level to those who choose to get around Arcata on foot or on a bike. As it becomes increasingly dangerous and uncomfortable go without a car in this city, even we who would normally forego a car will instead drive more often, thus adding even more cars. This is the self-fulfillment aspect of Arcata’s apparent inability to seriously, and assertively – and immediately, prior to any new approvals of housing projects – redesign and implement policies and infrastructure that squeeze out cars and welcome people without them.

So I hereby ask the City: Please make it more difficult and expensive for me to drive in Arcata, and easier and safer to get around without one.

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Of course, the irony of Arcata’s inaction when it comes to addressing car impacts is that this is the perfect city for implementing policies that dissuade automobile use and encourage non-motorized forms of transportation. From almost anywhere in the city a person in moderate shape can ride two miles to downtown on a bike virtually as fast she could in a car. Riding a bike is easy, healthful, fun, takes cars off the road, cleans the air, reduces threat levels, and makes Arcata a more enjoyable, civic community.

 Of course, not everyone can walk or ride a bike all of the time, and some people are unable to do so at all. The issue is reducing the number of trips people take in cars, not excluding them altogether, and allowing people who choose to forgo cars to get around without being threatened by them. Current Arcata policies are making it more difficult to do so.

The solutions

 Within the General Plan Update, and immediately, Arcata needs to implement policies that result in actual and significant reductions in automobile traffic, and in reductions of risks to motorists and non-motorists alike. Such changes would include:

 1. Create Car-Free Bike Lanes. The dedicated bike path leading from Sunset Ave. to Samoa Blvd. is an excellent start. But it does not relieve much traffic. To relieve traffic, dedicated, car-free lanes must reach downtown and uptown from all four sections of Arcata – that is, east, west, north, and south – and through the middle of the city, no on its edges. It is simple and cheap and easy (though perhaps not politically) to provide these lanes. Little new pavement is required. Simply choose one east-west road and one north-south road, make them one-way to cars, run a cement barrier down the middle of one of the lanes, and dedicate the narrower side to non-motorized transportation. I recommend the current bike boulevards: 10th Street from F Street to Janes Rd., and I Street from 17th to Samoa. Incorporate the non-car side with the sidewalk and you’ve got a wide lane for all non-motorized travelers. It would leave enough room for two lanes for parking on the car side. And it would be practically free.

2. Speed humps. Arcata’s transportation infrastructure must be designed with the lowest common denominator in mind: the guy gunning his giant, hyper-militarized diesel truck down 11th Street at 50 mph, in front of a school; another guy passing on 11th and running over my friend’s dog (just missing my friend); etc. etc. We all know the stories, they (like these) are real, and they are lethal.

 Arcata’s antiquated speed hump policy disallows installing speed humps on many streets. For instance, if your street is only three blocks long, no speed hump. There are many other restrictions as well. It should be the other way around: Speed humps should be installed on every non-arterial street, and even some arterials. If the speed limit is 25, and the speed hump at 25 mph is not at all onerous to drive over, what’s the problem with installing them? Someone at the city’s Public Works department once informed me, “People don’t like them.” Right. People don’t like gun laws either, but not long ago Arcata passed one, no matter that guns in this city are less dangerous than cars by an order of magnitude.

 3. 15 mph speed limits on all non-arterial streets. Were I to drive 25 mph, which is the speed limit, down our narrow street my neighbors would yell at me. I have seen people reach at least 40.

 4. Car-free Plaza. This is one of the best possible changes this city could make. Remove the cars and families can come and linger and spend more money, the kids can play and run around while the parents shop and chat, businesses will expand onto the sidewalk, people will enjoy our great out-of-doors in the heart of one of the most beautiful parts of one of the most beautiful little cities in the country. And they can do it safely. Allowing cars to park on the Plaza is like plopping a toddler, with crayons, in front of the Mona Lisa. Only cars are deadly. Disabled people could park on perpendicular streets right to where they reach Plaza, therefore affording people with mobility issues even greater access to our unique and beautiful city square, rather than less, as some have argued. And anyone shopping Plaza stores in a wheelchair would probably be relieved not to negotiate traffic to get from Café Brio to the Plaza. (Sitting outside at Brio, I have three times seen drivers run the G Street stop sign without even slowing down; obviously they didn’t even see it. This is your lowest common denominator. Arcata must plan traffic around these people.) Removing cars from the Plaza would require a parking garage. So what? A parking garage is certainly a far more responsible measure than allowing cars to drive on the Plaza. We can make it pretty, just as city planners allege that Danco’s new five-story housing complex going up two blocks from the Plaza will be pretty. Will all these new residents be coming with cars? What happens to the Plaza then? The biggest pushback against removing cars from the Plaza comes from some (though certainly not all) Plaza merchants. This is understandable, though it’s difficult to fathom why they do not understand that the most likely result of removing cars from the Plaza will be an increase, not a decrease, in business. (Were cars removed from the Plaza I would certainly shop there more often than I do.) Another important point is that Plaza merchants do not represent all Arcatans – the Plaza belongs equally to all of us. We need to democratize decision-making regarding the Plaza.

5. Paid parking in all business districts, complimented by expansive, enclosed bike lockers (in addition to racks). The parking will pay for the bike racks and for the cement dividers down the dedicated bike lanes, among other wonderful improvement. It will, combined with the covered, dry, secure bike lockers, also increase non-motorized transportation.

 6. Cooperation with HSU to get students out of their cars. The city must plan its transportation infrastructure around the drunk college student who could run over and kill a pedestrian at a four-way stop. Arcata did nothing at all to change traffic infrastructure after the tragic death of Alan Gradwohl, at the four-way stop of 14th and 11th, in 2016. That student was driving from the dorms to the Plaza bars. That’s a five-minute bike ride, faster if you’re drunk. Why wasn’t he on a bike or on foot? Why are so many HSU students driving and so few riding bikes? A professor tells me that the number one complaint he hears from students is “not enough parking.” This is a crisis of consciousness. What there’s not enough of up there are covered bike lockers, not enough signs and literature on campus, as there are at other colleges, that emphasize the need for students to stop driving. Literally thousands of students drive every day. When I go to campus (pre-COVID) the parking lots are jammed full but the bike racks have plenty of space. The city’s goal should be to reverse this paradigm. The city should insist that HSU install hundreds of covered, secure bike lockers and otherwise encourage students to get out of their cars. Some colleges disallow first-year students from bringing a car to campus, and if they choose to bring one in later years it is incredibly expensive to park there. The students learn how to live without cars, and their ridership on public transportation increases funding for the service. Professors and HSU staff need to drive less as well. On my bike I can get from Windsong Village to the Sunny Brae Murphy’s in 10 minutes, and to the top of HSU in 15 minutes. If a 60-year-old complainer in moderate shape can do that then so can a healthy 19-year-old college student and most professors.

7. Enforcement. Not once, in the 16 years I have lived in Arcata (this time, the first time was 1987-93), have I seen an Arcata police officer parked alongside the road, employing radar, or out giving a ticket. Not once.

Safety first

Don’t get me wrong, I’m no purist. I own a car, my wife owns a car. We drive. But if it were safe to do so, we would walk or ride our bikes for 50 percent to 80 percent of our trips of up to 10 miles, and for longer trips on occasion as well. But it is not safe to ride in many parts of this city, and even walking now is dicey.

In September 2019 an intoxicated driver hit and severely injured a 22-year-old pedestrian — in a crosswalk — near 17th and Alliance. This is a heavily used crosswalk, as it serves Arcata High School and connects upper Arcata with both the west side and the many houses and apartments on Alliance. The woman’s dog was killed. This is the driver the city needs to plan for, the lowest common denominator. We need crossing lights, stoplights, speed humps, roundabouts, wide curbs, wider sidewalks, one-way streets, dead-end streets, pedestrian bridges, enforcement, education, and especially dedicated bike lanes.

 We absolutely must afford our non-motorized travelers MORE respect and opportunity to get around this city than we do anyone in a car. Cars are inherently disrespectable, they are in fact murderous. Until we start looking at them as the destructive machines that they are, 40,000 Americans will continue to die in them every year, and hundreds of thousands will continue to suffer severe, life-changing injuries. Arcata is not immune to the plague of the car.

The opportunity

 The City of Arcata has an opportunity to remedy one of the worst slow-motion crises a city can face: the takeover by cars. This is happening right now. Perhaps you don’t see it that way. If not, I suggest you travel to Sebastopol, in Sonoma County, which is 10 miles from where I grew up. In the 1960s and ’70s Sebastopol, a city about the size of Arcata, was a walkable, bikeable, family-friendly city. Now cars have the entire downtown in a death grip, they circle the city’s Plaza like toxic vultures. Sound familiar? It’s actually horrible to be there. Arcata is heading this way.

The citizen comments on Redheaded Blackbelt following the running down of the pedestrian and her dog, are instructional. This is our people speaking out about just one of the many avoidable tragedies that too often occur in Arcata. Virtually every Arcata resident I talk with say that they are finding cars to be an increasing threat and nuisance in the city. They all say they have complained. They all say their complaints go nowhere. The first comment, I think, reflects the earnest frustration of anyone who has tried to make any changes in Arcata’s traffic policies.

Granted, almost all of us need a car sometimes, and some people need a car a lot. But the use of cars must become subservient to anyone who chooses to move around the city without one. In reality, cars are a failed experiment. They are loud, polluting, socially isolating, climate destroying, land usurping, ugly, and deadly. And they take up a lot of space and require a lot of pavement. We have a chance in this lovely small city to remedy, somewhat, this failure. Bold action is needed, and it’s desired by many, many of us who live here.

 Thank you.

Greg King is a longtime resident of Arcata and serves as executive director of Siskiyou Land Conservancy, a non-profit land trust and conservation organization that serves the counties of Humboldt, Del Norte and Mendocino. 



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