Here's one more California anomaly -- highways in the hood.

California's love affair with the automobile not only polluted its skies, helped foster urban sprawl and caused the state to often overlook public transit, it spawned many a neighborhood with a highway that runs through it.

Surface streets on the state highway system run through nearly 500 California communities.

A forward-thinking progressive state by many measures, California is behind the times when it comes to high-speed urban thoroughfares that can be a danger to pedestrians, creating new business and home values.

"There is a national movement to create livable streets," says Sarah Pulleyblank, author of the new "Civilizing Downtown Highways" (Congress for the New Urbanism, $29.95).

"But for communities where streets are designated state highways, the street design process usually makes it difficult to build a pedestrian- and business-friendly main street. California needs to get up to speed with the innovative states that have done extensive training and adopted new standards to respond to community needs," said Pulleyblank, the Congress's task force and program manager.

However, redesigning the speedways in the name of better living isn't going to be easy.

The book says that the state department of transportation, Caltrans, normally requires that all streets in the state highway network be designed for high-speed vehicle traffic without compromise for pedestrians, bicyclists, or local residents and merchants.

The state highway department, "Caltrans has acknowledged the need for sensitivity to local concerns, but the agency has yet to adopt specific standards that will make streets better for pedestrians and local businesses," Pulleyblank says.

Caltrans is writing new rules, but local representatives who oversee the communities, haven't been part of the rule making process.

"These new rules could be the beginning of a new age of cooperation. Or they could be a new set of regulations that are time-consuming, costly, and difficult for local communities to fulfill. If local staff and elected officials are not involved in the process it would be a lost opportunity and could bring more conflict," she said.

Meanwhile Golden State cities are having a tough time getting neighborhood streets designed they way they know is best for their communities.

Based on interviews with Caltrans staff, local officials, and street design experts, "Civilizing Downtown Highways" shows how local demands for a main street improvements are often overridden by Caltrans’ demand for a high-speed corridor to serve regional and national markets.

In West Hollywood, the city had to take Santa Monica Boulevard off of the state highway system in order to turn the street into a shaded, business-friendly boulevard. The City paid a price for its devotion to good design — it must now foot the bill for street maintenance.

Leaders in Sebastopol want to create a complete bicycle and pedestrian network in their downtown, but even banners to welcome travelers to town are severely regulated or prohibited by state standards. Where they are allowed, they require special approvals and must be of certain sizes and colors.

"State highways provide a tremendous service locally and around the state, but a highway that runs through town can damage local business and sever neighborhoods from each other, unless it is designed to take local needs into account. Better standards and requirements could balance people’s need to travel with their need for walkable, livable communities," Pulleyblank says.

"In one example of how collaboration can improve conditions, Coronado, an island in San Diego Bay worked with city staff to replace standard cobra-head street lights with appealing historic street lights and new sidewalks.

The Congress For New Urbanism partnered with the Local Government Commission (LGC) and the Surface Transportation Policy Project (STPP) to write the urban highway study. STPP, a national advocacy group, hopes to use the study findings to advocate for improvements in the state highway design process.

"Caltrans has been improving," says STPP California Director James Corless.

"Their new director has been working with us and other advocates. But he has a big job ahead if he wants to overcome fifty years of prioritizing high-speed vehicle flow at the expense of every other goal. This report gives him and other officials specific suggestions about how to take the next step."

Log in to comment