by Greg Larson & Val Cole, Escalona Organizing Committee co-founders
Note from the editor: This article is the first in a series of guest posts by transportation activists and nonprofit organisations from around Santa Cruz County. Thank you to Greg Larson and Val Cole for championing the cause of Slow Streets in Santa Cruz!
Room to Move Around
Imagine a new network of safe streets to walk, run, ride, or skate, along with plenty of room for safe distancing. Slow Streets are coming to provide that for Santa Cruz County! The Slow Streets movement has taken off during the pandemic, worldwide and right here in California led by the City of Oakland. Dozens of cities and hundreds of commercial districts and residential neighborhoods have already closed streets to through traffic to allow greater room for outdoor services, cycling, and walking while maintaining safe physical distancing.
What are Slow Streets?
Slow Streets programs typically take two forms: creating space for businesses and creating space for active transportation and outdoor recreation. In the first, selected vehicle lanes or parking spaces in front of businesses are closed so that commercial activities can move outside into the fresh air and sunlight. In the second, signs and temporary barricades are placed on selected streets, limiting through traffic in order to create safe and wide corridors for physically-distanced activities like bicycling, skating, and walking. Deliveries, emergency vehicles, and residents can still drive in and out as needed.
At the beginning of the pandemic, the cities of Watsonville, Santa Cruz, and Capitola were quick to adopt a variety of parking space and street closures to support local businesses. This has allowed our restaurants, stores, salons and other service providers to have safe outdoor spaces to serve diners, display merchandise, and care for customers. Now, Slow Streets programs are coming to Santa Cruz County neighborhood streets to make room for active transportation and outdoor recreation.
City of Santa Cruz Pilots First Slow Streets Program in County
In the City of Santa Cruz, the Public Works & Transportation Commission first proposed a residential Slow Streets program in June, with support from Bike Santa Cruz County, Ecology Action, the local Sierra Club, and the Campaign for Sustainable Transportation. The Westside Escalona neighborhood also championed the effort, organizing to gather nearly 1,600 petition signatures in support of Slow Streets to present to the city council.
In early July, these efforts paid off when the city council unanimously approved a Slow Streets Pilot Program. The program rollout received an extraordinarily high level of public interest, receiving over 40 applications from neighborhoods applying for one of the 11 spots in the pilot. The 11 pilot program streets have since been selected. They are spread throughout the city, as illustrated on this map, which also shows bike and pedestrian paths and connections to the Rail Trail. To see more about the city program and to find the application form to nominate your street for a future round of Slow Streets implementation, go to the city web page here.
The new Slow Streets will give residents room to safely walk, run, bike, and skate for stress relief, exercise, and transportation. Of the eleven pilot streets, Escalona Street on the Westside will provide an especially useful active transportation corridor. This mile-long segment of Escalona connects the Harvey West trail and the Mission Hill bike bridge at one end, to Bay Street at the other. This Slow Street segment will link downtown to the far Westside and to the Bay Street bike lanes that connect to Westcliff Drive at Beach Street, to the Lower Westside Rail Trail, and to UCSC. The Escalona Slow Street segment will allow pedestrians and cyclists to avoid the more crowded conditions on parallel streets, creating a safer connection for active transportation between homes, jobs, and the coast.
The city plan was to roll out signage and barricade placements for the Slow Streets starting at the end of August, placing signs on each street as city resources allowed. At the time this article is going to press, the CZU Lightning Complex fire has created a devastating impact on the city and a high demand on city public works employees, so the roll-out was slower than originally planned. A nation-wide shortage of barricades and traffic cones also slowed things down a bit. However, the first slow streets barricades and signs went in on September the 1st, and the city plans to complete all eleven pilot program streets by early the following week. Our thanks go to City of Santa Cruz Transportation Planner Claire Gallogly for keeping the program moving, and to all the members of our hard-working city public works crew.
Santa Cruz County is bringing a Slow Streets program to unincorporated areas to allow room for safer and more comfortable physically-distanced walking, running, riding, and rolling throughout the county. Right now, the county is inviting residents in unincorporated neighborhoods to nominate their streets. Because the pandemic is preventing the annual Open Streets celebrations, Bike Santa Cruz County is devoting those resources towards partnering with the County to both collect the nominations from neighborhoods and to help implement the Slow Streets program on the selected streets. To read more about the unincorporated county program, or to nominate your unincorporated street for Slow Streets status, click here to go to the Slow Streets page on the Bike Santa Cruz County website. Thank you, Bike Santa Cruz County!
Watsonville Slow Streets Programs
The City of Watsonville is also in the process of adding Slow Streets as a way to help residents feel more comfortable using their own neighborhood streets for physically-distanced exercise. Watsonville already provides the Neighborhood Traffic Plan as a way for residents to request traffic calming in their neighborhoods. Soon you will be able to use the Neighborhood Traffic Plan process to request a Slow Street treatment. Contact information for more information can be found on the Watsonville Neighborhood Traffic Plan web page here.
The Future of Transportation in Santa Cruz County
The local Slow Streets will create new opportunities to engage Santa Cruz County residents, young and old alike, in more active transportation. Because of the pandemic, vehicle miles travelled have greatly decreased in most communities in the USA. Alternatives are increasing in both convenience and public acceptance, creating a cultural mind shift around transportation just as significant as prior movements to recycle or eat organic. Even though Slow Streets are temporary, they give us a taste of what it would be like to have permanent Complete Streets: streets that welcome and safely accommodate users of all ages and abilities, including bicyclists, pedestrians, and transit riders. To learn more about Complete Streets, click here. To see the Santa Cruz County program for Complete Streets click here.
We look forward to the day when shifting to Complete Streets, finishing the Rail Trail, and adding rail transit with synchronized bus service will give us a full menu of healthy, equitable, and green transportation choices in Santa Cruz County. When that day comes we will have the option to safely and easily travel across the county and beyond, without needing to use an automobile. Slow Streets programs are helping to show the way forward. Our thanks go out to everyone who has worked to make our local Santa Cruz County Slow Streets possible.