Complete Streets: Will San Clemente Set the Bar?

If you care about Safe Routes to School, sitting in traffic, or even economic revitalization ofSan Clemente’s historic downtown, the last 3 General Plan Advisory Committee (GPAC) meetings will be the place to be.

Save these dates: Sept. 12 and 26 and Oct. 9, all at 5:30 pm at the Library Annex. Thereafter, the San Clemente Planning Commission will evaluate GPAC’s recommendations and residents’ input. Public hearings before the City Council will conclude the process. About 10 days ago at the Aug. 15 GPAC meeting, the draft Bicycle and Pedestrian Master Planwas introduced.

Guiding the future will be , whose intentions clearly stated that non-motorized transportation will be fully integrated with motorized transportation in our new Circulation Element. San Clemente will comply with California’s Complete Streets planning mandate to create “a balanced multimodal transportation system for all,” the Council resolved. (To the best of my knowledge, no City in California has made such a resolution).

The ease with which we get around town impacts the way we connect with others and helps us define our sense of place. Furthermore, the design of our transportation system plays a determinative role in developing and revitalizing commercial properties, even entire neighborhoods.

Infrastructure design also determines whether children can safely walk or bicycle to school. With the help of San Clemente’s residents, the new Circulation Element, and particularly our first Bicycle and Pedestrian Master Plan, will reflect all of those community transportation values.

GPAC members were impressed as John Holloway from KTU+Apresented the GPAC photos of a typical, unnecessarily wide street. As the images transitioned from a wide, scary roadway to one that included crosswalks, medians, bulb-outs, and street trees, the effect on the GPAC was palpable. They could see that, as we create more walkable and bikeable infrastructure, San Clemente would become more vibrant.

“It could be beautiful,” said 35-year resident, GPAC member, and local realtor, Nancy HuntShe would love to seeComplete Streets implemented along south El Camino Real. “We don’t need 4 lanes on that roadway,” she noted.

Reached after the meeting, Nancy envisioned Complete Streets as providing a much needed gateway, especially at Cristianitos and S. El Camino Real. “It would be inviting to visitors who could easily see our Surf Row banners of Trestles &San Clemente State Beach. That would present a beautiful city with green landscaping and great natural resources. People would want to return for a vacation or just to spend more time here.Plus, it needs to be safe for kids to ride their bicycles, especially if they’re camping at State Parks or going to surf. You shouldn’t have to fire up the car to take them there. Complete Streetswould enable that to occur.”

Indeed, the Preamble to California’s Complete Streets Actstates that 66% of all trips 1 mile or less are made by car and 41% of all trips are 1-2 miles in length. That’s a bikeable and walkable distance, as long as the infrastructure is safe and convenient.

But what about those hills? As our own Mayor Evert showed during the , electric assist bicycles make hills disappear. Many of the residents I surveyed during last year’s outreach effort literally stated, “make San Clemente flatter.” Well, electric-assist bicycles are the “E” ticket to ride (no insurance required).

Concerned about vehicle lane width and Complete Streets,lifelong resident and GPAC member, Kenny Nielsen, asked City Transportation Engineering Manager, Tom Frank, how the two go together. Tom explained that the 12-13 feet wide lane preferences were actually Caltrans requirements that were rooted in a desire to reduce lateral “friction,” or conflict between adjacent cars. Cities merely kept that standard by default because it was easier. “But 12-foot lanes actually promote speeding, which makes roadways unsafe for everyone, so those wide lanes are now being narrowed to 10-11 feet by many municipalities,” Frank advised.

Another GPAC member and former City Housing Coordinator, Leslie Davis, commented how inhospitable it is for residents in apartments on Camino La Pedriza to cross that roadway to get to a neighborhood park. The previous traffic engineer, she said, refused to narrow the roadway because doing so was considered unsafe. “Yet with Complete Streets, we understand that narrowing the roadway will do the exact opposite. Is there a change in thinking among today’s traffic engineers?” She inquired of Engineer Frank.

The old way of thinking, that faster and wider is alwaysbetter, isn’t valid among today’s traffic engineers, Tom Frank acknowledged. Leslie added that, many years ago, she was told that the last thing you’d want to do is add sidewalks in the downtown area. She observed that such thinking is out of date.

Regarding sidewalks, Engineer Frank commented how difficult it is for disabled folks to get around town. He mentioned meeting my neighbor, Mary, who goes everywhere around town in a motorized wheel chair. When she runs out of accessible sidewalk, she takes her motorized wheelchair right down the center of the roadway because that’s her only option in our historic neighborhoods. California’s Complete Streets Actrequires transportation planning for everyone and specifically mentions “persons with disabilities.”

Educational videos (see the videos on this page) distributed to the GPAC make clear that Complete Streets planning isn’t about anyone giving up their cars. Rather, it emphasizes safe and convenient transportation options for everyone. For those who cannot or will not walk or bike, that’s ok. But if we enable a significant portion of our community to choose non-motorized transportation, then our roadways will be better able to accommodate people who use motor vehicles. Efficiency is improved. 

The spirit of Complete Streets is this: people of all ages and abilities should be able to lift up their garage doors and have equally safe and equally convenient choices: car, bike, or walking shoes. California’s Act specifies transportation planning must include all modes and all people: “motorists, pedestrians, bicyclists, children, persons with disabilities, seniors, movers of commercial goods, and users of public transportation.” We have our work cut out for us, to be sure.

GPAC member, Marvin Dennis, got the message. “The video links provided for the GPAC stated that when parking for cars was no longer given priority, local businesses benefited because more people walked and biked to the downtown areas. We really need to implement that kind of thinking here in San Clemente,” he commented during the meeting. Then, in a later email he observed, “We need places and reasons for people to come together. That’s what makes a village.

Marvin’s vision dovetails perfectly with the views of many San Clemente residents who responded to the 2009 Visioning Survey. Officially, 85 percent of those surveyed said they want to preserve village character. 90 percent of residentssaid they want the City to encourage walking and bicycling. It all goes together.

Economic benefits are inseparable from making our town more pedestrian and bicycle friendly. We’ll stimulate our local economy in at least two ways: First, we’ll be able to revitalize El Camino Real without significant traffic burdens because non-motorized modes make the network more efficient, and secondwe’ll be creating places that people want to be. In both scenarios,local businesses and residents benefit.

For example, recall the dense zoning areas along South El Camino Real. If every one of those residences have two cars a piece and use them exclusively, then ECR will be gridlocked. But if the people living there have safe, convenient transportation choices for those short one- to two-mile trips, they’ll be willing to leave the car at home in favor of walking or bicycling. Trips to the grocery store, out to dinner, to school, and to the beach can be made without motor vehicles. Today’s young people are already embracing those choices.

Several U.S.  studies have shown that younger people don’t have the same value set as we baby boomers. Today’s youth, from teenagers through thirty-somethings, don’t imagine themselves owning a home and filling the garage with two cars.

They don’t mind living in apartments, they want to travel internationally, and they want to be able to walk, bicycle, and take public transit. As a result, they’re driving 23% less nationwide. We need to remember that they will inherit our Spanish Village by the Sea, so our planning will shape their world, 1/4 century into the future.

Let’s remember for whom we are planning: young people of today and tomorrow, our children and grandchildren. 

Ultimately, this is about all of us working together. Our GPAC, Planning Commission, City Staff, City Council, and participating residents are all part of the legacy team that will enable San Clemente to become the envy of the Golden State with its transportation planning.

Let’s show Southern California how it’s done!