We Need to Talk About Street Parking

Many of the improvements we seek as a city — housing that everyone can afford, streets where everyone can safely walk or bike, doing our part to avoid the consequences of climate change, and having the financial ability to improve our neighborhoods to meet inevitable change — touch in some way on the topic of street parking.  But anyone who has followed the recent history of parking in San Diego knows there are problems. One approach is to just ignore the issue and assume the way things are is the way things will always be.  But it’s clear that isn’t working.  If we want to move forward as a city, we need to have an honest and open conversation about parking policy.  

This started out as a single post that blossomed into multiple topics. Although I hope to delve into each, this post is focused on the history of parking in San Diego, how we got to where we are today, and the problems with this approach. This post is a lot more wonky than my past posts, but I think it’s worth spending some time on figuring out how we got to where we are so we can figure out where we can go. As a caveat, these are just my personal opinions based on the research I could complete by scouring the city’s online archives. Any real analysis should be done by the experts at the city. As discussed below, I’m simply arguing it’s time for that analysis.

The History of Street Parking in San Diego

With the rise of automobiles, cities began to install parking meters in the late 1930s. As with all changes in the public realm, this led to lawsuits, including one here in San Diego. In a decision upholding their use as a proper governmental function, the local court explained that “regulation of parking and control of traffic may well justify a fee system intended and calculated to hasten the departure of parked vehicles in congested areas, as well as to defray the cost of installation and supervision.” In other words, the meters weren’t charging for parking simply to pay for parking meters; they were intended to make it too costly for people to park their cars indefinitely in crowded areas. Charging for parking turned out to be the best way to ensure there is always parking available.

Despite their legality, one issue persisted: how should we characterize the revenue collected from parking meters? Given California’s initiative system, our constitution is riddled with convoluted rules regarding how money is collected by our state and municipalities, usually in the form of taxes. A “tax” can be loosely defined as a charge imposed by the government on people, property, and companies with the express purpose of generating revenue to fund government services. The most obvious example is the sales tax: we all pay a certain percentage of tax on most purchases of goods, which is then used by the government for any use it wants. That tax revenue goes into something called the “general fund,” which means it can be spent on anything. This is all generalizing a bit and ignores the details, but governments, both state and local, have the power to tax.

But a lot of people don’t like taxes and passed initiatives to constrain their use. Given some of these constitutional restrictions on tax collection, cities also increasingly collect money in the form of “fees,” which are charged in connection with a particular service with the intent to simply cover the cost of providing that service. Instead of raising taxes to pay to provide the service for free, the government imposes a fee. A common example is a building permit fee: if a resident applies for a permit, the city will charge a fee to cover the cost of processing that permit. Courts have explained that these fees are permissible, so long as the amount of the fee is closely related to the actual cost of processing. If the city charges more than the cost, it becomes a tax. There is a third category, “assessments,” that are like fees but tied to property ownership and used to provide a specific benefit to the person paying.

At first glance, parking meter charges don’t appear to fall into any of these categories. They are not charged in connection with property ownership, so they are certainly not assessments. Meters aren’t intended to only raise revenue (which would be a tax) or to cover the cost of the meters (making it a fee). As that early court explained, one of the main purposes of parking meters is simply to ensure that cars don’t sit for too long in crowded areas. They also aren’t “imposed” in the normal sense: no one is forced to pay for parking meters, we voluntarily choose to do so. If you don’t want to pay the meter, you can find an unmetered spot or park in a private parking lot. Finally, unlike taxes, the person paying the meter gets something of value directly in return.

For a long time, the city agreed that parking meter revenue shouldn’t be analyzed in the same way we think of taxes and fees. This legal interpretation led to direct outcomes. When asked in 1997 whether there were any problems with the way the city collected parking meter revenue after changes in the state constitution arising from the recently-passed Prop 218, City Attorney Casey Gwinn assured the city thatBecause [parking meter revenue] is in no way “property- related,” it is not a fee, charge or assessment within the reach of Proposition 218. Further, because it is a fee imposed only on persons who voluntarily use the parking space that is metered, and only for the specified time chosen by the person using it, the charge is not a “tax” within Proposition 218.”

But then things began to change. The nation’s foremost “parking guru,” Donald Shoup, discussed the evolution of parking meter revenues in San Diego in his book, The High Cost of Free Parking.  As Shoup explained, before 1997, the city operated parking meters in the city and funneled the revenue straight into the General Fund.  Although the city intended that the money should be spent on parking-related issues, the allocation to the General Fund means the money mixed with other revenue collected by the city and could be used for any purpose: more parking meters, street repairs, police salaries, libraries, parks…anything.  Shoup explains that, starting in 1997, the city responded to complaints from businesses that it wasn’t fair that parking meter revenue could be spent outside of the area where it was collected. The city manager explained the problem to the council: downtown was still in a downswing, unable to compete with suburban shopping malls with plentiful parking. To address these complaints, the city allowed for the formation of parking districts and directed 45 percent of the meter revenue back to the district to be governed by a local board, originally intended to be a business improvement district.  Under the original city council policy governing these districts, they were directed to spend the revenue “to address parking supply and mobility issues.” As Shoup explained in the excerpt linked above, the districts started off being quite broad in scope, spending money on pedestrian improvements, street trees, and wayfinding signs.

In 2004, the first revisions to the city’s parking policies were adopted, leading to only slight changes to the official council policy. Over time, however, it became obvious to many that the parking districts were not functioning properly. Parking districts were cursed with a problem rarely seen in government: too much money and too few projects to spend it on. Although the idea of districts made sense, the process was flawed: by funneling revenue into special accounts controlled by groups only loosely affiliated with the city, the revenue sat largely unused. Because the revenue wasn’t being used, there was little interest in adding meters or otherwise improving their functionality.

In 2009, facing a budget shortfall, the city faced increased scrutiny of the revenue sitting unused in the Parking District’s coffers. A San Diego County Grand Jury report found that one group, the Uptown Parking District, spent three times as much on salaries and other overhead than on actual projects. The report reasoned that the money could be better used by the city for other purposes and recommended scrapping the districts and redirecting the parking meter revenue into the city’s General Fund.

The city’s response to the Grand Jury report resulted in an important new determination. In a memo by the City Attorney, the city for the first time concluded that the state constitution limited the ways in which the funds could be spent. Whereas the 1997 memo concluded the charges were neither taxes nor fees, the new 2009 memo concluded that parking meter revenue was a “regulatory fee” that could be spent only on “the control of traffic which may affect or be affected by the parking of vehicles in designated parking meter zones.” If the revenue was used for other purposes, the memo warned the meter fees would morph into a special tax.

Based on this City Attorney memo, the Mayor and City Council responded to the Grand Jury report by explaining that it was legally impossible to redirect the parking meter revenue to the General Fund without converting the revenue into a special tax that had to be approved by the voters. Since that 2009 memo, the City Attorney has repeatedly applied the same analysis over the years to find additional restrictions on how the revenue could be spent to ensure the meter charges remained a “regulatory fee” rather than a “special tax.”

Unsurprisingly, the problem was not solved. The new legal determination led to even stricter spending rules. As the problem festered, a 2014 Performance Audit found fault with how the groups were managed. The audit and other concerns led to then-councilmember Todd Gloria’s reforms to try to unlock the revenue sitting in the Community Parking Districts.  In 2014, when the issue was last at the forefront of city politics, the downtown parking district was sitting on $11.3 million and the Uptown parking district had $5.8 million in reserves.  Todd Gloria led a push to reform the city policy on how the money could be spent, claiming on passage of the reforms that “[t]he changes approved today will make it easier to implement parking solutions with available parking meter revenue.”  

Now, four years later, the downtown district has nearly $15.7 million in reserves and the Uptown district has $6.6 million in reserves.  The problem is getting worse, not better. Despite his best efforts, Gloria’s reforms didn’t go far enough. A 2017 KPBS report on the parking districts included complaints by the parking district boards that the money was piling up because of the restrictions on its use. The problem continues to this day.

Even when the parking districts actually manage to spend money, it’s often spent inefficiently on projects that are not priorities. Parking districts often pay for “wayfinding” signs to help direct cars to their location. While there is nothing wrong with helping drivers navigate, it certainly doesn’t seem like our most pressing need in the age of smartphones. Downtown, the parking meter revenue is used in part to pay for a free shuttle known as FRED, which may also expand to Hillcrest. Again, there is nothing inherently wrong with a free shuttle. But it turns out that this free shuttle is incredibly inefficient and is the most expensive way to provide “transit” in our city. The restrictions on revenue use lead to waste and spending on low-priority uses.

It’s easy to view this as a legal problem with no solution. However, the KPBS report hints at an apparent contradiction: San Diego’s legal problems with parking meter revenue, supposedly arising from the state constitution, are not shared by other cities in California governed by the same constitution.

In Sacramento, parking meter revenue is being used to fund a new downtown NBA basketball arena. In Oceanside, the city uses the revenue to fix up its pier and build and maintain public restrooms. In Pasadena, the revenue is used to widen sidewalks, plant trees, fix up old storefronts, and provide for security and cleaning services. Redwood City does the same, using the revenue to clean up sidewalks and add improvements. The obvious question arises: why are these other California cities not restricted by the state constitution in the same way that San Diego thinks it is?

Is There a Better Way to Treat Parking Meter Revenue?

Is it possible that San Diego is the only city in California that has correctly interpreted the state Constitution and these other cities are running unconstitutional rackets? Sure, but I’m skeptical. If for no other reason, it’s suspicious that the city hasn’t addressed some major legal developments directly impacting the issue of regulatory fees.

Remember, as discussed above: since 2009, the city characterizes parking meter charges as “regulatory fees” that must be reasonably related to the cost of providing traffic control in the city. As the city explains, if the fee exceeds the costs of providing traffic control, then it turns into a tax because the charge isn’t aimed at recouping expenses. Two recent legal developments shed light on the topic.

A recent California Supreme Court case discussed a similar situation that shows how the normal tax/fee distinction doesn’t apply to the use of government property. That case, Jacks v. City of Santa Barbara, involved something called a franchise fee, which the City of Santa Barbara charged the local electric utility in exchange for use of the public right of way to deliver electricity to residents. In exchange for this limited use of city streets, the city charged the utility a flat fee that was added to customers’ bills.

Some homeowners challenged this fee in court, arguing it was a tax that could only be imposed if approved by voters or, to be a permissible fee, had to be limited to the city’s costs to provide the property for use. The Supreme Court rejected this either/or distinction. Instead, the Court explained that fees to use government property are not like fees to use government services. Unlike a fee to compensate the government for the cost of providing a service, a fee to use government property does not have to bear any relationship to the cost to the government to provide that property for use. Instead, the Court stated that “a fee paid for an interest in government property is compensation for the use or purchase of a government asset rather than compensation for a cost. Consequently, the revenue generated by the fee is available for whatever purposes the government chooses rather than tied to a public cost. The aspect of the transaction that distinguishes the charge from a tax is the receipt of value in exchange for the payment.” But to avoid converting the fee into a tax, the Court cautioned that “fees imposed in exchange for a property interest must bear a reasonable relationship to the value received from the government.”

This distinction between fees for public services and fees for use of public property makes obvious sense in a slightly different context: If a city sells a piece of land to a developer, the city can obviously charge the buyer for the market price of the land. Indeed, this process is currently playing out with the city’s sale of the Qualcomm Stadium site to SDSU. No one is suggesting that the city can only charge SDSU a price that is related to the cost of listing the property for sale. And this rule doesn’t have to be limited to a complete transfer of property. Almost directly on point to the issue concerning parking meters, the City of San Diego itself realizes it can charge market rates for parking to fund park beautification projects so long as the parking spots are found in a garage owned by the city rather than on the side of a street owned by the city. In the end, it sure seems like a distinction without a difference.

Although a franchise fee is entirely different than parking meter charges, they bear important similarities: both are charges by the government for use of a public street right of way. As the Supreme Court explained, that charge does not have to be tied to the cost of providing the public street to avoid becoming a tax: so long as the charge is based on the actual value of the use of the property, the city can then use the revenue for “whatever the government chooses.” The City Attorney has never reevaluated its opinion about parking meters in light of this decision.

This court case is only the first development in the law surrounding regulatory fees that arose since the City Attorney last considered the issue. The court in the Jacks decision also pointed to a landmark constitutional reform passed by the voters in 2010, known as Proposition 26. The initiative arose in direct response to the rise in regulatory fees, which the proponents labeled “hidden taxes.

Prop. 26 aimed to severely restrict the permissible regulatory fees. For the first time, Prop 26 directly defined taxes as broadly as possible, including “any levy, charge, or exaction of any kind imposed by a local government” unless it fell within one of seven limited exceptions. If the charge didn’t fall within one of these exceptions, Prop. 26 said it’s a tax that has to be approved by the voters.

Before even considering the exceptions, it’s worth noting that an important and well-respected organization, the League of California Cities, offered advice to cities regarding the word “imposed” in the definition of tax found in Prop. 26. As the League explained, it’s important to first consider whether the charge is even “imposed” by a city. If not, this whole conversation is largely irrelevant because the charge wouldn’t be a tax or a fee. To determine whether a charge is imposed, the League advised cities to focus on whether the charge is in connection with a service the city is statutorily obligated to provide and for which the city is the exclusive provider, or instead whether the service is provided by the city in competition with private enterprises and the charge amount is established by a voluntary negotiation between unrelated parties. If the charge falls into the latter category, the League suggests the charge is not a tax or fee at all. The city has no obligation to provide street parking and does so in competition with private parking lots and does not force anyone to use metered parking. In that sense, it does not seem meter charges are “imposed,” and don’t need to be analyzed as taxes. This conclusion mirrors the San Diego City Attorney’s analysis back in 1997 that concluded meter charges are neither fees nor taxes.

Even assuming the parking meter fees are “imposed,” it’s not clear they qualify as taxes considering the exceptions under Prop. 26. Of the exceptions that relate to the discussion here, most fit the idea of “regulatory fees” discussed above and involves fees for services that must bear a reasonable relation of the actual costs. One exception, however, does not require any relationship between the fee charged and the cost of providing the service in question. This exception applies to “A charge imposed for entrance to or use of local government property, or the purchase, rental, or lease of local government property.”

Although it’s never been analyzed by the city attorney, it seems quite possible that a parking meter fee can be construed as a charge imposed for the “use of local government property.” Combining the definitions found in Proposition 26 with the Supreme Court’s decision in Jacks, which cited this same exception, it’s obvious the issue of regulatory fees has changed a lot since the City Attorney’s last analysis. Perhaps it’s time to revisit the issue.

Why Does This Matter?

The ability to set parking meter rates to reflect the market value for the use of the space and then to use that revenue for any purpose would create an important new revenue stream. Right now, the charge for street parking has nothing to do with the actual value of that parking space. It’s common knowledge that on-street parking is generally cheaper than off-street parking in a lot that charges for parking. If we started to charge market prices for parking, we would not only increase revenue, but it’s possible that we could use that revenue for anything we choose. Seeing actual benefits from charging for street parking will also bolster public support for more parking meters, which will further our city’s attempts to shift away from automobiles toward active transportation and transit.

Freeing up the funds for other uses also undermines the need for special parking districts that waste funds on overhead costs and get nothing done. Even if we want to keep the revenue in the immediate area, the city has established processes for prioritizing capital projects in specific neighborhoods, usually with input from community planning groups. Why add extra levels of bureaucracy if the result is a waste of funds?

Given the continuing problems with parking districts, the topic is worthy of being revisited under the current state of law and with a comparative analysis of other cities in California. If we can free up the funds, it will allow us to invest in our neighborhoods and reconsider how we implement street parking. I’ll be addressing some of those issues in a future post.  But for now, all I am asking for is a fresh look at the issue by the experts at the city.  Let’s find out what’s possible.


Grape Street Plaza, Revisted

In my most recent post, I detailed what I saw as the problems with Fern Street. In short, Fern Street has unsafe, confusing intersections that aren’t friendly to pedestrians, a lack of urban plazas and wide sidewalks, and a design that pushes drivers onto Fern Street to drive through the neighborhood when 30th Street, immediately to the west, is better designed for car traffic. I proposed some solutions with the goal of solving all these problems at once by replacing roadway with urban plazas and parks to nudge cars over to 30th Street. This would result in less through-traffic on Fern Street (while still allowing access for locals and the shops) with the added bonus of creating a walkable urban center of our neighborhood.

I was excited to see that our local council member, Chris Ward, listened to the community and asked for funding to create a part of this project, an expanded Grape Street Square, in his budget priority memo:

This is great news. But as I’ve discussed this project with the community and thought about it some more, I think the design that has been floating around isn’t quite right. As you may remember, the idea is to close Grape Street between Fern and 30th Street to expand the existing Grape Street Square. I’ve highlighted the block in this (rough) sketch in green, with sidewalk expansions in blue:

There are two problems I see with this design. First, I’ve been told the owner of the property to the north, The Bottle House, does not support the plan and wants to keep the existing parking. This makes any change very difficult, if not impossible. Even if we could persuade the owner, however, I see another problem. One of the issues we were trying to solve was that the existing street design pushes too much traffic onto Fern Street. It would be better if we could get a lot of the cars over to 30th Street, which is wider. But if we close Grape Street on that block, we make it literally impossible for cars to get from Fern Street over to 30th Street. It undermines one of our main goals. Additionally, Grape Street Square as it currently exists is somewhat dead a lot of the time. The Big Kitchen is there and there are some tables, but none of the businesses really activate the space. The local businesses there are great, but they aren’t the type to flow out onto the square. If we want a lively urban square with enough traffic to avoid it being taken over by homeless people, we need restaurants and shops to face the plaza and really use it.

So how can we fix this? We keep the same idea but shift the shape of the plaza to create a design nudge to keep cars off of Fern Street. It turns out Grape Street is a natural dividing line between different types of buildings on Fern Street: south of Grape, the existing design and zoning switches to residential with a few small shops. If we can block cars from going south on Fern, we can transform the street into a quiet residential haven. That’s a benefit for our current residents on that street.

We also have a new, vibrant business right on that corner, Fernside. If we can pull that bar and restaurant outside, we can add some energy to the space. So let’s close the southbound lane of Fern Street at Grape Street to create a new plaza with room for an outdoor patio at Fernside. We can keep the northbound lane open to avoid cars being trapped in a dead end. If we also expand the sidewalk on the other side, the great Italian restaurant Piacere Mio can also have an expanded patio. To keep cars from coming over to Fern Street from the west, we can also close the south (eastbound) lane of Grape Street to expand the existing plaza. Altogether, it would look like this:

The result would be a massive expansion of the current square with the added bonus of helping two great local businesses create great outdoor patios we all can enjoy while supporting our local businesses. It would also simplify the intersection by avoiding too many turning possibilities. Think about how cars would operate with that design and how much simpler it would be.

Ideally, we can also convince the owner of the Target lot to shift the proposed new building to the south end of the lot to face the street here. With the right design, this could be a vibrant new village corner to serve as the heart of our neighborhood. The end result would (1) enhance the residential nature of Fern Street south of Grape, (2) expand opportunities for our local businesses to create engaging outdoor spaces, (3) make the entire area more walkable, and (4) actually be possible to pull off.

I’m sure there are some people that will be concerned about the effect on traffic and accessibility. I totally get that. So why don’t we just try it out with some paint and moveable planters and benches? Let’s move fast and get something in place for summer. It would be relatively cheap to implement and if it’s a flop, we can take it all down and go back to the way things were. If it’s good but not great, we can tweak the design. And if it’s a success, we can start the planning process with the City to put in a permanent solution. Rather than committing to a years-long project planning process before we know what the result will be, let’s be flexible and experiment.

I think this option would be a superior design that is within the realm of possibility. Let’s give it a shot.

Fixing Fern Street: Pavement to Plazas, Pedestrian Safety, and Returning the Heart of Our Community to the Locals

There’s no doubt that the heart of our community belongs on Fern Street and the surrounding blocks.  Although this area is already great, I recently found this great article detailing how vibrant of a shopping district it used to be, serving all of those within walking distance: three grocery stores, a soda fountain, bakery, hardware store, cleaners, bars, cafes, a nursery, a library branch, and a number of other assorted businesses and shops.  Those few blocks were a vibrant heart of our neighborhood not so long ago.  It would be great to get back to times like that.

A weird quirk of a street, Fern Street seems like it arose out of happenstance rather than design.  To the north and south, it turns into 30th Street, which also runs parallel to Fern Street immediately to the west.  Unfortunately, incremental changes over our community’s history has gradually led to Fern Street becoming a thoroughfare despite an original design that suggests there was never any intention it would become so.  At its worst, Fern Street is dangerous, with narrow, broken sidewalks and cars zooming through to get to destinations elsewhere.  Although the tree canopy can be stunning and the local businesses are great, Fern Street is sometimes not the most pleasant place to walk.

Most recently, it became the site of a tragic collision when a driver hit a valued member of our community, Vicki Granowitz, at the intersection of Grape and Fern.  This wasn’t the first injury to occur here; any local can tell you about the many near misses and actual collisions over the years.  The intersection is so poorly designed, it’s even annoying to drive through the area.

If we want a walkable community, safety is paramount.  But it’s also not the only concern.  A recent survey of local residents found that the overwhelming majority was most concerned about the lack of public spaces and with the level of traffic.  It’s natural to look at these problems as isolated concerns, but what is we could find a holistic solution that addresses all three at the same time?

When I look at Fern Street, I see three major problems.

First, the quirky design history of mismatched grids and divergent street names leads to some bad, dangerous intersections.  The foremost example is Fern and Grape, where driver zig and then zag just to go straight.  Pedestrians and cyclists are left to chance and just hope to not be hit.

Second, we have too much space devoted to roads and not enough to public spaces. Despite the concerns about traffic, the actual volume of cars is not incredibly high when considering the entire street grid. Although Fern is over capacity given its design, the surrounding streets can seem like ghost towns. In an area deprived of parks, the allocation of public space is out of whack.

Third, Fern Street was not conceived to be the major roadway through our neighborhood.  When first built, the streetcar system followed 30th Street and was “forced” to leave Fern Street because of the direction of the tracks.  This ensured traffic went on 30th to allow Fern could be a quiet area close by. With the demise of the streetcar and the rise of the automobile, the natural path is to leave 30th from both the north and south and continue on Fern.  In that sense, the design of the streets designates Fern as the major street, not the decision of drivers or city planners. People don’t choose to crowd onto Fern; Fern chooses the drivers.  The result is a glut of cars where they shouldn’t be.

These three problems overlap in ways, creating specific and generalized issues.  They contribute to each other, but also need to be addressed concurrently to clean up our streets.  These are problems that have long been identified by locals and a lot of related ideas on how to solve them have been percolating online. I think by considering all the options that have been proposed and putting them all together, we can craft a three-part solution.  Ready to dive in?

SOLUTION #1: Fix the Intersections, Including Grape and Fern.

We’ll talk about broader, general fixes, but let’s start with a focus on the specific problem at hand. The first is that too many of our intersections are challenging to cross on foot. In the pictures below, I’ve added some blue areas at each corner where I would propose extending the sidewalk. These are known as curb extensions or cub bulbs and serve to put pedestrians in a more prominent location and make the crossing distance shorter.  They can be painted at first with posts on the perimeter to demarcate the pedestrian realm from the street realm.  Seattle is really good at these, they look like this:

We can start with the temporary (but artsy) solution and implement permanent fixes over time.

More specifically, we really need to redesign the intersection at Grape and Fern. In addition to curb extensions, the first step would be to close Grape Street to the west, which will be discussed more below. The second step would be to close the driveway into the Target parking lot immediately to the north of the intersection.  There is another driveway immediately to the east and the location of the western driveway in the middle of the intersection is confusing.  Beyond that, it should be designed as two intersections, with two stop signs, instead of one mutant intersection.  I imagine something like this:

Square everything off, let pedestrians walk across a shorter distance, and make drivers stop and look.  It won’t prevent every dangerous crossing, but it should be a marked improvement.  The blue curb extensions are located where there is already a red curb, they wouldn’t impact parking spots at all. They simply give the road space that would be used for parked cars but for the red curbs back to the pedestrians.

There are some smaller fixes that will help too.  South of Grape Street, one side of the parking was removed on Fern Street to make it easier for cars to travel faster. Really!  There was a revitalization plan developed in 1987 that was concerned that Fern was too narrow between Cedar and Fir to accommodate two travel lanes plus two parallel parking lanes, so one of the parking lanes was removed.  The plan wasn’t wrong that the road was too narrow, but now the car lanes are too wide, allowing cars to fly through the neighborhood.  The city could add diagonal parking to address the loss of parking elsewhere and also slow down cars a bit in this section.  This would ensure drivers aren’t approaching the intersection after running a drag race. There might even be some need for additional stop signs and crosswalks.  I’m sure a closer look will reveal little tweaks to make the area more inviting and safer.

SOLUTION #2:  Convert Pavement to Plazas and Parks

As mentioned, we really have an excess of pavement and not enough public plazas and parks.  Without seizing private property and razing historic structures, our best bet to add such areas in our central neighborhood is to rededicate some roadway.

The first plaza location would be on Grape Street, between 30th and Fern.  This is a proposal that has come up over the years.  The only access issue would be for liquor store, The Bottle House, on the north side, but public commenters have suggested the new owners (who also own the lot where Target is across the street) are supportive of the idea and want to redevelop the lot to complement a new plaza.  Even if the owner doesn’t support closing the street, we could close the south (eastbound) lane and the east end of the street, creating a cul de sac.  The new street plaza would extend the existing Grape Street Plaza, like this in green:

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This new plaza would become the public heart of our community.  A place for neighbors to gather, kids to play, and a continued location for holiday celebrations.  It would also serve to greatly simplify the horrible intersection just to the east.

The second proposed plaza is discussed more in depth below, on the west half of 30th Street between Juniper and Ivy.  I would call this Burlingame Station, after the historic reference to this area as the Burlingame Shopping District and the historic streetcar station.  But hey, names and marketing aren’t my speciality, we can open it up to other ideas.

Our City Council District, District Three, has seen a number of street closures recently to create plazas, first with the Piazza della Familigia in Little Italy and then the proposed Normal Street Promenade in Hillcrest.  Why should our neighborhood not get in on the fun? The city has a process in the municipal code for closing streets, which allows residents to petition for a closure and focuses on whether the closure would cause problems for public travel, would benefit the public, and would be consistent with existing land use plans.

It’s hard to see any real problem for traffic, the robust street grid will allow traffic to be redirected evenly among the adjoining streets. The public benefit is obvious.  And luckily, the existing Golden Hill Community Plan practically begs for the first plaza in its list of policy goals:

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The first likely objection would be that plazas like these must cost a lot of money.  Not necessarily!  First, it certainly is cheaper than spending money to pay for attorney fees and damages after someone gets hurt. Second, there is an emerging trend of converting streets to plazas with temporary solutions including paint, street furniture, and moveable planters.  Here are some great examples.  And some more.

This requires a relatively low amount of money: we could (1) raise money with donations and perhaps a local restaurant and beer event or two, (2) engage with our local artists via a design competition for the street painting design; (3) work together to implement the design, and (4) then seek funding and a design for a permanent solution.

If the plazas fail and cause headaches, they are easy to remove.  If there are minor problems, we can tweak the designs easily.  But if they are successful, it makes it easier to secure support and funding for permanent solutions.

SOLUTION #3: Move Cars Off Fern Street and Onto 30th Street

This is the broadest solution, and probably the most controversial. A look at the city’s traffic counts for our neighborhood helps reveal a central problem: most of the cars on Fern Street are merely continuing through from 30th Street and only pass through.  In other words, the traffic for the most part, about 3,500-5,000 cars in each direction each day, doesn’t originate from within, but rather is just passing by on the way to somewhere else.  Coming from the south, about 4,000 cars a day come up 30th Street from near the 94 freeway and continue onto Fern when the name changes at A Street.  From the north, about 5,000 cars a day come down 30th Street over Switzer Canyon.   About two-thirds of those cars follow the straight line and continue onto Fern Street south of Juniper.  The other third make the turn to head over to 30th Street.

The traffic counts suggest that drivers are mindlessly driving onto Fern Street simply because people tend to continue in a straight line rather than in an effort consciously avoid 30th Street, which is wider, straighter, and generally more conducive to through travel.  As I mentioned, the streetcar tracks used to force streetcar traffic to follow 30th.  What if we could do that with cars?

We can’t just close Fern Street to cars; there are way too many driveways for homes and businesses.  We would cut off access to residents, shoppers, and emergency vehicles.  Not good!

But we could “nudge” people off Fern and onto 30th by diverting traffic at the north and south end.  How?  First, at the north end, I would propose creating a new public plaza by closing the southbound lane of Fern between Juniper and Ivy.  Like this marked in green:

The green area would be a new public plaza, devoted to lounging, strolling, bands, and perhaps food trucks at times.  There are no driveways on that side to interfere with.  And the blue areas are extended curbs to make crossing easier (discussed above).  With this design, a driver coming south on 30th Street over Switzer Canyon would be forced to slide over to continue on 30th Street rather than Fern Street.  If the driver really wants or needs to get to Fern, they could just circle back around in one block.  But the majority of the through traffic would just find it more natural (and probably faster) to continue all the way down 30th Street, which is better designed for heavier traffic.

On the south end, there’s not so much of a natural place to divert traffic by closing an entire block. But the City’s Street Design Manual  recognizes something called a semi-diverter (page 3-19) that only closes one half of a street.  If we put one at Beech Street, where the bus route shifts, it would look like this, marked in green at the northeast corner of Beech and Fern:

Again, the purpose would be to shift cars over to 30th Street and create a little pocket park.  Here’s a prettier rendering, courtesy of NACTO, a transportation design guideline association:

This would divert cars over to 30th Street while still allowing pedestrians, bikes, and emergency vehicles through.  Again, a driver could easily circle back around if they needed to get onto Fern.  For a slight inconvenience, we would likely be able to remove thousands of cars a day from Fern for the benefit of pedestrians and residents alike.

Can We Actually Make This Happen?

Yes, we can! The main thing we need is community support.  I started a petition, let’s sign that so we can show our community leaders there is a strong demand for change.

Too much time has been wasted in the past quibbling with the traffic engineers about what should happen. Rather than wasting time individually fighting with the city bureaucracy, we need to act collectively. We, the community, need to demand a radical solution and make it happen.  Over the past several years, community members have contacted city staff and gotten nowhere.  If we start with the engineers, the process will be narrowly focused on conservative approaches. But this isn’t just a safety issue, it’s also a matter of creating public spaces and enhancing the livability of our neighborhood. Traffic engineers don’t directly deal with those concerns.

But if we work together, we can send a clear signal that we demand real solutions.  If we are going to make this happen, we need a clear directive from the top, including Mayor Kevin Faulconer and Councilmember Chris Ward.  With their support, city staff will find a way to facilitate these projects.

We’ll also need support from our local community leaders, including the Golden Hill Community Planning Group and the South Park Business Group.  If you have contacts at City Hall or in our local groups, contact them, ask for support, and direct them to this page.

And this is only my individual attempt to cobble together the various solutions crafted by the community online over the past few years. Maybe some parts make sense and others should be thrown away. We should be flexible on the design and work with everyone to refine this admittedly rough plan to make it perfect.  Have an idea?  Send me an email at rightsideclub@gmail.com or comment below.

If there is enough support as shown by the petition, we can organize the next steps with a community meeting.  Please sign the petition, share online and with anyone you know that supports fixing these problems, and get in touch!

Thanks for reading!

 

Update: Progress on the 30th Street Bike Lane Project

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About three weeks ago, I wrote up the details of our first project to add bike lanes on 30th Street between Juniper and Redwood Streets. Since then, I’ve been overwhelmed with the community support. While it is still very much a work in progress, I wanted to share where things stand at this point.

  1. The petition in support of the bike lanes is up to 232 signatures.  Let’s keep it going.
  2. On November 7th, I gave a presentation to the City’s Bicycle Advisory Board and they voted unanimously to support the project. I used a PowerPoint presentation that I don’t have uploaded, but it follows the project blog post. If you want to listen, the meeting audio is available here, the discussion of this project starts at around 42 minutes. Thanks for Jeff Kucharski and Josh Clark for helping to set that up.
  3. I’ve met with Tyler Renner and Kathleen Ferrier, representatives from Councilmember Chris Ward’s office, to discuss the project. They are still evaluating the project and gauging community support.
  4. I’ve reached out to the North Park Planning Committee (Public Facilities Subcommittee) and North Park Maintenance Assessment District (MAD) to present at their next meetings in January. The MAD was formed to collect assessments from properties in North Park to be spent on beautification and maintenance projects in the neighborhood to specially benefit the residents. More on their potential involvement below.

With the help with some locals, I’ve also been able to do a little more research and discovered some history surrounding this project. This first started when a Burlingame resident, Jean Samuels, graciously came to the Bike Advisory Board meeting to support the project and mentioned a decades-old plan to beautify the bridge over Switzer Canyon.

These efforts originally resulted in a design concept to add some form of landscaped median to the bridge along with a new pedestrian structure off the side. It’s a nice concept, but it would cost a lot. The MAD has been saving a little bit each year to pay for the project and are up to $75,000 to pay to beautify the bridge. But because the project is so expensive, at the current pace of saving it will take about 245 years to have enough saved up. That’s… a long time. If we go back 245 years, we get to the founding of San Diego by the Spanish and a few years short of the Declaration of Independence. Some want to hold out for the grand vision, while others seem a bit more pragmatic and are ready to see something tangible in our lifetimes. As you can imagine, I fall into the camp of getting something done soon.

The North Park Planning Committee has considered this plan over the years. In October 2013, the committee voted to support a “traffic calming project” to support all modes of transportation over the bridge even if it required removal of parking:

Later, in July 2015, the Planning Committee considered designs for this project, including one that added a two-way bike lane over the bridge, just like we are proposing. Although I haven’t been able to find the minutes, I’ve been told the committee supported the designs.

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This is all great news. Although the earlier support only involved the section over the bridge, that’s a big chunk of the project. If we can get just a little bit more support to connect down to Juniper and up to at least Redwood, we can get this done. If we can also get the MAD to agree to spend some money on a nice median over the bridge, and perhaps future maintenance if they want to include landscaping, we can have a world-class bike facility in our neighborhood.  A lot of cities are using movable planters as physical separation for bike lanes.  We might be able to get some planters with the money the MAD has saved to enhance the bridge.

So what’s the next step? We still need Chris Ward’s support. And we need to get support from the local community boards mentioned above. I’ve spoken with some people who work for the city and they don’t see this as an engineering or money problem, but rather as a problem of political will. If we can convince everyone involved to support some logical change that will benefit many in the community, we can make this happen.

If you have any specific ideas of how to gather support, or otherwise to make this happen, get in touch! This project is far from over, but I also want to start thinking about what we can work on next. Have an idea? Let me know!

Safe routes for all on The Right Side: Let’s fix the city’s Bicycle Master Plan

Our streets are the primary public spaces we have in our neighborhood. There’s Balboa Park to the west, but we are cut off from most of it by a canyon and there are barely any other parks in the neighborhood; no libraries or civic centers. The design of our streets is also woefully behind the times: cars, bikes, and now scooters share the same space, leading to unsafe environments. It’s time for change.

Part of the solution is to add some bike lanes, which can be shared with scooters. Why bike lanes? The quick answer is that bikes lanes are necessary to ensure the safety of all users of our streets and to provide a real choice for getting around.  My kids love to ride their bikes, but I can’t imagine taking them out on our busy main streets. My wife worries about life insurance when I decide to commute by bike. Unsafe streets for scooters and bikes leads to people riding on the sidewalks, which makes it harder for pedestrians to get around. This leads to more driving, which then requires more parking. The status quo of dangerous streets and inadequate parking makes no sense and doesn’t work for anyone. This includes car drivers: as most can understand, bikes and scooters zipping around our streets can be nerve-wracking for drivers when there is no obvious place where they belong.  And it’s only going to get worse as more and more people live in our neighborhood.

Unless we rethink things. If we could make it safe and pleasant to walk, scooter, and ride bikes, then there wouldn’t be so many speeding cars on the road. Less cars means more parking for those times when you need to drive or if you can’t physically manage a bike or scooter. If we could build a neighborhood where everyone could walk or bike to all of their daily necessities if they want to, it would be possible to leave the car in the garage or driveway some days. I’m not saying everyone needs to walk or bike everywhere, but only that it should be a safe option for anyone who chooses to do so. And the need to lessen our reliance on cars to avoid catastrophic climate change can’t be ignored.  Adding the best type of lanes, where there is some physical separation between cars and bikes, are proven to cause a big shift in how people get around.

The hard part is how to get from there from our current street design.

The short answer is that if we act soon, we have a chance to add a real bike lane on 30th Street just north of Juniper Street, one of the few ways to travel from north to south.  To do this, we need your support.  The city is about to repave 30th Street and if the community supports adding the bike lanes, we stand a chance of convincing the city to do it when they restripe the road.  Already convinced this would be a good change? All we are asking at this point is you sign a petition to signal to the city that the local residents support a change. If we get enough support, we can ask the city to consider what bike lane options are possible.

Not sold on the plan yet?  That’s ok.  I’ll admit it’s not a perfect plan that will make everyone happy.  We’ll have to remove some parking, although it’s mostly parking that’s not often used.  It’s also not the gold standard, ideal bike lane design.  Instead, it’s a possible compromise solution that we have a real chance of implementing soon. The goal isn’t to just serve our hardcore cyclists or to not get in the way of cars. This plan is meant to improve our streets for everyone with as little inconvenience (and cost) as possible.

In a series of posts, we detailed why this is a good idea.  The links below will send you to those posts, with a short summary on what we discovered.

In the first post, we talked about how the city currently designs bike lanes in our neighborhood.  The short answer is that in two sets of plans, the city decided to add “bike routes” on most of our streets, with an expensive bike path within the park next to 28th Street.  Another public agency, SANDAG, plans to add a major bike connections to downtown via Pershing Drive, with outlets at Redwood and Upas Streets.  The bike routes aren’t real bike lanes, they look like this:

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In the second post, we detailed why the current plans aren’t good enough.  The only real bike lane, planned along 28th Street, would be really expensive and there is no real plan to fund that project.  It could be decades before we see it built.  The “bike routes” are also based on outdated guidelines that are no longer considered safe.  Current design standards strongly suggest separated bike lanes on major streets.  Finally, even if we could magically put the planned lanes in place, they wouldn’t be sufficient to get enough people biking to meet the goals of the city’s Climate Action Plan.

Third, we talked about the possible options for fixing the city’s plan.  The only real option for a North-South route that doesn’t cost a fortune and complies with current standards is to build real bike lanes on 30th Street between Juniper and Redwood.  Although the ideal solution would be to build one-way protected bike lanes, that would require removing all parking on 30th Street.  That might prove to be politically impossible.  But if we build a two-way bike lane on the east side of 30th Street, we can keep at least half the parking.  That could be possible.

Fourth, we explained why building real bike lanes on 30th Street is entirely within the realm of possibility.  The city has already committed to building bike lanes instead of simply designating bike routes when “feasible” or “possible.”  It even directly committed to reviewing the possibility when it repaves streets, just like it is planning to do soon for 30th Street.

So How Can We Make This Happen?

Interested in helping make this happen? If we want to make it safer to ride bikes and scooters in our neighborhood and want to realistically deal with the risk of climate change by making it possible for people to get out of their cars, we have to give this a chance. We can ask the city to restripe the road and, if it proves to be successful, we can improve it in the future with better separation. If we can add real lanes on 30th Street up to Redwood Street and connect to the planned lanes on 30th south of Juniper, it will make it possible to safely ride the entire length of the Right Side if we can jog over from 30th to the upcoming Pershing Bikeway via Redwood. (More on that in a future post…)

So what are the practical steps to make this happen? Good question! I won’t pretend it will be easy. The city is always hesitant to remove parking. And some people that like to get in and out of our neighborhood as fast as possible won’t like it. If we want to get this done for those of us that live here and want to truly enjoy our neighborhood, we need to show our City Councilmember, Chris Ward, and the city administration that the local residents want this change. Our city has never done something like this before, but if anyone can do it, we can.

Our immediate goal is to get support from Chris Ward and to have him ask the city engineers to at least study this plan to quickly determine whether it’s feasible despite the removal of some parking. That’s all: either show us it’s impossible to add bike lanes, come up with a better plan, or support the project.  If the engineers agree it’s possible, we can get more buy-in from the community via the planning group. It will also be important to gauge the opinion of those that live along this section of 30th Street.

This will only happen with your support. If no one speaks up in favor of this change, there will be no reason for the city to support it.  Hopefully this can be the first project of many to improve our neighborhood. Want to help? Here’s what you can do as a first step:

1. Sign the change.org petition in support

2. Sign up as a supporter of the Right Side Club. This is hopefully only the first project of many to improve our neighborhood and not all of them will be bike lanes!

3. Do you think you can help make this happen by using your skills, connections, advice, or general brilliance? Do you live along this section of 30th Street and have some input? Send me an email, I need help!

Is a Two-Way Bike Lane on 30th Street Even Possible?

To recap: the city has some plans for bike lanes in our neighborhood, but there are some problems with those plans. We can fix the flaws by adding a separated bike lane on 30th Street, but adding one-way lanes may be too difficult because it would require removing all parking.  The “improved but politically feasible” scenario would be to add a two-way separated bike lane on the east side, between Juniper and Redwood.

But is this even possible? Would the city go for it?  I believe so! But only if we can get the city to consider the plan soon.

First, as mentioned in an earlier post, the city already designated 30th Street a high-priority project in the bike master plan, meaning the city acknowledges any bike design should be built sooner rather than later.

Second, the city is already about to rebuild this entire area as part of the 30th Street pipeline replacement project in the next few months. The city will already be repainting the lines after repaving with smooth asphalt, so why don’t we give a bike lane a chance? It would start with some paint that could be easily removed if it causes chaos. What’s the harm in trying to add a bike lane on the only realistic corridor in our neighborhood? If we don’t do it now, while the road is being rebuilt, the city will just claim it costs too much to do later. If it fails, it will just prove we need to invest in major infrastructure over on 28th Street. If it succeeds, we can avoid wasting taxpayer dollars. It’s a win-win-win for everyone.

Third, adding real bike lanes on 30th Street is entirely consistent with the city’s general plans even though the city is always reluctant to remove parking or deviate from the precise plan.  Of course, as shown before, the current “plans” are infeasible and inconsistent.  But these plans are, in reality, mere guidelines: the city has already admitted it should “upgrade” the existing plans, even if it means losing some parking.  The Bicycle Master Plan itself admits the classifications are mere suggestions that can be upgraded at any time and that the city should “strive” for top-of-the-class bike lanes “when possible”:

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The North Park Community Plan says the same thing, allowing the bike facility classifications to “be refined upon further analysis,” and directing that the city should “repurpose right-of-way to provide and support a continuous network of safe, convenient, and attractive bicycle facilities, where feasible.”  As the same time the community plan was adopted, the city admitted the plans were not enough to meet the Climate Action Plan goals, but convinced a somewhat reluctant city council to adopt the community plans that appeared to violate the Climate Action Plan by promising it had some additional measures in the works.  One of the measures was to upgrade bicycle routes.  The city planners “recommended space previously dedicated to on-street parking be converted to new high class bicycle facilities.”

And there’s more: one of the mitigation measures in the environmental impact report for the bike master plan instructed the city to avoid adding bike lanes that would cause additional traffic.  In simple terms, this means the plan supported adding lanes, but wanted to avoid causing more traffic.  To avoid this, the plan requires that any bike lane design that will cause more traffic “will be redesigned” by reconfiguring a street, including with the “elimination of parking.”  In other words, when the city is faced with adding a bike lane that would slow down traffic, the plan requires the city to instead remove parking.  As discussed before, the “sharrows” plan violates guidelines, meaning real bike lanes are needed on 30th Street.  But this would require either closing it to cars or removing parking.  As planned, when faced with these options,the city has to remove parking.

Finally, and most recently, the city agreed to do exactly what we are asking for here.  As part of an implementation plan for the Bike Master Plan, the city promised to try to “leverage coordination of street resurfacing to take advantage of opportunities for progressive design standards to facilitate safer mobility, including . . protected bikeways . . . where feasible.”

So to sum it up: what do the city’s own plans tell us?  The currently planned bike route is unsafe and in conflict with nationwide standards.  The city has committed to upgrading bike lanes, even by removing on-street parking, in conjunction with street resurfacing when “possible” and “feasible.”  All we are asking is that the city use existing guidelines and follow its own goals.  Under current city policy, it bears the burden of showing that adding real bike lanes would be infeasible or impossible.  As far as I can tell, it has not done so.

To be clear, the current situation is not caused by any laziness or stupidity at the city. Designing our city and putting those designs in place is a complex process. In a world of limited time and resources, it’s difficult to not focus elsewhere or to lose track of things. The city has also had to deal with rapidly-changing best practices for street design, not to mention complications caused by things like CEQA and a division of local decision-making between planning groups, business groups, interested residents, and changing city councils. But the question remains: how can we make this happen.  More in the next post

How Can We Fix the City’s Plan to Ensure a Safe Route for All?

As we already discussed, the city has a plan for bike lanes on the Right Side, but there are some problems with the plan.  Ideally, we can come up with an option to improve the plans that is feasible and can be augmented in the future.  The first question is where to put it. Once we have that figured out, we have to figure out the possible designs.

Where Can We Add a North-South Bike Lane?

So, what are our options for location? There aren’t many: the Right Side suffers from a lack of north-south connections given our canyons.  Here is the map of planned routes again:

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As we talked about in a previous post, 28th Street doesn’t work because it’s interrupted by a canyon. 32nd Street works in the north, but it’s so narrow that adding bike lanes would require closing it down to cars. Even we aren’t so crazy to suggest that would be a good plan. All the way to the east is Boundary Street, but that’s pretty out of the way.

Eliminating the impossible or impracticable leaves us with only one good option for getting all the way from north to south and across Switzer Canyon: 30th Street, where the city is already planning to build (unsafe) bike routes and which the city identified as a high-demand corridor in the bike master plan.

If you think about it, 30th Street is perfect: it has the benefit on being one of our main streets and already having some bike lanes, starting at Ash up to Elm Street, with plans already to extend those up to Juniper Street. It also works with minimal interruption for the middle of our neighborhood: there is no need for parking on the long section over Switzer Canyon because no one stops there other than to store a car for too long.  If we want a north-south lane, the only viable option is 30th Street.

How Should We Design the 30th Street Bike Lane?

Let’s go back to the current guidance for designing bike lanes from an upcoming “AASHTO” guide:

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For 30th Street, where there are about 9,000 cars a day going 35 mph, we are solidly in the “separated bike lane” territory.  The problem for 30th Street south of Upas is its narrowness, with only about 40 feet of roadway.  The Community Plan designates 30th Street as a “2 lane connector,” which the Street Design Manual says has 11-foot car lanes.  So that leaves us with 18 feet to play with. At a minimum, state standards dictate a separated bike lane should be five feet wide with a two-foot buffer, with a seven-foot lane and three-foot buffer preferred.  So we need between 14 and 20 feet for two one-way separated lanes in each direction.  That would leave us with no room for parking on 30th Street.  Although possible, especially over Switzer Canyon, that may be a tough political sell.

The other option is a two-way bike lane on one side, with lanes running next to each other.  Those can be a total of eight feet wide with two or three feet of separation, which would leave room for a standard seven-foot wide parallel parking lane.  Although it may not be ideal, a two-way bike lane may be the only politically feasible option.  If we eliminated just a few, mostly unused parking spaces from the east side of 30th Street between Juniper and Redwood, we could build a nice two-way bike lane with some separation, like this:

Adding a bike lane by narrowing the road would also have the benefit of slowing down the cars a bit and making walking a bit more pleasant. We would have to design some shared spaces at a few bus stops, but it could work. There are no traffic signals here that would have to be redesigned, cutting down on costs. The east side of 30th Street has few driveways in that area, leading to few conflicts between cars and bikes. In the end, it would look something like this:

So those appear to be our options: either one-way separated lanes with no parking at all, or a two-way bike lane on the east side.  The next question: would the city go for this? Read on...