What would the typical America town be without cars clogging its streets?
Santa Maria is an All America City, officially, and we got a taste of the carless-streets concept last weekend. Maybe it was a peek into the future — and not just for Santa Maria.
The Santa Maria Open Streets organizers are already preparing for next year after last Sunday’s big event pulled in thousands of folks, for what may turn out to be the largest public gathering in the city — a record that likely won’t last.
The event shut down West Main from Broadway to Blosser, allowing access to only pedestrians, bicyclists and skaters. The day was arranged by the Santa Barbara County Association of Government’s Traffic Solutions Division, and the overall purpose was to give folks a taste of vehicle-less fun, while promoting the notion of using alternative means of transportation.
Another big plus was bringing so many people together, a community-strengthening exercise that most communities need to do a lot more of.
This type of event is the antithesis of what modern American cities have become, magnets for traffic congestion. In fact, most of the world’s great cities were constructed around a different community model, and came together long before the motorized vehicle came into existence.
Even some of this country’s great cities’ core areas are completely inappropriate for cars and trucks — a fact you can appreciate if you’ve ever tried to navigate a car through the heart of New York City.
Or, you could travel down the coast to the Los Angeles Basin, and be tied up in what so many California cities have become — spiderwebs of surface streets criss-crossed by freeways jammed with cars going almost nowhere in the morning and afternoon rush hours.
But after a century of car-dominated community planning, the paradigm is slowly shifting. That is happening in downtown Santa Maria as you read these words.
The city’s streetscape plan is well underway, and when completed, key downtown streets will be narrowed, sidewalks and bike lanes will be widened, and the overall focus will be on personal safety and a family-friendly walking/biking venue.
Santa Maria is not alone in this push to take the majority of vehicles out of the city’s core. Riverside, Sacramento, Santa Monica and Venice have all shut down specified streets with the same goals expressed in the Santa Maria streetscape plan.
It’s not a total surprise that such streetscape schemes are unfolding in large European cities, many of which predate motorized vehicles by many centuries. The philosophy over there apparently is that there is more to life than sitting in a car inching along a freeway designed for 65-mph speeds.
Much of California — especially the southern regions — was designed around cars using limited-access roads to get somewhere quickly and efficiently. That model clearly didn’t have legs.
The car has been king in California for generations, and now many communities are fighting back by turning streets once clogged with vehicular traffic over to pedestrians, bicyclists and skaters.
The benefits of such a lifestyle change are obvious — people getting some much-needed exercise; enjoying our splendid outdoor weather rather than sitting in exhaust fumes trying to dial up a decent oldies FM station; folks actually meeting and greeting each other, as neighbors; cleaner air in the heart of where we live.
The first-ever Santa Maria Open Streets event was a grand experiment for the 20,000 or so people who enjoyed their Sunday outing. It was a huge success, and represents what our future could be.