Guest Blog by Jeffrey Reeder, Ph.D. 

Dear Mayor Gorin, Vice Mayor Wysocki, and Councilmembers Vas Dupre, Sawyer, Olivares, Jacobi, and Bender,

My family and I have been homeowners and residents on Humboldt Street since early 1999. I am proud to live in Santa Rosa, I am proud to live on Humboldt Street, and I am proud that it is named in honor of one of the greatest naturalists the world has ever known. I am writing in support of the measures to reduce non-resident and non-neighborhood traffic volume on Humboldt Street, to express support of the bicycle boulevard concept, and to support the proposed traffic diverters at Pacific Ave. and any other measure that will reduce the volume of “pass-through” traffic flow or the continued use of Humboldt as a thruway.

This is a long letter and I realize that I am asking a lot of you in requesting that you consider it carefully; indeed, that you even read it in its entirety. In exchange for your time and consideration, I promise you a letter which has been carefully considered and for which every assertion or claim is either backed with an explanation or with a citation to an appropriate source. My original intent was to attend the City Council meeting on this topic on Tuesday, September 29, but my duties as a professor and committee member at Sonoma State do not permit me to attend. 

Alexander von Humboldt 

To begin, a brief introduction of the source of the boulevard’s name is appropriate to this discussion. Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859) was a German naturalist and explorer; along with Charles Darwin, he is considered to be one of the greatest naturalists of the 19th century, partly because of his pioneering voyages and subsequent volumes describing the natural world in the Americas (he was also a guest in the White House of President Thomas Jefferson, a fellow scientist)[1]. While I won’t presume to be certain what his opinion would be on the matter now facing the Santa Rosa City Council, I can assure you that available evidence suggests that he would not hesitate in proclaiming his support for a project that would not only promote the maintenance of the area’s natural systems, but also contribute to the health, welfare, and safety not only of people living on and using his eponymous street, but even – indirectly, and albeit in a small way – the rest of the world as well[2]. It is doubtful that he would approve of a street named in his honor if we fail to respect his legacy and teachings, and it is probable that he would object to seeing his name continue to be used on the street should the hope of a bike boulevard not come to fruition. 

Pass-thru traffic on Humboldt: a recent typical example

Wednesday afternoon, September 22, 2010. I am coming home from the downtown area,  approximately a mile and a half from home. Passing the Barnes & Noble parking lot on “D” Street, I find myself behind a large black pickup. Soon after entering northbound Humboldt, still behind the pickup, I come to the traffic signal at College Ave., where the red light stops both of us behind a car and an SUV already waiting for the light. The signal turns green, and we (all four vehicles) continue northbound. About a mile later, the SUV turns east on Pacific, and three blocks after that I arrive home. I notice that the black pickup and car are still in front of me. In fact, these two vehicles continue on through the Silva roundabout toward Lewis Ave. and then fade from view. This is only one anecdotal experience, but I would like it to be considered as significant and supplementary to the traffic count data that has been collected along Humboldt Street recently. Based on my observations over the years, I can attest that the above example represents a typical traffic pattern, especially during the commute hours – out of four vehicles total, only one actually ‘lives’ on Humboldt and the other three are using it to pass through. I recognize that if there is a diverter on Pacific then I, along with other motorists, will have to drive on Mendocino instead of on Humboldt, but that’s OK – after all, that’s what Mendocino was designed for. 

According to public records[3], there are 199 homes situated on Humboldt Street. Given that traffic data reported in October 2009 in the Press Democrat[4] indicate that between 2,333 and 2,887 cars per day are counted on Humboldt, this either means that each and every home on the street is uniquely responsible for between 11 and 15 trips per day, or that an overwhelming majority of vehicle trips can be traced to non-residents. One can be fairly certain that it is the latter. I understand neighborhood street classification designations and I understand the theoretical constructs behind the difference between a “neighborhood street” (such as Dexter or Orchard) and a “neighborhood collector” (such as Humboldt), but still, a cursory analysis of the data above suggests that Humboldt Street is being used by a significant number of motorists from outside the neighborhood, and thus it is being abused as a “traffic arterial” and not as a “neighborhood collector”. 

According to the above data, 152 of the 199 total homes on Humboldt are located north of College Ave. and south of Lewis[5]. Assuming a comparable number of dwellings along the other five north/south parallel streets between Mendocino and North[6], this yields a total number of 760 homes – again, even assuming that everyone in this neighborhood drives a car or truck either northbound or southbound every day, and every single resident chose to drive on Humboldt instead of Mendocino or North[7], this still cannot explain a daily traffic volume well in excess of 2,000 vehicles. 

Humboldt Street’s neighbors  

Take a moment to review the nature of the streets that are parallel to Humboldt between Mendocino and North St., from east to west: Wright St.: does not intersect College Ave. and it does not continue north past Silva. King St. has a traffic break (the lack of a connection between McConnell and Carr) and does not continue north past Silva. Beaver St. has one natural traffic break (the ‘loop’ between Pacific and Spencer), and it dead-ends just north of Silva. Orchard St. has two breaks (no connection between Spencer and McConnell or between Carr and Dexter), and Slater St. also has two breaks (a non-continuous intersection at Dexter and a gap between Lewis and LaVerne). 

I have heard from community meetings and in the press that some of the resistance against the bike boulevard is from people who live on these parallel streets because they worry that their streets will suddenly be overrun with traffic from cars that had been using Humboldt as a cut-thru. There are two major problems with their argument. First is the fairness argument, which basically is that it is unfair for residents of these streets to want traffic that should be on their streets to continue down my street. Second, these individuals do not understand the likely eventuality that reduced traffic on Humboldt will not result in increased traffic on those other streets that I have named here. Humboldt attracts many hundreds of motorists who view it as an alternative to Mendocino or North precisely because it offers a ruler-straight, virtually signal-free drive all the way from downtown through to Lewis and beyond. There are nine traffic lights on Mendocino between downtown and Steele/Lewis. How many are there on Humboldt in that same stretch? Only two! If there were a diverter or a natural traffic barrier somewhere between College and Lewis just like there is with every other north-south street in the neighborhood, and/or if there were speed tables and/or roundabouts and/or other traffic-calming measures, those drivers would just use Mendocino, not a side street. 

Stagnation and decline 

Stagnation is easy, one simply does nothing; stagnation leads to decline, and decline is not only undesirable, it is painful and difficult to reverse. There are abundant examples of neighborhoods and cities that have been allowed to stagnate and decline. Whether it’s an inability to conform to new paradigms and realities or simply an unwillingness to change entrenched and familiar ways of doing things, failure to change inevitably leads to a slow and painful decline relative to the rest of the world. Globally, many neighborhoods and cities have been investing in positive and constructive change and are doing things that have dramatically and permanently improved conditions for their citizens[8]. Here I will describe one example with which I am familiar. 

During the mid-1990’s, I taught at Baylor University and lived in Waco, Texas. There are a lot of jokes about Waco, and sadly, many of them are spot-on. It is the kind of place that makes people who live in Fort Worth or Lubbock happy that they live in Fort Worth or Lubbock. However, there are at least four things that everyone in Waco is proud of, and one of them is a beautiful street named Austin Avenue[9], a gorgeous tree-lined esplanade boasting stately oaks and hosting a collection of dozens of impressive Victorian mansions from the time in the late 19th Century when Waco was one of the wealthiest cities in the world. Think of a two-and-a-half-mile long McDonald Avenue, but with bigger houses and greener grass and you get the idea. Anyway, guess what Waco did sometime in the last three years with their favorite street, their pride-and-joy? They put in roundabouts, bulb-outs, and other ‘traffic-calming’ measures! You see, it seems that even though Franklin Avenue, a “major traffic arterial”, was parallel to Austin Ave. and only one block away, far too many people were using Austin Avenue as an alternative to the traffic arterial. When I lived in Waco, I would always drive down Austin Ave. instead of Franklin – the street that I ‘should’ have driven on – because I liked it better. Austin Ave. was not only prettier, but it had fewer stop signs and almost no traffic lights. I traded the lower speed limit (30mph instead of 40mph) for a nicer view and the predictability of knowing there were fewer traffic signals. As you may have noticed, this is exactly what the Humboldt St./ Mendocino Ave. relationship is in Santa Rosa! I know that much of Humboldt’s traffic (and I suspect it’s actually “most”) is from people who don’t want to have the perceived hassle of the traffic signals and heavy volume on Mendocino. 

Waco is now a better place because of the change (the roundabouts have nice flowers in them), and apparently residents of Austin Avenue are happier because of the change (there are fewer “other” people using “their” street). The City of Waco decided not to remain stagnant, and they made a change – a change that will help preserve a nice neighborhood street. I’m sure it wasn’t easy, and I’m sure there were people complaining (I can easily imagine people asking their elected officials “what the h*ll’re ya doin’ diggin’ up my street?”) but the end result is, undeniably, an improvement. People with vision saw a need for change and took action.

Stagnation can also happen when people lack the courage or interest in making necessary changes – the belief that “someone else will do it” or “I’ll wait for a better time”. History is full of unfortunate communities that have suffered the fate of inaction and stagnation – please do not let our Santa Rosa join that list! 

Fearmongering 

There is a guest column in the Press Democrat signed by Diane Whitmire[10] which argues against the bike boulevard by explaining that the bike boulevard is dangerous because “The Alquist-Priolo fault [sic] is perhaps 10 blocks east of Humboldt”, and that “Severe earthquakes produce toppled buildings with people trapped inside or underneath…”. She asks her readers to scrap the bike boulevard because she thinks this will increase response time in the event of such an earthquake. First of all, there is no such thing as “the Alquist-Priolo fault”! Here she not only shows a failure in logic, but also a gross misunderstanding of local geology and California’s efforts to mitigate seismic dangers. Alquist-Priolo is the name of a law, not of a fault – a law that was passed in 1972 and signed by then-Governor Reagan in response to the 1971 San Fernando earthquake. The law specifically applies to the types of construction that can take place over known fault zones[11]. Second, does she really imagine that a properly designed bike boulevard, with input from emergency first-responders (as this project has always had), will pose such a dramatic public health hazard? Finally, she herself states in her letter that “The city’s first responsibility is public safety for its residents.” I’ll agree with her at least partially in that final assertion.  

Now that I have agreed with her that a city has a responsibility to the public safety of its citizens, I invite you to review or consider statistics[12] that show what the dangers to the public really are, and it becomes abundantly clear that promoting bicycling and alternative means of transportation squarely addresses significant issues of public health and therefore public safety. Indeed, four of the leading causes of death in the United States have “exercise” as a significant factor in decreasing risk of death[13]. People are notoriously bad at risk assessment[14], but abundant evidence now suggests that not only does the exercise from cycling and walking reduce our risk of exposure to these four causes of death, but that motor vehicle accidents themselves are also one of the leading sources of risk[15]. Following her own thread of reasoning, it then becomes imperative for the city to approve this project specifically ‘for the safety of its residents’. Finally, if our only goal as a forward-thinking city would be to improve access time for emergency crews in a major earthquake (even assuming that they are going to her house and that they wouldn’t already be pretty busy somewhere else), why isn’t she demanding that the city “fix” Wright St., Beaver St., King St., Orchard St., and Slater St. so that they also provide unencumbered, easy access along a north/south axis throughout this neighborhood? Typical of the claims made by the opponents to the bike boulevard, Ms. Whitmire makes a number of other unsubstantiated points – including her assertion that the bike boulevard with diverters will somehow increase carbon emissions (she invents a figure of “13,000 extra miles annually”, which she claims “is an environmental nightmare” – she makes no attempt to explain this argument, which flies in the face of all logic). 

I am a resident of Humboldt Street (not just of the “Humboldt Street neighborhood”, as are many of those who oppose this project), and I want the city to improve Humboldt Street as a permanent bike boulevard. I fully realize that this will slow me down when I drive my car to downtown, but I willingly accept that fact with the knowledge that it will improve the street, the neighborhood, and overall quality of life in several other ways. I shop at local Humboldt Street businesses such as Bill’s Friendly Market and Cannevari’s Market, and I understand the concerns of those business owners. I shop there when I need convenience or a specific item (usually beer from Bill’s or Piroshkis from Cannevari’s). I sincerely and honestly hope the bike project does not negatively impact their business (neighborhood stores are one of the indicators of a healthy neighborhood), but I maintain that the purpose of a neighborhood street or a neighborhood collector is to provide for a healthy and pleasant neighborhood living experience – not to funnel customers past business establishments. That having been said, I am doubtful that the changes during the bike boulevard test phase have had the negative impact that the owners are claiming – after all, we’re in the midst of a severe economic downturn, and – let’s face it – both beer and piroshkis are clearly discretionary purchases. 

The city of the future. The city that people want. 

The author of the Press Democrat opinion piece discussed in the preceding paragraph claims that bicycle coalition wants to have “complete streets” and that she doesn’t want Santa Rosa to become like Portland, Oregon or Austin, Texas. I have traveled often to Portland and I have lived, studied, and worked in Austin, and I can definitively state that they are both very nice places – places that can, and should, serve as models in many ways for other cities in America, including for smaller cities such as Santa Rosa. Apparently I am not the only person to hold Austin and Portland in such high regard – Kiplinger Personal Finance Magazine has named Austin the “#1 City in the US for the Next Decade[16]”, and Portland boasts an impressively long list of accolades[17] for its renowned quality of life and sustainability. For example, Streetfilms.org calls Portland “America’s Most Livable City”, and they explain why this is so in a comprehensive video production that is readily viewable online[18] and that I would strongly recommend in the context of any discussion of urban transportation and livability. I want my Humboldt Street, my JC neighborhood, and my Santa Rosa to look more like Austin and Portland –with “complete streets”, streets for everyone, and an eye toward the 21st century and beyond. 

“Roundabouts are Confusing” 

Roundabouts are statistically shown to be safer for both motorists and pedestrians in low and medium volume contexts[19]. This fact alone should render all argument moot, but for those who need more convincing, the State of Alaska (which is busily upgrading many intersections to roundabouts) has prepared a helpful set of links[20] to articles so that people can learn more about them. The result is that in Alaska (in Anchorage, at least, which is similar in population to Santa Rosa) they are now generally accepted and people have gotten used to them. This “roundabouts are confusing” argument is a frustrating one to counter because rather than just presenting the facts, a small part of me wants to issue the retort: “So… you’re saying Santa Rosa drivers aren’t as clever as drivers in Mexico, Bolivia, France, Taiwan, New Zealand, and virtually everywhere else in the world where roundabouts are used?” But I don’t say that. Just the statistics: Roundabouts are safer. 

Bikes yes, cars yes, bike boulevard no yes 

We can all share. There’s enough room. However, somebody has been busily posting and delivering signs that say “bikes yes, cars yes, bike boulevard no”, as if to somehow claim that they are in favor of bikes and cars but not in favor of the bike boulevard. The bike boulevard does make a difference in improving Humboldt Street, the neighborhood, and the city in the ways enumerated in this letter (and other ways), but the bike boulevard cannot be a success if traffic volume or traffic patterns continue in the same way on Humboldt. 

Please imagine yourself in my mind so that I can explain how this works. When I am in my SUV, the presence of bicycles does not bother me, nor do they frighten me at all. My only necessary adjustment is that occasionally I might need to slow down and/or go around bicyclists. In contrast, when I am on my bicycle, I am very sensitive to the presence of cars. Sometimes I even feel fear, particularly around extraordinarily large or especially loud cars or trucks. It’s not that I’m not a fearful person (I played on the defensive line on my high school football team in Oklahoma and I boxed as a midshipman at the US Naval Academy), nor is it that I’m an inexperienced bicyclist (I ride about 80 miles every week, and I once rode from Mexico to Canada), but there is a huge asymmetry between the motor vehicle and the bicycle that is inescapable. In fact, my wife refuses to bicycle on Humboldt at all (she tried once and never got over her fear ‘of the cars constantly zooming by’), and she actively discourages our teenage son from biking on Humboldt. It’s inaccurate and unfair to claim that we can have a proper bike boulevard without reducing the number of cars and trucks, particularly those that are not from the neighborhood.  

How about another reason it matters if people bike instead of drive on Humboldt? Well, as a Humboldt resident I’m particularly aware of this one: When I’m in my living room or my bedroom and a bike goes by, I don’t hear it at all. When I’m in my living room or bedroom and a car goes by – even a Prius – I hear it. I hear hundreds of cars a day. If these cars belong to my neighbors, that’s fine – after all, they hear me when I drive by. But if these cars are being driven by people going from downtown to Kaiser Hospital, or downtown to Fountaingrove – well, I don’t really appreciate that, and I don’t think it’s unreasonable for me to expect them to drive on Mendocino instead. 

“Restore Humboldt Street” 

Lately, I have noticed that somebody has posted signs that say “bikes yes, bike boulevard no”, and “Restore Humboldt Street”. In fact, if you are not aware of this already, this same person is distributing these all over, well beyond Humboldt, and asking people from all over the city to come to the meeting and hold these “Restore Humboldt Street” signs up in the upcoming city council meeting. What does “Restore Humboldt Street” even mean? Since there is no definition given of the term ‘restore’ nor any details or a plan, I see three possibilities for what they mean. I will describe and refute each of the three: 

a)     Restore Humboldt to the most recent “pre-bike-boulevard-experiment” state. Obviously that was undesirable, because the city’s overall transportation and livability goals as stated in the General Plan were not being met – hence the need to embark on the test project. Perhaps, and more likely, there is an objection to the alteration of what felt like an ‘established’ street with a ‘temporary’ solution (the test measures). If this is indeed what the opponents mean by ‘restore’, then this is essentially an argument that Santa Rosa’s transportation infrastructure is exactly what we need and exactly what we will always need in the future, and that no changes should ever be implemented or even postulated.

b)     Restore Humboldt to the pre-1990’s configuration. If the goal is purely to make motor vehicle traffic flow as smoothly as possible, allow easy and direct vehicle access to those making cross-town trips, allow all the fire trucks to go immediately and directly to all the houses in the city after an earthquake, and keep as many cars as possible away from other streets, then the Humboldt that existed prior to the installation of the vehicle diverter at Chanate would seem to be the opponents’ goal. It should be remembered that this diverter was controversial in its time but that it has been proved to be very successful in discouraging a significant amount of intra-city motor vehicle traffic on Humboldt, reducing speeds on the street, and somewhat helping relieve residents (particularly those on upper Humboldt, just south of Chanate) from having to bear the burden of vehicles using their neighborhood street as a thoroughfare. It is worth noting that despite opposition to this change at the time, it is now universally seen as successful, and any proposal to “restore” Humboldt to how it was before the diverter would be met with an uproar of considerable fury and magnitude. It is also worth noting that one of the most vocal opponents of putting a traffic diverter at Pacific Ave. lives on upper Humboldt, the very part of the street that has benefited the most from the diverter that was installed on Chanate. I won’t claim to understand why the opponents of the bike boulevard are opposed to the solution, but it seems nothing short of hypocritical for a person to approve of a diverter that keeps her block free of people who live to the north (the existing Chanate diverter) but then oppose a diverter that would keep our block free of thru traffic (the proposed Pacific diverter).

c)     Restore Humboldt to some other unspecified state. How far back do we go? I have a reproduction of a map (also viewable online here[21]) which shows our city in 1876. Guess what – there is Humboldt, in all its rough, pioneering glory. So should we “restore” it by ripping up the pavement to return to a time when people mostly walked and the biggest, fastest vehicles were horse-drawn carriages that would rarely exceed 15 mph? No, there have been important societal changes since then. Should we restore it to a time around the turn of the last century, when streets were first paved with modern paving surfaces specifically to be more suitable for the then-new preferred mode of transportation, the bicycle, so that it could travel smoothly and unencumbered[22]? Again, no, we have changed from that time. But ‘restore’ shouldn’t be used to evoke some nostalgia for the past without understanding the underlying needs and causes. 

Extremeists, $800,000, and Taxes. 

I have seen anonymous flyers opposing the bike boulevard, signs tacked or taped to posts, and I have gotten several door flyers and papers left littering my yard. Some of these have included ad hominem attacks, calling advocates of the bike boulevard “extremeists” [sic], a “virus”, “insurgents”, and the “bicycle Taliban”. Since inappropriate ad hominem attacks have no place in a public policy debate, I won’t dignify them with a lengthy response, other than to say that I am not an extremist, an insurgent, or the Taliban (but probably worth mentioning that the Taliban don’t seem to be big bicycle fans anyway). As for virus, well, I do wish to live long, prosper, and reproduce – so that might be partially correct, but it still sounds rather mean for someone to call me that in public discourse. 

Opponents are painting the bike boulevard as a “waste” of city money during a time of tight budgets. I am not an expert in local budgetary policy, but I think that this would be a wise investment in our future and in our city’s prosperity and quality of life. Furthermore, if any of the money is coming from outside the city’s coffers and must be used for specific projects of this nature – all the more reason to go for it. I’ll also be happy with the economic stimulus effect of building something that local contractors, local workers, city employees, and local suppliers can benefit from – are you tired of your economic stimulus going to ‘Wall Street’, as I am? Well, here’s a chance to spend some money in an improvement to Humboldt Street. After all, despite the misconception that bicyclists don’t “pay their way”, the money spent on roads – especially local ones – comes from all of us – bicyclists, motorists, pedestrians, everyone[23]. In fact, some studies suggest that the subsidy is actually the reverse of what is commonly perceived – with bicyclists subsidizing motorists[24]!

 The end.

 Thank you for your attention to this letter and for your service to our fine community. 

Jeffrey Reeder, Ph.D. 


[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alexander_von_Humboldt

[2] http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p003c1c2

[3] http://www.trulia.com/property-sitemap/CA/Santa_Rosa/95404/Humboldt_Street/

[4] http://www.pressdemocrat.com/article/20091007/ARTICLES/910079907/1350

[5] http://www.trulia.com/property-sitemap/CA/Santa_Rosa/95404/Humboldt_Street/, there are 152 homes numbered from 700 to 2299.

[6] Wright St., King St., Beaver St., Orchard St., and Slater St. These are discussed further in the “Humboldt Street’s neighbors” section below.

[7] This is conjectural data – there are, of course, homes with more than one vehicle, just as there are homes with no vehicles. There are also residents whose errands take them eastbound or westbound, or who make their trips on foot or by some other means. The ‘true’ figures, however, are unlikely to differ substantially from those provided above.

[8] For one example among many: http://www.streetfilms.org/ciclovia/

[9] http://www.waco-texas.com/neighborhood-austin.asp

[10] http://www.pressdemocrat.com/article/20100221/OPINION/100219324/1350

[11] http://www.conservation.ca.gov/cgs/rghm/ap/Pages/Index.aspx

[12] http://www.kenkifer.com/bikepages/health/risks.htm

[13] http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/mens-health/MC00013

[14] http://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/19/weekinreview/19belkin.html

[15] http://www-fars.nhtsa.dot.gov/Main/index.aspx

[16] http://www.kiplinger.com/magazine/archives/10-best-cities-2010-for-the-next-decade.html

[17] http://www.travelportland.com/media/portland_in_news.html

[18] http://www.streetfilms.org/portland-celebrating-americas-most-livable-city/

[19] http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_qa3734/is_200703/ai_n18755716/pg_8/

[20] http://www.alaskaroundabouts.com/links.html

[21] http://www.davidrumsey.com/luna/servlet/detail/RUMSEY~8~1~1175~100054:Map-of-The-City-of-Santa-Rosa,-1876

[22] http://knowledgeproblem.com/2009/05/19/the-bicycle-paved-the-road-for-automobiles/

[23] http://bicyclealliance.blogspot.com/2010/08/whose-streets.html

[24] http://www.grist.org/article/2010-09-27-why-an-additional-road-tax-for-bicyclists-would-be-unfair/