The lead article this week in the Sacramento News & Review is Sacramento’s report card. I can’t resist getting in on the fun.
The article covers bicycle transportation in the “On two wheels” paragraph, and does it pretty well, giving a C grade. I’d add that art bike racks can be fun if they are also functional. The dragon at Shoki Ramen House and the bottle openers at New Helvetia Brewing are good examples. I think bicycling really works pretty well in the central city and some of east Sacramento, with people getting along in sharing the road most of the time. The further out you go, though, the worse things are, with belligerent drivers traveling at high speeds. I’d give central city a B and the far suburbs an D-. Does this average to a C?
Two feet – pedestrians – do not fare as well. In the central city pedestrians are faced with impatient entitled drivers who will not yield to someone waiting to cross, and often will not yield to someone already crossing. Again, the further out you go, the worse things are, with higher speeds, more belligerent drivers, longer distances between marked crosswalks, and often, a lack of sidewalks along arterial roads and neighborhood streets. The root of the problem, however, is not lack of infrastructure, but high speeds and driver attitudes. And yes, bicyclists are often just as bad about yielding to pedestrians as motor vehicle drivers are. When a pedestrian is run over by a driver, law enforcement tends to blame the victim, as though walking were a crime, and this just reinforces the bad attitude of some drivers. Every time I need to walk somewhere in the suburbs, I can’t wait to get back on my bike. I feel safer and more accepted, and that is saying something. Sacramento gets a D- for walkability.
Transit is a mixed scene. The two wheels paragraph mentions that low floor light rail cars to accommodate bicyclists, and all others, are several years away. The light rail system was designed to capture drivers at the end points and bring them into downtown to relieve freeway congestion. That was the best we knew how to do 25 years ago, but this is now a design flaw that keeps the system mired in the past. Because it follows freeways, railroad right-of-way, and goes though industrial areas, it mostly lacks opportunities for transit oriented development (TOD). Some great TOD has been created at the Alkalai Flat/La Valentina station, and a few others are in the works, but such opportunities are limited. If we were to design the system today, it would look very much different. The bus system suffers from very overcrowded buses on some routes, almost empty buses on others, and large geographic dead zones where no service is provided at all. The challenge here is that Sacramento was laid out, intentionally, as a cars-first place, and now that we want it to be transit friendly as well, we run up against the physical reality of sprawl. The Sacramento region has failed to provide a reliable, dedicated tax base for operation and maintenance of SacRT, and it shows. I use SacRT on a regular basis, and Yolobus less frequently. On the whole I’m happy with the service, but it could be so much better. It seems as though the commuter buses work well. I’d assign a C-.
The transportation system for motor vehicles would get an A+ considering the amount of money spent on it. But if we consider how it functions, the grade is far lower. I am car-free and very rarely drive, so my view of the freeway, arterial road, and street system is probably skewed, but I’ll comment anyway. Congestion is clearly a problem during rush hours, but the rest of the time there is plenty of excess capacity. Seems a waste to design a system of VERY expensive high speed roads and freeways for peak capacity. Other than the central city and east Sacramento, the motto of Sacramento is that “it doesn’t go through.” There is no street connectivity, and so all trips must take place on the arterials and freeways. Though the light is beginning to dawn that this sort of transportation system really doesn’t work, that doesn’t mean we have stopped spending nearly all our transportation dollars on it. We build more interchanges so that new developments can go in, which will generate traffic that will clog the freeways. We add freeway lanes in an effort to keep up with that peak demand, but of course the availability of more capacity causes people to think they can live and work at opposite poles of the region, and so the lanes fill up again. The biggest problem with our roadways, though, is that we can’t maintain them. Even if we gave over all our tax dollars to transportation, we still could not keep our roads in good repair. The bills are coming due, and we have neither money in the bank nor enough income to pay them. I’d give motor vehicle transportation a D+.
These four transportation areas come together in measures of walkability, or livability, how easy it to live without having to rely on a motor vehicle, and how many of your daily needs are available close to where you live. Daily needs includes, of course, work. In this, Sacramento ranges from A- to F. I live in a walkable livable area (walk score = 85; transit score = 62), and would give my part of midtown Sacramento a B+ on walkability. But the further I go from home, the worse things get. Is there a grade below F? If I had to give an overall grade for livability in Sacramento, I’d assign a D+.
If we hadn’t sprawled, Sacramento could have had a grade of B. But sprawl we did. It will take a lot of time, money, and pain to undo the ponzi scheme of sprawl. It is something we can do, if we decide that it is worth investing in a sustainable future. The SACOG MTP/SCS Blueprint provides a different model that is sustainable, but we have so much to fix that it will be a long while before the new vision makes a big difference. And the county seems still wedded to the old 1950’s model of cars-first.