Ruling The Streets

news2West Cliff Drive will become car-free for the first Santa Cruz Open Streets

In 2011, Santa Cruz resident Eleanor Mendoza crafted and sent an insightful, handwritten letter to the Santa Cruz City Council for a class assignment. In the letter, the then-9-year-old implored our elected officials to take a closer look at bicycle-related issues in town.

“I was the only one who wrote a letter to our mayor,” says Mendoza, mentioning her strong interest in working in governmental policy. 

Among her recommendations for pro-bicycling modifications, Mendoza suggested in her letter that the city consider occasionally closing West Cliff Drive to cars to allow for an area where cyclists and pedestrians could roam free from the dangers of vehicle traffic.

“Last year I lived in Mexico City,” she wrote in the letter, “where every Sunday the mayor shut down several miles of beautiful streets to traffic, and opened them up to bikes. If you would consider doing this on West Cliff Drive, I believe that it might encourage more people to ride bikes.”

Another Santa Cruz resident, Saskia Lucas, had been cooking up a similar idea when she caught wind of Mendoza’s letter. As a former staffer of Ecology Action’s Sustainable Transportation Division and the founder of Bike Smart! Youth Bicycle Safety Education Program, Lucas also happened to be a former neighbor of the Mendoza family. The two say they were thrilled to learn about one another’s interest in the project.

“I wasn’t sure what exactly it would take to close the road temporarily,” Lucas says, “but I think people want more places to recreate locally in a traffic-free environment.” When she surveyed West Cliff residents about their openness to the event, her intuition was validated. “Initially, city staff was really concerned about neighbor push-back,” she explains. “I ended up going door to door on West Cliff Drive with a volunteer from the local cycling club to poll residents on their support of the idea. Much to everyone’s surprise, the people we spoke with were nearly all supportive.”

Through persistently seeking out local committees, officials, and community groups, she says she eventually gained approval for the event from city staff. The next step was pulling together individuals, organizations, and nonprofits that could help get it off the ground. Together with Mendoza’s dedication to helping with the project and a $10,000 grant from a private “angel” funder, Lucas says the first Santa Cruz Open Streets was born.

The event will take place on Sunday, Oct. 7, when West Cliff Drive will be closed to cars from Natural Bridges State Beach to Lighthouse Field from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. For those few precious hours, community members will have free reign to walk, bike, and peruse booths provided by local merchants.

In creating SCOS, Lucas looked to a more proximate example than Mendoza did—Sunday Streets in San Francisco, in which routes throughout different areas of the city are opened up to cyclists once a month. “I decided to start this new event because I thought it would be a great thing for our town,” says Lucas. “I am inspired by the way cities can promote healthy and sustainable living by creating parks out of streets.”

But both Mendoza and Lucas say that various bicycle safety concerns will have to be addressed locally before people truly pick up the habit. In Mendoza’s letter to the city council, she wrote that the present situation for cyclists in Santa Cruz “proves very dangerous,” and that she is fearful that injuries or even deaths could result from unsafe bike routes across town. 

Lucas says that safety concerns are the No. 1 reason she hears from people as to why they don’t bike more. “For people to want to leave their cars at home, they need ways to bike that are safer, but many times that’s also going to take some of the space that is currently used by cars,” she says.

The tension between bikes and cars isn’t anything new in Santa Cruz. Despite the popularity of bike transport in the area, several initiatives for improved bike safety and accessibility, like the city’s long time plan to create the Arana Gulch trail—a bike path connecting Broadway and Brommer Street—have yet to become a reality.

Santa Cruz Mayor Don Lane says that the city will continue to contribute substantial amounts of their transportation budget to more bicycle infrastructure. “In general, promoting bike safety is important for two reasons: lots of our local cyclists are kids and we need to take good care of those kids,” says Lane. “And, more and more folks are using bikes as a primary mode of transportation. We need to ensure safety for cyclists to continue the growth in bike use.”

Following the recent installment of the San Lorenzo River bike and pedestrian bridge, Lane says the next project will be the completion of the paved multi-use trails in Arana Gulch, which were finally approved (with some conditions) by the Coastal Commission in December 2011. Construction is set to begin this coming spring.

The New York Times recently published an article titled “Commuters Pedal to Work on Their Very Own Superhighway,” in which they explore Copenhagen’s progress with greatly reducing carbon emissions in the city by providing safe cycling highways for its residents. Frommer’s travel guide has also dubbed Berlin, Paris, London, Rome, Munich, and Amsterdam as exceptional cities for biking. In 2009, Travel + Leisure Magazine reported that Portland, Ore. was one of the only cities in the United States that was up to a gold standard of bike-friendliness (taking a lead over Boulder, Colo. and Washington, D.C.).

So what will it take for Santa Cruz to measure up? After addressing bicycle safety, Lucas says days designated to bicycling—like Bike to Work and Bike to School Days on Thursday, Oct. 4, and SCOS on Oct. 7—are a step in the right direction.

“The overwhelming support and excitement that the event is generating—even as a first-time event—tells you that Santa Cruz is hungry for this,” says Lucas. 

For more information, visit http://www.scopenstreets.org  or http://www.openstreetsproject.org

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