Amber Gillespie, who doesn’t drive, envisions a Santa Cruz that’s a little easier and safer to navigate without a car.
“I’m hoping to see more bikers and pedestrians, and more awareness of bikers and pedestrians—those who are most vulnerable on the roads,” says Gillespie, wistfully, at a Kaiser Permanente Arena event to raise awareness about road safety. Her daughter Isa sits on a Santa Cruz Police motorcycle, pretending to drive around the basketball court, as officers stand by smiling.
It’s Wednesday, Sept. 13, the official kickoff of the city’s new Street Smarts campaign, developed by the Santa Cruz Public Works Department, and the message seems to be resonating.
“It’s just important for people to see that everyone’s safety is important to everyone in the community,” says 42-year-old Eric Stettmeier, as he grips his Return of the Jedi skateboard by its front truck. His daughter Darla is throwing and chasing down a balsa wood airplane prize that she won after correctly answering a road safety question at the Santa Cruz Police table nearby. The police booth is one of 14 at the event promoting safer ways to get around—with groups like Ecology Action and Bike Santa Cruz County in attendance. A couple tables down from the cops, AT&T is providing demonstrations on virtual reality headsets that let participants see firsthand the alarming perils of distracted driving. And Stettmeier especially appreciates a thumb band that workers at the Street Smarts table are handing out to remind people not to text while driving.
Everyone with a driver’s license already knows that driving safely is a smart idea. So hanging up banners and running newspaper advertisements—as the city has been doing for the past few months—may sound like a half-baked approach to changing driver habits, one that could not really make a difference compared to the kinds of construction projects that truly transform how we get around.
But Janice Bisgaard, spokesperson for the department, notes Santa Cruz does already have infrastructure changes in the works to make way for safer traveling. The city’s first ever bike box went into the Seabright and Soquel Avenue intersection, and the Branciforte Creek bicycle and pedestrian bridge is now open to the public, with plenty more projects on the way. “But education can do a lot more,” she says.
The nascent Street Smarts effort—modeled after nationwide campaigns to get people to start recycling and wearing seatbelts—focuses on eight core issues. “They include things like unsafe speed, distracted driving and not following the rules of the road, like stop sign compliance,” Bisgaard says.
Many drivers, she says, don’t know that it’s the law to stop for pedestrians, whenever they stand waiting at two adjacent corners, even if there is no official crosswalk striped onto the asphalt. “You have to yield. Every corner is a legal crosswalk,” says Bisgaard, who came up with the Street Smarts concept. “And you can be ticketed or hurt someone.”
Many young people, she notes, bury their faces into their phone screens while walking around town and don’t realize the importance of looking up before crossing the street—another core issue of the campaign.
Street Smarts’ first year is funded by $36,000 in public works money, with an additional $12,500 in corporate sponsorships, Bisgaard says. In the future, she adds, city staffers hope to fully fund it through grants.
The public works department is putting the campaign under the umbrella of a rebranding for the city’s transportation efforts that staffers are calling Go Santa Cruz. With a portal on the city’s website, Go Santa Cruz offers information for all commuters, whether or not they drive. Street Smarts is also targeting drivers, pedestrians and bikers—with the eventual hope of maybe even one day reaching those certain cyclists who bike the wrong way, against traffic, with both earphones in, no helmet and no regard for what’s happening around them.
Go Santa Cruz also includes the city’s efforts to get the word out about new projects. The new bike and pedestrian bridge—the last remaining link in the San Lorenzo River Walkway—will have an official ribbon cutting on Thursday, Sept. 28.
The approach may also include some teachable moments. In the coming months, middle school students will start meeting at after-school clubs, through Street Smarts, to plan school assemblies about road safety. They’ll perform them for elementary school students in early 2018.
Public Works Director Mark Dettle says he’s optimistic that it will change habits of people on the roads.
“It’s not your normal ‘pay attention.’ It’s got a little edge to it,” says Dettle, sporting a necktie that depicts school buses and children crossing the street. “We hope it works. We’re going to be looking at where it affects traffic collisions the most, and working with the Police Department, who will tell us whether or not incidents of distracted driving go down. Even if this prevents a few crashes, that’s a good thing.”
There will be a ribbon cutting for the Branciforte Creek bicycle and pedestrian bridge at noon on Thursday, Sept. 28.