Submitted by Ryan Crane
Mayor Bailey recently offered a review of his last four years as mayor, highlighting some of the accomplishments that he and the Council have achieved. One of these accomplishments, the relinquishment of Orange Avenue/SR75, has made possible the “reimagining of the Orange Avenue business district,” in Mayor Bailey’s words. In the context of such a reimagining, I would like to suggest that the City and citizens of Coronado focus their imaginations on attaining a walkable city center.
Conceptualizing “walkability” is a task that has occupied a large and growing group of urban design professionals and city planners, many of whom are affiliated with the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU). One main focus of this group is to design “walkable blocks and streets.” Walkability has more to do with just physical proximity, however. It includes the design of the surrounding buildings and how they frame the street; how the streets are designed to be inviting to pedestrians and ensure safety; and how people are able to move from one area of the city to another.
I would like to suggest that, as it stands, Orange Avenue has a long way to go before anyone affiliated with the CNU would describe it as walkable, and a major reason for this is the traffic congestion and the design of the streets.
In his book Walkable City Rules, urban planner Jeff Speck outlines a number of proposed actions cities can take to improve their walkability. Many of these actions are aimed at, in his words, “escaping automobilism.” It is worth keeping in mind that, as Fred Kent, the founder of the Project for Public Spaces, states, “If you plan for cars and traffic, you get cars and traffic. If you plan for people and places, you get people and places.” I would like to examine some of Speck’s recommendations, and explore how they might apply to Coronado:
1) Tear Down a Highway – Replace downtown highways with walkable boulevards
Speck states that “if you understand the Law of Induced Demand, you will not be surprised to learn that it works in reverse: Build it and they will come becomes remove it and they will go away.” He cites a number of examples where major thoroughfares were removed from cities, and people adapted to the new traffic system without experiencing the dreaded “carmaggeddon.”
A recent example of removing lanes and remodeling traffic patterns occurred to great success just up I-5 in La Jolla. After almost ten years of planning, La Jolla Boulevard was reduced from five traffic lanes to two, with the introduction of a series of roundabouts in place of existing intersections. The traffic count remained constant, but retail sales were boosted by 30% and noise dropped over 70%. Average speed dropped from 45mph to around 20mph. La Jolla reclaimed a substantial amount of space for beautification and bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure. The results are incredibly impressive.
Could we do something similar along Orange Avenue? Orange essentially functions like a four lane highway, with a fifth center turn lane (usually camouflaged by the median). The La Jolla experience shows that even a dramatic redesign, if executed properly, need not sacrifice efficiency for walkability or safety. It might be worth imagining what Orange would look like after a similar redesign.
While we’re at it, we should look at transitioning Third and Fourth from three lanes to two. If technically feasible, we would realize significant safety gains (slower speeds, easier and shorter pedestrian crossings) without sacrificing efficiency. The traffic signals, rather than the number of lanes, may represent the true rate limiting step along those streets.
There may even be an opportunity to redistribute traffic more equally across the grid by facilitating left turns at the Glorietta-SR75 intersection, but that would take dedicated engineering study, and is outside the scope of this letter.
2) Congestion Price City Centers – Fight Traffic with the Only Tool that Works.
We only pay a small fraction of the true cost of driving. Some of these costs include time lost in congestion, pollution, road upkeep, etc. The lack of pricing signals in the automobile traffic system results in elevated levels of demand. Congestion pricing and tolling allows a city to have a mechanism to price these costs, sometimes called externalities, into the system.
If the City is to become serious about addressing the congestion issues in Coronado, a congestion pricing mechanism on the Coronado Bridge should be strongly requested. While the authority to toll the bridge lies with the state, a toll on the bridge would align quite well with state objectives to improve transit efficiency and decrease greenhouse gas emissions. Let me be clear, this would absolutely not be a mechanism to discourage tourism, on which our local businesses depend.
The City would hopefully request that a large portion of these user fees from toll collections be designated for infrastructure improvements in Coronado. For a ballpark figure, a prior study estimated that a one dollar toll on the bridge would raise up to $50 million annually. I have described previously how our mismanagement of parking pricing works to increase traffic, and this error should be corrected. Price cars appropriately, and people will use them less.
3) Coordinate Transit and Land Use – Have a long range plan that makes the two work together
As people are fond of pointing out, Coronado is “built out.” There is little extra space for new development, new housing, new anything. This suggests that, if Coronado is to grow, new uses for old space will need to be discovered. Believe it or not, but roads and parking spaces are some of the least valuable land uses conceivable. We should imagine a different way of doing things.
The City Council has shown that, under certain conditions, residents and visitors in Coronado will use public transit, in the form of the Summer Shuttle. The Summer Shuttle is one of the most highly utilized bus lines in the MTS system per hour of operation. The route links the most popular tourist and commercial centers, and the Mayor and City Council should be commended for continuing this program (until COVID, of course). I would suggest that the City take this idea even further. We should evaluate the feasibility of a permanent public transit line along the Orange Avenue Corridor, in the form of a Coronado street car.
Why a street car? As mayor Charlie Hales of Portland has observed, streetcars are “pedestrian accelerators.” A streetcar is consistent with Coronado’s history, as the median originally held a streetcar track, and streetcars also signal a city’s commitment to redevelopment, which is desperately needed along Orange Avenue.
Running the streetcar in the median would allow it to have a dedicated right of way, meaning that no matter how congested the streets are, the streetcar would run on time, which would further increase its attractiveness as a transit option. While expensive to build and maintain, a bridge toll would certainly make the construction cost manageable, and an ongoing toll after construction would more than cover operating and maintenance costs. Streetcar lines coupled to a transit-oriented development strategy have had success in attracting state and federal grants, as well. Lastly, funding can be obtained through value capture mechanisms accompanying the anticipated redevelopment.
Streetcars often have the most success in tourist destinations and in attracting upper middle class so-called “choice” transit users, which seems to describe the Coronado demographic quite well.
The proposed transit line could connect the whole of Orange Avenue, including the Hotel del Coronado and the beaches, to the Ferry Landing, offering another connection for tourists and visitors to and from Coronado, one which wouldn’t require vehicular traffic across the bridge.
Such a public transit line would also free development along Orange Avenue and at the Ferry Landing from parking requirements. We could even target new mixed use developments in the downtown district towards people who work in Coronado, like hotel employees, the military, or civilian employees of the Naval bases. Considered holistically, the traffic problem is also a housing problem. Radical, I know.
I offer these ideas as a recent transplant to Coronado, looking at the city with new eyes. I have lived in places where these concepts have worked incredibly well, and the time seems suitable to consider enacting some of them here. If I may be so presumptuous, I agree with Mayor Bailey – it is time to reimagine Orange Avenue.