Colin Fiske: How to genuinely make the Gateway Area better for people, not cars

 In his Sept. 15 op-ed (“Our choice for Arcata – L Street Pathway and Park, or another major road?”), Fred Weis asks, “Do we make our roads better for cars, or do we make the Gateway area better for people?” He then proceeds to argue at length that the way to “make the Gateway area better for people” is to reject the Gateway plan proposal for a couplet composed of a one-lane L Street and a one-lane K Street, and instead leave them both pretty much as they are, with minor tweaks.

If you take Mr. Weis’s op-ed at face value, you might be surprised to learn that the Coalition for Responsible Transportation Priorities (CRTP), the region’s only nonprofit organization devoted entirely to supporting walking, biking and transit and reducing the role of cars in our communities, has supported the L and K Street couplet idea. Here’s why.

Transportation experts view streets and trails as elements in interconnected networks. Good infrastructure has to not only be safe and comfortable to use, but also integrated into a system of other such facilities that actually get you where you need to go. The best bike trail, for example, is not very useful if it doesn’t connect to anything or if it is intersected by a dangerous street that few people feel comfortable crossing.

To ensure that people can and will move around by walking, biking, and rolling, you need to identify and fix the gaps and barriers in the bike and pedestrian networks.

Viewing the Gateway Area through this lens, there are two major problems with the bike and pedestrian networks. Those problems are called, respectively, K Street and 11th Street. Both lack safe and comfortable bike facilities, and both are dangerous and uncomfortable to cross while walking, biking or rolling. They deter less-confident bicyclists and pedestrians from using or accessing a facility like the L Street trail and thus prevent it from living up to its potential as a transportation corridor. More importantly, they pose the constant risk of injury or even death to people using them outside a vehicle.

Mr. Weis’ op-ed spares hardly a thought to the problems posed by K Street, merely suggesting that it can be improved through “better design, like bulb-outs and designated crossing lights.” As a transportation advocate, I agree those features would represent a modest improvement.

But compare that to the Gateway plan’s proposal to make K Street into a single-lane street with a protected bikeway, wider sidewalks, and upgraded crossings. This would be truly transformative, adding K Street into the safe and comfortable bike and pedestrian network and removing significant barriers to car-free movement. That’s the central reason CRTP has supported the Gateway plan concept for K and L Street improvements.

Mr. Weis does get a couple of things right. First, the existing L Street trail is indeed a wonderful place. Second, it’s true that part of the reason planners are proposing the couplet idea — in addition to the transformative bike and pedestrian improvements it would allow — is to reduce future traffic congestion.

It is reasonable to examine whether, if we place a lower priority on congestion concerns, K Street could be reduced to one lane with fewer other changes made to the street system.

And in fact, CRTP would welcome that. Traffic could be routed onto J Street instead, or we could just make drivers who wish to go south divert over to H Street. Certain drivers and transportation engineers are no doubt yelling at their papers upon reading that suggestion, but as Mr. Weis is an advocate of low-car communities, I imagine he would support it as CRTP would.

In short, the Gateway plan’s proposed design for the K Street corridor would be transformative, and opportunities for that kind of transformation don’t come along very often. Arcata can’t afford to pass this one up. Perhaps the proposal for L Street is not necessary — but the K Street makeover certainly is.

If Mr. Weis and others are truly supporters of people-centered transportation networks, I hope in the future they will acknowledge the priority of remaking K Street for people walking, biking and rolling, and drop the heated rhetoric and misleading claims about the Gateway Area Plan.