San Diego is lucky to have some of the country’s best planning minds. The trick is getting their input implemented.
By Bill Adams / UrbDeZine.com
San Diego’s downtown street grid and its small blocks make continuous walking difficult, especially for people trying to go in a straight line. Jogging is even more difficult. The blocks are 200 by 300 feet. Among major cities, only Portland has smaller blocks at 200 by 200 feet.
So depending on walking direction, pedestrians generally must stop every 200 or 300 feet to wait for traffic.
While this may not be troublesome for people on vacation or on a day-off, for residents and downtown workers who use their feet for more utilitarian purposes, it is an impediment not experienced in many other cities nor even in the suburbs.
The Problem – Short Blocks and Too Many Intersections
Almost all western U.S. cities implemented the ancient grid plan (sometimes referred to as the Hippodamian grid).
The origin of San Diego’s small blocks has to do with the desire of Alonzo Horton, the founder and developer of ”New Town” (the nickname for downtown San Diego’s relocation in 1871), to (a) create more corner lots (which fetched higher prices) and to (b) eliminate mid-block alleys (which were viewed as dirty and as attracting nuisances).
Today, the uniform small blocks and 75 foot wide one-way roads maximize the automobile’s domain and undermine the walkability of downtown. The problem is made even worse by San Diego’s $100 plus jaywalking tickets (about twice that of a parking ticket – another pro-auto bias?).
On a recent trip to Portland, my casual observation was that despite having smaller blocks than San Diego, it was more walkable in part due to some pedestrian-oriented corridors that allowed more uninterrupted walking than possible in San Diego. Therefore, at least by the interruption metric, San Diego may be the worst major city downtown for functional pedestrian and bicycle movement. In contrast, the City’s traffic engineers synchronize the downtown traffic signals to reduce intersection stops for automobile traffic.
Pedestrian crossing signal synchronization wouldn’t work because it would conflict with auto traffic signal synchronization and because pedestrian rates of travel are much more varied than cars. Nevertheless, this contrast serves to highlight the preference given to automobile traffic and the need for pedestrian corridors with thruway attributes.
The City’s Downtown Community Plan only goes part way toward addressing the need for more pedestrian oriented streets by encouraging streetscape improvements and traffic calming measures on certain planned “green streets” and residential streets; and modifying crossing signals on certain streets to benefit walking.
For the most part however, the Plan focuses on pedestrian comfort (and to some degree safety) rather than walking mobility to improve the downtown pedestrian experience. In fact, the Plan states as a “policy . . . [m]aintain, re-establish, and enhance the street grid, to promote flexibility of movement . . . [p]rohibit and discourage any interruption of the street grid.”
While this policy is generally more concerned with blocking the street grid with buildings, to the extent it applies to traffic, some interruption of the street grid traffic flow should be accepted as beneficial to walkability. Some say they are able to navigate San Diego’s downtown via foot with little interruption. It is true, with experience and a bit of risk, walkers can continue their locomotion, albeit in an indirect and often suboptimal route.
The strategy is to, at each intersection, cross where traffic is stopped. However, this strategy only works well if the destination is in a diagonal direction vis-a-vis the street grid, or if walking simply for the purpose of walking. Also, this strategy often requires crossing when the pedestrian signal is flashing (i.e. in its warning stage), which can result in a jaywalking citation. However, if the destination can be reached by going straight down one or two streets, the small blocks and numerous intersections make for multiple stops and waits, walking in only 200 or 300 foot increments, or for a zigzag route.
While this situation can seem to be somewhat of a “first world” problem (i.e., minor), it relates directly to the liveability and safety of downtown; and ultimately to promoting sustainable dense urban development patterns.
The Solution – Pedestrian Corridors
The walkability of downtown could be greatly enhanced by the existence of pedestrian corridors that allowed more uninterrupted walking, jogging, and biking. These corridors wouldn’t require vacating the street of cars. Rather, the point is to make it so that pedestrians don’t need to stop every block to wait for traffic and to create corridors in which the auto vs pedestrian and bicyclist bias is reversed.
To prevent the unintended consequence of making such streets even more auto-centric as a result of uninterrupted thru-intersection driving, traffic calming would also be necessary, e.g. street narrowing / sidewalk widening and adding bike lanes. (An interesting albeit contrarian alternative would be to make the pedestrian corridors also auto-corridors by simply removing the intersection stops for both pedestrians and autos).
A counter-intuitive alternative, which is gaining currency (especially in Europe), is “shared space,” i.e. removing traffic signals and lane markers from certain roads, and allowing pedestrians full access to the road. Ironically, this approach has increased both pedestrian safety and walkability as car traffic becomes dramatically more cautious and slower. It turns out that putting pedestrians in the middle of roads and removing traffic controls are the ultimate traffic calming devices.
Downtown San Diego, with its over-abundance of wide roads seems particularly suited for implementing this approach on two or three of these roads. Portland’s NW 13th Ave. (a former loading dock alley), has created a semi-shared space pedestrian friendly corridor. Shared space is also likely to be more readily accepted by merchants in the effected area than is vacating or restricting traffic access.
Another oft mentioned alternative would be to remove automobile traffic entirely from a road somewhere in downtown. The Gaslamp Quarter’s Fifth Ave. is most often mentioned as a candidate for this option. Barcelona’s Las Ramblas and Santa Monica’s Third Street Promenade are often cited as references.
While it would be nice to have a Las Ramblas in San Diego (Barcelona with its similar climate, seaside location, and street grid, is sometimes cited as a model for San Diego), vacating a downtown street of automobiles would be a major political undertaking. In contrast, pedestrian mobility of the type that is the focus of this article would only be slightly enhanced and only in a limited area of downtown. Such a pedestrian-only street would be more of an oasis for pedestrians than an enhancement of downtown pedestrian and bike mobility.
Pedestrian corridors with fewer cross traffic interruptions would likely involve converting some streets into cul-de-sacs (or at least replacing traffic signals with stop signs), and converting some one-way streets to two-way. In terms of resources and traffic flow, downtown San Diego is endowed with more road surface than most other downtowns, leaving ample roadway for auto navigation.
Also, designating certain roads as pedestrian corridors by blocking-off cross streets, reducing the number and width of auto lanes, or designating shared space zones, wouldn’t necessarily require much in the way of costly physical upgrades. That’s not to say it would be easy, as there would likely be complications in terms of traffic engineering, bus stops and routing, as well as resistance from businesses worried about impacts on access and sales.
While there have been a few streets downtown that have shown signs of pedestrian orientation (e.g., Park Blvd. and J Street), very little has been implemented in the way of creating walking corridors with fewer cross-traffic interruptions. As we have learned in our suburbs, walkability is as much about functionality as it is about visual streetscape amenities. Fortunately, San Diego is lucky to have some of the country’s best planning minds. The trick is getting their input implemented.
Bill: enjoyable article, on a subject I’ve long been interested in. Recommended, if you haven’t already come across either or both, would be these: San Diego – A Comprehensive Plan For Its Improvement (1908) and Comprehensive City Plan For San Diego California (1926), both by John Nolen. Still ahead of his time, and one smart fella…
ADD: Just hearing news of Neil Morgan’s passing; a great loss indeed…
Great article! You’ve hit the nail on the head when you note that San Diego has given the automobile priority over all other forms of transportation. The solution, is to give the pedestrian priority in the hierarchy of transportation modes. When that happens, we begin to solve many problems facing San Diego now and in the future.
Short blocks in a grid pattern are actually a benefit to pedestrians. They provide multiple routes and lots of variety. It is short blocks and cars that don’t work well together. So when we gave cars first priority, and reworked the system to benefit cars, everyone else lost out. Let’s hope San Diego can correct that error.
Indeed, to echo Walter, the small blocks are not the problem, it’s the big streets! The more space you give to cars and the simpler you make the task of driving, the faster they will go. Narrow streets with slow traffic make “jaywalking” (a car-lobby term for when pedestrians treat the built environment as if it were designed for them) easy and reasonably safe and therefore walking an efficient way to get around.
There were no red-handed pedestrian signals in Alonzo Horton’s day!
Bill Adams says
Thank you for the great comments. Its true that small blocks have their advantages, e.g., more places to cross the street, more change of direction options, more view corridors, and sometimes traffic calming. However, small blocks = more intersections = more stops for walkers, at least the way its currently done in San Diego. As you note, it doesn’t have to be that way. More uninterrupted walking options can co-exist with small blocks with some reprioritization and pedestrian specific amenities.
Hong Kong Central District when I lived there was great!
Hong Kong had elevated walkways that separated pedestrian
and vehicle traffic.
Harbor Boulevard would be a good place to start.
When trains are cutting San Diego in two, there is only one
place to cross from Petco to Grape along Harbor.
If it rained more often, all those convention goers would
be soaked as well as wind-chilled waiting on the trains.