Opinion: California cities are impassable, unbikeable and dangerous — but they don’t have to be

Walter is an urban planning student at Palomar Community College and a veteran. He lives in Escondido.

We are in crisis. Our cities are pedestrian-free, bike-free and downright dangerous for anyone who doesn’t drive or chooses not to drive. If California wants to be the state that leads the way, to be an example for others to follow, then we need to start working on that solution today. Fortunately, there is an answer.

We need to make cities accessible on foot, by bike and accessible by public transport. Anything less is giving up our future for the convenience of today.

To even participate in Californian society, you must own a car in most cities and towns. Want to work? You need a car to make sure you can get there in a timely manner. Want to go on a date? Well, you better have a car; otherwise, there’s nowhere for you to go, and moreover, you’ll need it to prove to your date that you’re financially self-sufficient. Want to watch a Padres game? It will take you 40 minutes from Escondido to drive to Petco Park. Public transit, on the other hand, will take you about two hours. Do you wonder why people are driving everywhere now? We have singularly failed to provide adequate public transport, even to a major sporting event, which we know tens of thousands of people will attend. So what is everyone doing? We drive. Which means traffic, pollution, noise and all the nightmarish parking problems that naturally follow when we all hit the road.

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If we’re serious about the health hazard dangers of our impassable cities, we should slap a surgeon general’s warning on every apartment, condo, and house in low-walkability neighborhoods. Every property must be sold with a warning that these homes are dangerous to your health because the neighborhoods cannot be walked or cycled safely or reliably. According to the San Diego County Air Pollution Control District, 70% of the area’s air pollution comes from automobile traffic. Our noise pollution also comes from this traffic. By failing to design walkable neighborhoods with adequate public transport links, we have condemned ourselves to dirtier air and noisier surroundings. Air pollution and noise pollution have long-term health consequences, none of which are positive.

Parking is a double-edged sword for our cities. High traffic means more customers, more residents, and more tourists, but high traffic volumes mean that parking is difficult to find, roads are crowded, and traffic flow becomes blocked. However, the answer is quite simple. Make communities and cities navigable without the need for a car. People usually take the path of least resistance, so we can reduce the amount of traffic on our streets by ensuring that our public transport has competitive arrival times.

I know what you’re thinking: “That’s all well and good, but what about in a big American city? Without cars, businesses won’t get the traffic they need to stay in business. It’s wrong. Well intentioned but wrong. For example, the city of Copenhagen, Denmark, has transformed its commercial district of Strøget into a pedestrian zone free of cars and motorcycles. Walking, cycling and public transit are the only ways to get around. Businesses have seen increased revenues and profits, traffic has decreased in the local area, and it is one of the most thriving commercial areas in the city. San Diego, on the other hand, has more than twice the population of Copenhagen, and we still insist on suffocating ourselves with car-dependent development. When cities have created pedestrian streets, cities benefit. Even our suburbs can benefit from reduced traffic by investing in public transit. Streetcar commuters were once very common in the United States, bringing people to and from work and all their shopping needs.

Cars are just one way to get around. Places where people want to hang out are also places where you can’t just drive a car. Who would enjoy Disneyland if everyone drove from ride to ride, cart to cart? Nobody wants a freeway at their front door, and yet we’ve gutted inner cities with freeways, leaving them dependent on car-dependent infrastructure.

We have a crisis of incomplete streets in our communities – streets intended to move cars rather than people. California must become competitive in creating walkable, bikeable, and transit-accessible spaces, or we will be left behind as other cities embrace a new vision for the future.

Bernard P. Love