In the SMa.r.t. group’s recent column, “Yesterday’s streets tomorrow,” Mario Fonda-Bonardi said that to fight traffic in Santa Monica, we should have been widening our streets into highways rather than making them safer for people who walk and ride bikes.
While we can all agree that traffic is a problem, Mario’s assumptions about the causes of congestion and solutions to it are wrong. This is mid-20th century thinking that has been disproven over and over.
Santa Monica has widened streets and increased road capacity over the years, but it hasn’t fixed traffic. Widening streets would claim old-growth trees, front yards and sidewalks and reduce livability without speeding up traffic because we’d simply be encouraging more driving and by doing so be adding more cars to already congested streets.
For instance, the City in the ’50s widened Ocean Park Boulevard and Fourth Street into four-lane roads (including putting in a highway-type overpass), ripping out front and side yards. Thirty years later, in response to community activism, the City returned those streets to one lane in each direction, but the damage to the community was done.
When the Interstate 10 freeway was built a decade later, it was a huge increase in the capacity of Santa Monica’s roads. People complained about traffic back then, too, so much so that they were willing to destroy whole neighborhoods for increased roadway capacity. But did it fix traffic? No.
The freeway promised unimpeded car travel to Santa Monica, but now the worst traffic congestion is on streets leading to and from the freeway and on boulevards that parallel the freeway.
Similarly, the recent $1.1-billion 405 widening project hasn’t improved flow on that freeway, but it now dumps even more cars on Westside surface streets each day.
Fortunately, in Santa Monica, we have learned from the mistakes of our past. The successes of the projects to widen downtown sidewalks and replace car lanes with bike lanes on Main Street and Montana Avenue show how shared streets create livable places for people. Meanwhile, they work on expanding convenient alternatives to driving. The fact is that like everywhere in the region, traffic is bad in Santa Monica, but residents here on average drive less than people who live in more car-dependent areas.
To solve today’s problems, let’s not look to failed strategies of the past, which have literally destroyed neighborhoods and left us with many of the traffic problems we face today. If we plan our streets primarily for more vehicles at the expense of people who are willing to get out of their cars, then we all lose.
Judy Abdo, Juan Matute, Cynthia Rose, Craig Hamilton and Tim Harter are Santa Monica residents.