Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Community Planning Observations from California

I'm in California this week for work. Whenever I'm here in the SF east bay area, I notice several differences in community development, compared with Massachusetts.

For one, all the new housing is very dense. Condo and apartment communities abound. Even the single family home neighborhoods are dense, with the home taking up nearly 100% of the lot, compared with our 40 foot front set backs and 10 foot side set backs.

Another difference is traffic management. Not only the infrastructure, but the culture too. Roads similar to our Main Street are 3-5 lanes in each direction. And there is a major traffic signalization at every intersection. Let me repeat that: at every intersection. If you know you're going to turn right at the next traffic signal, you are expected to get into one of the two right lanes at or prior to the previous intersection. If you know you're going to be turning left, you're expected to get into one of the 2 left lanes at or prior to the previous intersection. If you plan to continue straight, stay in the center lane.

Roads similar to our Hayden Rowe or Grove Street have 4-way stop signs at every single intersection. You end up coming to a full stop at every intersection, every couple hundred feet. (If you can't tolerate it, you'll likely find a freeway not too far away, running parallel to the local roads).

The amazing thing to me is that everyone follows the rules. At the four way stops, people take the time to keep track of which intersection's turn it is to go. The car in the front position in the westbound side stops to let the cars in the front position on the north and southbound sides cross. Then the front car in the westbound and eastbound each proceed. Orderly.

Except, of course, east coast visitors like me, who, by force of habit creep at stop signs, even when we think we really came to a full and complete stop -- no doubt conditioned by the constant experience back east of having a severely impatient driver honking behind us to get moving.

My experience here in California is that you'll hear a punitive honk aimed at you if you violate a traffic rule; back home in Massachusetts, you'll get honked at by someone frustrated that you are actually FOLLOWING a traffic rule.

Oh, in addition to the multiple car lanes, there is a wide bike lane on all major roads, and sidewalks lining every street. And both cyclists and cars obey the rules of sharing the road.

Without the New England winter freezing to cause contraction and expansion of the asphalt, you will not find any pot-holes out here either.

For all the justified complaints about the severe rush hour traffic congestion on the major freeways in California, experiencing a local road system that can actually accomodate the traffic demand is a sheer pleasure. I guess that's because these communities were designed after the advent of the automobile and for the automobile (but to their credit incorporate better pedestrian and bicycle design as well). Many of our roads were designed for horses and carriages (or, in Boston, famously, for cows) and have expanded to adapt to the automobile age.

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