By now, finding oneself inching forward on a clogged road is becoming normal. At times, Highway 12 from Siesta Way past Verano Avenue, and from W Napa Street to the Plaza, is backed-up bumper-to-bumper. There are only so many cars that our Valley’s two-lane roads can accommodate.
That reality doesn’t seem to affect the approval of development projects, large and small. In study after study, traffic consultants hired to evaluate transportation impacts conclude that while impacts will occur, they are not generally substantial, and are calculated as the additional number of minutes a trip will take from here to there, on average. But people don’t live in a world of averages.
Human beings are not calculable units, and while mathematics can be helpful, traffic studies do not reveal absolute truths. Traffic studies do not evaluate effects on either the quality of life; nor do they address unexpected events, like fire evacuations. How things feel to each of us is not subject to calculation, and the qualitative effects of traffic congestion on emotional and physical health is not part of the study of any proposed development project.
Between SDC, the Hanna Center, and various proposed large commercial projects like wineries and hotels, the number of cars on the road will inevitably increase, perhaps exponentially. This month, we’re getting a sense of how that might feel; bridge reconstruction on Highway 12 that has forced a detour of traffic to Arnold Drive provides a preview of the future. Two-lane roads can handle only so much.
Clogged roadways are the norm in many places; those of us who have lived in cities like San Francisco and have had to commute every day to work know how that feels. Escaping from that type of congestion is one of the reasons people choose to live in Sonoma Valley instead. Will increased populations of residents, tourists, and their cars demand that we pave paradise?
Accommodating the automobile is the leading story of the last century in America. Massive freeways cover millions of miles, all devoted to cars and trucks. The parking garages in housing developments and commercial centers consume a huge percentage of land. A long walk is now considered anything over a half-mile, a distance that takes a mere ten minutes. Air pollution from cars and trucks continues to increase, despite electric vehicles and mass transportation. Somehow, accommodating cars takes precedence over accommodating people.
Many of the solutions to this problem are known, and have been for years. Dependable mass transit is one. In our Valley, this would be well-planned large and small bus service. Other answers include staggered work hours, working remotely from home, walking or bicycling more and driving less. All these help lessen road congestion but they all require a change in habits, a notoriously difficult endeavor.
While remote work retains a hold post-pandemic, unless we implement all these changes permanently, experiencing bumper-to-bumper traffic will become more and more common.
As inconvenient as a bridge replacement is, making sure our infrastructure is safe is essential, and we support that effort. Besides, this temporary problem of backed-up roads focuses attention on the probable future of transportation.
We need housing for local workers, not new houses for the wealthy, or expensive hotels. We need better mass transit. We need incentives for people to get out of their cars and feel safe walking or riding bicycles. It’s long past time for government to provide viable alternatives to the decisions it has made in the past.