Sacramento’s slow streets experiment did not go well. But the city shouldn’t give up on it

·3 min read
Jason Pierce/jpierce@sacbee.com

For a few months this year, some Sacramento neighborhoods closed streets to through traffic as part of a pilot program to make roads safer and encourage more cyclist and pedestrian use. City officials recently took stock of how it went, and the results were disappointing given the program’s potential to make Sacramento a healthier, safer and more sustainable city.

The public reception of the so-called slow and active streets program was mixed at best, hampered by a variety of problems once the pandemic-era experiment launched in Oak Park, Land Park, Tahoe Park, Meadowview and midtown. Nearly one-third of residents reportedly didn’t hear about the program until the traffic cones and the cumbersome barricades were installed on their street. The midtown pilot that spanned 24th Street, between J and V streets, was so contentious that officials shut it down early.

Sacramento transportation planning manager Jennifer Donlon Wyant said her staff received calls daily from frustrated residents around the city. The signs were constantly stolen or vandalized. And the time it took to plan and design the project was nearly five times higher than the initial estimate, affecting the department’s other work, Donlon Wyant said.

Opinion

By the end of the trial, the cost was also about $18,000 more than the initial budget.

The slow streets pilot was viewed as a positive by 60% of residents, according to a city survey. About 30% of respondents said they walked, ran, biked or rode scooters more than they did before. However, public sentiment splintered in some areas. A closure through William Land Park was incredibly popular, whereas residents affected by a 1.8-mile closure in a Tahoe Park neighborhood largely held a negative or neutral view. Overall, more than one in four residents were not supportive of the program.

Despite all of this, Sacramento officials face a moral and public safety imperative to keep pushing slow streets programs and change dangerous street designs that disproportionately kill Black residents, according to California Highway Patrol data. Sacramento is considered one of California’s worst cities for overall traffic safety, and making its streets safer consistently ranks as a top priority among residents.

The laudable aim of the slow streets trial was not just to ease vehicle traffic and improve health but also to further the city’s decades-old goal of calmer and more livable neighborhoods. This decision, made in 1996 at the urging of central city residents, helped Sacramento pivot away from its vehicle-friendly streetscapes. A series of hotly debated conversions, making G and H streets two-way and building concrete curbs to reduce spillover traffic, inspired subsequent changes to improve residential livability. Since then, “road diet” projects to expand bicycle access and reduce car lanes have become more common.

The climate crisis has created a new sense of urgency to break antiquated patterns and make walking or riding transit more attractive. After all, Sacramento set a net-zero climate target for the end of this decade, and transportation remains the largest contributor of greenhouse gas emissions. Creating incentives to walk, bike and maximize public transit can ease the sense of helplessness about climate change at an individual level, inspiring new lifestyle habits that can have an exponential impact.

The city’s lackluster experiment with slow streets should not be a deterrent or shelve a program that could have meaningful long-term impacts on the health and safety of its citizens. Instead, it should be viewed with humility. With improvements in execution and design, permanent slow and active streets can be a logical step toward Sacramento’s long-awaited promises of residential livability.

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