Politicians, activists, public health advocates and policy experts gathered at UC Irvine Friday to talk about how to create safe and sustainable transportation options in the post-freeway era.

The purpose of the  Active Transportation Forum was to talk through how best to invest in bike and pedestrian infrastructure – as well as recognizing the health, traffic-relief and environmental benefits of that approach.

The urgency of the effort was highlighted by the executive director of SCAG, the transportation planning agency for most of Southern California.

The era of building new freeways “is done,” said Hasan Ikhrata, while at the same time the region’s population of 18 million continues to expand.

With that population projected to grow by over 4 million in the coming two decades, Ikhrata said, the only way for the transportation system to truly work is to give people options.

The question now, he added, is how to convince elected officials of the need to invest in cycling, walking and public transit.

“Cities are beginning to think that maybe it’s a good thing for our cities to provide choices,” said Ikhrata, pointing to his agency’s plan for a regional bikeway network that adds more than 6,000 miles to existing routes.

“To our local elected officials, I think changes are coming, and I think the responsible thing is to be ready for it.”

Several politicians who attended the forum said they are doing just that.

Newport Beach Councilman Tony Petros told attendees that creating a bikeable and walkable community is not only good for physical and mental health, but also emotional health.

“Also just as a human being, it brings us together. It connects us, these thoughts of complete streets,” said Petros.

He ultimately envisions cycling being a realistic way for commuters to get to and from work – with the Santa Ana River Trail connecting Newport Beach to central Orange County cities like Anaheim.

There’s also talk of building a bikeway network that connects homes to transit stops and transit stops to workplaces.

Santa Ana Councilwoman Michele Martinez, who played a major role in coordinating the event, pointed out the growing number of city leaders taking up the issue.

“It’s very important and it’s very rare that you see this many elected officials here,” said Martinez, pointing to Petros, Garden Grove Councilman Steve Jones, Westminster Councilman Sergio Contreras and Anaheim Mayor Pro Tem Gail Eastman.

“More and more elected officials” are getting involved, Martinez added.

County Supervisor Shawn Nelson has also taken a strong interest in the issue, spearheading a regional bicycle planning effort.

This newly-energized emphasis on bicycling and walking infrastructure among Southern California politicians can in many respects be traced back to a successful lobbying effort by activists, including on a law passed in 2008 that mandates a more holistic approach to transportation planning.

The goal of the Complete Streets Act is to create more walkable and bikeable communities, ultimately cutting down on traffic congestion and greenhouse gas emissions.

It seeks to do that by requiring cities and counties to safely accommodate all users of roadways – including bicyclists, pedestrians, transit riders, children and motorists – when they update their transportation plans.

But for those plans to actually become a reality, forum attendees pointed out that residents need to advocate their city and county leaders directly.

For example, when Newport Beach activist Frank Peters wanted his city to start investing more in bikeways, he started his own blog and took City Manager Dave Kiff for a bike ride.

Peters pointed to the deaths of two women cyclists, who were struck and killed by cars in Newport within a 24-hour period, as stark reminders of why these issues have to be addressed.

“It shocks the entire community. Everybody wants to know” what we’ll do to improve safety, said Peters.

And unfortunately, communities across the nation can identify with Peters’ sentiments. In 2009, more than 250 children were killed by cars in the United States while walking or biking, according to the Safe Routes to School National Partnership.

In Newport, about 1,800 people ended up joining a memorial bike ride in their memory, Peters said, leading city leaders to recognize that a constituency had formed around bike safety.

“They can count in their head,” Peters said of elected officials.

The city – bolstered by donations – then ramped up efforts to implement its bicycle master plan.

In developing master plans, Peters invited advocates to copy ideas from the National Association of City Transportation Officials’ Urban Bikeway Design Guide and the city of Los Angeles’ Bicycle Plan.

One thing that must be addressed is the “huge disparity between the funding and the fatality rates,” said Pauline Chow, the Southern California regional policy manager for Safe Routes to School.

While 25 percent of children killed in traffic accidents nationwide were walking or bicycling, only 1.6 percent of federal transportation dollars — and 1.8 percent of Orange County Transportation Association dollars — go toward biking and pedestrian projects, Chow added.

But the good news, Chow said, is that there are ever-growing pots of money for cycling and pedestrian projects to tap into.

A big potential source is the $124 million now set aside in the California Active Transportation Program.

Other funding sources include: fees; local sales tax measures; bond measures; and public-private partnerships.

“We do have money and we do have the processes” to make active transportation happen, said Chow.

Another activist effort is happening in Santa Ana, where community organizers at KidWorks have organized policy-minded youths into a Complete Streets Workgroup.

KidWorks’ Omar De La Riva said there’s often “a big divide between the people who make the decisions” and people with great ideas in a community.

To help bridge that gap, the youth group has been putting together a walkability and bikeability assessment for Santa Ana, which includes surveying residents, assessing streets, taking photos and hosting biking events.

Among other questions, the two-page survey asks residents if they feel safe walking; how long it takes to walk to certain locations; how far they live from the nearest hiking, biking or walking trail; whether sidewalks are broken or cracked; how many bike lanes are available; and if there are loitering or homelessness issues.

The group ultimately plans to present a final report on their findings – as well as their own bike master plan – to city leaders.

“For them it’s something that’s really fun to do, it’s really exciting,” said De La Riva. “Youth have a voice in this community and this project.”

One of the main activist groups on the issue – the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition – emphasized the importance of having the community drive the process.

When they do drive the effort, executive director Jennifer Klausner said the biking infrastructure “is accepted and welcomed and celebrated by everyone in the community, from school children on up to grandparents.”

She also pointed to a challenge acknowledged by many Orange County officials – the fragmented nature of local government, which means having to coordinate efforts with 34 different cities countywide.

Klausner recommended taking a multi-city approach to planning – something underway in three of Orange County’s five supervisorial districts.

“What we need is we need continuity of bikeway infrastructure” across jurisdictions, including connecting people to major destinations and events, said Klausner.

Activists also pointed to other challenges.

For example, they said Orange County’s main traffic-reduction program – Measure M2 – actually discourages cities from investing in bikeways.

The measure ties road funding to OCTA’s Master Plan of Arterial Highways, which prioritizes fast car travel over safe passage for cyclists and pedestrians, said San Clemente activist Brenda Miller.

“The Master Plan of Arterial Highways sustains an auto-centric society,” added Newport Beach activist Frank Peters.

Orange County’s top transportation planner replied that one of the major challenges is that local cities are still reluctant to embrace a complete streets mindset.

Plus, the plan’s central role in road funding was solidified by voters with the approval of M2, said Charlie Larwood, OCTA’s transportation planning manager, adding that other groups like shop owners often oppose bike lanes.

“As strongly as you feel that we need to include bike lanes in there…there are other people who feel that there are other needs,” said Larwood.

“We need to be a team to work together to solve these extremely difficult problems.”

Miller, meanwhile, said the funding issue – which centers on how a road’s “level of service” is defined – could be fixed by a vote of the OCTA board.

Others pointed to some newer roads that fail to accommodate cyclists – creating potentially dangerous situations.

Two projects in South County – off La Paz Rd. and Camino Capistrano – have bike lanes that end, forcing cyclists to merge with cars, said Carla DiCandia, manager of health and ministry services at St. Joseph Health Mission Hospital.

She asked who is responsible for making sure Caltrans follows its own policy – Deputy Directive 64 – which says it must “ensure bicycle, pedestrian, and transit user needs are addressed and deficiencies identified.”

Caltrans’ Orange County director said people can come directly to him with issues.

“Ultimately the buck stops with me,” said Caltrans District 12 Director Ryan Chamberlain.

Larwood said he’ll talk to San Juan Capistrano city officials to see if the Camino Capistrano issue can be fixed.

Another audience member asked about national guidelines that continue to suggest widening car lanes and straightening roads, which “leads to more speeding and more dangerous situations.”

Chamberlain said Caltrans has developed policies on slowing car traffic, but that a local community would likely have to push for such a change in order for it to happen on their roads.

That type of push will be happening more and more, activists predict, saying the cycling movement is helping ignite an activist spirit in many youth that expands to other community issues.

People interested in biking are likely interested in other things in their cities too, said Klausner.

“These can be your future council members, and we’re really seeing a sea change happen where young people are more and more interested in being part of these dialogues.”

You can reach Nick Gerda at ngerda@gmail.com, and follow him on Twitter: @nicholasgerda.

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