Like so many other dense, urbanized cities, Garden Grove is waking up to the fact that its streets are increasingly perilous to pedestrians and bicyclists.

While the master-planned suburban towns of South Orange County were built with walkers and bikers in mind, the cities that make up the county’s urban core remain dangerously car-centric.

Orange County has the second-highest number of traffic collisions in the state.

In 2013, there were 10,793 total collisions, of which 1095 were bicycle and 719 were pedestrian collisions, according to California Highway Patrol data. Between 2009 and 2012, there were 669 bicycle- or pedestrian-related collisions resulting in injury or death in Garden Grove, with the most occurring in 2012, when there were 176 incidents.

Although the Garden Grove Police Department has in years past tried to reduce fatalities with bike safety campaigns, there has not been the political will among city leaders to invest in bicycle infrastructure. For example, the city has never done a master plan for citywide bikeways.

But there are indications that the mindset is changing. With the lucrative Harbor Boulevard developments finally underway, city officials have turned their attention toward developing Garden Grove’s sluggish downtown into a cultural hub for residents and small businesses.

Re:Imagine Garden Grove, the city’s crowdsourcing initiative to rebrand downtown as a center for business and healthy activity, could pave the way for more substantive improvements in how pedestrians and bicyclists access the city. 

Lessons From Columbia

On October 12, nearly three miles of streets around the civic center will be closed to motor traffic, creating a temporary public park and festival for pedestrians, cyclists, artists and local businesses. The “Open Streets” event draws inspiration from a tradition known as ciclovía, Spanish for “bike pathway,” that began in Bogotá, Columbia in the 1970s as a response to congestion and pollution.

Once a week, the city of Bogotá closes 70 miles of streets and opens them up to cyclists, pedestrians, public art and performers. In recent decades, dozens of American cities have taken inspiration from ciclovía and hosted open streets events to draw new people onto the streets and build community support for more pedestrian- and bike-friendly projects.

Although open streets events are relatively new to the United States, some studies bolster claims that, in addition to promoting physical activity and local business, ciclovías can help strengthen support and increase awareness of a city’s bike infrastructure.

After San Diego hosted its first Open Streets event, participants showed higher levels of support than the rest of the population for bike infrastructure projects, even if those projects meant removing a lane of traffic or street parking.

In Minnesota, organizers used their Open Streets event as an opportunity to install temporary, “pop-up” bike lanes to show residents and policymakers how proposed infrastructure changes would look in the physical world.

Political Realities

While ciclovía has proved a popular event, there remain considerable hurdles to making Orange County more bike-friendly — cost being the biggest. Separated bikeways can cost between $500,000 and $4.2 million mile, depending on the site conditions and materials used for construction, according to a report by the University of North Carolina Highway Safety Research Center.

Striped and signed lanes can range from $42,000 to $500,000 per mile, the report said, while the cheapest option is to simply put up signage, which can cost anywhere between $5,000 and $64,000 per mile.

Even in cities like Los Angeles, where a robust community of bike activists has successfully lobbied city officials to make pedestrian and bike access a greater priority, there has been political blowback over disappearing space for motorists has stalled some bike lane projects for nearly 18 months, according to the Los Angeles Times.

While advocates say dedicated bike lanes reduce the numbers of cars on the road, calm traffic and reduce accidents, critics are concerned that fewer lanes for motorists will increase commute times.

The Open Streets event is funded partially through a Southern California Association of Governments grant, with $80,000 going toward the event and an additional $120,000 toward developing a bicycle master plan, according to Susan Emery, Garden Grove’s director of community development.

“It’s changed so much here, nationally, even globally, since 2008. Cycling has become so much more popular,” said Emery. “[These] questions are ahead of where we are. Right now it is just people getting an idea…and stepping up to see what we can get done.”

Help From College Students

To develop their new vision, the city has turned to a team of four Landscape Architecture students at Cal Poly Pomona’s 606 Studio Program, which develops projects for cities, government agencies and other clients as part of students’ graduate thesis project.

For almost a year — and at a cost of $24,999 to the city, much lower than standard consulting fees — the students have been working on vision for a re-branded and revitalized downtown, with open space and bike transportation as prominent features.

What the Cal Poly Pomona students present to the City Council in September will give officials a basic framework to start planning the downtown redevelopment and a citywide network of bikeways, Emery said.

Their work draws from several weeks of crowdsourcing through meetings, surveys and interviews. A key feature of the outreach was an online forum where residents can ask questions, submit ideas and comment on plans as the developed. 

In terms of transportation, residents wanted to see enhanced pedestrian routes connecting them to public libraries and parks, including landscaping, shaded areas and trees, said Hieu Nguyen, one of the students on the project. Many said they don’t bike because it’s simply not safe.

“High school] students said they were willing to walk and bike to school or to work, but a lot of them said the streets aren’t safe for them to do so – because the speed of traffic, the streets are too wide, and in some places the sidewalks aren’t even there. At night, the [street] lights aren’t always working,” Nguyen said.

Based on the input and additional research, the students developed four citywide bike networks, each with different priorities.

The first option is a bicycle network based on existing OCTA plans, which fills gaps in current bikeways but lacks some critical connections on the east side of the city.

A second option, created based on public input, includes concentrated paths downtown and in neighborhoods, but is not as concerned with equitable citywide access.

The third option, based on geospatial (GIS) data, focuses on adding protected bikeways, while a fourth incorporates all the research for maximum citywide access.

Currently, the options are only conceptual proposals that don’t take into account the cost of the projects, budget constraints, political feasibility or infrastructure issues, such as bike rack availability.

Nguyen says their work is just a jumping off point for later work that will be done by staff and consultants.

“If the city [staff] gets enough support from the residents and city council, then they can take the next step and create a more detailed master plan of the bike network,” Nguyen said.

Ultimately, the city hopes to coordinate with other cities to create bikeways that connect commuters to the broader region, said Kimberly Huy, the city’s community services director.

“I think there is a real goal to make the city more bike friendly, and that’s a feeling that is permeating all of Orange County,” said Huy.

“It may not just be in the downtown. It may be in other parts of the city – and something that we do with multiple agencies. Our hope is in the future we could coordinate that effort together.”

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