Where The Sidewalk Starts: Fighting for Safer Streets in Santa Ana

Jenny Cain for Voice of OC

Brenda Miller, an active transportation advocate, begins her commute from Santa Ana to Tustin following SAAS' workshop Saturday.

On Saturday, traffic engineer Bryan Jones asked a group of about 30 Santa Ana residents to describe the streets in their neighborhoods.

Their responses did not paint a pretty picture: “disconnected,” “busy,” “aggressive,” “dangerous.”

Yet such blunt assessments are hardly surprising. Santa Ana, despite being home to a large population of low-income residents who rely on walking, bicycling and other low-cost forms of transportation, remains very much a car-centric place.

But there is hope. Despite all of Santa Ana’s holes in connectivity, safety, and accessibility, many think it has potential. And realizing that potential was the point of Saturday’s Active Transportation Leadership Program workshop at KidWorks, the first in a series hosted by Santa Ana Active Streets Coalition.

The coalition, which includes KidWorks, Latino Health Access, NeighborWorks OC, El Fenix, and Bicycle Tree aims to empower and engage Santa Ana residents to transform their streets, so that walkers, bikers, and other non-motorists can safely pursue active transportation.

“Envision Santa Ana Transportation 10 to 20 years from now – what do you want it to look like?” asked Jones, who is a senior planner for the San Diego-based consulting firm Alta Planning + Design.

It was an enticing question for the workshop participants.

“It’s a Holy Grail,” said Marcel DeCruyenaere. “Car has been the king. There’s so many opportunities, we could be here forever.”

The overriding sentiment at the workshop was that one way or another the car must be dethroned.

According to the US Census, Santa Ana has one of the lowest average household incomes in Orange County, and 21.5 percent of residents live below the poverty level. Jones said the costs of owning a vehicle can be too much.

“For some people that’s 30, 50 or 70 percent of their take-home pay per month, and they still have to put food and vegetables on the table, they still have to pay rent or mortgage,” Jones said. “I’m definitely not anti-car, but I’m pro-safety in building and connecting communities.”

The price of not having access to protective infrastructure for walking and biking can be deadly.

“In most suburban communities in California, you have a higher chance of being killed on your roadways than by a violent crime in your neighborhood,” Jones said, “Incomplete streets exist.”

With congestion from local freeways pouring on to Santa Ana surface streets, downtown Santa Ana is being used by outside commuters, Jones said.

“Commuters on the freeway want to go 65 miles per hour, so what do they want to go in your community? 65 miles per hour,” Jones said. “How do you make the roadways safer so they can’t do that?”

Although it might seem counter-intuitive, one solution might be to narrow roads, which will force slower speeds. High-speed roadways create a fear of walking for residents like Elba Lucero, 86, who lives downtown and is a member of the Wellness Corridor Steering Committee.

“Everyday, I’m in danger, but I walk on the sidewalks anyway,” Lucero said. “Bristol has bicycle lanes but no one uses them because the cars drive too fast.”

Creating Safer Routes

In October 2014, California legislators renewed the Complete Streets Act.  The law directs Caltrans, California’s department of transportation, to provide safe mobility for motorists and pedestrians alike. But enforcing it requires coordination, feedback, and advocacy from groups like the active streets coalition.

Cory Wilkerson, Santa Ana’s active transportation coordinator, listed a number of current projects the city has taken on in support of active transportation.

Bike lanes are expected to go in along Bristol Street as the street widens. In a few weeks bike lanes will pave First Street (west of Harbor) and a portion of New Hope Street. A bike path along Grand Ave and a narrower crossing along the Maple Trail are also in the works.

“They’re just small little segments, but eventually with all these segments we can piece them together and get them to all connect,” Wilkerson said.

Orange County Transportation Authority has played a role in funding projects, by awarding the city eight grants in 2014 totaling $4.9 million for active transportation.

Jones cited a number of thrifty ways streets could be revamped to enforce safety like introducing sidewalk extensions (a.k.a. “bulb-outs”) and creating roundabouts with small domes.

“Active Transportation doesn’t have to be expensive,” Jones said.

Wilkerson says public engagement is also essential in creating safer routes: “It’s what makes or breaks these type of programs.”

Among the biggest roadblocks to the vision of active transportation advocates are existing policies, said Wilkerson. And a crucial part of the process is revisiting and questioning such policies.

“Does it reflect what it’s important to the community?” said Wilkerson. “That’s going to be the biggest hurdle, and that’s going to be where the biggest victory is going to come from.”

Correction: A previous version of this article misstated the name of NeighborWorks OC. We regret the error.

Jenny Cain is an Orange County-based journalist. Please contact her at jnncain@gmail.com.