Transportation winds are shifting and government is increasingly accommodating active transportation in Orange County.

That’s the take-home message from last month’s UCI’s Active Transportation Forum.

The Alliance for a Healthy Orange County’s signature event assembled a who’s who of transportation, urban planning, community health, and complete streets decision-makers, academics, and advocates motivated by the theme, “Let’s Get Rolling on Safe Streets.”

A 7 a.m. walk audit surrounding Santa Ana’s Esqueda Elementary was an eye-opener.

Led by nationwide expert, engineer Mark Fenton, OC’s top brass were in walking shoes, learning how the built environment feels from a pedestrian’s perspective: wide car lanes, wide roads, no bike lanes, no landscaped buffer between sidewalk and cars. It was hard to hear a human voice. The pedestrian light’s countdown turned red before we reached the other side, erroneously implying pedestrians are wrongfully in the road; and that’s standard. Many, if not most, 20th century towns are like that. Santa Ana is not unique.

We wondered how streets can be re-engineered. We acknowledged widening roads for more vehicles has physical limits; it’s a temporary solution with permanent consequences. Road expansion is costly to build and is almost never reversed. Knowing the regional population growth rate is helpful.

The Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG) and OCTA predict huge population increases over 25 years. SoCal will grow by 4 million. OC will add 400,000 people, 1.4 million average daily car trips, and increase commute times 166% (30 minutes become 80 minutes).

As our walk audit illustrated, urban street designs affect daily choices. Walk, bike, transit, or drive? Time for drive-thru, frozen dinner, or home-cooked meal? Exercise? Those variables directly affect everyone’s health.

Morning keynote speaker, Mark Fenton, stitched it together: infrastructure determines transportation choice; without walking and biking, we’re physically INactive; physical INactivity and poor diet create 2/3 of skyrocketing healthcare costs. Those healthcare costs are preventable.

The CDC states that 86% of all healthcare spending in 2010 was spent on preventable, chronic medical conditions caused by smoking, drinking, unhealthy diet, and lack of exercise. 60% of adults and 30% of children in OC are overweight or obese and low income areas are much higher. Central OC has the highest obesity rates in the county. Nationally, costs are huge: $147 billion in 2008.

Strava activity data shows almost no walking and biking except for two bright spots: the Santa Ana River and the Santiago Creek trails, both being car-free. How do we change things so people can live healthier lives?

SCAG says land use regulations, transit oriented development, and better walking and biking facilities will become increasingly important. Those features encourage physical activity, increase system-wide capacity, and reduce vehicular congestion. Since population growth will nullify benefits of wider, free-flowing roads typical of master-planned communities, we’ll need to prioritize safe movement of people.

How are we going to pay for all that?

Tony Dang, Deputy Director of California Walks, shared data indicating California has the highest state-level commitment in the nation. But over the last couple years, demand has outstripped funding by 500%. Only 15% of grant applications were funded.

Statewide, priorities must change.

How?

What are best practices?

The Orange County Council of Governments (OCCOG) is just finishing a detailed guide to adapting OC infrastructure as complete streets.

Active Living Research provided a blueprint for city leaders: parks, trails, greenways, active transportation, land use, and density policies encouraging activity that benefits community health. A Nebraska study found $3 dollars saved in direct medical costs for every $1 spent on trails. Hundreds of millions can be saved by investing in attractive, safe infrastructure.

Afternoon Keynote speaker, Leah Shahum, founder and executive director of Vision Zero Network USA, made the mission clear: reduce roadway deaths to none.

But accidents happen, right?

Leah and Vision Zero questions that underlying assumption, providing data on traffic collisions—not accidents—that indicate those losses are preventable. 90% of pedestrian-car collisions are fatal (for the pedestrian) at 40 mph and 65% of pedestrian deaths and serious injuries occur on just 6% of streets. Roadway context and design are factors.
How safe are OC roads? California’s data for 2012 reveals 23% of all fatal and injury collisions were speed related, placing our county as 6th worst of 58 statewide. Walking and biking modes won’t relieve car congestion until infrastructure makes those modes as safe as driving a car.

OCTA and its CEO, Darrell Johnson, get the message.

Cities can use Measure M’s 32% local road earmarks any way they want, he emphasized, including pedestrian and bicycle friendly features like fewer car lanes in school zones. 15-20 cities have done so.

Mr. Johnson addressed the mistaken belief there’s insufficient funding in OC, despite Measure M’s ½% sales tax revenue. He made it crystal clear:

. . . there’s plenty of money . . . the biggest challenge is getting support in developing your plans and continuing to push those forward . . . the money will always be there for a good idea.

Now we know: it’s NOT about the money.

So, OC, Let’s Get Rolling on Safe Streets!

Brenda Miller is a prominent bike activist working on transportation advocacy issues throughout Orange County.

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