“Streetwise: Walking & Biking In Natomas” examines whether efforts to create a healthy, walkable and bikeable community in Natomas have been successful.
Part One: Building A Better Natomas
Published Oct. 14, 2011
BY BRANDY TUZON BOYD
THE NATOMAS BUZZ | @natomasbuzz
Just across the American River from downtown Sacramento live thousands of the city’s residents.
They make their homes in Natomas which occupies merely one-fourth of the greater Natomas Basin – a massive 55,000 acres in all, surrounded by two rivers and a network of drainage canals.
“South Natomas was specifically built to be a bedroom community to downtown Sacramento,” said former city councilman Ray Tretheway, a Natomas resident for three decades. “There were to be no shops to buy clothes, no movie theater, no big restaurants.”
Area residents, he said, were expected to work, shop and play in downtown Sacramento.
A lot has changed since then.
The area is now comprised of several distinct neighborhoods – defined in part by two interstate freeways – and sprawls across 22 square miles from Garden Highway, where Tretheway lives, north to the city limits near the Sacramento International Airport.
In the past 10 years, the Natomas population has more than doubled.
Area amenities include a multiscreen movie theater, numerous restaurants and clothing stores, a sports and entertainment arena, miles of bike and walking trails, and the promise of more to come.
Today, Sacramento city officials will celebrate a new bike and pedestrian bridge which, for the first time, connects the Natomas community’s trails, located north of Interstate 80 to trails south of the freeway. The grand opening event scheduled for 9:30 a.m. at Peregrine Park is just short of historic in a community where connectivity has long been a focus.
The $6.1 million project includes a nearly two-block-long bridge over the freeway and a smaller bridge across the West Drainage Canal along with new connections to existing bike trails.
“People are so excited about the bridge opening,” said Becky Heieck, executive director of the North Natomas Transportation Management Association. “There will be a lot of pedestrians and cyclists who will use it – they will just go out of their way to use it.”
Over the years, between 1950 and 1980, south Natomas grew predominately as residential subdivisions.
The South Natomas Community Plan approved by city officials in 1978 envisioned the area as a high-density, transit-oriented, residential community.
But changes in the community and its expectations for the area paved the way for a revised South Natomas Community Plan in 1988 which included new parks, riverfront access, a proposed light rail line and connections to new and existing parkways frequented by cyclists.
When work on the 1994 North Natomas Community Plan rolled forward, significant efforts were made to accommodate bikes and pedestrians, said city traffic engineer Hector Barron.
“In north Natomas, there was an emphasis on walking,” Barron said. “For the first time the city of Sacramento introduced standard, separated sidewalks where there is a planter area.”
The community plan for north Natomas envisioned a mixture of residential, employment, commercial and civic uses in the new-growth area interdependent on transit service and a network of connections linked by streets, public transit routes, and linear parkways with bike and pedestrian trails. Homes were to be within walking distance of open space and employment centers pedestrian friendly.
“Citizens will use pedestrian trails or bikeways as part of their work commute pattern to move to and from commercial centers, civic uses, and recreational facilities, or solely for recreational activity,” reads the 1994 North Natomas Community Plan.
The city’s planners and traffic engineers tried not to repeat mistakes made in growing south Natomas, Tretheway said.
For example, he said, a bike and pedestrian bridge once planned from Truxel Road to downtown Sacramento was eventually erased from plans for south Natomas. Later, three bike and pedestrian bridges over Interstate 80 – including the one opening today – were planned.
“We started with a clean slate,” said Tretheway, “with strong concepts on how to link north Natomas to the south.”
|A CYCLIST ON DEL PASO ROAD IN NATOMAS.|
Part Two: Safer Routes For Students
Published Oct. 27, 2011
BY BRANDY TUZON BOYD
THE NATOMAS BUZZ | @natomasbuzz
Terri Tavita lets her 10-year-old son ride his bike 1 mile to and from school, but not without misgivings.
Concerns about traffic safety top the list.
“He’s more likely to be hit by a car than abducted on his way to school in Natomas,” she said. “It’s frightening.”
Tavita said she’s seen firsthandhow drivers roll through uncontrolled intersections oblivious to bike and pedestrian traffic. And she’s well aware of the accidents near neighborhood schools in recent years.
Just three weeks ago, a Two Rivers Elementary School student was hit by a car as he rode his scooter to school.
The city-run “Captain Jerry Traffic Safety Program” will visit the Two Rivers campus next week to teach students how to travel safely to school – from walking in crosswalks to watching for cars to cycling rules of the road.
But parents and those who live near area schools complain: it’s drivers who make Natomas roads unsafe for young pedestrians and cyclists.
|STUDENT WAITS TO CROSS BANFIELD DRIVE|
STOP MEANS STOP
Laurence Wilson lives adjacent to a four-way stop and kitty-corner from Heron School, a K-8 campus of 800-plus students.
Wilson said he rarely sees drivers stop at the intersection, even when school is in session.
“I would say 10 percent come to a complete stop, the other 80 percent are rolling through,” he said. “I’ve yelled out that’Stop means stop,’ but they just ignore me.”
A block from Wilson’s house, in September 2010, an 80-year-old woman crossing the street was struck by a car and killed. An hour later, less than a mile away, a boy on a bike was the victim of a hit-and-run accident while on his way to school. Within the same week, a young girl collided with a vehicle as she crossed the street in front of Witter Ranch Elementary.
|BANKS CHECKS CURB STRIPING|
These three incidents spurred city Councilwoman Angelique Ashby to hire retired police officer John Banks in February to work part-time as a traffic and school safety coordinator for District One.
“One child injured is unacceptable,” Banks said.
Banks and a city traffic engineer inspected school sites throughout the Natomas Unified School District to identify changes needed to striping, signage, traffic flow and parking which would improve student safety. A report including these recommendations was presented bythe city to the school district in July.
“We are working with the city traffic department to prioritize, cost and schedule modifications to curbs, sidewalks and traffic markings on city property,” said Michael Cannon, the school district’s executive director for facilities and planning. “We are doing the same for the interiors of the campuses, which will be completed by the district.”
|PARKING BY WITTER RANCH|
The city finished some improvements at Witter Ranch Elementary School over the summer.
Parent Larry Richardson participated in the series of community meetings which led to the changes.
His 7-year-old daughter suffered a bad case of road rash as a result of last year’s accident – when she collided with a vehicle in September 2010 – and still has a scar to show for it.
“I see now, when I pick up my daughter in the afternoon, it’s not as bad as it used to be,” he said. “Mornings are still an issue.”
Students who attend the Twin Rivers Unified School District’s three elementary schools situated adjacent to the Northgate Boulevard corridor are guided across one of the busiest roadways in Natomas by city crossing guards.
|NORTHGATE CROSSING GUARD|
“Northgate … has gotten out of control,” said Twin Rivers Police spokesman officer William Cho. “People use it as a thoroughfare from the north side to downtown because it’s the only direct route to Highway 160. Northgate has been a victim of growth and expansion.”
Gardenland Northgate Neighborhood Association president George Azar still remembers when he was a child and a friend of his brother was hit by a car and killed in front of Smythe, now a charter school, on Northgate. In December 2009, a preschooler walking to the school was killed by a hit-and-run driver near the same spot (memorial pictured above). To date, the driver has not been apprehended.
“Northgate has always been a problem,” Azar said.
SURVEYING ROUTES TO SCHOOLS
A transportation mode survey in 2004 showed a disparity between how many Natomas students living within half a mile walked or biked every day to their school. Safety and fast traffic were reasons cited by parents why their children did not walk or bike.
The survey found the further students lived from schools, the less likely they were to walk or bike. Many parents reported their kindergarteners through fifth graders were too young to walk or bike.Twenty-five percent of the parents who responded said they preferred to drive their children to school.
|FADED SIGNS LACK INFO|
“One common complaint was the parking lot, entries and exits used to drop off children at school,” the survey results read. “This presents the picture of a vicious circle; parents are concerned about letting their kids walk or bike because of the traffic concerns close to the schools, so they in turn drive and make the situation more hectic.”
Armed with these survey results from 2004 and input from the community in the 2006 “Report on Recommendations from Community Design Workshops in North and South Natomas,” the Natomas Unified School District applied for and was awarded a federal, multiyear Safe Routes To School grant in 2007.
The mission of Safe Routes to School is to improve children’s safety while walking and bicycling to school.
According to Cannon, the infrastructure portion of the grant – which entails changes to sidewalks and crossings adjacent to Bannon Creek, Jefferson and Natomas Park elementary schools – has been scoped by the district and city, and is currently in design by the city traffic engineering department.
|TEMPORARY FIXES AT JEFFERSON …|
|… AND HERON SCHOOLS|
“When fully completed, current plans are for the city, in consultation with the district, to schedule and complete construction of the improvements at Jefferson and Natomas Park elementary schools,” Cannon said. “The Bannon Creek improvements will be done by the district as a part of the infrastructure package for the Bannon Creek K-8 conversion project.”
In August 2009, the district hired Safe Routes program coordinator Dario Gonzales who quickly got to work on the non-infrastructure portion of the grant which is to develop programs which encouraged walking and biking to Natomas schools.
WALK (OR RIDE) THIS WAY
Some campuses, such as Natomas Park Elementary, already had grassroots walk-to-school programs in place. Others needed to be started from scratch.
For example, Gonzales teamed up with the North Natomas Transportation Management Association to kickoff a walking and biking program at Witter Ranch in May and again this school year.
“It’s been a long time coming,” said Gonzales, who has since left Natomas to take a job with a neighboring school district. “At this point, we are hoping to build momentum.”
Last year, Gonzales also worked with Two Rivers Elementary on a variety of biking programs.
When a needs assessment showed students did not have helmets to wear, Gonzales joined forces with the school’s PTA group to coordinate helmet fittings and giveaways – more than 100 helmets in all – twice last year.
Bike-to-school events, held every Friday, included incentives for students.
“Kids who rode (bikes, scooters and skateboards) and wore helmets would win prizes,” principal Leslie Sargent said. “This year, we are definitely planning to … keep it rolling.”
Weekly walk (or bike) to school programs have thrived at several Natomas-area schools in recent years. At Heron School, a core group of students participate every week – rain or shine – in Footloose Friday walks and rides.
“It’s supposed to be a healthier lifestyle for them, but it has also deepened the sense of community,” said Beth Mahony, now in her third year as a volunteer leader who guides students from a neighborhood park to the back gates of Heron School.
On the opposite side of Interstate 5, Westlake Charter School already had vibrant Walking Wednesday and Footloose Friday programs in place when avid cyclist Ebers Garcia suggested a first-of-its-kind daily “bike train.”
|NATOMAS UNIFIED NO LONGER BUSES STUDENTS|
Creating a cycling community for children to be healthy and stay alert when they are at school, is a perfect combination, said Garcia. He’s had up to 20 students and their parents participate on rides.
“Every day, rain or shine, except when it’s very windy or pounding cats and dogs, we’re there,” Garcia said. “The kids are very resilient.”
The North Natomas Transportation Management Association also works with one of the Twin Rivers Unified School District’s schools in Natomas. Regency Park Elementary has a Two Feet Tuesday walk-to-school program.
Principal Michael Reed said the North Natomas Transportation Management Association’s programs have raised awareness around safety issues while the competitive aspects keep students engaged.
“I think the TMA’s work has been brilliant,” Reed said. “Our kids love it and get a lot out of it.”
School Transportation Mode Survey Initial Results 2004
Neighborhood Planning for Safe Routes To Schools in Natomas
Safelinks Natomas – Building Connections: Linking Kids to the Schools
Cityof Sacramento School Safety Presentation
Part Three: Minding The Gaps
Oct. 30, 2011
BY BRANDY TUZON BOYD
THE NATOMAS BUZZ | @natomasbuzz
Garden Highway is a winding, two-lane road which runs parallel to the two rivers that border the Natomas Basin. Here, the legal speed limit tops 45 mph.
“It’s a beautiful place, no doubt about it,” said Teri Burns, a Garden Highway resident for 15 years. “The problem is, really, that it is too narrow.”
While the Natomas population has nearly doubled over the past 10 years, the number of those biking along Garden Highway has also increased and those cyclists who commute from Natomas to downtown must first cross, and then ride along a portion of, Garden Highway.
California Highway Patrol records show 15 bike versus vehicle accidents on Garden Highway between 2000 and 2010. (Six pedestrians were hit by cars along the same stretch of road during that period.)
Efforts to improve relations between Garden Highway residents and cyclists over the years have proven temporary, at best. A proposed fix that would pave the adjacent river levee could relieve tension between the two groups, and also benefit pedestrians, but lacks funding.
“Garden Highway doesn’t meet county standards for road width,” said Burns. “In places, there is no shoulder at all.”
DANGEROUS BY DESIGN
Elsewhere in Natomas it’s the wider, multi-lane streets that can create a hazard for those who walk and bike.
According to north-area police Capt. James Maccoun arterial roadways are designed to move people faster and have higher speed limits. Wider streets take longer to cross by foot, exposing pedestrians – and cyclists – to higher safety risks, he said.
CHP data shows higher concentrations of bike and pedestrian accidents with motor vehicles at intersections and along multi-lane streets in Natomas such as Truxel Road, Northgate Boulevard, San Juan Road and West El Camino Avenue. Over the past 10 years, more accidents were reported between cars and cyclists than between cars and pedestrians.
According to Dangerous by Design, a report published earlier this year by Transportation for America about an “epidemic” of pedestrian fatalities nationwide, Sacramento ranks as the eighth most dangerous city for walking in California and No. 22 in the United States.
Sacramento police Lt. Gina Haynes was so troubled by the number of pedestrian and cyclist fatalities citywide, she launched pedestrian awareness and ride safe bicycle campaigns last year.
“I was looking at the stats – 24 fatals last year and we had five bike fatals,” said Haynes, who oversees the police department’s traffic and air operations. “I had never heard of having that many before.”
Police implemented pedestrian “stings” where drivers were cited for failing to yield to those on foot. Rules of the road – such as wearing helmets and riding the right direction in bike lanes – were also enforced for cyclists.
“My whole thing is to stop fatalities,” Haynes said. “If I can prevent somebody dying, I will do it.”
|NATOMAS BIKE LANE|
In February 2004, officials amended the city General Plan to include “Pedestrian Friendly Street Standards.” The goal: to encourage more walking and cycling.
Two years later, in September 2006, the city adopted a Pedestrian Master Plan meant to improve walking conditions and create a “walking capital.” In turn, city dwellers could reap health benefits, encounter less traffic, help improve air quality and save money by not driving.
According to traffic engineer Hector Barron, the city works to install traffic controls when a neighborhood is built.
“Sometimes, because development does not all happen at once, you see improvements over time,” he said.
When residents report traffic concerns, he said, the city investigates. A city-run traffic calming program empowers residents to help identify measures to slow vehicles, making streets safer and more attractive to pedestrians.
To date, several traffic calming projects – including one Laurence Wilson volunteered for in 2008 – have been completed in Natomas.
“When we first moved in, motorists were using Banfield Drive like a race track,” said Wilson. “When the school opened … not a whole lot changed. During the day people were driving pretty fast and at night, really fast.”
The traffic calming plan Wilson helped work on focused on residential streets surrounding Heron School, located across the street from his house. By project’s end, speed humps, marked crosswalks, pedestrian islands and other measures had been added to streets around the K-8 campus.
According to Wilson, results have been mixed. Drivers have slowed, he said, but rarely stop at the intersection where signs were added.
NOT ACCORDING TO PLAN
Planning for bicycles and pedestrians played a significant role in building out the Natomas community, Barron said.
“It is probably one of the largest efforts of the city of Sacramento to try to make it a multi-modal area,” he said. “It is the only area in Sacramento where transit is planned out.
Multi-modal communities have more than one method of transportation available. Generally, the term refers to the walking, biking and the use of public transportation such as buses in addition to driving motorized vehicles.
Key features in the South Natomas Community Plan included several bike- and pedestrian-friendly parkways and a proposed light rail line that would connect walkers and cyclists in south Natomas to the central city and as far north as the Sacramento International Airport. The North Natomas Community Plan envisioned smaller commercial centers within walking and biking distance of homes; larger shopping areas were to be accessible by bus and the proposed light rail line.
|PEDESTRIANS USE THE POPULAR BANNON CREEK PARKWAY|
Budget cuts to public transportation have resulted in limited bus service throughout Natomas. Lack of funds have also delayed building the light rail line from downtown Sacramento to the airport by several years; the project has been pushed back – twice – from 2015 to 2021. Even the local school district only buses middle schoolers who live south of Interstate 80 and special needs students.
“The plan looked pretty good on paper, but when it came down to building, that’s where things diverged quite a bit,” said Chris Holm, a project analyst for Walk Sacramento, a nonprofit community group working to create walkable communities throughout the city.
The North Natomas Community Plan was changed and lost neighborhood commercial areas, building was sporadic and spaced out throughout the area, the road system changed and planned schools disappeared altogether, according to Holm.
“The vision was good,” he said. “It’s not horrible, it’s just not quite (as walkable) as we would have expected.”
CONNECTIVITY IS THE KEY
Connectivity refers to the street and pedestrian network.
“A well-connected network of streets and pedestrian ways means that it is easy for the pedestrian to get around,” reads the Sacramento Pedestrian Master Plan. “Connectivity includes support for safe, convenient street crossings.”
In Natomas, the lack of connectivity is an obstacle from being a truly walkable and bikeable community for residents like Karen Quant.
“Coming from a city where all I did was walk or hop on public transit, I liked the idea (of a master planned community),” said Quant, who moved to Natomas eight years ago from San Francisco. “It just sounded like it was going to be easier to access … it’s not how I imagined.”
|NATOMAS FAMILY WALKING AT DUSK|
Quant uses the walkways atop neighborhood canals when the weather is nice, but had envisioned a community where she could walk to places and get things – errands – done, too.
“I wanted to have a community where walking was a way of life and not as much an event,” she said.
Former city councilman and longtime Natomas resident Ray Tretheway said the region has more off-street and on-street bike paths than anyplace else in Sacramento. But incomplete bikeways and missing links between trails are confusing to cyclists, he said.
“The biggest challenge is connectivity,” Tretheway said. “We have a long ways to go, many decades, to finish the bicycle dream of Natomas.”
The new bike and pedestrian bridge over Interstate 80 opened earlier this month is a first step toward connecting trails north of the freeway to those on the south, but the status of two more, long-planned bridges – one over the freeway at Truxel Road and another closer to Northgate Boulevard – is unknown.
City councilman Steve Cohn, a new representative for south Natomas neighborhoods as a result of redistricting, has pledged to review both the 2003 Gardenland-Northgate Strategic Neighborhood Action Plan and 2006 Northgate Boulevard Streetscape Plan. Both plans tackle pedestrian safety issues, however, funding a multi-million dollar project along the well-traveled corridor might prove to be a challenge.
Said Holm of Walk Sacramento, “It’s going to be tough and it’s going to take creative people within the city to probably grasp fewer and fewer funding opportunities.”
For the nonprofit North Natomas Transportation Management Association working with the city on connectivity fixes including curb cuts, resurfacing north-area bike paths and finishing others has been a priority.
“We want to see North Natomas known as a good biking and walking community,” executive director Becky Heieck said. “We want people to come off the freeway and realize they have reached a place where people ride and walk.”
Dangerous By Design
Sacramento Pedestrian Master Plan
City of Sacramento Pedestrian Friendly Street Standards
The 2010 City/County Bikeway Master Plan
City of Sacramento Existing and Proposed Bikeway Map
Northgate Boulevard Streetscape Master Plan
North Natomas Community Plan
Sacramento Neighborhood Traffic Management Plan Map
The Lavers’ wasn’t the first close call at Natomas Park Elementary School. In fact, California Highway Patrol records show three accidents where pedestrians were hit by vehicles in the morning, in front of the then year-round campus, in August 2007, September 2008 and June 2009.
“The school district was too bankrupt to hire a crossing guard, so I voluntarily did it,” said Laver.
Armed with a safety vest, whistle and handheld stop sign supplied by the district’s Safe Routes To School coordinator, Laver helped manage traffic at the busy intersection of Gateway Park Boulevard and North Bend Drive for two years. At times, other parents helped Laver – who only missed his post when sick.
“So few kids walk nowadays,” he said. “It was very clear it was not safe out there, based strictly on the volume of traffic.”
|MORNING COMMUTE AND HIGH SCHOOL TRAFFIC|
MORE HOOFIN’ IT
A survey conducted by THE NATOMAS BUZZ, as part of this special series on walking and biking in Natomas, confirmed most parents drive their children to school. The survey also found the second largest percentage of parents walk or bike to school with their children, while fewer youngsters walk alone to school or carpool.
“Over the past two school years, 2009-10 and 2010-11, our numbers show an increase from 773 students walking on a weekly basis at five elementary schools, to 904 students walking on a weekly basis,” said Mellissa Meng, NNTMA school programs manager. “These numbers are 23 percent and 24 percent, respectively, of the total school enrollments.”
According to Meng, this data reflects the average number of children who get to school by an alternative mode of transportation other than being driven or carpooled, weekly, over the whole school year, including the best and worst weather of the year.
“This ranges from 41 percent of the student population walking … to a low of 5 percent … when the weather is cold and rainy,” she said.
The nonprofit North Natomas TMA is funded by assessments paid by property owners north of Interstate 80 and operates several programs meant to encourage more children to safely walk – and bike – more often. For example, during the May Is Bike Month campaign earlier this year, students at eight north-area schools rode 44,864 miles – a 131 percent increase over the previous year.
ON THE ROAD AGAIN
The North Natomas TMA started mainly as a shuttle service for Natomas-area residents commuting to downtown – a program which has expanded as the result of reduced bus service to Natomas and the delayed light rail line. Both the North Natomas TMA and its counterpart, the South Natomas Transportation Management Association have programs which encourage area residents to drive less to work – and it seems to be working.
THE NATOMAS BUZZ survey showed only 62 percent drive alone to work. That number is down compared to U.S. Census data which showed nearly 75 percent of workers 16 years and older drove alone to work in 2000 and (when the Natomas population had nearly doubled) more than 78 percent in 2009.
“Just this year we rolled out a capital improvements program whereby office buildings apply for matching funds to purchase things for buildings to promote alternative modes of commuting like bike racks or lockers,” said Jason Vitaich, executive director for the South Natomas TMA, which focuses on south-area employment centers.
THE SAFETY FACTOR
The Natomas region may have been designed with biking in mind, but THE NATOMAS BUZZ survey shows more area residents are out walking than riding.
Only 7 percent bike daily and 22 percent cycle three to five times a week, according to survey responses. Walkers and runners, on the other hand, reported double the numbers with 22 percent hoofing it daily and another 41 percent out and about three to five times a week.
Survey respondents cited safety as the No. 1 challenge to biking in the area and ranked the Natomas arterial roadways and major intersections on a scale of either “safe,” “so-so” or “not safe.”
Survey results showed the Northgate corridor is considered the least safe. CHP accident data confirm more accidents between pedestrian and cyclists occurred on Northgate Boulevard from 2000 to 2010 than any other street in Natomas.
Survey takers felt Garden Highway was the second most dangerous road followed by San Juan Road; intersections along Northgate and Truxel were ranked as the least safe. Common complaints by survey takers included sharing the road with drivers who speed and those who run red lights.
“I wish we could go everywhere on our bikes, but there’s a lot of traffic and cars go by fast on Del Paso,” wrote one person. “I have young kids and I’m still afraid of taking them on the overpass on Del Paso so instead of biking to the North Natomas library, we drive.”
Those who completed THE NATOMAS BUZZ survey also commented on infrastructure such as cracked bikeways, unfinished trails and bike paths that end abruptly. And there were kudos.
“I love all the different trails and bike paths, you can ride for hours,” wrote one. “My favorite is a ride on the path by the levee with my 7 year-old and then stop at Bella Bru for breakfast (or lunch or dinner). In the summer, we ride even more.”
“All pedestrian/bikeways will be designed to be safe. Although many paths will be used primarily for commuting (direct and convenient), paths used primarily for recreation with be aesthetically pleasing. Both systems will not be separate and will be incorporated into one well-designed travel system. Providing a quality pedestrian and/or bike system will be important to increasing the likelihood that individuals will choose a mode of travel other than the automobile.”
-North Natomas Community Plan
“Streetwise: Walking & Biking In Natomas” was undertaken as part of a health journalism program offered through The California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowships, administered by the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism.