Calming Traffic, If Not Tempers

Date January 14, 2008 at 11:00 PM


Categories Health Care


In Santa Fe, democracy in action is not always pretty to watch - like sausages being made, as the saying goes. An example is the controversy over traffic calming.

Traffic calming, for the uninitiated, is the weird term for trying to persuade or force motorists to obey the speed limit on city streets while also watching out for other cars, bikes, runners, hikers, children and pets.

It has become a big issue here, as vehicle congestion increases. Leroy Pacheco, city traffic engineer, recently listed 22 streets that have taken action on traffic calming or are considering it. In June, the city reported that it had spent $806,000 on traffic calming in 17 neighborhoods in the previous year.

There are three ways to calm traffic. They are called the three E's - education, enforcement, engineering.

Education means putting up signs, appealing to your neighbors to drive slowly, shouting at truck drivers for construction and delivery companies who whiz by. Noble, but of limited effectiveness.

Enforcement is a hopeless cause in Santa Fe. The Police Department doesn't have enough officers or squad cars to patrol outlying streets. A few speeding tickets, stiff fines and, most important, a reputation as a speed trap, is clearly the best solution. But it's not going to happen.

That leaves engineering, another euphemism, this time for speed bumps, those dratted ridges across the road that rattle your car and your backbone if you don't slow down. Slowing down, of course, is the point.

And that brings us back to democracy in action. A neighborhood meeting to talk about traffic calming was held in late September at the Audubon center at the end of Upper Canyon Road. The subject, suitably enough, was that very road, which is narrow and twisting, an historic, aesthetic artifact to some residents, a deadly accident waiting to happen to others.

The meeting was called by Mary Granzo, an elementary school teacher who lives on one of two connecting side roads. (I'm omitting addresses here to preserve some measure of privacy). She is for traffic calming but firmly against bumps. About two dozen homeowners attended, including (full disclosure) me.

The city had polled us all by mail, and an overwhelming 80 per cent agreed that some kind of traffic calming was needed (those three E's). More than half thought bumps were the answer. That should settle the issue, you might suppose. Majority rules.

Nope. It's more complicated, and maybe less democratic than that. Sixty seven per cent of the homeowners or renters affected have to vote yes on the installation of "traffic calming devices,"€ as bumps or flatter "tables"€ are called. It used to be 60 per cent. Persuading homeowners to vote is crucial for those who favor bumps. Anyone who doesn't vote is automatically counted as a "no."€

The balloting is often close. Not long ago Calle Lorca approved traffic calming devices; Calle Atajo and Siringo Road voted them down.

The meeting on Upper Canyon Road at the Audubon had its contentious moments, but was largely and perhaps surprisingly civil, given the emotions involved. Those who favor bumps, led by Barbara Cleaver, a Mexican antiques dealer, have multiple horror stories of almost being run down as they venture out their driveways or walk or cycle on the road, which narrows to 14 feet at some spots. Is that even legal for two way traffic, someone asked? As another homeowner observed, "It's unsafe at any speed."€

Despite these conditions, homeowners have a lot of affection for this ancient ribbon of asphalt so ill-suited to modern traffic, "a road designed for timber-hauling mules,"€ as one meeting participant called it. Rich in history, Upper Canyon road was the route first taken by the ancient Anasazi Indians along the Santa Fe River, and then was a logging trail.

The installation of devices on the road would be an aesthetic insult, some residents argue. Bumps can also be noisy for nearby residents, as vehicles whomp over them, trucks shift down and their cargo bangs around. Even those in favor of devices tend to agree, but ask: what's the alternative? There have been serious accidents on the road, and as traffic increases year after year (especially in the summer), they insist, a tragedy is literally just around the corner.

The meeting went on for more than two hours, almost everybody spoke up, and as usual, nothing was decided. But progress of sorts was made. Homeowners were asked to propose what they consider to be the best ways to calm traffic on their particular section of the road. That includes bumps.

It also included a new appeal to the Police Department for occasional cops on the road. One earlier suggestion to hire off-duty officers and pay them privately to patrol and give out tickets was vetoed by the department.

There could also be more signage, with these ideas put forth: Yield to Pedestrians, Share the Road, Caution Blind Curve Ahead, Triple Fine Zone for Speeding, 1-Way Bridge, School (there's the Gentle Nudge child care center at an especially bad spot in the road, where traffic recently was clocked at an average 35 mph, which means half of the cars were going faster). But some at the meeting showed little enthusiasm for an historic road littered with yellow traffic signs.

And finally there were more drastic proposals, like deliberately narrowing an already skinny road in hopes of making speeds in excess of the 25 mph limit impossible, changing the texture of the surface to cobblestone in places as a warning to drivers, installing 3-way stop signs at the side roads, even ripping up the asphalt and returning busy Upper Canyon Road to dirt. That's not very appealing to those who came to Santa Fe for its clean air.

Deciding on how to calm traffic is a long and tedious process. Upper Canyon Road first asked the city to do something in 2001. Nothing moves fast in The City Different, except vehicles.

The Audubon debate was followed on October 17 by a meeting called by City Traffic Engineer Pacheco. It was less civil. All sides were again heard from. A bicycle group objected to certain kinds of speed devices. A man in a motorized wheel chair warned that any plan had to meet federal disability standards. A police officer said that on those few occasions when a squad car patrolled Upper Canyon Road, everybody slowed down, so its records on speeding were of marginal value.

Finally, two Santa Fe fire fighters were heard from, and their message was stark. The Fire Department would not approve any raised devices on Upper Canyon road, because it is a secondary emergency response route. They said such devices would dangerously slow down their response to fires, injuries and other emergencies. Without their approval, the Upper Canyon Road plan was dead.

The Fire Department veto came as a shock to those at the meeting who favor speed devices, and, surprisingly, to Leroy himself. Previously he had said department approval would be routine. Since then the Department has nixed devices on six other streets, San Mateo, Don Gaspar (Paseo to Cordova), East Zia Road, Camino Sierra Vista, Camino del Monte Sol and Garcia Street.

At the Upper Canyon Road meeting, those who oppose bumps were quietly ecstatic.

Those who don't were in disarray. One of them appealed for consideration of a new concept in traffic calming being tested in Seattle, Austin, and elsewhere. It's called a "speed cushion,"€ and features two slots in the slightly raised table so that the tires on wide fire trucks can pass through without any bump.

The Fire Department said it would look at speed cushions, but apparently not speedily. As of mid-January, Pacheco had heard nothing from them. If they approve, the traffic division will proceed with an Upper Canyon neighborhood vote in 2008 on installing three speed cushions in the 1200 and 1300 blocks of the road. At least, that's the plan at present.

Success at the polls for any calming devices seems iffy. Leroy says he will forge ahead. He is the man in the middle, and ironically, has his own story of traffic dangers on Upper Canyon Road. He was biking toward the nature preserve when a car full of teenagers forced him off the road, then stopped, and a girl leaned out a window and pointed a pistol at him.

Nonetheless, Leroy has been scrupulously neutral (if a tad deliberate) in his handling of the traffic calming issue. Money is not an issue. He has a budget of $418,795 to spend on traffic calming by the end of this fiscal year in June.

He clearly would like to resolve the Upper Canyon Road controversy. "This is,"€ he said at the end of the October meeting, "the most difficult group I've ever dealt with on this issue."€