Thursday, Nov. 27, 2008 | Traffic swishes past on University Avenue in City Heights. It’s late morning. Sunny. Full of action: People strolling, pedestrians crossing, buses rumbling, foreign languages swirling.

Ken Grimes surveys the scene and begins to diagnose impediments to pedestrians. Grimes is the executive director of WalkSanDiego, a small nonprofit focused on promoting pedestrian-friendly communities. The group is funded in part by federal money that comes through CalTrans as well as Kaiser Permanente. It’s currently involved in Chula Vista designing safe routes to schools and will do a similar project in La Mesa next year.

Grimes brought us here, to University and Fairmount, for a talk about how car-friendly San Diego has sometimes forgotten to plan for those who walk — by choice or by necessity. We strolled with Grimes along University and to Rosa Parks Elementary School, where some improvements have been made for walking schoolchildren. By the school, it’s all wide curbs and shade trees. Here, on University, it’s five lanes of flatulent, fumy traffic. Grimes starts by telling us that San Diego has one of the country’s highest rates of pedestrian-related car crashes. And City Heights, where we’re standing, is particularly troublesome.

“As you can see here, you’ve got, what, five lanes of traffic, going at high speeds. You’ve got a straight road, a wide road,” he says.

You have crosswalks though, and theoretically buttons that work for people to cross.

Yeah, but it’s intimidating. (A car peels out.) There are some facilities here. But it’s just not an attractive, ambient environment. You walk here to get from A-to-B, but you wouldn’t be attracted to do it, you wouldn’t choose to do it. Most of these people are walking probably because they haven’t got a car or they’ve got one car in the family and they need to get from A-to-B. There’s no choice involved. It’s not a pleasant environment. Car ownership is lower here, a lot of people use buses and transit, and oftentimes they’re running across a six-lane highway to catch a bus before it leaves.

How long ago was the mistake made here?

This used to be the main road to East County before I-8 was built. It wasn’t ever designed as a residential street. Gradually there was development all along, more commercial structures and houses. But this massively wide road remained. These lanes themselves are wide.

Don’t we need them for our Ford Excursions and our Hummers?

There’s a prevailing concept on the part of some traffic engineers that the more space you make for a vehicle, the safer it is. But that’s not true. The more space you provide, the faster a car is able to go. And when you’re driving at slower speeds, your range of vision is much wider. The faster you drive, the narrower your range of vision.

You do have a lot of room in your lane to float around here. It’s not a luxury you get in Australia or Italy or Turkey.

I come from England, where cities are not designed like this. They’re not designed for cars. A lot of San Diego was built for the automobile, not for people.

How could you, in your view, fix this?

We’ll walk to Rosa Parks school and see some things. (As we go, he points across the street.) Look at these blank walls. They reflect heat, there’s no pedestrian interest. It’s just cold and hostile. There’s a parking lot with trucks coming in and out. There’s an alley there, another blank wall. It’s not pedestrian friendly. There’s nothing of interest for the pedestrian.

What does it need? Murals?

There’s no vegetation. That bus stop is useless, it’s facing south. That’s going to provide very little shade, except at midday during summer. It’s badly designed.

What’s your position on roundabouts?

We like roundabouts.

Yeah? Who’s we?

WalkSanDiego.

OK. America’s not quite on board with the roundabout.

You might want to take a visit to Bird Rock.

I drive through there every morning.

OK. And you find it very frustrating?

No no no no. I’m not saying I don’t like roundabouts, it’s the other 300 million people in this country who aren’t quite on board with them yet.

That’s probably true. But there are places like Washington, D.C., there are traffic circles all over the place, and people are used to them.

I get the sense from the roundabouts in Bird Rock that I know how they work, but everyone else doesn’t. I get a little freaked out by what people do in them. God love a roundabout, but not everybody gets them.

I don’t know if it’s a part of driver ed yet. Perhaps there’s a younger generation of drivers coming up that are a little more familiar with them. Roundabouts are good, because it does make you drive a little defensively. It slows you down. It changes your line of vision, too, so you’re looking toward pedestrians. …

This is interesting. This is a public street, but it’s been transformed into a car park. (We’re a block off University, and there’s a shaded island in the middle with angled parking on either side.) People still drive through here and use it as a public street, but you’ve got parking in the middle. This is the same as many market towns in Europe. It’s increased the amount of parking, it’s slowed down traffic and created an ambient space.

This is one tool in the toolkit?

It’s one example. You’ve got diagonal parking, which is more effective at slowing down traffic. Cars drive more slowly along long lines of cars parked diagonally.

Because they’re afraid of someone pulling out?

Yeah. It’s totally unconscious, nobody’s aware of it until you bring it to their attention, but you can document it. A lot of our streets in San Diego are wide, you could easily have diagonal parking. (We walk further, and Grimes points out a change in the asphalt — it’s been stamped to look like brick, to slow drivers down.)

It seems like you’re almost dealing in subtle behavioral shifts you’re trying to effect.

That’s exactly right. … I suppose the psychology of the driver is a means to an end for us. We’re more interested in people choosing to walk. Our mission is to promote walk-able communities and to make walking a safe and viable option for people — that they choose to do. I mean, years ago, kids walked to school, right? So few kids walk to school.

Tell me what you do as an organization to effect the change you seek.

We have a couple of staffers who go out and work with schools, the teachers, the parents and students, to identify hazards and recommend improvements. We educate, we have workshops to educate folks about what can be done to improve walk-ability. Then we go out with those folks and walk around the neighborhood and identify problems. What is hazardous? What improvements would be needed to allow your kid to walk to school? We pore over maps, identify the problems and improvements. We produce a technical report that’s then used by the residents and school to communicate with decision-makers and ultimately to lobby the City Council to get recommendations approved and the improvements made.

There’s a process of educating the public, not only about the technical side, but also about engaging them in citizenship activities, working together and teaching them how to impact the decision-making process — teaching them to become advocates for their own interests.

— Interview by ROB DAVIS

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