A compulsive walker’s view of Santa Maria

This "Looking Forward" op-ed piece by Ken Hough was published in the Santa Maria Times on September 10, 2015: http://santamariatimes.com/news/opinion/editorial/commentary/looking-forward/a-compulsive-walker-s-view-of-santa-maria/article_9b399f12-5227-5862-aa86-e67a0fbc0a96.html

On Aug. 11, 2014, wanting to learn more about my adopted city, I said to myself, I am going to walk the length of every public street and pathway in Santa Maria.

I set simple rules — do it in a year, don’t use a car to get to or from a walk, and keep a few photos and notes about pedestrian safety or other transportation issues encountered. I made some other observations as well.

I finished on Aug. 10 of this year, with just a few hours to spare. Jeanne Sparks was there in front of City Hall to record my final 100 yards and a few comments, which I will mention at the end of this column.

There are 250 centerline miles of city-maintained streets, plus several miles of Caltrans roads — Main Street and Broadway — and a few miles of paths. It took me 54 walks and 322 miles.

Smelled: Bacon cooking, strawberries growing and being picked, fertilizer, and oil production. Burned rubber on North Blosser early on a Sunday morning, a section of road that need not be four lanes wide.

Happily, the city is planning to reduce the northern-most section to two lanes, to provide bike lanes and reduce the attraction for road racers.

Heard: Traffic blasting by at 55 mph on Black, Betteravia and Mahoney roads — speeds that are not inappropriate for these rural roads, but they are within the city, so I walked them. Kids in bounce houses every time I walked on a Sunday morning. Who knew Sunday was bounce-house day. Santa Maria Valley Railroad whistles every weekday morning. Trucks full of produce with refrigeration motors. Jets taking people to Las Vegas or San Francisco. And far more laughter than arguing.

Saw and photographed: Thirty vacant lots where houses have been torn down due to oil contamination. This is not discussed much, but in a couple of neighborhoods in Sunrise Hills 10-20 percent of the houses are gone, with no signs of plans to rebuild.

Throughout the city I saw many other houses that had “Valley Beautiful” award signs posted and others I thought deserving. There were also many homes showing signs of the drought. I hope people will find ways to make their homes beautiful without grass and water-loving plants, and that the city will provide incentives for property owners to do this. Such incentives will help keep our city beautiful and save tax money in the long run — if we can avoid the expense of desalinization and other new sources of water.

Experienced: Dozens of cars ignoring me as I clearly indicated my desire to cross North Broadway at many unmarked, but legal crosswalks. The fact that Broadway is a state highway is no longer a reason to discourage pedestrian crossings. Caltrans supports making communities safer and friendlier to pedestrians and bicyclists, and generally more livable.

Let’s use some paint to remind motorists to yield to pedestrians — and pedestrians, please look and listen, and do not assume a motorist has seen you.

Rode: All our bus routes to some starting points. Santa Maria Area Transit is an efficient system and can get you to all corners of town in a short amount of time for a reasonable fare. Sometimes the buses ran early, but after a few complaints, they have gotten better about adhering to schedule.

The last steps: I ended at City Hall looking across Broadway at a signal that said “WALK,” but saw no painted crosswalk. Let’s fix this.

I had a rewarding experience. Hop on a bus, ride a bike and take a walk!

Ken Hough is executive director of Santa Barbara County Action Network (SBCAN). He can be reached at [email protected]. Looking Forward is a progressive look at local issues.