A Trip Up The Coast: Urban Lessons from Downtown SLO
June 18, 2012 2 Comments
This is the second post in a short series based on my recent trip from Los Angeles to San Francisco by train. With an overnight stop in San Luis Obispo and a weekend in San Francisco, there were some great urbanist and transit lessons to be learned.
Downtown San Luis Obispo is certainly not an urban mecca. The population of the entire city is 45,000, which is just about the same as Downtown LA, but most of that population is outside of SLO’s retail-centric downtown. Regardless, there were some great things in SLO that can and should be taken note of when thinking of Los Angeles.
Similar to State Street in Santa Barbara or Colorado Blvd. in Pasadena, Higuera St. in Downtown SLO is a pedestrian heavy, retail and restaurant-centric boulevard full of both locals and tourists. It was a medium-distance walk from the train station through a residential neighborhood. Higuera Street and the surrounding blocks are a great mix of both historic and modern structures with active businesses that create a lively atmosphere. Bars, restaurants, retail, art galleries, and more are all within walking distance.
At one end of the street is a relatively new retail complex that was designed very well to fit in with the historic neighborhood. The Court Street Mall includes interior walkways and exterior facing retail that seamlessly ties into the neighborhood around it.
Near the center of the retail district, on Higuera is a ROSS Dress For Less. It seems like one of the older stores on the block, and I wonder if the amount of retail and restaurants on this street is a small prophesy of what Broadway in Downtown LA could become, with a ROSS coming in there soon as well.
Between the old and the new, nearly every storefront is filled. There are mid block crossings and wide sidewalks, all which help lead to a rather festive pedestrian environment. This festivity takes full-force on Thursday nights, when the street is closed for a Farmers Market. In my opinion, this Farmers Market is better than many of the ones here in LA, because the local merchants are actually involved. I’ve often seen the Tuesday market in Culver City full of people while its tents block the restaurants on the street, which don’t always see a major influx of business. In SLO, the restaurants all have their own tents in front on their storefronts… serving customers outside and inviting them in for more. More than any farmers market I’ve ever seen, the one in SLO has a positive effect on the local businesses and restaurants.
Transit and Biking
While we came in on a train, there’s not much in the way of local transit in SLO. Supposedly there’s an old-fashioned Downtown Trolley, but the sign said it only runs on Thursdays. During the summer months, it also will run on Fridays and Saturdays, but that’s still not much for regular use. It’s really a tourist thing.
Where SLO did seem to Excel was in Bike infrastructure. While Higuera St. didn’t have dedicated bike lanes, Marsh St. (one block over) did. There is a series of bike lanes that connects Downtown to Cal Poly SLO, the major university about 2 miles away. It’s only about a 10 minute bike ride, and with dedicated lanes, it’s very easy for students to make their way Downtown and back. Practically every student at USC rides a bike, and upcoming lanes (protected!) on Figueroa St. will be another great way to link these students to Downtown LA, in addition to the Expo Line.
There were bike corrals near Higuera St, where parking spaces had been turned into bike parking, that provided room for many bikes. And the corrals were generally full. The record stores and clothing stores in SLO all seemed to promote biking, with various bike-endorsing posters or t-shirts for sale as well.
The train station, is not connected to Downtown via bike lanes, however, there is a “Bike Blvd.” where cars are forced to turn at one intersection and bicycles are allowed to continue going straight through. This intersection (Morro and Leff) is clearly marked with bike symbols and arrows on the ground. Near the train station, at the end of Morro St (the bike blvd) is an intersection where bikers will generally want to cross diagonally, and there is a dedicated bike signal installed here. Compare this to LA, where there are bike signal buttons (to signal the regular crosswalk) at Jefferson and National off the Expo Line that haven’t actually worked since they were installed. [If anyone has experienced the bike buttons working, let me know... I and everyone I've seen have had to press the pedestrian buttons.]
Transit Oriented Development
Without a lot of transit to speak of, it’s difficult to have much transit oriented development. I do have to note, however, that there are some new lofts, with retail and cafés, immediately next to the Amtrak train station. The lofts are closer to the boarding platforms than the parking lot, and are connected to Downtown by the previously mentioned Bike Blvd. So, even with the little transit they have, SLO is making the most of it, building right next to the train station and encouraging bike connections around the entire area.
Lessons for LA
The biggest lessons for LA were in the bike infrastructure. Dedicated bike paths and complicated crossings (like some along the Expo Line) should have bike-specific signals, and bike corrals really encourage riding in specific areas.
Also, it’s clear that with a mass of retail and restaurants along various streets, LA can better create a pedestrian friendly shopping and living area. This has already been done in Pasadena and parts of Downtown LA and is certainly continuing.
Read the first post in this series, here: Traveling by Train Through California