Smart transportation: The Santa Barbara Riviera

“An in-town street is like an outdoor room. Its walls are tall trees and/or tall buildings. The enclosed feeling is appealing and slows traffic.”
      New Urbanism pioneer Andres Duany

by Gary Piro

My wife Gina and myself are hooked on “the European travel experience.” Every year, we plan a trip overseas and fly to a central city like London or Paris, and then we travel town to town using only rail and local public transportation. In each town, we walk five to ten miles a day, which allows us to eat like kings, yet lose weight over the course of our trip. At first, it was a bit of a challenge understanding foreign train schedules and finding places to stay on a flexible itinerary. However in a very short time we grew to love our new-found freedom from automobile rentals, traffic and the never-ending search for parking spaces.

    This summer, we decided to try this travel concept someplace local and struck gold on a three-day trip to Santa Barbara. Santa Barbara has been called the “biggest small town in America,” but some locals like to call it the “Pacific Riviera.” From the time we caught the Pacific Surfliner train in Oceanside, we couldn't help but see the similarities with our last European trip to the south of France. The four and one-half hour train trip had us reminiscing about the train trip from Avignon to Monte Carlo. Where France had its beautiful “Cote de Azur,” the Surfliner traveled much of our trip along the Pacific Ocean, with stops in the beach towns of San Clemente, Oxnard and Ventura.

    Upon arriving at the Santa Barbara depot, which is located right in the center of the waterfront/downtown loop, there was a city-operated electric shuttle bus, which closely resembled the busses used in Monte Carlo by all of the locals. The bus runs every 15 minutes up and down the downtown strip and waterfront, so there is no reason to rent a car or cab to get to your hotel.

    Once checked in to our hotel in the early afternoon, we decided to explore the waterfront. Right outside the door of the hotel was a bike rental facility, which had mountain bikes, bicycles for two, recumbent “tricycles” and the famous Santa Barbara surreys, which are pedal powered and seat as many as six people.

    Being true European travelers, we chose instead to explore the city by foot. In front of our hotel was not one, not two, but three parallel sidewalks meandering along the Pacific, back to the train depot that is situated at the intersection of the waterfront road and State Street (which connects to the downtown area). The waterfront is also the site of a city-run “arts and crafts” fair every Sunday, which draws thousands of tourists. The waterfront is approximately two miles long and begins at a large bird sanctuary to the south and ends at the marina just north of State Street. It is lined with hotels, restaurants and a city owned park replete with hundreds of beautiful palm trees.

    On Sunday, we had the pleasure of attending the “arts and crafts” festival, which is a shining example of a successfully community gathering event reminiscent of the “Flower Market” in Nice. What is unique about the fair is that it is a “run for profit” exercise of the city's parks and recreation department. Walking along the beachfront, you can see hundreds of brass tags indicating the locations of the stall spaces that the city leases to the exhibitors.

    The stalls are typically ten feet wide and rented only to Santa Barbara County residents for a fee of $400 per year. The requirement is that participants can only sell product that they, themselves have made. The product must be an art object, a sculpture, clothing, photography or other craft-type object. Rather than have an “art jury” to determine what vendors can remain, the free market determines who succeed and who doesn't. Therefore, to survive at the fair, exhibitors must be clever and unique.

    The highlight of the trip for me was Santa Barbara's downtown city walk on State Street. This beautiful area has to be seen to be appreciated, with shops, restaurants and boundless activities.

    Originally named in the 1800s, State Street was at one time a 4-lane arterial road. In the 1960s, the downtown might have been “ground-zero” for urban sprawl when Ernest Hahn built La Cumbre Plaza, one of the nations first suburban malls on the outskirts of town. Instead, a local champion of downtown revitalization, architect and 10-year city councilman, Gil Garcia, led a battle to save and improve the downtown. Gil helped to convince the council that the vitality of the downtown could be saved if they did the unthinkable and actually reduce State Street to two lanes to emulate European towns. By so doing, they widened the sidewalk to encourage pedestrian activity, permitted outdoor restaurants and allowed for a special bike and surrey lane.

    The street is beautifully framed with jacaranda, coral and imported exotic trees that in some areas completely canopy the road. There is public art on every corner and one of the grandest, oldest movie theaters in California. Accessibility to the train, busses, pedestrians and bicycles minimizes the use of the streets for parking. However, they provide multistory parking structures disguised as buildings behind the main street shops.

    Garcia has since become an active member and president of the Local Government Commission, which has sponsored the Smart Growth Conference in San Diego for the past two years. Unfortunately, due to term limits Garcia had to step down as a city councilman in Santa Barbara. But that doesn't mean that he is not active in the shaping of the city.

    He's now trying to lobby for the construction of more parking for the extremely successful downtown area. But this time he'd like to see the structures become “mixed use,” with apartments and more affordable housing.

    Santa Barbara shows how good towns don't just happen – they need to be planned and fought for.

    Mr. Piro is a former County Planning Commissioner and owner of his own Engineering and Land Planning firm in San Marcos. E-mail: PIROENGRCS.COM.