By Christy Scannell
Hear someone mention WalkSanDiego and you might envision a group that leads tours of America’s Finest City.
You’d be wrong.
“‘Where can I hike on a trail?’ – No, that’s not it,” WalkSanDiego’s co-founder, Andy Hamilton, said with a laugh. “This is about changing the environment to make it safer for walking. Our mission is to make it possible to choose walking as a transportation mode to meet daily needs.”
Hamilton, a transportation specialist for the San Diego Air Pollution Control district, created WalkSanDiego in 1998 with Dave Schumacher, who oversees transit planning for SANDAG.
“Health foundations started discovering you can tell people to get more exercise all you want but if the environment says you won’t there’s a disconnect for people,” Hamilton said. “So Dave and I got together and decided we need a group that just focuses on the environment as a way of stretching out past the capacity of our jobs.”
A grant from The California Endowment jumpstarted the effort, while project funding from CalTrans also contributing to the organization’s $800,000 annual budget. Five full-time staff members manage WalkSanDiego’s ongoing projects in traffic calming, street design and accessibility.
“San Diego is in the top three to five in the country in terms of the percent of traffic fatalities that involve pedestrians. The national average is 12 to 13 percent and ours is 20 to 25 percent,” Hamilton said.
He attributes the high rates to busy roads such as El Cajon Boulevard and University Avenue in the city’s higher density areas.
“Speed is really what kills people. You don’t have time to avoid a collision – the breaking distance is too long. So if somebody jumps out there or you just don’t see them because you’re not expecting them, you can’t react in time and they can’t react time,” Hamilton said.
Another issue WalkSanDiego promotes is the need for better street lighting.
“San Diego is one of the darkest cities in the country,” Hamilton said. “It’s a big mystery to me why that is. We’ve worked for years to get the city to fund more streetlights. The policies have been changed in places that are higher in crime and near transit stops.”
While the city allocates $200,000 per year to installing new lighting, the request backlog totals $20 million. Rather than wait for city funding, WalkSanDiego encourages communities to form maintenance assessment districts to finance lighting needs.
In 2004 WalkSanDiego campaigned for Proposition A, an extension of TransNet, the half-cent transportation tax. The measure passed with a slim margin. It creates $14 billion in revenues each year, of which $280 million is dedicated to traffic calming and smart growth projects.
“TransNet was really one of our biggest successes,” Hamilton said. “There is a pot of money, $9 million a year to bicycle and pedestrian improvements, and another $9 million for neighborhood safety. So even in a recession there is still money there.”
Both as an outcome of that funding and WalkSanDiego’s walkability audits, Hamilton said he expects to see notable improvements for pedestrians in the Uptown and North Park areas. He cited 30th Street in North Park and Sixth Avenue in Hillcrest as places that need the most improvement.
“You see lots of pedestrian activity on 30th, several bus lines that run up and down it, and yet it’s not very pedestrian friendly,” said Hamilton, who lives in North Park. “Similarly, on Sixth Avenue you see people crossing constantly, against traffic, yet traffic is very rarely backed up. We suggest reducing Sixth from four lanes to two. If you need the space for cars, then take some away. Drivers driving the speed limit will set the speed for everyone else.”
Although most of WalkSanDiego’s endeavors gain praise, the organization is not without some controversy. For example, Leo Wilson, chair of Uptown Planners and a Sixth Avenue resident, called the proposal to trim Sixth Avenue to two lanes “unrealistic.”
“It’s difficult for us as community leaders but we have to balance on one hand that we want pedestrian improvements but on the other hand people are going to use automobiles,” he said. “We strongly oppose [the lane reduction] in Bankers Hill. That is a major arterial; thousands of people drive it. I consider that a traffic clogging measure, not a traffic calming measure.”
Wilson said he agrees with WalkSanDiego’s mission but that its ideas can “go to extremes” at times.
“When they talk about huge lane reductions, the discussion goes from increasing pedestrian amenities to utopianism,” he said. “I think those of us in the community planning process need a balance.”
Hamilton acknowledges WalkSanDiego is “an extension of local governments,” but does not make policy. Still, District 3 Councilmember Todd Gloria said the organization brings a needed voice to city development.
“As an advocacy group focused on issues impacting walkability, WalkSanDiego is playing an important role in local planning and growth,” Gloria said. “The outreach and education performed by organizations like WalkSanDiego can be helpful in connecting community members to local government issues, thereby generating additional public interest and input.”
Hamilton said Uptown has traditionally been the most receptive to WalkSanDiego’s objectives.
“In the mid-city people really care about this issue,” he said. “If you go to Rancho Bernardo people say they want to walk more safely but they’re not really passionate about it. But if you go to Hillcrest, for example, it’s truly a passion. So many people [in Uptown], even though you might not expect it, don’t own cars and they say this is the only place they can live in the city. The vast majority of our members come from mid-city even though we work throughout the region.”
Annual memberships in WalkSanDiego start at $24, which includes workshops, newsletters and e-mail alerts about pedestrian issues.
Strength in numbers is important to the organization’s success, Hamilton said.
“It helps when we stand up in front of the City Council – we can either have 300 or 3000 voices there,” he said.
WalkSanDiego’s annual gala and Golden Footprint Awards is April 22 at Top of the Park, 525 Spruce St. Alison St. John of KPBS will host the program, which will recognize Mary Sessom, mayor of Lemon Grove, for her work in walkability. Tickets are $65 for members and $75 for non-members. For more information, go to walksandiego.org.