Jury’s out on new Broadway configuration in Sonoma

Cyclists love the new bike lanes, but skeptics want to see more bike traffic.|

With the long-debated restriping of Broadway traffic lanes now a few months into the rearview mirror, frequent travelers of the so-called gateway to Sonoma have had a chance to observe the new configuration, which decreased vehicle lanes to add space for bike and pedestrian safety.

And, as was the case prior to the reconfiguration, opinions remain mixed – with cyclists applauding the safer bike lanes, and skeptics holding firm that the road still lacks sufficient bike traffic to justify the changes.

Or, as longtime Broadway property owner Jim Karabochos put it: “What a waste of money.”

Among the changes completed last spring are narrower lengths of crosswalks, the addition of buffered bike lanes at the sides of the roads and the reduction of southbound lanes between Napa and MacArthur streets from two to one.

The changes, approved by the Sonoma City Council in August of 2021 and striped this year as part of Caltrans’ $7 million repaving of Highway 12, were intended to improve safety for pedestrians and cyclists in the wake of an April 2021 collision that resulted in a pedestrian injury and the death of her dog. But opponents of the new configuration predicted that low ridership in bike lanes wouldn’t be worth the traffic backups caused by the loss of a driving lane.

Sonoma’s new Public Works Director Mike Berger said following the restriping in May that, from what he’s observed from a driver’s standpoint, the traffic configuration “appears to be functioning adequately.”

More enthusiastic was Matt Metzler, a longtime Sonoma biking advocate who has also served on the city Community Services and Environment Commission, who told the Index-Tribune that the cyclists he’s spoken to have “raved” about the new Broadway bike lanes. Metzler said he’s particularly pleased with the city’s decision to draw “buffered” bike lanes, which add additional space to the sides of cyclists.

“I feel so much safer riding with the buffer between me and the traffic on my left, and between me and the parked cars whose doors can open at any time on my right,” he said. “It is so much safer than being forced between car traffic and parked cars.”

The road to the new traffic configuration on Broadway was a long and winding one. The council originally approved the bike-friendly restriping in 2020, but reversed its decision following vocal pushback from community members wary of losing a driving lane.

But in August of 2021 the council, with three new members and facing a deadline to approve any changes before Caltrans began its Highway 12 revitalization, moved forward with the reconfiguration, citing a renewed impetus for pedestrian and bike safety.

Traffic studies have shown that a reduction in lanes on Broadway would have a negligible effect on traffic flow, city staff said at the time.

Councilmember Kelso Barnett, the lone council vote against the reconfiguration, questioned the timing of the traffic studies ― one was conducted a month after the 2017 wildfires which, he said, would likely have been a time of lower-than-normal traffic ― and said the city was rushing its decision.

Barnett is still holding out expectations that the restriping isn’t the final word on improvements to Broadway.

“I sincerely hope the completion of this project doesn’t blunt momentum to work with the state to create a grander vision for Broadway and the approach to City Hall,” Barnett said in June. “Wider sidewalks, a landscaped median and other improvements would not only improve pedestrian safety, but would also be worthy of the last four blocks of the El Camino Real, California’s most historic road.”

Chris Woodcock, who represents Sonoma Valley on the Sonoma County Bicycle & Pedestrian Advisory Board, said he’s used the bike lanes several times since the restriping and finds it “substantially more friendly and fun to ride on.”

“Before, it was unclear that there was even a bike lane on Broadway, it lacked any visible infrastructure,” said Woodcock, adding that the road appeared not to have been resurfaced in decades. “Now it's abundantly clear that there is a bike lane on Broadway.”

But as someone who lives near Broadway, Woodcock said the biggest improvement he’s noticed is from a pedestrian point of view.

“The reduction of the road width has been a vast improvement ― there are just fewer conflict points with the removal of lanes and visibility seems so much better,” he said. “It was ridiculous how dangerous Broadway was to cross as a pedestrian, cyclist, even as a car before.”

For Barnett’s part, he’s still waiting to see the bicycle traffic promised by proponents of the project.

“I was thrilled to finally see a bicyclist in one of the bike lanes this morning,” Barnett said following the completion of the striping. “I wonder if I’ll have to wait another three months to see the next one.”

Sonoma Mayor Jack Ding was among the City Council’s consistent supporters of the new configuration. Now, as a tax consultant with an office on Broadway, he’s had a chance to see his vote in action.

“I feel traffic is slowing down and no car overtakes (another),” said Ding, adding that frequent speeding has been dangerous and created noise congestion during the 10 years his office has been located at 755 Broadway.

That said, he’d like to see more cyclists take advantage of the new bike lanes.

“I haven’t seen many people using bike lanes yet,” Ding said. “I hope local residents and business owners help make a full and good use of them.”

One business that is trying to do just that is Sonoma Adventures, which offers bike tours and rentals from its location at 1254 Broadway.

“Prior to those bike lanes we would never send anybody up Broadway, it was too dangerous,” said Hunt Bailie, who operates the business. “But now, for anyone going to the Plaza, we send them down the road on the dedicated bike lanes.”

Bailie described the pre-bike lane Broadway as a disaster for cyclists – a mix of heavy car traffic and an “edge” near the sidewalk that was virtually unrideable. “It hadn’t been resurfaced in decades,” Bailie said. “It was full of glass and rocks, almost a guaranteed flat tire.”

Added Bailie: The new bike lanes are “a very positive thing.”

Still, Karabochos isn’t persuaded. He said he still sees too much speeding and not enough biking.

“I’ve seen a few bicycles, but not a lot,” said Karabochos, who owns a 2-acre parcel on Broadway at Leveroni Road. And the cyclists he has seen, are often riding on the wrong side of the road, he said.

“I don’t think it’s helped at all,” said Karabochos. “A complete waste of money.”

Email Jason Walsh at Jason.walsh@sonomanews.com.

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