The Future of Transportation in Santa Barbara

The city should start planning now for the coming changes

Santa Barbara is a beautiful city. A big part of the reason comes from a happenstance of historical timing: the majority of the city’s layout predates the automobile. Our streets come from an earlier time, and were designed and laid out at a human scale.

If the city had been designed after cars became dominant, it would be a very different place. Instead of cute, walkable neighborhoods, we would have the giant grid and monster streets of many other places in Southern California and beyond. You know them, I’m sure — they are places like Irvine, Van Nuys, Las Vegas, Phoenix, and many more. I don’t mean to insult these places; just to say that being designed for cars gives them a feeling and a set of use patterns that are particular to the car, and that all too common in the U.S. Fortunately, that was not Santa Barbara’s fate. Although we have made many large (and damaging) changes to our city on account of the car, we have preserved our small, narrow streets and compact, small-town feel.

We now live in a very interesting time. The era of widespread personal ownership of cars is beginning to wind down, and younger generations are already buying fewer cars. They are choosing to live in places that provide multimodal transportation freedom: convenient options for walking, cycling, and public transport, supplemented with Uber, Lyft, car sharing, and perhaps an occasional rental. With the coming onset of self-driving cars, this trend will accelerate rapidly. Americans, who have been paying 25% or more of their income on car payments, insurance, gas, repairs, and parking, will begin to say “No more.” The future of transportation is mixed-use, on demand, automated, more efficient, and less expensive.

The benefits of these changes will be staggering. As car ownership declines and demand for parking decreases, land currently reserved as storage for cars-not-in-use will be repurposed for a wide range of alternate uses. Those stretches of pavement will become parks, housing, businesses, and safe routes for cycling, walking, and other forms of wheeled transportation. Safe routes will get people moving, rather than sitting behind the wheel, which will generate profound health benefits and reduce health costs. The environment will benefit as we burn less fossil fuel, as cars become more efficient, and as more people choose efficient alternatives such as electric scooters, bikes, and various other types of electrically-turned wheels.

Forward-thinking cities should be planning for these changes now. City transportation and land use plans put into place in the next five years will affect the built environment for the next 20, 50, even 100 years. Will we continue to build for the realities of 1990, or will we start to build for the realities of 2020 and beyond? Projects planned today, and built in 2020, will still be paying for the development and land costs of their typically-required two-parking-spaces-per-unit in 2050, long after the need for them is gone.

Strong leaders with the vision to prepare for these changes will give their cities a huge advantage in the coming years. Their cities will be the places that people want to live, and where businesses want to locate. They will even have lower rents, since the same land can accommodate more units without those vast swathes of empty pavement. Mostly, though, these cities have the opportunity to be more vibrant, healthy, and just plain better places to live.

Despite the near-term challenges as these changes play out in the market, I fervently hope Santa Barbara will help lead the way. The recent support for the updated Bicycle Master Plan from the SB City Council gives me hope that we will.