Lessons from Santa Cruz

My first criteria for vacations is something near water. As a Sacramento native, I adore our river and love the effect it’s had on shaping our town.  

My second criteria is being able to experience a place via AT and transit. It’s so easy to drive through a place and never actually see it. It’s much more difficult to be blind to a city’s character when you bike or walk through. And this year, my travel companion recommended Santa Cruz which checked all the boxes. 

What made Santa Cruz awesome 

Santa Cruz was really interesting to walk around. Pacific Avenue was designed to protect pedestrians with one lane one way, bike lane 2 ways, and limited parking. The amount of shoppers on the street highlighted this feature. Beach Street by the Boardwalk also had a great separated bike path. And then there was the Westside, which I was a little worried about getting out to because there didn’t look to be much bike infrastructure out that way, but we were pleasantly surprised. Our trips were still delightful because there were good destinations at the end (a few breweries and a farmer’s market) and because we could ride the Monterey Bay Sanctuary Scenic Trail.  

They even retrofit this two-way street to be one way and have a protected bike lane!

We didn’t bring our bikes with us, so we had to rent the city bikes, BCycles. They were in many convenient spots, and one of the perks about these bikes is that they have specific docks that you take them out of and return them to. This means that bikes don’t litter the sidewalks.  

There were bikes and docks when and where you needed them 90% of the time. $30 for unlimited 30 minute rides for 30 days is an incredible price even though we only used them for 10 days. And I learned nothing is more fun than riding an ebike, especially on a street as scenic as Cliff Drive. Incredible! 

During the 10 days there, we walked 91.3 miles and biked another 69, and this was a huge surprise to us. We didn’t realize that we’d been moving around that much. Active Transportation has this effect, where walking and biking that doesn’t feel like work. Luckily, there was a cookie store within 4 blocks of where we were staying, so we had sufficient fuel available at a moment’s notice.  

What could be better?  

We spent a day exploring Capitola and Seabright, and while both locations are close to Santa Cruz, the vibe is significantly different. One of the main roads, Soquel Avenue is a 4-5 lane stroad with all the appropriate accoutrements, excess curb cut outs, box stores, and enormous block lengths. Walking to Soquel Avenue from Capitola beach wasn’t long (maybe 1.5 miles), but the walk was far less pleasant and frustrating at times. For a town so close to Santa Cruz, where they clearly have good AT and ok transit, you’d think there would be more buses servicing the area. As we walked from the beach to the bus stop, we only walked through neighborhoods with the same houses stamped over and over until we made it to the bus stop. That makes the walk feel so much longer. Then there was walking on Soquel when we were headed to get a beer from a place just a little over a mile away. At one point, the sidewalk near the beg button was ripped up and entirely fenced off, and the only way I could get to it was by walking through some very large bushes. In another instance, we had to cross the road before a bridge because I couldn’t see if there was a sidewalk over it for us to use (there was, it was hidden by many bushes, and the quarter mile before didn’t have a sidewalk, so why take the chance?). This caused us to cross one intersection 3 times because the direction we wanted to go didn’t have a pedestrian crossing on that side for some reason.  

We thought we came prepared when venturing into Seabright because we were on BCycles (Capitola doesn’t currently have any BCycles, so walking and transit were our only options). Unfortunately, while the roads have nice bicyclists painted on them, drivers didn’t leave us much room. This means we have to squeeze past parked and idling cars to make it to the front of the light when the light’s red, and when traffic is flowing, cars pass close enough that you can feel yourself being pulled forward along with them. Sure, it saves your legs a little, but I’d rather do the work for my cycling, thank you very much. 

When we docked our bikes, my brave companion looked at me, “Can we take a different way back?” I nodded in solidarity, “Yeah, let’s grab our next bikes from the station in the neighborhood when we leave.” In both instances, traveling in Seabright and Capitol outside of a car was frustrating, long, and hot (on a 65 degree day even!), and we were grateful when we finally parked in Santa Cruz proper. 

What can Sacramento learn from Santa Cruz 

Let’s start with the preface that all cities are a work in progress. One of the beauties about Santa Cruz is that they are currently building it to be more AT friendly, so we can see how their progress is going and emulate what works. 

Pacific Avenue was great to walk on. Wide streets, relatively little car noise. Center Street was excellent to use as a bike expressway with relatively low traffic, few stop signs, and it connected to places like Beach Street and Cliff Drive.  

I just want to highlight Cliff Drive for a second. There’s a multi-use path that runs the length of the street. Unfortunately, last winter’s storms did a number on the cliffs, and the road has been partially ripped  because it’s unstable. While they’re repairing that section, about 6 blocks have been converted to bicycle and pedestrian through traffic only along with access use for residents. The city estimates the road will be open again in January, but I think they should keep it closed to car through traffic. There are many other streets for cars to use that connect to this windy, scenic path.   

The City said Slow & Active streets were expensive to pay OT to put up or replace the signage all the time. Maybe Sacramento should use these to stop car traffic instead

A lot of people have hate for Lime and Jump in Sacramento because people park wherever they want, and I think this gives a bad name to ebikes when they’re a really approachable option for people who don’t normally walk or bike. One of the nice things about BCycle is that there is a timed checkout and they need to be put back in docks. You can make it to most locations within the time limit, or switch bikes you need to renew your time if you have a pass. Docks are at common locations, like outside of state parks, on the boardwalk, and in the center of town. And if I saw a dock somewhere I wasn’t planning on going to originally, I was a lot more likely to check out a place. Besides, who can hate a bike with a lightning banana slug on the side?  

Lightning Banana Slug BCycles go faster than other BCycles… at least that’s what I kept telling myself

Overall, Santa Cruz still has several areas to improve for non-car using tourist, but I think they’re on a good path here. I’m looking forward to seeing how they continue to grow and consider other transportation options when it comes to planning for future development.