Out of the Blue: If ancient Rome can be progressive, so can we

While the contentious Village Entrance Project continues to raise everyone's blood pressure, a pleasant little surprise slid through the City Council on Tuesday: City staff has succeeded in procuring a Caltrans grant for $180,000 to fund the Laguna Beach Enhanced Mobility and Complete Streets Transition Plan, part of the state's Complete Streets mandate.

Of course it's free money, so who would complain?

At a time when we are debating how to attract thousands of more cars into town, the state has mandated that cities reduce their dependence on them by creating more multimodal Complete Streets infrastructure. And to make it irresistible, they're giving us the money to join the party.

The actual grant is $200,000. We had to put up $20,000 to get some skin in the game. Seems worth it, especially since the grant requires public outreach, meaning we have considerable influence over the project. How refreshing.

The money will go to fund a comprehensive plan (not study) to improve traffic circulation throughout our whole city, not just downtown. Everything will be on the table: dedicated bike and pedestrian lanes, enhanced public transit, more parking, sharrows, roundabouts, pedestrian-only streets, light rails and street cars. What? Fewer cars? Sounds downright socialist.

What's significant is how this dovetails perfectly with the Village Entrance conversation. Here now is a chance for council members to take a step back and evaluate the entrance project in the larger context of a diverse plan to increase parking, reduce traffic and improve our quality of life citywide.

And since now's a great time to borrow, and we have a municipal bond expert on the council, shouldn't we explore a more dynamic, forward-thinking plan? We don't have to borrow all the funds. There is more grant money out there. We just need a dedicated effort to find it, and get it.

And we need an audacious elected official with a big picture for the future who's not afraid to tackle fearmongers who still believe the convenience of driving and parking next to their destination will work forever — someone like Ignazio Marino, the newly elected mayor of Rome.

Ignazio is tearing down the main artery leading to the Colosseum to create a massive archaeological park. This famous, multi-lane road was built by Benito Mussolini in 1932 as a show of fascist power. Back then there was no congestion or the pollution that is now degrading buildings like the Colosseum.

According to the Los Angeles Times, the mayor said he was "intolerant of the cars that snarl the city's narrow streets, adding that Romans need to cut back on their dependence on automobiles given that most commutes are less than three miles."

The only part of the road that Marino plans to keep intact will be a central section for bikes, pedestrians and perhaps a tram. Sounds exactly like what we could do on Forest or Ocean avenues, or lower Park Avenue (behind the library), or even Glenneyre Street (imagine a street car right down the middle lane once we develop a network of roundabouts that would make Glenneyre flow better with one lane than two). But I get ahead of myself.

When it comes to turning Forest Avenue into a pedestrian promenade, our elected officials seem to cave at the slightest hint of dissent from downtown merchants. The archaeological park in Rome caused furious protests from nearby merchants as well, who claimed their businesses would be harmed.

But that was more than mitigated by the 100,000 supporters who joined an all-night party to welcome the change. I'm betting we'd have a massive, all-night party too if we closed lower Forest to cars.

As for the loss of business to downtown merchants, Marino predicts that creating a beautiful promenade in the heart of the city would double the number of tourists. But how will they get there? Through enhanced and upgraded public transit lines.

If an ancient city of 3 million with complicated infrastructure laden with ruins can do it, why not our teeny town of 25,000? Let's make history instead of being mired in it.

BILLY FRIED is the chief paddling officer of La Vida Laguna and member of the board of Transition Laguna. He can be reached at billy@lavidalaguna.com.

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