Out of the Blue: The dream of a traffic-free Laguna

Imagine a not-too-distant future when traveling around and in and out of Laguna without a car is a cinch.

A future when visitors prefer to park in peripheral lots because that is the most enjoyable and sensible way to visit our town. Or just train in, because gas is so scarce and expensive, and it's just more civilized.

And with peripheral lots, a vast network of sustainable, public transport leading to downtown — light rail, trolley, streetcar, bike, electric bike, foot — just makes sense. Plus we'll be charging something like $10 an hour for the privilege of downtown-adjacent parking, an added incentive.

And what a treat to experience a car-free, pedestrian-only downtown, laden with trees, seating, lighting, playgrounds, public commons. A 21st century, forward-thinking green city that subordinates the future fossils known as cars to the human experience.

Here is what else I envision:

For people entering from the east, there is satellite parking along Laguna Canyon Road, starting at the major new housing developments in Irvine. Parking would also be available adjacent to the 405. And Act V would be the site of a multilevel parking garage.

Travel into town is seamless with the light rail system, which ferries residents from and to the Irvine Amtrak station.

Once you arrive at the beautifully landscaped Village Entrance, you cross the street over the wonderful foot bridge with the "Welcome to Laguna, A Green City" sign.

Traffic beneath flows beautifully without the pedestrian crosswalk and with the addition of a roundabout at the intersection.

Now hop on the old-fashioned street car for a lovely jaunt down Ocean Avenue, your portal to the Pacific. Or rent a bike from the kiosk.

If shopping and a leisurely stroll is more your bag (paper, not plastic), walk the lovely pedestrian-only Ocean, Beach and Forest avenues, delighted by the outdoor seating, lovely planters and tantalizing window shopping.

You beeline over to Forest, where café tables spill into the street, acoustic musicians and performance artists entertain the crowds, and merchants are delighted by the lingering foot traffic. For a minute you think you're in our sister city, Menton, France.

If you are coming from the north on Coast Highway, you leave your car at either the El Moro or Pavilions satellite parking structures and hop on a convenient "electric" trolley to downtown. Or use Uber to hail a local taxi, or rent bikes at the kiosk and ride the lovely, safe bike lanes along Cliff or Cypress drives. Once downtown, you find dozens of artistic bike racks, produced by local artists, conveniently located.

If you're coming from the south on Coast Highway, you park your car at Mission Hospital, or the multilevel garage on the canyon side of Aliso Beach, and grab a trolley or bike as well. Now it's easy and safe because of the new foot and bike bridge over Aliso Creek and a widening of Coast Highway from the bridge to Nyes Place, where bikers turn to ride the lovely Glenneyre bike route into town.

This is a much safer alternative to Coast, because studies have shown that fewer cars hit bikes on slower-moving streets. Plus guests of the Montage and Aliso Creek Inn can now leave their cars behind and bike to town.

This is largely tourist-serving, but what about us? How do we decrease our own car dependence without sacrificing convenience? With a more comprehensive trolley system, and perhaps another street car on Glenneyre Street, from Bluebird Canyon Drive, to town. Those same tourist-serving trolleys would make stops at strategic residential gateways, as many do now. There's still downtown parking, but it's somehow designed for locals, with short-term parking closest to town for those who are mission-directed.

And let's look at how we might use this enhanced transportation grid to improve our community's quality of life. Electric bikes are now ubiquitous, with long battery life and low costs. Now we can ride safely to Aliso golf course and, in this utopian scenario, ride through the golf course to Aliso and Wood Creeks Park, the only flat and moderate way to get there.

If residents want to ride north, they head up the bike lane on Monterrey and Hillcrest to get to Crescent Bay Park, or even to Crystal Cove and El Moro Canyon.

Heading inland, you ride your bike to the light rail, with convenient stops at Laguna College of Art + Design and the Nix Nature Center, among others. But you may not have to take the light rail, because now that we have undergrounded the power lines, we also have a dedicated bike trail on the old 133, enhanced as a nature ride into our canyons.

This network of bike trails is capped by a trail from town to Top of the World. A wide, gradual-grade trail for families to ride up into our wilderness and back down, and then perhaps loop through Aliso Golf Course back into town. A huge draw for locals and tourists.

Now our visitor-serving merchants and hotels have counter-seasonal business from those who want to experience our biking mecca by the sea, spiking winter business.

This scenario is so critical to our health and well being. It's the only real way to mitigate our traffic crisis. It weans us from the inevitable scarcity of oil. It makes our town healthier. And perhaps most important, it ups our ROC (return on collision). These are not literal collisions. These are the social ones that enhance the fabric of communities.

I was at a conference in San Francisco recently, and urban planners and social engineers were using this term as a key metric to determine the health of a city. Turns out collisions among people spur ideas, learning and connectedness.

They call this accelerated serendipity, a key measure of the vitality of urban life. We can enhance ROC in pedestrian plazas by enabling festivals, performances and markets.

Most of this can be paid for with a bond through transportation and parking revenues, which are going up already. We still have sterling credit, no debt and low interest rates.

There's also grant money from the OCTA, the federal government and even private enterprise. For those who fret about default because of a sudden and steep downturn of visitors, all I can say is if it comes to that, we've got far bigger issues to worry about than whether a bank gets its loan repaid.

But even before we plot how to pay for it, we have to begin with a plan. It has become readily apparent that we have way too many, disparate plans that work against one another. Some are anachronisms.

In this accelerated age, we should mothball the relics and start again with one comprehensive transportation and downtown plan that will ensure a smart, forward-thinking, vital and livable city for generations to come.

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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