How Sacramento can rethink transportation

Cars move slowly along the Capital City Freeway near downtown Sacramento in January.
Cars move slowly along the Capital City Freeway near downtown Sacramento in January. Sacramento Bee file

In 2014, I left Sacramento after 20-plus wonderful years. When I visit family and friends, it’s amazing to feel the buzz. With the quality of food and beer, new condos and the arts, Sacramento has become a different and better city in so many ways.

Transportation-wise? Not so much.

Sacramento’s urban landscape and mobility system remain tied to a destructive past and prevent the city from being the model of vitality and sustainability it aspires to be. In November, Sacramento County’s Measure B transportation sales tax measure was defeated by a strange-bedfellows alliance of anti-tax and livable city advocates.

Measure B would have locked in inefficient patterns of mobility and sprawl that reduce accessibility to jobs and amenities and threaten to worsen climate change. Its failure offers Sacramento an opportunity to rethink its future. Here are several guiding principles to help move forward:

1. Know and confront your history. The United States of the 1950s and 1960s spent billions remaking its cities for near-universal car ownership. Sacramento’s central city was a prime victim of the radical redevelopment. Thousands of downtown residents were forcibly removed in urban renewal. A diverse, lively community was replaced by freeways, parking garages and sterile streetscapes that largely define downtown to this day. Downtown Sacramento as we know it is the product of people who disliked cities, who saw cities as problems to be solved instead of as the source of wealth creation and diversity that we now know them to be.

2. Reset the relationship with Caltrans. The freeways dominating the heart of the city and the local streets serving them instead of the community challenge the very notion of Sacramento as a sovereign city. Short-term actions might include demanding that Caltrans fund the retrofitting of central city interchanges to make bicycling and walking safer and charging motorists to enter downtown. Looking ahead, the city should ask the talented technocrats at the Sacramento Area Council of Governments to study the removal of the Capital City Freeway. Short-term commuting disruptions could be weighed against the benefits of more housing, increased property values, cleaner air, parks, community centers and improved walking, bicycling and transit.

3. Project strength. The existing downtown was developed when central cities were considered work centers and not places to live. Now city living is hot. The grid and surrounding neighborhoods are going to be very desirable for decades to come. In all its dealings, the city should remember it’s holding the stronger hand. The wealth creators of the future want to live in places that offer the accessibility that only city living provides.

Chris N. Morfas, former executive director of the California Bicycle Coalition and former legislative liaison to Sacramento Metropolitan Air Quality Management District, is a senior adviser to Despacio in Bogotá, Colombia. He can be contacted at