The Ojai case study – let elderly die in their cars, let another California town burn to the ground, repeat past mistakes

Located in the Ojai Valley 30 miles east of Santa Barbara, California, Ojai is picturesque town of 8,000 people popular with tourists. Recent decisions by Ojai City Council suggest that they may have learned no lessons from the 2018 fire called the the “Camp Fire,” the deadliest and most destructive fire in California history. The Camp Fire caused destroyed over 18,000 buildings, burned the City of Paradise to the ground, and resulted in the deaths of 85 people.

On October 23rd, Ojai residents got a preview of what their congested and dangerous future might hold. The temporary elimination of the 2nd left-hand turn lane onto Ojai Ave from Maricopa Highway due to ongoing Caltrans construction resulted in vehicle traffic being backed up more than half a mile on Maricopa Hwy. According to a local resident, a continuous line of cars, more than a 1/2 mile long, were unable to turn left from Maricopa Hwy on to Ojai Avenue, the main artery in town.

Trying to exit side streets was also very difficult, and traffic on Maricopa Highway blocked vehicles from entering and exiting the Vons grocery store and shopping center. See above map. Some drivers made U-turns to seek alternative routes.

Ojai City Council has voted unanimously to eliminate vehicle lanes on both sides of Maricopa Highway, to be replaced with bike lanes. Thus resident just had a scary preview, just in time for Halloween, of what traffic will look like on Maricopa Highway in the future. Maricopa Highway, officially California State Road 33, is the main north-south artery in town.

“To date, City Council has mislead the public,” Jeffrey Weinstein, a 40+ year licensed architect, told Lacrimonia.Com. Weinstein, shown on the right, is an Ojai resident since 1998 and holds a master’s degree in urban and regional planning.

“The renderings produced by Alta Planning + Design for the proposed changes are inspirational only, not factual,” Weinsten said. “They show a few cars, but lots of bikes, and thus do not reflect the reality of the road diet City Council has approved.”

“Because of the close proximity between vehicles and bikes due to the raised concrete bike lane extending up to 15 feet into Maricopa Hwy, vehicles will slow down to 20-25mph,” Weinstein continued. “Some residents are advocating for a 25-mile speed limit throughout Ojai, which will result in a continuous line of cars that we are already now seeing due to the Caltrans construction.”

Ironically, just three days before the major traffic jam in Ojai, the New York Times on October 19, 2023 published an article with the headline “Longer Commutes, Shorter Lives” which said:

“The speed at which people can get from one place to another is one of the most basic measures of a society’s sophistication. It affects economic productivity and human happiness; academic research has found that commuting makes people more unhappy than almost any other daily activity. Yet in one area of U.S. travel after another, progress has largely stopped over the past half-century.”

Yet Ojai elected officials and city staff appear to favor inspiration and ideology over the realities of life in Ojai and in California in general. Some call such inspiration “magical thinking” instead.

“Inspirational thinking divines that increased traffic congestion and time wasted will force residents out of their cars,” Weinstein said. “But with 30% of Ojai residents now over 65, picking up groceries at Vons by bike is unlikely. Likewise, as any parent knows, kids these days do not ride their bikes to school.”

“While using the existing Ojai bike trail between the ‘Y’ ( major intersection) and downtown, a bike rider passes just 5 streets/driveways where cars intersect with bikes . That is relatively safe,” Weinstein said, adding specific detail. “But between the ‘Y’ and the El Roblar “5-STOP” on Maricopa Hwy, which is about the same distance as to downtown, there are 18 such intersections between vehicles and bikes. That is much more unsafe than crossing 5 streets/driveways.”

“The City Council has not closely reviewed the 78 sheets of civil engineering plans, so does not understand the potential impacts and unintended consequences,” Weinstein added “One such impact and unintended consequence is now the City Council is considering relocation of the existing evacuation center from Nordhoff High School to Sarzotti Park on Park Road.”

The below photo shows hundreds of fire trucks lined up along Maricopa Hwy during the Thomas Fire, which will not be possible on Park Road. The 2017-2018 Thomas Fire was the largest wildfire in modern California history at the time, burning 281,893 acres, an area 1/3 the size of Rhode Island. The fire took place in Ventura County where Ojai is located.

Another unintended consequence is that eminent domain proceedings must be brought against those commercial landowners along Maricopa Hwy to take their property for the raised concrete bike lane.

The City’s consultant estimates this may cost an additional $509,429 (not currently budgeted for), and will most likely delay the construction start date. To date, the City has spent $485,215 on pre-construction services. A March 2023 City Administrative Report showed that the proposed project already then was estimated to be $2 million over budget.

Another costly impact and unintended consequence of the current design is all parking along the west (NHS) side of Maricopa Hwy has been eliminated to make room for the raised concrete bike lane extending 15 up to feet into Maricopa Hwy. A deal to provide parking could not be reached with Ojai Valley Land Conservancy. It was estimated to cost the City $400,000, which is not in the city’s current budget. At this time, there is no replacement parking at all.

But there are also public safety impacts. The dangerous impact and unintended consequence of the elimination of vehicle lanes is the damage to infrastructure critically needed for evacuation purposes during wildfires. Residents in Meiners Oaks, the Arbolada, and unincorporated County residents will all converge on the 5-STOP. With a single vehicle lane on Maricopa Hwy those residents will never reach the ‘Y’.

The raised concrete bike lane will prevent a 2nd escape lane, and during wildfire there are insufficient numbers of public safety personnel to direct traffic, as those persons are fighting the fire. The official report from the Camp Fire in Paradise, CA talked about this very issue.

“Having served as an expert witness in 60+ litigation cases relating to design, construction, and infrastructure, I do not believe a judge or jury will decide that eliminating vehicle lanes in a fire-prone region was a smart idea,” Weinstein concluded.

Finally: the overwhelming majority of deaths in Paradise during the Camp Fire and in the recent Lahaina Fire in Hawaii occurred in vehicles occupied by those over 65 years of age.

Are Ojai officials choosing an ideological blueprint that will result in seniors dead in their cars during an evacuation and the entire town burning to the ground? Perhaps the 500 miles that Paradise is away from Ojai make it hard to envision what their decisions might result in.

As always – Lacrimonia.Com reports and our readers decide. Follow us on Facebook to receive notifications when we publish articles.

Below: the Thomas fire burning behind the aforementioned Vons shopping center in Ojai in 2017

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