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The 'Healthiest and Happiest City in America' Continues to Build Bicycle Infrastructure

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The new path officially opened on February 18th | Photo via City of San Luis Obispo

Earlier this month in San Luis Obispo, cyclists, city leaders, air quality officials, environmentalists and a developer held a celebration inside the eccentric and quirky local landmark that is the Madonna Inn. On this particular rainy Friday, the cheers were about the city's latest addition in bicycle infrastructure: a scenic paved three-quarter-mile bicycle path spaciously wedged between the inn and the 101 Freeway that lets cyclists and pedestrians avoid traveling a busy city artery and two of its hairy intersections.

Such an improvement is no surprise for this Central Coast town that has been in the spotlight -- the "Oprah Effect" and all -- for the last few months. In October, National Geographic published a book about finding happiness, and one place to find that is here. In the book, author Dan Buettner explained:

San Luis Obispo offers a clear example of how an American community can proactively change itself to create an environment where people live longer, happier lives. A student group galvanized citizens to push through a project that created a cultural and social focus for the city and, in so doing, improved the quality of its government. With more citizen participation, the town's focus shifted away from optimizing the business environment to maximizing quality of life. As a result, San Luis Obispo gained a more aesthetically pleasing downtown, with less traffic, less pollution, more gathering places, protected green spaces, a farmer's market, thriving arts, and an environment where it's harder to do things that are bad for you (smoke, eat fast food) and easier to do things that are good for you (walk, eat vegetables, recreate in nature, bike). The result is arguably the healthiest and happiest city in America.

Buettner in Thrive: Finding Happiness the Blue Zones Way explains that San Luis Obispo's ban on smoking, drive through restaurants and intrusive commercial signage, and city planning focused on creating more social interaction, recreational opportunities, and non-motorized modes of transportation make it a blue zone, an area where the happy population tends to suffer lower rates of heart disease and cancer, living a longer life.

The nearly 11 square mile city currently hosts 34 miles of on-street bike lanes, a bicycle boulevard, bicycle corrals and about six miles of dedicated bicycle path, with more coming down the pipeline.

Albeit short, the Madonna Inn path is a critical link. Before, cyclists traveling between downtown and the city's westside on Higuera Street had to navigate past two freeway on-ramps and a number of intersections. Now, much of that is avoided.

Dan Rivoire of the SLO County Bicycle Coalition called the path a major step, but would like to see it continued to a nearby middle school so students have a safer route. He also lauded the process that beget the path, calling it "an excellent collaboration" between a private entity and public agencies.

The city's Principal Transportation Planner agrees. "It was this incredible partnership," Peggy Mandeville said, explaining that Madonna Enterprises, owner of the inn and a local developer, was given a list of mitigation measures for a shopping center they were planning to build. One option was to build the path on their property and they took it.

"They realized it's an asset for the city, but also for them," said Rivoire.

City officials want make sure their award winning bike plan is updated every five years, making it eligible for state grant funding. The next one must be in place by 2012 and it appears they won't miss that deadline, in part, thanks to the focus of their vision, which reads, "By 2026, all San Luis Obispo residents shall have access to a safe and well maintained network of interconnected bikeways."

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