The man with the plan

Dan Cook’s idea to install roundabouts decongested Manzanita Avenue and saved trees

Drivers who see Dan Cook standing on a roundabout in the middle of Manzanita Avenue should give him a wave. He’s done them and the environment a big favor.

Drivers who see Dan Cook standing on a roundabout in the middle of Manzanita Avenue should give him a wave. He’s done them and the environment a big favor.

Photo By Kyle Delmar

On any given weekday morning, Chico resident Dan Cook can be found standing on the roundabout in the middle of Vallombrosa and Manzanita avenues smiling broadly, coffee in hand, happily waving to hundreds of commuters driving by. Dozens wave back and say a cheery greeting to the man, unaware that he helped transform their daily drive along Manzanita Avenue from an aggravating half-hour traffic jam to a smooth and easy five-minute cruise.

“I always get lots of children shouting ‘hello,’ and the county bus drivers are especially overjoyed,” Cook says.

This roundabout is one of the three on Manzanita that Cook helped devise from start to finish over nine long years. He beams about them as if they were his own children. During a recent interview, Cook insisted on spending the entire hour-long talk standing at this cherished island.

The roundabouts helped save more than 100 beautiful, mature trees from elimination. Because of them, the city of Chico did not go forward with its original plan to pour tons of concrete and asphalt all along the scenic, two-mile stretch of Manzanita that passes in front of the Hooker Oak Recreation Area. Additionally, they saved commuters hours of time spent in traffic jams weekly, and the pollution that results from them.

Cook is a 77-year-old retired civil engineer laureate who just happens to live on the corner of Manzanita and Vallombrosa with his wife, Nell. A former triathlete, he stays extremely fit working around his property and bicycling. He has a full head of neatly combed, light-colored hair. Cook is easygoing and quick to smile and laugh heartily.

Like legendary architect and philosopher Buckminster Fuller, Cook believes the best way to stop an unwanted action is not to fight it, but to propose a better plan. “It takes guts to leave the ruts,” he often says.

That’s exactly what happened in 2001 when the city, seeking to connect East Avenue and Bruce Road as part of its beltway route around the east side of Chico, proposed extending those four-lane thoroughfares along Manzanita. Cook and his neighbors formed the Manzanita Neighborhood Association determined to fight the plan.

Chicoans who drive along Manzanita Avenue near Five-Mile Recreation Area can thank Dan Cook for their shorter commute.

Photo By Kyle Delmar

Other than Highway 99, Manzanita is the only road that runs across Bidwell Park from north to south. In 2001 traffic along it—some 11,000 vehicles per day—had become overcrowded and unworkable. It was heaviest during the morning and evening rush hours because of city commuters, freight truckers and transporters of students from three nearby schools.

As fellow Manzanita Neighborhood Association member and current City Council candidate Mark Sorensen humorously puts it, “The area had become fully constipated.”

The stop sign at Manzanita and Vallombrosa was the worst, with traffic often backed up for 20 minutes or more. During rush hours Cook witnessed cars that sometimes took 40 minutes to drive the less than two-mile stretch from Wildwood to Bruce Road. All these idling vehicles and stop-and-go traffic caused massive pollution, reports Craig Murray, an associate civil engineer with the city. It also caused major driver frustration and was a danger to bicyclists and pedestrians.

The city’s original plan would have replaced two-lane Manzanita with a four-lane thoroughfare and required more than 200 extra feet of paving width beyond the shoulders of Manzanita to accommodate the new lanes and a row of power poles. It also called for traffic lights at Manzanita’s intersections with Wildwood, Hooker Oak and Vallombrosa. Virtually all the extra paving would have been on the eastern, Hooker Oak side of the road. A study showed that a total of 105 trees would have to be cut down.

Most of the trees are mature valley oaks. But they also include pine, sycamore, walnut and alder, among others. Many have massive, five-foot-wide trunks and reach 40 feet or higher into the Chico sky. They extend from the fire station near the entrance to Upper Bidwell Park to the intersection of Vallombrosa Avenue, just below the Five-Mile Recreation Area.

Cook’s idea was to keep the road at two lanes, but install roundabouts instead of traffic lights at those three intersections. This was several years before the first roundabouts on 8th Avenue were built, and many people, including city traffic officials, were skeptical.

Roundabouts are large, circular islands in the middle of an intersection that force drivers to slow down without the use of stop signs or traffic lights. The cars drive through slowly but steadily without the need to stop.

To supplement his proposal, Cook prepared and presented dozens of blueprints and professional scale drawings to the Chico City Council. After many months of meetings and heated debate, the council unanimously adopted the Manzanita Avenue Corridor Project in May 2002.

Many people and organizations would eventually help bring Cook’s original proposal to fruition. “But the idea was 100 percent mine,” Cook says.

Sorensen concurs.

“It’s an understatement to say that Dan was a major influence on this project,” he said.

The completion of theroundabouts and the Manzanita Avenue Corridor has proven that eco-friendly roundabouts are a very viable alternative to street widening for smoothing the flow of traffic. And, because they eliminate the threat of T-bone accidents caused by people who run red lights or stop signs, they are much safer.

Today, work on the project is complete. Cars drive smoothly along Manzanita with virtually no traffic blockage. And the trees are still there, beautifying the corridor and cleansing the air.

Another bonus: The roundabouts saved the city somewhere between $1 million and $2 million in construction costs, Murray says.

Cook recounts many stories of residents who tell him he has given them back their peace of mind.

He explains that the roundabouts on Manzanita are “enhanced,” unlike the ones on 8th Avenue. They have extra-wide sidewalks for pedestrian and bike safety, and foliage that shields residents from headlights at night. To make the project even more people-friendly, two separate trails for bikes along Manzanita were created, and trails under the Vallombrosa-Manzanita bridge allow pedestrians, bicyclists and horses to cross underneath.

Cook is extremely proud of how it all turned out. His eyes tear up when talking about it.

“I have truly lived the impossible dream,” he says.