Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Heads, tales and feet

I walked to work today in what must be considered perfect weather for a 4.5-mile hike: a sunny morning, cool but not cold, blooming bulbs and dogwood trees, grass as vibrant green as the eye can absorb. And just as lovely, today I had no near-death encounters with oblivious drivers.

And those near-death encounters have all taken place where there are sidewalks. When it comes to pedestrian safety, sidewalks are vital, but they are only the beginning of the tale. When you use your feet, you also have to use your head. Every street crossing is a hazard. Every driveway is potentially dangerous. Every side street can be treacherous.

So while I was happy to learn that the Charlotte City Council decided on Monday to shift $2 million from street projects to build more sidewalk segments, no one should think that's all it takes to make the city safer for anyone on foot. Let us hope the elected officials and the staff can also turn their attention to some of the other things we lack: Safe crossings. Educated drivers.

Here are some of the hazards when you walk, even with sidewalks: Drivers who forget to look both ways before pulling out of driveways or side streets. Drivers who either don't know or don't care that you have the right of way, even if they are turning. Because I am alert to this, I did not get hit today by the woman exiting a parking lot who pulled right in front of me as I approached on the sidewalk. (I had already decided to walk behind her car, just to be safe.)

The area has seen several high-profile pedestrian deaths and injuries in the past few months. Two young boys were killed in February as they walked with their father on West Tyvola Road. An 18-year-old Garinger High student was killed trying to cross Eastway Drive near the school. A Central Piedmont Community College student was killed on South Tryon Street as he crossed to get to a bus. A Butler High School student was injured crossing the street near the high school in Matthews. In January a man was killed in uptown Charlotte, at Stonewall and College streets. The next day another pedestrian was hit there.

Almost every day as I drive to and from work along Eastway and North Tryon Street, I see people darting across those busy streets to get to bus stops or stores on the other side. One huge problem is the distance between signalized intersections. As this map shows, if you get very far outside of uptown - which to its credit remains the best urban walking area in the city - you find pedestrians get little respect. Tell people they should only cross at signals, and if the signals are a mile apart you are basically telling them to walk as much as 40 minutes extra to do so.

Here's a map the city's Department of Transportation put together about four years ago, showing on how many thoroughfare segments pedestrians have to go at least a quarter-mile (a five-minute walk) or a half-mile (a 10-minute walk) between traffic signals. You can't tell from this map, but in some places the distances are up to 2 miles.

That's not the only problem.  The intersection at Garinger High School has a signal. But it has no pedestrian crosswalks, and the intersection design allows cars to turn right from Sugar Creek Road onto Eastway without stopping at all.  Remember, this is right in front of a large high school. The school opened in 1960, and in that era the city didn't even offer school bus transportation to students. (I have a friend who graduated from Garinger, Class of 1961.) So it's fair to say officialdom has had plenty of time to realize that students might be walking to and from the high school.

Another problem: Many of Charlotte's major streets aren't owned or managed by CDOT at all, but by the N.C. Department of Transportation. Those state-owned streets include Eastway and South Tryon Street, sites of two of the recent accidents. Butler is also outside CDOT's jurisdiction.

And finally, even with sidewalks, crosswalks and pedestrian lights, drivers have to be trained to expect pedestrians, and pedestrians have to be trained to walk defensively, ever wary of motorists turning into your path regardless of who has the right of way.

That means that no one should think just building sidewalks solves the problem.Yes, build them and build more of them. But I'd invite our city council members to get out on foot in their districts around the city, to experience the pleasures of long walks on cool spring mornings, with the birds singing and the traffic humming and a sense of danger in the air.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

More recognition for Raleigh's pedestrian enthusiast

Matt Tomasulo, who instigated a creative way to highlight pedestrian issues in Raleigh, makes the big time. Bigger than the BBC? Well maybe not. But this planning-landscape architecture graduate student at N.C. State University is the (Raleigh) News & Observer's Tar Heel of the Week. I first wrote about Tomasulo on Feb. 6, inviting similar guerrilla urbanism in Charlotte. So far, I've heard of none.

However, what's has happened here has been a tragic string of pedestrian deaths, including two children on a section of West Tyvola Road that lacks sidewalks, and a Garinger High School student at an intersection at Eastway and Sugar Creek roads that lacks any crosswalks or pedestrian lights. I'll write more about that one later, but it's worth pointing out that the deaths at Garinger and on South Tryon Street were on state-maintained and state-designed thoroughfares, and the injury of a Butler High School student was in the town of Matthews.

All those deaths and injuries, including others that don't get much media attention, point to how complicated it is to encourage people in Charlotte to walk more and drive less – for reasons that include health, obesity-reduction, air pollution and saving gas money in household budgets.

We lack sidewalks, of course. But many streets that have sidewalks don't have safe and convenient street crossings, even where bus stops are heavily used or outside places like high schools where people are routinely walking. Another example of that is Wendover Road behind the rear entrance to Myers Park High School.

Drivers are so unused to seeing pedestrians they're often oblivious, and pedestrians have to be extraordinarily careful. I have personal experience with this one. Some drivers are aghast when you make them realize they nearly mowed you down. Others are mad you're there at all and get hostile, apparently unaware state law gives pedestrians in crosswalks the right of way.

In other words, making life safer and more comfortable for pedestrians means using a lot of tools: more sidewalks, more and safer crossings and more driver and pedestrian education. 

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Local food before it was cool

Doug Carrigan, with local asparagus
I was delighted this morning to find Doug Carrigan at the Charlotte Regional Farmers Market standing in front of buncles of his freshly cut asparagus. It's almost two weeks before you'd usually find asparagus at the market, but thanks to the eerily warm spring, there it was.

At his Carrigan Farms, Doug Carrigan has been growing asparagus and pick-your-own strawberries outside of Mooresville ("Intersection of 150 & 152" says his business card) for several decades. "I was local food before local food was cool," he quipped this morning.

Now that local foods are thoroughly cool – or really hot, choose your cliche – I asked him what changes he's seen in the 30 years he's been farming. I expected him to say something about people being more interested in a broader range of vegetables, heirloom varieties, more local outlets to sell his bounty, etc. etc. No.

Used to be, he said, people would come out and pick quarts and gallons of strawberries, take them home and put them up: preserve or freeze them. Nowadays, he said, people just buy a few. "They don't even know how to make a pie," he said. If he could sell them by the slice, they'd buy that, he said.

I bought strawberries at the market, too – the first picking. No pies though. I am eating them right from the container.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

From 1893, an eerily prescient view

I'm at the N.C. State University's Urban Design Forum and speaker Susan Piedmont-Palladino
just quoted a quote from the 1893, as recounted in a 1994 book by Claude S. Fisher, America Calling
The 1893 writer was envisioning what the telephone would do to life in America a century later – that is, by 1993:

"Families would live on scattered homesteads, neighbored only by people of like 'sentiment and quality,' would conduct their work electronically, and would meet one another only on ceremonial occasions."

Let's see: half-acre lots in single-family-home neighborhoods all built at the same price point, tele-commuting, and a social life that depends on private gatherings such as parties, neighborhood festivals, social club galas, and other sporadic social outings.

It's not a perfect prediction, of course, but holds more truth than many "future" predictions I've heard and read over the years. And note, it's about a communications innovation, the telephone.

For the record, I am still waiting for the jet-cars we were supposed to get by 1984, according to those Weekly Readers of my childhood.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Why did the chicken cross the 'stroad'?

The inventive Charles Marohn has coined, or at least well-publicized, a badly needed word for those paved places in most U.S. cities that you find where a city street ought to be but that are designed like highways: stroad. In this piece in Better! Cities & Towns (the video at the end about traffic engineering is highly recommended), he writes:

"A STROAD is a street/road hybrid; the futon of transportation alternatives. It functions neither as a road that moves people quickly between two places nor as a street that provides a platform for capturing value. As such, STROADs are the most financially unproductive type of transportation corridor that we can build; they cost a ton, but financially yield very little return for the governments that must pay to maintain them."

A quick Google search found several references to stroads, so I hope the term is catching on. It's a good, tongue-in-cheek way to make the point that U.S. cities and traffic engineers have confused the purposes of city streets and country roads. I wrote about this in 2009, after years of getting more and more fretful at the confusion between streets and roads.

Monday, March 5, 2012

'The divided city is a subjugated city'

Last weekend, the book I took to the Dowd YMCA to take my mind off the mindlessness of stationary bicycling was Mindy Thompson Fullilove's "Root Shock: How Tearing Up City Neighborhoods Hurts America, and What We Can Do About It.

Fullilove's theme is that urban renewal displaced not just homes and businesses but ripped apart essential community networks, the loss of which created havoc for people, neighborhoods and cities.
As I pedaled, I could see out the windows to the Interstate 277 trench and the bland, dead area beyond, where Charlotte's Second Ward once held the lively, black neighborhood called Brooklyn, erased by urban "renewal" in the 1960s and 1970s.

Only shards remain: the old McCrory Y gym survives behind the United Way building, as does the old Second Ward High School gym. A sliver of storefronts survives on South Brevard. All else was leveled. The trauma urban "renewal" inflicted on Charlotte remains virtually unexamined here outside the recollections of the older black generation. A few efforts have been made to document where houses and buildings used to be and to collect and showcase old photos, but to my knowledge no one has studied the emotional and economic toll: the resentment, anger and grief people experienced from that disruption, and how its ripples affect the city to this day.

And as Fullilove explains, wounds from urban "renewal" damaged more than just the neighborhoods she studied in Roanoke, Va., Pittsburgh and near Newark, N.J. I came across this wonderful passage. It comes after a description of Orange, N.J., and a church singing group that survived urban "renewal" and lives on, although the neighborhood surrounding the church has fallen into decline.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Feed the meter with a cell phone app

Short of quarters? Next week Charlotte launches a  program to let you use your cell phone to pay for on-street parking.

According to a city memo sent Friday to Charlotte City Council members, the program will have a "soft launch" Thursday and a "hard launch" in April. According to the memo:

The cell-phone-payment system will be available at both parking meters and the pay stations located on some uptown streets.

To use it, you have to register with the Pay by Cell service provider, at www.parkmobile.com. Registration is free, although each pay-by-cell transaction costs a 35-cent fee to Parkmobile USA.

To pay, you would:
Find a parking spot. Then either launch a mobile app, access the Internet or call toll-free, 1-877-727-5301. You enter the parking zone number on the meter or nearby sign or the pay-station stall number. Choose the parking time desired.

You could extend the time you choose, via another transaction, but not beyond the two-hour limit.
The city memo cautions that parking meters won't display the payment and time remaining, although the city's handheld ticketing equipment will let ticket agents know the customer's payment.

Will the 35-cent fee deter people? Hard to say: I'm a penny-pincher and I try to keep my ashtray stashed with quarters. But if you're facing a choice of on-street-with-fee or expensive parking deck, 35 cents may be an easy hurdle to take.

An aside: I first saw the pay-by-cell-phone parking fees in Sofia, Bulgaria, and wondered how long before Charlotte began using it. And I have seen pay-by-cell-phone signs posted in some of the privately owned surface lots uptown, so it's clear the technology is finally arriving here.