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Car Free in Carrboro

Living without a car in small town NC

Try out the Car Free Calculator

If you’re curious how much money you’d save on your most common trips if you took transit instead of driving, this calculator will let you plug in your information (about you, your car, and your trips) and will tell you the costs.

Car Free Diet Calculator

Enjoy!

Over the culvert and through the woods, to Eastgate Shopping we go

My land use and environmental policy class met this morning at the Starbucks in the Eastgate shopping center in Chapel Hill. We met with a DCRP alum who gave us some insight into the development that’s happening in the area, their new form-based code, and context for the repeated flooding they’ve experienced. Part of the reason for the flooding (although as our speaker pointed out, a lot of it has to do with what’s happening upstream) is that the entire shopping center is built on top of Booker Creek. We spent a few minutes looking at the huge culvert where the creek runs underneath the parking lot.

My biggest takeaway was that although single-family residential development has floodplain restrictions (e.g., new residential development can’t go in a greenfield that’s a floodplain), commercial development has no such restriction. While the owners of Eastgate couldn’t necessarily build in the same manner today because of the new form-based code and other stormwater management regulations for protecting the Booker Creek watershed, they wouldn’t be prohibited from developing in the area solely based on its potential (and history) of flooding.

Trip: Carrboro to Eastgate
Total trip time: 40 minutes (15 walking, 15 waiting, 10 riding)
Total trip distance: 3.4 miles
Mode: Bus
Line: CL
Frequency: Approx. once per hour
Cost: $0
Level of crowding: Nearly empty
Trip quality: 5 stars
+ for directness, on-time performance, speed, and price

Trip: Eastgate to UNC Campus
Total trip time: 13 minutes (4 walking, 1 waiting, 8 riding)
Total trip distance: 3 miles
Mode: Bus
Line: D
Frequency: Every 20 minutes
Cost: $0
Level of crowding: Moderate
Trip quality: 5 stars
+ for convenience, on-time performance, frequency, speed, and price

The featured image is not of Eastgate Shopping Center. Although this is maybe what my subconscious sees when I think about going there.

Post-Election

Sorry for the radio silence (blog silence?) this week. The election results hit me and the rest of the planning grad student community here pretty hard.

Among the many things on my mind is what the future of transportation planning looks like in the new administration. Streetsblog sums it up in their piece this week, Democrats Who Embrace the Trump Infrastructure Plan are Deluding Themselves. While infrastructure has been a campaign focus, and  make the argument that infrastructure probably means more highways, highway expansions, and projects that appease rural rather than urban voters (although rural appeal isn’t a problem by itself). Essentially, transit and biking/walking improvements will have little political appeal and little incentive for private investment (can’t put a money-generating toll on a bike lane, can you?), and if there are significant federal spending cuts, that leaves us with potentially no funding for transit, biking, or walking projects.

Not sure what that means going forward, but just one more thing to think about.

Guest Post: Getting Pulled Over on a Bicycle

I’m proud to introduce this guest post by my classmate Nate Seeskin. Nate, thanks for writing up your experience and sharing it with the blog!


I never thought I’d see the day: a cop pulled me over while I was on my bicycle. It was around 1:30 PM on a sunny Tuesday, August 30th of this year. Ironically, I had just left a group meeting for my Pedestrian and Bicycle Transportation Planning class (Katy is in this class with me). I was biking on Cameron Avenue toward Columbia Street on UNC’s campus, heading home for an afternoon’s rest.

For anyone who doesn’t know this stretch of Cameron Avenue well, let’s just say that biking, driving, and walking on it is incredibly frustrating; during the morning and afternoon, students zig-zag across the street left and right as they head to classes, sometimes on the designated crosswalks and sometimes not. Cars and bicycles weave around each other make limited-visibility turns on tiny side streets. The intersection at Columbia and Cameron also has a “scramble” signal that allows pedestrians to cross the whole intersection diagonally to make their way onto campus, which can be a new and confusing experience for drivers and cyclists alike.

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Image: Maps.UNC.edu

So how did I get pulled over? I was biking westward on the on-campus stretch of Cameron when two cars in front of me stopped for pedestrians in a crosswalk. Being somewhat impatient and seeing that many more pedestrians would cross before the cars could begin to move, I decided to pass these cars on the left and go through the crosswalk. All of a sudden I heard it: the blast of a cop’s siren. I pulled over to find that on a motorcycle was a Chapel Hill Police officer, not UNC Public Safety, ready to berate me. DRAT! After taking my ID, the cop luckily decided not to ticket me, framing this as an educational opportunity (which I learned the day before is one of the 5 E’s of bicycle planning: Engineering, Education, Encouragement, Enforcement, and Evaluation. Many add Equity as the 6th “E”). The officer reminded me that when I’m on the road, I must follow the rules of all other vehicles and that any violation would receive the same penalty as an automobile.

At the time, my heart was racing, but after the incident  I tried to find some humor in it. How often are we cyclists and pedestrians legally penalized for breaking street rules? That being said, I think there are some valuable reflections. First, I want to acknowledge that yes, I did commit a street violation and the cop was right in pulling me over. That being said, my breaking the law at that moment fits into a much greater picture of street behavior on UNC’s campus, in Chapel Hill, and all throughout North Carolina and the US at large. Roads in Chapel Hill and throughout the Research Triangle are generally not bike-friendly and are designed for the uninhibited movement of cars (surprised? If you read CarfreeinCarrboro regularly, probably not). When I shared this story with my classmates in my graduate program, numerous individuals expressed how stressful biking on Cameron Avenue can be.

I try my best to follow all street rules, especially when riding my bicycle. I usually stop at traffic lights, use hand signals to communicate with pedestrians, drivers, and other cyclists, and always wear my helmet. Not only does it ensure my and everybody else’s safety, but it builds goodwill toward other users of the road. That being said, I have broken rules and made mistakes like all other road users do.

Many of you reading this post who do not bike routinely might still think “Gosh bikers break the rules all the time and are the worst”. If you think that, I urge you to continue reflecting about our roles on the road. In order to ensure our safety, as pedestrians, drivers, public transit users, and cyclists, we must all come to see each other as equals on the road with needs that are different from one another. What those needs are can lead into another blog post if not many more. For now, I’ll just say this: in a world with better infrastructure for all users of the road, I, as a cyclist should not have to instinctively resort to moving past two stopped cars. We need designated places on the road. I wouldn’t have been pulled over if there was a less frustrating area to bike through.

Little Boxes on a Hillside: A Review of New Urbanism

Originally posted on Carolina Angles on October 17, 2016. Authored by Mia Candy.

As a design and development practice, New Urbanism (NU) emerged in response to widespread suburban sprawl across the United States. The movement seeks to create vibrant, healthy, and sustainable communities through human-scale urban design. NU’s fundamental tenants include walkability, connectivity, mixed uses, architectural diversity, green infrastructure, and increased density. But its rise in popularity since the 1980’s has not been without controversy. Critics of NU have argued that the approach does little to alleviate our pervasive reliance on cars, and that the faux architectural diversity feels contrived, even creepy.

southernvillagemap
Land Use map of Southern Village, a New Urban neighborhood in Chapel Hill, NC. Credit: Chapel Hill Planning, 2005.

I spend a good deal of time debating the merits of NU, but have never really considered it as an option for myself. I don’t own a car, and despite their best efforts, New Urbanists have yet to convince me that these developments are sufficiently walkable, bikeable, and accessible via transit. But life is strange, and two months ago I found myself moving into a New Urbanist apartment, on a New Urbanist street, in a New Urbanist neighborhood. Because I am a plannerd, I decided to use this as a research opportunity. I have spent the last couple of months conducting a series of (qualitative) (spontaneous) tests in order to evaluate my assumptions about NU, and to get a feel for the lived experience of the thing.

Test # 1: Get Milk (Amenities)

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Weaver Street Co-Op Market located at the village center. Photo Credit: Mia Candy.

My litmus test for the convenience of a place is how easily I can purchase milk at moment’s notice. A local grocery or convenience store is an indicator more generally of the level of commercial activity in a neighborhood. NU communities are designed with mixed use as a core principal, and my neighborhood boasts a grocery store that sells milk until 10pm every day. The grocery store is an expensive, organic co-op. It is walkable from my apartment complex, but not for the larger houses on the periphery of the neighborhood. Overall, the retail and restaurants in this development are not particularly affordable or accessible by foot. I give it a milk score of 3 out of 5.

Test # 2: Get Around (Transit and Access)

Wild Flowers.JPG
Driveway. Photo Credit: Mia Candy.

I don’t own a car. I am reliant on public transit, my semi-trustworthy 1970’s Panasonic road bike, and really generous friends/chauffeurs. I was curious to establish whether owning a car is a prerequisite for living in this particular NU community. The short answer is, unfortunately, yes. There are two regular and reliable (free!) bus lines that access downtown, and for the serious enthusiast, it is possible to commute by bike. Within the neighborhood, connectivity is generally good, with minimal suburban dead-ends, and a network of lovely bike/ped trails. But the bicycle, pedestrian and transit networks ultimately fall short. Buses don’t run on evenings and weekends. Bike lanes traverse large highways and gnarly intersections, and end abruptly. There are no sidewalks outside my apartment, just an expanse of parking lot. I give this NU development a getting around score of 2 out of 5.

Test # 3: Get Lost (Connectivity and Orientation)

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Walking trail. Photo Create: Mia Candy.

A key signifier of a good place is that it allows you to get lost, without ever truly being lost. Wandering aimlessly through a neighborhood is one of the small pleasures in life, and a great way to get to know a new environment. But to wander aimlessly requires streets, sidewalks, and trails that are interconnected. The endless cul de sacs1 that characterize traditional suburban subdivisions do not make for pleasant wandering. It is well known that good urban form, whether planned or organic, requires a system of paths, districts, edges, nodes, and landmarks. Or, in non-planner jargon, things in the physical environment that help us navigate the world and develop a strong memory of a place in our minds. It is these mental mapping tools that allow us to wander, and orient ourselves, in equal measure.

So I set out to get lost in my new neighborhood. I found myself able to wander for an hour through the streets, discovering convenient shortcuts and trails, all the while, aware of my general position in relation to the town square. The chapel at the center of the development serves as a convenient landmark–situated on a hill, its spire is always peeking through the trees. Despite one or two frustrating dead ends, I was pleasantly surprised by the level of connectivity. Until I emerged onto a highway and had to turn back. I give this development awanderers score of 3 out of 5.

Test # 4: Get Locked Out (Community)

This is not a test I recommend trying on purpose. But when I accidentally locked myself out of my apartment, it turned out be a useful exercise on the importance of community. Standing on a balcony, barefoot, and in my pajamas at 7:00am on a Wednesday morning, it occurred to me that I needed to be rescued. Luckily, my balcony faces the bike/ped trail that is densely populated by runners, dog walkers, and parents with strollers, pretty much throughout the day. What I needed in that moment was not only someone I could call out to for help, but a group of strangers willing to arrange a ladder, lend me their cell phones, and offer me something to drink while I waited for a locksmith. I needed community, and New Urbanism provided. I give this neighborhood ahelpful neighbor score of 5 out of 5.

Final Thoughts

What has surprised me most while living here is the level of diversity I have found in streets, and parks, and houses. I am certain that when the community was built 20 years ago, the faux architecture appeared creepy and contrived. But two decades of real, lived experience in the place has given it an almost natural feel. I discovered homes, weathered over time, paint chipping, and gardens overgrown with wildflowers. It felt – and I have no doubt that the homeowners associated would disagree with me on this – real, and lived in, and only a little bit like pleasantville.

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Mailbox outside one of the homes in Southern Village. Photo Credit: Mia Candy.

Footnotes

1The actual plural for ‘cul de sac’ is ‘culs de sac.’

Featured Image: Row houses in Southern Village. Photo Credit: Mia Candy.

About the Author: Mia Candy is a recent graduate of UNC’s planning program, and an editor emeritus here at Angles. She grew up in Cape Town, South Africa, where she first developed an interest in urbanism and the complexities of urban development in emerging cities. Mia is a placemaking consultant, and a planner at Renaissance Planning Group. Her lifelong dream is to write a children’s book.

Photo Journal: Pedestrian Experience of Nashville

This past weekend, which was fall break, I went to Nashville TN with some of the people in my program. It was a part-learning, part-recreational trip and we had a great time nerding out, playing Cards Against Urbanity, meeting local planners and advocates, and enjoying the music scene.

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Nashville Skyline

One of my favorite parts of the trip was walking around downtown with the Executive Director of Walk Bike Nashville. We gained a lot of insight about the development that’s going on in the city, what’s being done to improve pedestrian infrastructure and transit, and the pilot project on Broadway.

The pilot project involves portions of the street painted blue and blocked off from vehicular traffic and is intended to help residents and visitors imagine what the street could be like with more space for relaxing and walking. This is on one of Nashville’s busiest streets and an area of a lot of conflict for pedestrians and cars. Because Nashville’s transit system is so lacking, the thousands of people who come here every day jockey with cabs, Ubers, and police cars for control of the space (add the infamous bachelorette parties into the mix, and you’ve got street conflict). There was also a recent change to the crosswalks in this area to make them diagonal crossings, also known as “scrambles,” which halt vehicular traffic in all directions and let pedestrians cross diagonally. Folks around us seemed confused, but it’ll catch on.

Needless to say, I loved what they are doing with the pilot and hope that they can make it permanent.

Another great feature that we thoroughly explored was the Shelby Street Bridge. It’s a car-free bridge for pedestrians and cyclists that runs from East Nashville (by the Titans stadium) to the door of the Nashville Symphony downtown. It’s amazing that you can park on the other side of the river (for free) and walk over to downtown, thus eliminating the need to drive into the core. However, as Nashville grows and the parking lots around the stadium face development pressure, I’m not sure how much longer that resource will remain available.

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Shelby Street Bridge

 

All in all, Nashville’s pedestrian experience suffers from having a weak transit system (every transit rider is a walker, and forcing people to drive downtown just reinforces that roads are primarily for cars), and lots of construction means lots of missing or diverted sidewalks (like the feature photo for this post). But they have a lot of good things planned and a few great resources already in place (like the pedestrian bridge).

All photos are my own.

Car Free on Arlington Streets

The County Board of Arlington VA has approved two new street types: a car-free street and a shared street. This is great news for mobility advocates! The move will allow for the Rosslyn neighborhood and the Courthouse neighborhood (where I lived for seven years) to use these street types as they redevelop, improving awkward and unsafe streets near transit. The two new street types can also be applied elsewhere in the County (Ballston or Crystal City, perhaps?) through a community planning process and action by the County Board.

What’s a car-free street? This is a street reserved for pedestrian and bicycle access only, typically with permanent or movable bollards that physically block vehicular traffic (the movable bollards allow for emergency and construction vehicle access). Most people think of a pedestrian mall, such as the ones in Charlottesville VA or Times Square in New York City. However, a car-free street doesn’t have to be that elaborate or involve a shopping experience. In Arlington, the intent is to provide greater and safer connectivity for pedestrians on short blocks/streets.

What’s a shared street? This is a street for all modes, including low-speed vehicular traffic and sometimes transit. Typically these are designated with special pavement or pavers, no curbs or graded separation, no painted lines or bike lanes, very low posted speeds (e.g., 5 mph), and they have a human scale (i.e., people want to be there). When people salivate over Europe’s lovely small alleys and pedestrian-friendly streets, this is often the type of street they’re talking about – one where cars are welcome, but every user sort of instinctively looks out for one another and “plays nice.” I love this type of street because everyone has access (my friends can tell you about times when I have gleefully pranced on shared streets in cities such as St. Augustine FL and Portland OR). Many streets in America already behave this way, even those in the suburban NJ neighborhood where I grew up: no sidewalks, no curbs, and a mix of low-speed traffic, kids on bicycles, dog-walkers, etc.

Kudos to Arlington for adopting these two new street types – I’m surprised it took this long, but glad it’s here. I look forward to enjoying these streets when I come back for a visit.

Reading Round-Up I

Friends and readers and random Carrboro citizens who have stumbled upon this blog: I have read so many great planning and transportation articles lately. Transit mode choice research, real problems with the community input process, parking woes, social justice, and of course the ongoing coverage of the terrible flooding hitting Eastern North Carolina. I want to share them all with you.

Here’s how this is going to work: rather than dribble them out slowly over many weeks with painstaking summaries attached, I’m going to do a little round-up right here.

This is what [I think] you should be reading this week:

Happy reading!

Even for an enthusiast, learning a new transit system takes time

My dear friend EDT came to stay with me in Carrboro this week while she was in town for a conference. We both had a lot of grad school work to do, but managed to carve out some time to enjoy Carrboro and reminisce over our memories from DC.

Despite my self-identification as a transit enthusiast and general bus-system-know-it-all, when she asked me for the best route to take from Carrboro to the conference center, I had to pause…and look it up.

Full disclosure: I do not take the bus regularly here in North Carolina. Chapel Hill Transit has many, many positive qualities (#1 being that it is free, which EDT had quite a hard time believing), but taking it does not dramatically decrease the time of my “commute” to and from class, so I don’t often take it. Sure, it increases the comfort when it is super hot or rainy or freezing, but I enjoy walking 99% of the time. As a result, I haven’t reached the level of familiarity and comfort with the system that I would have if I was on it every day. I am lucky enough to live close enough to where I “work” that I can walk.

Long story short, I put her on the wrong bus. But EDT is a city-living, transit-taking pro and managed to hop quickly off of her bus and get on the bus behind it after she received my frantic text.

It served as a reminder to me that: 1) getting used to a transit system takes work – either through some dedicated memorization of maps or by putting in the time to take physical transit trips; and 2) for occasional users, this unfamiliarity and resultant fear of taking the wrong route (especially for bus) is an enormous barrier to taking transit.

Trip: Carrboro to Friday Center
Total trip time: 33 minutes, plus a few for the accidental transfer!
Total trip distance: 5 miles
Mode: Bus
Line: CW or J, and transfer to the FCX
Frequency: Between 3-14 minute headways in the morning
Cost: $0
Level of crowding: Moderate
Trip quality: 4 of 5 stars
+ for convenience, speed, and price
– for transfer and no place to sit at bus stop, plus the confusion for the occasional user (some of which was user error)

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