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Car Free in Carrboro

Living without a car in small town NC

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crosswalks

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.

Smile, You’re A Self-Driving Car

One of the questions I get as a planning student interested in transportation is “what do you think of self-driving cars?”

I haven’t fully thought out whether I’m for/against self-driving cars. I think any over-reliance on the automobile is problematic, and I wonder at what point we’ll reach the tipping point of adoption where we’ll see wider benefits (e.g., less storage needed for traditional cars). I also think that the proponents of self-driving cars should consider equity and who exactly will reap the touted benefits.

One concern that I do have from a pedestrian safety perspective is how would pedestrians be able to discern whether or not a car was aware of their presence?

As Adele Peters describes in this Co.Exist article, you know the dance: 1) You approach a crosswalk. 2) An oncoming car seems to slow down (“wow, might they possibly be obeying the law and letting me cross?” you wonder). 3) Then the driver gives a wave or head nod and you know that it’s okay to walk in front of them and they’ve seen you. 4) The car comes to a full stop and you safely enter and exit the crosswalk. You might even give them a friendly wave in return (“thanks for not running me over, neighbor!”).

But with a self-driving car…how will this work? In a brilliant answer to this problem, Semcon, a Swedish engineering firm, has developed a “smiling car” concept to communicate with pedestrians. Watch below:

Isn’t that cool?

Semcon notes that at this point, it’s just a concept. There need to be international standards for how self-driving cars communicate with their surroundings.

Photo Journal: Pedestrian Experience of Asheville

Public Input Meeting Success and My First Bus Fail

Last night I attended the Chapel Hill Mobility and Connectivity Plan public input meeting. I enjoyed the format and got a lot of good ideas for public meetings that I might host in the future. One memorable activity is that they gave each participant $1,000,000 in fake money and we had to allocate our money among projects that improve walking and biking (see the feature image on this post). I was impressed with the planning staff and the staff from Stewart Inc. (the firm supporting the town in developing the Mobility plan).

My trip to the Chapel Hill Library from Carrboro, though, was much less enjoyable. First I got on the wrong bus (the J instead of the D). Then, when I finally got on the D, I got off across from the Library and realized that the nearest crosswalk was actually at the next bus stop further on. Not the biggest deal in the world, but it was warm and I ended up extending my trip by a few minutes just walking over to the crosswalk, pressing the warning lights button, crossing, and then walking back over to where the Library path entrance was.

Granted, you can’t have a crosswalk at every single bus stop. However, considering that my destination was the town’s Public Library, I wish the street wasn’t so hazardous to cross right there.

Trip: Carrboro to Chapel Hill Public Library
Total trip time: 45 minutes
Total trip distance: 3 miles
Mode: Bus
Line: J, D
Frequency: Every 10 minutes
Level of crowding: Very
Trip quality: 3 of 5 stars (+ for directness and cost, – for confusion and lack of crosswalk)

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Why am I waiting so long at lights?

I love walking around Carrboro and Chapel Hill. Two weeks in, and the people are pleasant, the weather is starting to be less overbearing, and there are sidewalks aplenty with lots to look at and explore. I’ve been walking the 20-25 minutes to class every day and have no regrets so far.

But.

Already my pedestrian experience is stymied by a few things. I don’t want this blog to turn into a list of grievances (and it won’t – there is too much to love about being car-free here!), but as a car-free person and advocate, I do think it’s important to point out areas for concern that others may not recognize.

  • Long crosswalk wait times. Yesterday morning I waited what was at least 60 seconds (according to when I first looked at my running watch, so it easily could have been 90+ seconds) to cross at a 4-way intersection in Carrboro. I need to do more research into what the Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD) has to say about signal timing, but that seems far too long to me. This intersection is in an extremely walkable area with many restaurants, bus stops, coffee shops, grocery stores, the public library, and shops.
  • Lack of crosswalks in key directions. Another intersection that I regularly walk through is shaped like an “X” rather than a “+”. One of the “X” arms doesn’t have a crosswalk at all, so if I need to get to the other side of that street legally, I need to use 3 crosswalks and wait through 3 lighting cycles (see above super-long crosswalk wait times) to do so.
  • Beg buttons (pedestrian crossing buttons). For a comprehensive, layperson-speak overview of beg buttons, here’s a Gizmodo article. In a town as small as Carrboro that champions being bike-friendly and walk-friendly, they are unnecessary. Cars on E. Main St. should already be hyper-aware that there are pedestrians about. There are enough pedestrians (my opinion only – here’s where a study of pedestrian volumes would help, but I don’t have one to cite) to justify a timed signal. Beg buttons just don’t make sense to me, and they are all over Chapel Hill and Carrboro. To sum up how I feel about them, I’ll quote Rachel Quednau over at Strong Towns:

“I know that the beg button may not seem like a big deal, but it is yet another way that cities send a message to pedestrians: You are not normal. You don’t belong here. You need to push a button just to walk somewhere while we have built our transportation system to prioritize the free movement of cars.”

I’m hopeful –actually, certain– that over the next two years I’ll learn some radical approaches to improving pedestrian safety, access, and physical experience, and I look forward to sharing them here! In the meantime, you can find me waiting at the lights 🙂

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