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Car Free in Carrboro

Living without a car in small town NC

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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.

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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)

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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.

Thoughts from the APA-NC Conference

Last week I had the privilege of attending the North Carolina Chapter of the American Planning Association’s conference in Asheville, NC. I wasn’t originally planning to go, but how could I pass up a trip to Asheville?! In addition to the gorgeous mountain setting, vibrant downtown (with breweries aplenty), and a roadtrip with new friends, there would of course be the chance to meet practicing planners and to hear from folks outside of the UNC/Chapel Hill bubble.

I was at the conference for 2 days along with about 20 of my fellow DCRP students. I attended 5 sessions and made a connection with 4 practicing planners (yay, networking!). I also ate 3 biscuits and visited 2 breweries but you’ll have to ask me about those separately (omg the biscuits…).

Here are some of my takeaways from the sessions I attended:

  • Ensuring that community members, stakeholders, planners, developers, elected officials, etc. are speaking the same “language” when it comes to discussing options for planning is critical. One way to do this is to include terminology sessions in the community outreach process. For example, the community cannot make decisions about prioritizing a transit system’s ridership vs. its coverage without knowing what those two terms mean first. This is something we’ve also talked about in my PLAN740 class and it was cool to see it put into action in Wake County. —Strategies for Building Community Vision – The Wake County Transit Plan Process (Tim Gardiner, Teresa Gresham)
  • Walkability is measured in many different ways. One way I hadn’t heard before was to think about planning for walkability in terms of 1) adjoining land uses, 2) connections to other modes, and 3) barriers such as missing sidewalks. I also got to hear about Durham’s Station Area Strategic Infrastructure Study (SASI) where they are assessing pedestrian and cyclist circulation around future planned light rail stations (10+ years out!). This is wonderful because the light rail project won’t spontaneously generate adequate pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure, so it needs to be planned for ahead of time in order to make light rail successful. This is the opposite of what they did with the silver line Metro stations in Tyson’s Corner, VA. —Is Your Community Really Walkable? Find Out and Fix It (Dick Halls, Paul Joyner, Garrett Artz, Scott Whiteman)
  • Another session was a panel with a few of the authors from the Carolina Planning Journal‘s 2016 issue on just creativity (emphasis on “just”, as in justice). I found the discussion of the American Tobacco Trail’s history as a divider of the community fascinating, and an example of great regional planning that was missing local level engagement, thus the project is not as successful as it could have been. Throughout the panel discussion were critiques of Richard Florida’s Creative Class and the missing ingredient from his agenda for the city, which is justice. I’m biased because the Carolina Planning Journal is run out of my program, DCRP at UNC, but it was the best session I went to all week.  —Just Creativity: Perspectives on Creative Placemaking (Julia Barnard, Kofi Boone, Ben Hitchings, Carly Hoffmann, Adam Levine, Rachel Wexler)

DCRP students are, as a rule, brilliant and social justice oriented. As such, we identified some things about the conference that we’d change, if we ruled the world:

  • Lack of racial & ethnic diversity of conference presenters and attendees. I couldn’t find demographic information for APA-NC members specifically, but according to the Census data, North Carolina is about a quarter non-White. The panelists didn’t reflect this, but it is imperative to hear from people who are representative of the state’s makeup, especially as we continue to grow and become increasingly diverse.
  • Lack of gender diversity of conference presenters and attendees. Of the 5 sessions I attended, 3 were all-male panels and another session had only one woman. If DCRP is any indication of what the future of planning looks like (lots of women among the first years), in a few years this should be in balance.
  • Absence of social justice in the conference session topics. The only session that discussed equity and justice openly was the one (mentioned above) put on by the Carolina Planning Journal. This shows me that justice is not at the forefront for many practicing planners in North Carolina. If equity was a major aspect of projects it would be something we’d hear about at a conference, right?

Overall, a great conference and I’m glad I went! I also had many observations about Asheville itself, including the walkability, reflections on how the city is growing, the walkability, the beg buttons and crosswalks, and the walkability. It deserves its own post, so look for that in the coming days!

Trip: Carrboro to Asheville (round trip)
Total trip time: 3.5 hours x2
Total trip distance: 217 miles x2
Mode: Car (Note: there is no public transportation option between the Triangle and Asheville, except for an airplane)
Line: N/A
Frequency: N/A
Cost: $10 contribution to gas
Level of crowding: Traffic was light both ways
Trip quality: 4 of 5 stars
+ for convenience, speed, and gorgeous mountainous country route
– for no public transit option

“Guerrilla Wayfinding” Signs in Durham

I went to Durham last week to see a Durham Bulls baseball game. On my way to the stadium (by the way, check out my tweets from my journey on the 405 bus at #carfreeincarrboro) I noticed these signs:

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How cool are those? You are able to tell, in an instant, something that even Google Maps takes a bit of searching to find you – where you are in relation to the nearest attractions. You might not know you were looking for jazz, but my goodness, now you have to go check it out! I imagine businesses would support these as well – especially if they are hidden from sight behind bulkier buildings or around a corner.

They are printed on the cheap on corrugated plastic and can be updated or rearranged easily. They are a supplement to Durham’s official wayfinding signs which point to city destinations and denote districts. I’d call these unofficial plastic signs “guerrilla wayfinding.”

I was describing these to a fellow Department of City & Regional Planning (DCRP) student and wondering who was responsible. He informed me that the folks in Durham copied these guerrilla wayfinding signs from Hillsborough, and that the ones in Hillsborough were put there as part of a Masters Project from a DCRP grad back in 2012. I haven’t been able to find a record of his or her Masters Project, but once I do I’ll link to it here.

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