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Car Free in Carrboro

Living without a car in small town NC

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pedestrian safety

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.

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

A sign that makes me say “heck yes”

A short & sweet post on this gorgeous Friday, folks. I’ll share with you this sign (see featured image for this post, above) that I saw last weekend while visiting Richmond. I found this gem on the entrance to the pedestrian bridge to Belle Isle.

I just love 1) the expressions on the little stick people’s faces, and 2) the admonishment at the bottom: “In an accident, moving vehicles are at fault.” Heck yes.

If you’re ever in Richmond, make it a point to visit Belle Isle, it’s a joy. Maybe that’s because of this sign! (Hah). Or, maybe that’s because in addition to the captivating views of the James River and shady paths, there are no cars on the island – just pedestrians and the occasional cyclist. Something to think about…

Oh, and for those of you curious about how I got to Richmond from Carrboro without a car:

Trip: Chapel Hill, NC to Richmond, VA (round trip)
Total trip time: 5 hours x2
Total trip distance: 164.2 miles x2
Mode: Bus
Line: 405 and Megabus
Frequency: 405 ~every 60 minutes and Megabus ~4x per day
Cost*: $25 Megabus roundtrip + $2.25 GoTriangle 405 + $17 Uber** = $44.25
Level of crowding: Very
Trip quality: 3 of 5 stars
+ for cost, ability to actually get to Richmond by bus, and convenience of Durham station
– for Megabus delay, random stop halfway through the ride to Richmond, and comfort

*New field
**When I returned back to Durham Station on Labor Day Monday, the buses weren’t running because of the holiday, so I had to Uber back to Carrboro.

 

Opportunity to provide input on Chapel Hill’s Mobility and Connectivity Plan

Chapel Hill is currently developing a Mobility and Connectivity Plan which should be completed in 2017. According to their website:

Do you walk, bike, run and wheel around Chapel Hill? The Town of Chapel Hill wants your input in developing a Mobility and Connectivity Plan that will recommend connections to significant destinations, close gaps in walkability, and encourage healthier and more active behavior in residents and visitors. The study will be an overall network exercise, looking at bicycle, pedestrian, and greenway connectivity.

There are plenty of opportunities to provide your input on what the priorities for the plan should be:

  • Take their short survey.
  • Join me tonight, Tuesday September 6th, for a drop-in public input session between 4pm and 7pm (you can drop in any time and stay as long as you like) at the Chapel Hill Public Library Meeting Room A.
  • Add your comments to the interactive wiki map.

Hope to see some of you tonight at the input session!

Reflections on why I’m here

My big takeaway from my first day of classes last week, other than wow I can’t believe I’m here yayayayay was the realization that I don’t have a succinct way to describe my planning interests.

Let me first clarify something. I don’t think that being able to “succinctly” or “articulately” describe my passion differentiates me in any negative way from my classmates. We’re all first year students, and we’ve all had different pathways to planning, to this degree, and to Carolina.  We speak different languages (literally) and use different vocabularies that reflect our life experience. So, some of us are going to come across as a little more “polished” than others. I use these words in quotes because they are reductive, relative terms based on perceptions, and they don’t form great basis for judging ourselves or others.

Okay, now back to my desire to be succinct and articulate.

For years, as I was considering graduate school for planning, I found myself telling people “I just love transit.” (True.) Then it evolved to something like “I don’t have a car, and I just think that’s really important, you know? Cars are killing us.” (Also true, but not very clear as to what should be done about that.) And then it morphed to “I’m going to graduate school to study transportation policy and planning.” (Bingo! But still very high level.)

Now that I’m here, with exciting and diverse areas of focus all around me, I find myself getting pulled in so many directions. Land use! Social equity! Climate change impacts! It’s okay to be interested in everything. That’s what school is for. But I also think it’s important to reflect on why I became interested in planning, why I came to this program, and what impact I’m hoping to make on the world when I leave.

So here goes:

  • Equity. I want to learn more about why inequality exists and what can be done to mitigate it and prevent it entirely, across the entire planning spectrum (housing, transportation, land use, economic development, etc.).
  • Pedestrian safety. I had a bit of a lightning-bolt moment last week that safety is at the root of everything I’ve been geeking about over the past few years. It probably warrants its own post. Every time I cringe about beg buttons or yell at someone for rolling through a crosswalk without stopping or feel unsafe walking alongside large buildings with blank walls, it’s because there’s a safety issue at hand.
  • Transportation as a civil right. I need to refine this one a bit more, but essentially I believe that having access to where you need to go is a fundamental human right, and that unless we stop basing that on personally-owned single-occupancy vehicle trips, our health and our economy and our planet are in trouble.

Those are my first-week thoughts. I’ll keep refining my elevator speech (you can take the girl out of consulting…) and learning as much as I can, and of course sharing it here!

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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