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Car Free in Carrboro

Living without a car in small town NC

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walkability

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.

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Land Use for the Non-Traditional Family and the Caregiving Economy

I’m still discovering that planning is everywhere. For example, one place I never thought it would show up was in a publication by the AARP. Now that I’ve looked into it, it makes sense. But I think that I (and unfortunately, many other decision-makers and folks in planning) didn’t “get” how aging impacts what our cities and places should be.

The piece that inspired this line of thinking is an article about how land use could be made better for women, families, caregivers, and older adults. AARP interviewed Mildred Warner, a professor of planning at Cornell, and she shared some fascinating insights into how planning and land use has failed us.

Historically, segregated land uses (meaning, for example, that an area can be residential and nothing else) have prevented childcare services from being located near homes and prevented the development of mixed-use centers where you can live, work, and play. This reflects a bias toward planning for commerce and not the informal economy of parenting and caregiving. It also reflects a lack of interest in explicitly planning for children or the elderly. For example, while we all know that parks are great for communities, have we really thought about what constitutes an amazing environment for a child or an elderly person? That environment probably includes a park, yes – but if it’s a park you have to drive to or that doesn’t have good paths or connections to surrounding services or schools, how well is it really serving us?

I think the new movement toward walkability and livable communities puts us in the right direction. There’s money and economic development in deploying those strategies in your community, sure – but there are also the benefits of an increased quality of life for those who are growing up or aging in place. We all were children, and some of us will be lucky enough to grow old, and our communities should be places where we can live and be taken care of regardless of our economic contributions, mobility, income level, etc.

To put it bluntly, land use regulations need to reflect a variety of living situations (e.g., cohabitation by people other than nuclear families with breadwinners), allow for zoning that enables walkability and a mix of uses, and requires a land use-transportation connection for accessibility and mobility.

I also loved Mildred’s parting thoughts on family definitions. She asks:

“Who are we to decide what constitutes a household or a family? Is it really appropriate for planning and zoning to restrict how people live together?”

I couldn’t agree more.

A win for better zoning from the White House

Earlier this week, the White House released a Housing Development Toolkit with recommendations that are supposed to spur more affordable housing development.

Exciting for me is that the White House says: “smart housing regulation optimizes transportation system use, reduces commute times, and increases use of public transit, biking and walking.” Yes! In lay-person-speak, the White house is saying that housing should be located near transit (sounds like a “duh” moment, but just think about how many new housing developments are built wayyyy out in suburban and rural areas instead of in transit-served locations).

Another thing that I love about the toolkit is that it makes explicit the link between multi-family housing and walkability. How are the two connected, you ask? Well, single-family housing is less dense, so destinations are farther apart. Taking an extremely reductive personal example: when I was growing up in New Jersey, I could walk to my friend AG’s house which was across the street and 3 houses down, and it probably took me a few minutes. But when I lived in an apartment in Virginia, walking to see my friend KF in my building meant a 30-second walk, tops. Extrapolate this to a city-wide level and clearly the denser we can build, the more walkable things will be.

The last thing about this toolkit that I love is the recommendation to eliminate off-street parking requirements. Parking can cost $5,000 per surface spot and $60,000 per underground spot to construct. These costs are, of course, passed along to the residents whether they own a car or not, and they reduce housing affordability.

Streetsblog also has a great summary of the White House’s recommendations if you’re interested in reading more.

Thanks, Obama! (But really).

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

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!

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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