I am invited to Indiana to deliver six speeches about sprawl, traffic congestion and quality of life. The first is a keynote for a “Bioneers” environmental conference, one is for the Indiana DOT and sponsored by the Indiana American Planning Association, one is part of a “National Community Planning Month & Urban Planning Scholar Speaker Series” at Bloomington City Hall, and the remaining three are sponsored by a Ball State University.
The speeches go fairly well. It feels good to again be speaking publicly after being prohibited from speaking within 100 miles of Gainesville in February 2006 by my former employer, the City of Gainesville.
I was invited to Indiana because I am the author of two books on sprawl, congestion and quality of life. My expertise is quality urban design. In my 20 years of research, visiting countless cities, and preparing development regulations for the “college town” of Gainesville Florida, I learned that quality of life is a powerful economic engine that communities most effectively leverage by providing a range of lifestyle choices from walkable urban, suburban and rural.
A friend takes me on a very interesting, pleasant bicycle ride to show me much of the urbanism and the pleasant, Clear Creek Rail Trail. This trail starts off as a very nice unpaved trail, and was a brilliant show of yellow fall leaf colors as we bicycled through a tunnel of trees and carved out rock formations. The paved sections, which today consist of a few miles worth of trail, pass through bucolic farmlands that are quiet and picturesque.
Putting my urban design hat back on once we peddled back to downtown Bloomington, I started thinking about what I see as needed city improvements.
Overall, Bloomington displays quite impressive urbanism for a town its size (about 70,000 residents). The downtown features good quality walkable urbanity featuring fairly abundant on-street parking, small and healthy retail and service shops, a very impressive and proud county courthouse (see photo below), a popular downtown farmers market, and a lively connector street to the nearby Indiana University campus.
My most important realization in my studies and career as a city planner was this: compact, lower-speed, human-scaled walkability (particularly in a downtown) is the lynchpin for achieving a sustainable, more economically healthy and pleasant future.
During my tour of urban Bloomington, it became immediately clear what measures Bloomington will need to improve its overall quality of life for its citizens, its businesses and its environment. These measures are the “low-hanging fruit” that must be incrementally achieved in the coming years for Bloomington (especially in its downtown), if the city is to realize a brighter, more prosperous and sustainable future.
Converting One-Way Streets Back To Two-Way. Creating one-way streets was popular a number of decades ago as an easy way to speed high volumes of traffic through downtown. Nationally, cities are converting these back to two-way because of the obvious problems that one-ways create. One-way streets result in a significant increase in speeding, inattentive driving, road rage, traffic infractions and motorist impatience. Former “shopping streets” (often including residences) become drive-throughs instead of drive-tos. Life for the now declining number of pedestrians, bicyclists and transit users becomes unsafe, inconvenient and unpleasant. Likewise, the street loses residences and businesses due to the more hostile conditions. The one-ways also require a great deal of extra motorist travel distance due to backtracking.
One of the many significant problems associated with higher-speed traffic produced by one-way streets is that motor vehicles tend to be the most important source of city noise pollution, and this pollution is magnified at higher speeds. Effective noise control is near the top of my list of quality of life strategies – particularly when a community seeks to promote in-town (rather than sprawl) residential development. I’m certain that a number of people who refuse to live downtown are avoiding that location because of noise problems. Therefore, noise control is essential to discourage sprawl and promote downtown residential.
Tragically, noise pollution is perhaps the most neglected form of pollution in our nation.
An important reason why noise pollution has become a growing problem is that there is a growth in the amount of uncivil behavior engaged in by citizens. In a “Me Generation,” we find that many people often act as if there is no need to be concerned about others. I was horrified recently to hear a comment a young college student gave a code enforcement officer when the officer asked why the student was maintaining an unkempt, litter-strewn front yard. The student responded by indignantly claiming that his right to litter was due to his living in a “free” country. It scares me that a large number of Americans may actually believe that uncivil behavior is a form of political liberty. “The US Constitution gives me the right to blast my stereo at 120 decibels at 2 am.”
Install Metered, On-Street Parking. In a walkable location, on-street parking must be maximized. (In particular, College Avenue and Walnut Street downtown need on-street parking.) Such parking would be extremely beneficial to downtown businesses and pedestrians (the lifeblood of a downtown). By contrast, off-street surface parking must be minimized, as it creates gap-toothed dead zones that inhibit walkability, create danger zones, and undercut the “agglomeration economies” (the concentration of jobs, residences and commercial) that a downtown requires for health. On-street parking creates safer, slower-speed, more attentive driving, provides protection for pedestrians, and offers high-quality, convenient parking for retailers. On-street parking must be properly priced (targeting an 85-percent use rate), and the parking meter revenue must be dedicated to improving the streetscape in the vicinity of the meters, rather than being dispersed citywide.
Convert Off-Street Surface Parking To Buildings. Such parking is deadening to a walkable location (particularly in a downtown), and makes retailing, office and residential substantially more costly. Surface parking — particularly when abutting streets — must be converted to active retail, residential and office buildings. Parking garages — especially when wrapped with retail — consume less parking space, and are much better for walkability than surface parking.
The tragic dilemma that cities such as Bloomington find themselves in is that most all of us are forced to drive a car (and park it) every single time we travel. By providing for cars, walking, bicycling, and transit become more difficult. Understandably, we are compelled to urge that conditions be improved for our cars. Wider, higher speed roads. Larger parking lots. Yet the “habitat” for cars is at odds with the “habitat” for people, as people tend to dislike being near high-speed roads or huge parking lots. In the end, we find ourselves becoming our own worst enemies, fighting to improve life for our cars.
The remedy is to return to the tradition we have abandoned. The tradition of designing our communities to make people happy, not cars.
Overall, Bloomington has much to be proud of. However, without incrementally taking the steps I recommend above, the quality of life for residents and retail is being severely compromised. I urge the City to start taking these steps as soon as possible.
To see more and better photos of my stay in Indiana, go to this link. When you arrive at Picasa’s website, select “slideshow” for the best view: https://picasaweb.google.com/105049746337657914534/Indiana2007#