Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Grasping for Silver Bullets

Stephens Media reports that the folks at (the inconveniently-named) Move Arkansas Forward are gearing up to push for a half cent increase in the state sales tax next year that would partially fund $1.8 billion in new highway construction and expansion over the next ten years. The asphalt boosters in the state Chamber of Commerce and the Highway Commission want us to pay for a statewide grid of four lane highways and add capacity to some existing roads even though we already have one of the most extensive state highway systems in the country. And they're selling the whole scheme to us in economic development terms, so it's harder for people to question the plan without getting labeled as anti-growth Scrooges. But I'm going to try. Instead of wasting money on the same old-fashioned false hope that we can tax-and-pave our way to prosperity we should seriously consider investments we can make in Arkansas's infrastructure that will increase choice for its citizens, make its economy more efficient and resilient, strengthen its communities and the ties between them, and genuinely improve the state.

Arkansas already has more than 16,000 miles of state highways; California, the 8th largest economy in the world (right between Italy and Brazil), has only about 300 more (and California's measurement includes planned roads that they haven't even been built yet). That equates to about 29.5 linear feet of state highway per person in Arkansas and about 2 feet, four inches per person in California. Put another way, California enjoys almost $115 million worth of g.d.p. from each mile of state highway while Arkansas only manages to squeeze $6 million out per mile. Of course, there are significant geographic and demographic differences between the states that account for some of the discrepancy. California's residents are more concentrated in a handful of places and the counties and local governments are responsible for a larger share of the roads out there. Plus, each mile of California's highway system contains on average more lanes than Arkansas's. But still- it's hard to say that Arkansas suffers from a lack of roads. And to add insult to injury, the people of Arkansas already learned first-hand what can happen when we spread ourselves too thin by building roads. The state defaulted on some debts back in the 1930's stemming partially from... building too many highways. Today though it appears that our leaders think flirting with a repeat of history is a great idea. We're already carrying several hundred million dollars in bond debt that funded a bit of recent construction and maintenance, but the long-term needs of the current highway system far outstrip even the rosiest of future revenue projections. And now the tar boosters want to add $1.8 billion in more lanes to that system, lanes that will undoubtably require maintenance and repaving not too far down the road (ha ha, pun intended).

"Ahhh, simple-minded, idealistic little Timmy," say the tar spreaders, "what's your worry? Everyone knows that growth always pays for itself. Once we build these next couple billion dollars worth of roads, growth and prosperity will rain down like manna from heaven, filling the state coffers with plenty of money to continue with business as usual." If that's the case, then why are we in any debt right now while maintenance needs continue their upward trajectory? Why haven't those 16,000+ miles of previous state highway projects led to a semblance of an economically-sustainable plan for funding future projects? Why did the city of Little Rock just have to pass its own $100 million sales tax increase to pay for things like road maintenance, fire stations, and police officers when Deltic Timber's Che-sprawl Valley was supposed to pay for itself without sucking people and money out of the rest of the city? Why does Pine Bluff find itself in its current condition despite being served by a big, wide four-lane interstate highway with a top-notch bypass to boot?

According to the Stephens article, Arkansas Highway and Transportation Director Scott Bennett estimates that the $1.8 billion program could create 50,000 jobs. We need a lot more information before that number starts to make any sense at all. By my maths if they spent every cent of the money on wages alone, then each of those '50,000' workers would get only $36,000, or $3,600 per year for the 10 year life of the tax. When you factor in the fact that most of the money for highway projects goes toward materials, fuel, equipment, etc., then there's even less cash for those '50,000' workers. Where does that '50,000' number come from? Projections of jobs that will magically appear because people's driving time between towns will drop by a few seconds? I don't buy it. Tell us more so that we can be informed participants in the democratic process.

Our road- and car-centric policies of the last 70-80 years have created a system in which effectively every person in Arkansas relies on private automobiles. There are a few neighborhood pockets in some towns where people can and do go about the bulk of their daily activities on foot or bike, but for most of us a car is an absolute requirement. There are a few towns too where public transportation allows people who can't afford cars to have at least a minimum level of mobility. The wide disparity between car and transit funding though leads most of us to drive whenever possible. And the result? Every Arkansawyer is basically forced to spend a huge chunk of change to buy a car every few years; pay for license, registration, and taxes; buy fuel; and pay for maintenance and repairs. Then there are a bunch of huge costs that may be harder to accurately measure but are every bit as real: the cost of time wasted driving as our cities and towns spread further and further out; the cost of decimating our downtowns to provide places to store all of our cars; the cost of the deaths and injuries caused by car crashes; and of course the costs of building and maintaining more and more roads. Some people say that the fuel cost component will be solved by advances in technology in the near future. That's swell, but what about everything else? Doc Brown's DeLorean still had to be parked somewhere when it wasn't using its Mr. Fusion generator to travel through time.

"But little Timmy, you're out of touch with reality," say the asphalt apologists. "We're a nation and state of DRIVERS. We LOVE our cars! Cars equal FREEDOM! Arkansas is too spread out for anything except cars to ever work, so we NEED four lane highways connecting all corners. You don't honestly think we can change our ways, do you?!" Yup. I do. We were a nation and state of horse riders before we decided to dive whole-hog into cars. We were a nation and state of tap-tap-taaappping telegraphers before we adopted phones. Just about every little town had a thriving opera house before movie theaters and then televisions entered our consciousness. We used to settle differences with a duel to the death. Et cetera, et cetera. Change happens. Get over it. We can either plan and prepare for change or we can try to prop up the past for a bit longer. In the current instance that prop is going to cost roughly $1.8 billion with some very large and unfunded long-term maintenance costs tacked on for good measure.

Admittedly, it's the easiest thing in the world to sit back and criticize, especially for a blogger relaxing in a warm coffee shop. So, what about solutions? Alternatives? Proposals? First of all, I agree that cars are here to stay as an indispensable component of our transportation system. Let's maintain and invest wisely though in a way that actually contributes something and in a way we can afford. We shouldn't keep blindly piling all of our eggs into that one straining basket and expect the basket to get stronger as the load gets bigger. We don't need to spend nearly $2 billion to avoid getting stuck behind some retirees driving their RV's a little below the speed limit. It's time to start investing in choice and resiliency instead. We can have economically and socially sustainable growth without paving everything in site.

A few ideas to get things started...
1. Make our towns walkable and bike-able. The car trip not taken is the most valuable one to our economy (not to mention our health and well-being). Similar to T. Boone Pickens' tree planting advice, the best time to build a bike lane was 20 years ago; the second best time is today. Just like cars to roads, if you build a well-connected, safe, and convenient network for bikes, people will choose to ride. The same goes for walking.
2. Stop building bypasses. There aren't going to be any places left to go to if we keep bypassing them all.
3. Get honest about the real costs and benefits of different types of development. The longer our cities agree to assume the long-term maintenance costs of infrastructure in new low density development without figuring out how to pay for it, the more painful the inevitable bill is going to be. This is going to sting a little, but if we keep putting it off the needle is just going to keep getting bigger.
4. Start planning for passenger rail. Prediction: some day there will be high speed rail between Dallas and Memphis/St. Louis passing through Arkansas. Rise above the nasty partisan politics of today and look around. It's hard to deny that we will reach a point of diminishing returns with roads and air travel, probably sooner than later. Investing public dollars in passenger rail will make sense then just like investing public dollars in roads and airports makes sense today. That transition will be much easier though if we go ahead and decide where the tracks and stations are going to go right now and start to promote appropriate development in those places.
5. Develop a plan for regional transit in central and northwest Arkansas. Some work has already been done, but it's time to recognize transit as a viable and indispensable part of our transportation network instead of something we provide out of a sense of obligation to poor people. From a capacity perspective 50 people choosing to ride a bus is no different from building enough road space to handle 50 extra cars. Let's fund it as such. Spend wisely though. Vintage-looking trolleys that pose well on postcards but don't provide much actual benefit are a waste of everyone's money and just fuel the naysayers' fire.
6. Replace minimum parking requirements with maximum-parking-allowed limits and price parking appropriately. Read The High Cost of Free Parking (free paper here, or the larger book that grew out of the paper here) and see the world through a whole new lens. The 'parking problem' that seems to plague every town suddenly transforms from a lack of parking into a stifling overabundance of parking that's choking the life out.
7. Start planning to decommission our urban freeways. I-630 in Little Rock and I-30 in NLR and LR are dinosaurs of a different era that should play no part in the future of the region and state. They siphon money away, don't pay for themselves, sever neighborhoods, discourage development in the immediate area, take up valuable space, and encourage sprawl that doesn't pay for itself either. Likewise, if we absolutely must build the northern loop through Camp Robinson to connect I-430 and I-440, then let's simultaneously plan for the eventual un-building of I-40 through North Little Rock. Urban freeways do more harm than good, and the cities that realize that are going to be much better positioned moving forward than the ones that just double-down in the face of uncertainty.

Connecting rural areas of the state with active transportation is a little further out on the bell curve of what's feasible, but it's not impossible. See here and here. Of course anything over a 2-3 mile bike ride becomes a chore for most people; buses need high ridership numbers to make economic sense; and train tracks only connect some parts of the state. However, #'s 1, 2, and 3 above would start us off in the right direction. When people can realistically bike and walk in a town, then a bus stop in the middle starts to make more sense. Just look at all the tiny towns across Europe connected with high quality bus service. Heck, there's a town in Austria with fewer than 1,100 people and a subway running its full length. I don't know what the answer is for Arkansas, but I do know that the best solution is not to just keep building more roads.

That's that, for now. Who's organizing the opposition to Move Arkansas Forward's $1.8 billion tax-and-pave plan next year?

Monday, December 19, 2011

The Great White Buffalo of Opportunities

Tomorrow the Pulaski Technical College Board of Trustees will make a potentially monumental decision on where to place their Culinary Institute. The Institute will likely end up on their southwest campus, near Benton/Bryant.

I’m not sure whether to be encouraged or thoroughly disheartened by this. Why encouraged, the 11 readers of this blog ask? Well, I saw the presentation Mayor Stodola gave and saw the 65 or so diverse partners who showed up to support locating the Institute downtown, many of whom gave impassioned pleas as to that end. I was impressed that the city put its money where its mouth is and in a very short period of time put together a deal that met or beat the price for placing the Institute near the edge of the city.

Disheartening, well that one’s a lot easier. This is a once in a twenty-or-so years opportunity. PTC has the opportunity to do something truly great for this city. Truly great. They can do something that will inspire development further throughout the downtown core. This will have numerous ripple affects in the way that only keystone projects can have. Like the River Market nearly twenty years prior, this project has a chance to inspire development and give confidence to investors in downtown properties. Great cities have great downtowns. Ours is moving that way, but we have a very long way to go.

Better yet, PTC has a chance to do something UALR (full confession: two-time alum here, & still paying it off) & UCA haven’t done - they can become truly integrated in the center of the city. PTC doesn’t have a low profile in the community, it has no profile for those who don’t have family or friends who attend or teach there. PTC is disconnected. It’s in Southwest Little Rock, off the freeway in a nearly industrial area. In North Little Rock it’s in the beautiful but removed Crystal Hill area. It has a lovely campus there but unlike the hill in Fayetteville, to name one place, there’s essentially nothing nearby. Locating downtown would change all of that. It would give PTC high visibility. And it would be good for the students. Their student union would essentially be downtown. 6th and Main with the Rep has two solid anchors for a creative corridor. This wise use of public funds is twinned by its incentivizing other development without other financial incentives for the nearby buildings (oh and if the Center Theater weren’t torn down, think what could be there! Alamo Draft House, anyone?)

But I fear the decision makers here are far too focused on the forest to see the trees. There appears to be a legitimate gap in financing some of the operational cost. The amount is somewhat debatable but it seems everyone on the Board of Trustees agrees that the downtown location will bring in more sales tax revenue thanks to the captured workforce who would likely eat at the student run restaurant and aid in tourism activities, particularly for the surprising large convention revenue that Little Rock has. I suspect that placing the Institute downtown would aid in student recruitment as well, not to mention build significant goodwill in any bond endeavor PTC tries to pass in the coming years.

I heard a lot about thinking about what’s best for the students of PTC. Many of these board members clearly hadn’t been students for some amount of time. The one student that spoke at the meeting expressed a clear preference for the downtown location. In fact, she said her fellow students felt the same way and she encouraged the board to reach out to the students and verify that. I’d be curious to know if that ever happened.

Sometimes things aren’t as simple as black and red. It takes the public sector to be out front on projects that benefit the community. This is an opportunity for such a project. It’s a very rare opportunity for such a project. Think of this investment as an advertising expense. The visibility and goodwill alone will pay for itself ten fold. I sure hope we don’t blow this one, as we have a tendency to do. History will judge the wisdom of such decisions. I fear it will not judge us wisely in this case. I hope I’m wrong.

UPDATE: As predicted. I think the comments on the Arkansas Blog get it right - clinging to mediocrity. The photo posted is linked from a commenter there

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

And I Thought the Chenal Rule Codified Lack of Soul

I read about some in city government's interest to revisit the 'Chenal Rule' in yesterday's paper (paywall). This despite promising 17 years ago it wouldn't widen Chenal Parkway. But hey, what's a promise, right? We've covered induced demand and why this will only further sprawl and do nothing for actual traffic. Let's think only about the car when we're spending our tax dollars on roads, right?

Well, there are a couple of relatively minor things that could be done to improve the condition if we must (and we mustn't) grow Chenal. Check out the idea of ThrU turns that that bastion of liberalism, Salt Lake City is doing. SLC, by the way, is undertaking some great smart growth efforts because they see the value of conserving our natural areas by limiting or avoiding sprawl and the fiscal sense of smart growth efforts.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Surface Parking in Downtown Little Rock

I found this on the knobs & tubes of the Internet, so I can't speak 100% to it's accuracy, but it looks pretty close. I know that three surface lots have been added since I first saw this image - two from the loss of the old Channel 4 building and another across the street from the former Channel 4 building.

This photo also doesn't include the buildings demolished on Main Street that aren't parking lots, but rather just holes in our downtown.

An Update From the State [Updated]

Via the Arkansas Blog: Anne Laidlaw, the director of the state Building Authority, says the tree removal behind the Capitol was more about avoiding damage from falling limbs from the root-compacted trees than necessarily about creating more spaces (I'm no arborist, but might the asphalt have something to do with compacted roots?). The current plan is to spend $400,000 on the tree removal, repaving, re-striping, better lighting, and more security cameras.

Still, even though the main problem as the state sees it seems to be parking-related, it sounds like there're no plans to spend any of that money in ways that would encourage people to actually do anything but drive. Everything's going to be fine and dandy once we add just a few more parking spaces and get rid of the pesky trees that might drop limbs on our cars. I shudder to think of where that logic is going to put is in a few years.

Hopefully I'll hear back from Laidlaw soon regarding the tree crew's assertion that a combination of removing the trees' traffic islands and shrinking all the spaces by 6" during the re-striping would add 100 new spots.

From Laidlaw:
The ‘paver’ island will not be replaced, however, there will be a new sidewalk and very well marked pedestrian walkways provided with crosswalks, stop signs, directional signage, speed bumps and more lighting added for improved pedestrian safety.  Islands will be limited to the ends of the parking rows to maximize the number of spaces.  Traffic flow within, in and out of the DWS lot will be also be improved. 
I am not opposed to ways to decrease traffic and improve access.  We added bike racks some time back to encourage biking and our locker rooms/showers are about to undergo improvements as well to support our MAC tenants who may choose an alternative means of transportation. 
We're waiting to hear a final number of new spaces. 

How Much Parking Does the Capitol Have Already?

After the trees came down this weekend I decided to finish the Capitol parking space count I started a while back. The total is somewhere around the 3,000 mark before the pending expansion. See the screen grab below with the parking lots shaded in that yellow-orange color, and if you want to see it as an actual Google map, click here. It's admittedly difficult to stay focused when counting 3,000 parking spaces on a computer screen, especially when there are all those darned trees blocking your view in some of the lots, so I welcome one and all to check my work.

Capitol Grounds

Here are the digits, roughly from left-to-right, and top-to-bottom:
Far left: 62
State Vehicle Pen: 48
DF&A: 437
Real Estate Commission: 155
NW Lots: 144
Revenue Building: 70
North Lots: either 435 or 535 right now (I got a little cross-eyed while counting) with 100 more on the way.
Wolfe St. Lot: 106
Wolfe St. South Lot: 374
Capitol Mall: 198
Sup. Court Lot: 94
Around the Capitol: 459 (very hard to believe since it's almost all on-street parking. I welcome a recount.)
Lot across Woodlane: 245
South of 7th: 180
Total: a little over 3,000

And the powers-that-be want to continue limiting people's options on how to get to work by adding 100 more instead of looking for ways to increase freedom and choice. When your only tool is a hammer every problem starts to look like a nail.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Are Freeways Doomed?

Another great article about how cities can be improved by removing freeways. Worth the read.

Comments and Mobile Version

Some readers have informed me that the Comments feature on this here blog doesn't work for them. I haven't been able to figure that one out yet. On the plus side though, while working on the comments problem I did figure out how to turn the mobile version of the site on, so now if you visit from a smartypantsphone you'll see a layout that may be more appropriate for your screen size.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

If We Just Had 100 More Parking Spaces...

While on a little brainstorming walkabout with some other folks today we stumbled upon a tree crew cutting down all the trees in the lowest parking lot behind the Capitol. According to some of the crewmen the state is planning to remove the traffic islands down there so they can squeeze 100 more parking spots into the space.

Here's the Google Map view. See those trees in the parking lots on the left side?
Aerial view from Google

The ones here in the Google Streetview?
Google Street View

They're all gone now:
No Trees 1

I'm sure the bushes aren't too far behind...
No Trees with Capitol Dome

The sidewalk is going away too:
No Trees on Sidewalk

Another stump:
No Trees with Capitol Dome 2

The view from atop the stairs on the west side. All of those traffic islands used to have some nice shade trees in them. No more:
No Trees with Smokestack

The really amazing part about the state's approach is that they seem to be completely ignoring ways that might simply lessen the supposed need for parking spaces. I can think of several changes that would make alternatives to driving more attractive to state workers, and when there are viable alternatives to driving, example after example worldwide shows that people will use them.

For instance, five different Central Arkansas Transit bus routes go by this stop on 7th Street between Marshall and Wolfe every day, two of them express routes. Yet look how desolate (not to mention super-hot in summertime) the walk would be down to the Capitol Mall:
7th Street Bus Stop

And here's the stop across the street for the return trip. Anyone getting off the bus here has to cross four lanes of fast-moving 7th Street car traffic with no crosswalk and then walk across a 2.5 acre sea of hot asphalt full of cars. The bus stop signs give no indication of what routes they serve much less any information about those routes' schedules, so anyone wishing to ride has to do a lot of pre-planning. (If you are interested, here's a link to the map, the #3 schedule, the #5, the #17, and the #25 and #26 express routes. The #1 and #8 lines stop on the north side of the Capitol complex on 3rd street. And finally, the #11 stops at the corner of Woodlane and 7th on the SE corner of the Capitol grounds.)
7th Street Bus Stop 2

So, eight bus routes make multiple stops on different sides of the Capitol grounds, yet there seems to have been no thought or effort put forth to make the experience more pleasant for transit riders on their walk between the stops and the buildings they work in. The State bends over backwards to devote more and more limited space to cars in reaction to a perceived parking problem, but what have they done to actually solve that problem? What have they done to make it easy and convenient for employees to ride the bus? What have they done to make biking to work safe and convenient? 100 people deciding to ride a bus to work is no different from carving out 100 new parking spaces, except 100 new transit riders would have allowed those trees to continue providing a little shade for the cars in the parking lot.

I bet some very small steps toward improving the connections to the bus stops would result in way more than 100 state employees choosing to ride transit to work. That seems like a smarter long-term solution than just slashing trees and paving everything in sight... and a much better use of my tax dollars.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Another Big Idea

My buddy Tim has a Big Idea published in this week's Arkansas Times. And it's a good one. Also, don't miss his wife's Big Idea. It's just as good. Well, here's mine for the day:

If we must expand I-40 to three lanes (and I've noted why I don't think it will work) make the third lane a High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lane.

The point of an HOV lane is to move more people than cars. Isn't that why we're building the third lane in the first place? Plus, if we want to continue to promote the Little Rock metro (and Conway's part of the Little Rock metro) as progressive - and I don't mean that in the political sense, let's do something progressive and do something that will actually help with traffic rather than induce demand.

I've Got 89 Problems but a Smart Growth Grant App Ain't One

89 communities from across the country submitted grant applications to Smart Growth America. How many Arkansas communities submitted applications? Zero. In a state where cities are shrinking while others a sprawling. Zero. Perhaps it's because Smart Growth is a U.N. conspiracy.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Don Roberts Elementary and the Need for Coordination

The Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department held a public meeting a week and a half ago at the new Don Roberts Elementary school regarding the department's upcoming Highway 10 Study. Apparently they think they can solve current congestion, crash, and access problems on Hwy 10 by redesigning the road to carry even more cars at even greater speeds. At a later date I'll get into why it's time to stop blindly following that old-fashioned line of reasoning in the context of Highway 10, but for now I'm just going to focus on one concrete, prime example of how we got ourselves into the mess we're in.

View Larger Map

That map up there shows the new Don Roberts school, a development and street both named Montagne Court, and some commercial/office buildings all located on a super-block roughly 1/4 mile square (~40 acres total for those keeping track at home).

By my count there are at least six entities that had a direct and significant impact on the layout/location/makeup of the things on that 'block': (1) Little Rock School District, (2) the Montagne Court developer, (3) the commercial space developer, (4) Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department, (5) Little Rock Street Department, (6) Little Rock Planning Department, and I seriously doubt that all of them were ever part of the planning process together at the same time. One that should have been an integral part of the planning process from the beginning but probably wasn't even invited to the table: Central Arkansas Transit.

I'm sure all of the agencies and businesses involved are staffed and run by competent, well-meaning, highly trained adults with good intentions, but I can just about guarantee that if we gave blank paper and pencils to the kids in the elementary school and said "Design a neighborhood with 60 homes, a school, and some stores" that every single one of them would do, oh I don't know, maybe a bazillion-times better job than the professionals did. I don't mean to disparage the good folks who made this block happen, but merely want to point out how our current framework is utterly ineffective in situations like this.

Now, assuming there was an actual need to turn a greenfield into development in the first place, let's take a look and see how it could have been done better...

They Paved Paradise...
Giant parking lot: front and center, baby! Just like the Wal-Marts!
First of all, better integration into a walkable, bike-able neighborhood combined with transit coordination would lessen the need for this many parking spaces. Second, if you have to have a parking lot, at least tuck it around back instead of giving cars the prime corner real estate.

Side note: the entire campus of the closed Rightsell School in the historic part of LR would fit inside the new Roberts parking lot with room to spare.

And here we are looking west from near the edge of the parking lot. They call this one 'Forest Lane.' Seriously. No joke.
"Forest Lane"
I guess someone thought the wood in the trees would be better off in a big fence.
That wall extends the full length of the block from the edge of the school property all the way to Katillus Road. And what's at the corner of Forest and Katillus?...
That's right- another fence, this time made of bricks:
Katillus Road looking North from "Forest" Lane

Ok, ok, I know what you might be thinking: "But look! At least there are sidewalks, right?!" It doesn't matter. That completely misses the point of walkability. You can't just slap a strip of concrete down in a hostile environment and expect everything to suddenly be peachy keen. Creating a sense of place takes a bit more effort than that. Compare Katillus Road above to this gem in Richmond, VA, below. It's like night and day. Which one is more inviting to someone on foot?

One really inexcusable part about those fences is that all they're hiding is an alleyway that rings the entire neighborhood:
Alleyway on Edge of Montagne Neighborhood, Beside School
It might be hard to see, but that's the school on the left side of the pic behind the pine tree. Here's a better view from the alleyway:
So Close, yet So Far Away!
So close... yet so far away.

The neighborhood and school are just a few feet from each other, but there's absolutely no way to get from one to the other without going on a long, indirect route. If you lived in one of the houses that backs up to the school property and want to walk your kid to school, you'd have darned-near 2/3 of a mile to walk in each direction along a very unpleasant route.

Walk from Montagne to Roberts
This makes no sense
Even if you live in the house right by the one lone entrance to Montagne Court, you're still looking at half a mile, one way, to reach the front door of the school. So, yes technically one could walk it if one wished, but this combination of distance and inhospitable space puts it beyond the realm of what most people would choose to do on a regular basis as part of their everyday routine. It would have been (and still is) easy to install a gate through the fence to connect the alley with the school so that any of the families with children attending Roberts could easily and safely walk. Why wasn't that done from the beginning?

Now, turning to the commercial corner of the block...
If you walk out of the entrance to Mantagne Ct. and turn right, this is what you see:
Sidewalk Heading North Toward Cantrell

What's that at the far end of the sidewalk? Oh, of course: a ditch:
End of the Sidewalk

And then, if you walk around that ditch and turn right, there's... wait for it... another ditch:


A little further east on Hwy 10 there is a sidewalk, but it puts walkers way too close to 50+ mph traffic for anyone to feel safe and welcome:

Sidewalk pushed up to Hwy 10

Surprise, surprise...
Surprise, Surprise

So, here's the situation as I see it: there're 40 acres of land devoted to space for 60 homes, some commercial/office buildings, and a school. All told, maybe 1300 people (including ~900 kids) are on the property on any given day with absolutely no safe, convenient, pleasant way for anyone in one place to get to another without hopping in a car and driving. There's one bus route that drives by with maybe a couple or three buses in the morning and evening, but who would want to cross Cantrell here? This is but one example of many amazing opportunities squandered. Before we decide to spend millions more on making Hwy 10 accommodate even more traffic, we should take a long hard look at how we could make west Little Rock function as it should. I don't think anyone would articulate what we've actually put on the ground if they were asked to contemplate a vision for the future of west Little Rock. AHTD, the City of LR, LRSD, and the people who pay for it all (you and me, Mr. and Ms. Taxpayer) should sit down at the same table and hammer out some details instead of just building standalone projects in a bubble. Every decision is connected. When we build completely unwalkable places, we end up with car traffic, and treating the symptom alone will do nothing about the underlying problem.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Traffic Fatalities

On the eve of the holiday driving season, here's a sobering map showing road fatalities by type for the period from 2001-2009. Click in the lower right corner or here to bring up a larger map where you can zoom in and out and see other parts of the country.

Patrick Kennedy over at CarFreeInBigD has some insightful commentary. Two quick observations before I head back to the books: (1) in contrast to just about everywhere in the United States, the city of Copenhagen (population: ~500k) has a stated goal of reducing traffic deaths to zero for an entire year, down from the five they had last year; (2) we aren't going to have any meaningful impact on this epidemic if we continue designing roads to move ever more cars at higher speeds and continue to shape our cities and towns around that old-fashioned mode of transportation.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Juxtaposition du Jour

After class today I added my four wheels to the traffic out in west LR and drove to the Arkansas Department of Highways AND Transportation's first public meeting regarding their Highway 10 / Cantrell Road study at the new Don Roberts Elementary School. Then I headed back downtown to Preservation Libations, co-hosted by the Historic Preservation Alliance of Arkansas and the Quapaw Quarter Association, where I met a couple of really interesting folks from Community Revitalization Strategies out of Dallas. Needless to say the assembled groups in the two locations were not discussing the same topics, or at least had very different views regarding how to solve some pressing problems.

My own school duties beckon me tonight, but watch for posts in the near future with some heretical remarks about the folly trying to solve traffic problems by expanding roads and also about problems with the new trends in school design and placement. A preview: (1) why in the world does an elementary school require 16+ acres of land?; (2) why in the world would we build such a school immediately beside a neighborhood of 60 houses with absolutely no way to walk between the two?; and (3) why would we put a little commercial development on the same "block" with no connections to either the school or the residents?

Anyone want to challenge my prediction that there's a For Lease sign on some of those commercial buildings in the NW corner of the block?

Roberts Elementary and Montagne Court

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

River Bluffs Segment Video (Updated)

Metroplan's video rendering of the River Bluffs segment of the River Trail is on the Youtube now (and has been for a month, though I'm only now discovering it (thanks JBar)).

That's great stuff for sure. The current trail traverses about a mile of steep hills, narrow and twisty sidewalks, gravel-strewn turns, and one-way roads in the wrong direction. The city has an application in with the feds for partial funding. Let's hope that it comes through, because there's no way we could afford this locally. I know it's going to be hella expensive, but it's a vital part of the trail and the final missing link. Based on the video, it should also be the highlight of the loop. Is it too late the make it 16 or even 18 feet wide?! :)

Two questions that I have:
1. Where's the trail access to Dillard's hq, the Packett House, and the Dillard's data center going to be? The rendering makes it appear that the security/retaining/counterbalance wall will be continuous there with no openings. Surely the final design provides easy and convenient access to those places, right?
2. In the closing frame there's a new building on the far right. Is that a clue that the condo project near the old West Marine site is getting closer to fruition? Here's hoping that the developer puts a coffee and/or bike shop on the ground floor right by the trail.

[Update]: Here's what the city said regarding access to Dillard's, etc:"That is an issue we are still working through.  Of course you will obviously be able to access it from either end as well as from Cantrell at Baring Cross.  We have had some very preliminary discussions with one of the land owners about access from their property.  At this point the alternative access is still a work in progress."

Why a land/business owner wouldn't welcome something like this with open arms is beyond me.
Pros: healthier, happier workers; free fodder for green marketing; ideal feature to emphasize while recruiting new employees; less pressure on car parking facilities; etc.
Cons: ???.
I wonder if any current employees at Dillard's hq are telling the higher-ups that they'd love to be able to ride their bikes to work and zip right in without taking the long way around via the sidewalk...

Sunday, November 13, 2011

State Street Bikeway

A Few of the Problems:
  • There's no good way to ride a bike north-south across downtown Little Rock.
  • There are zero routes designed for cyclists that cross Wilbur's Wall, i.e. I-630, other than two scary pedestrian bridges at MacArthur Park and Johnson St. (and they're over 2.5 miles apart from each other!)
  • Most of the streets that do cross I-630 (1) are one-way, (2) are dangerously busy with cars, and/or (3) intersect very busy segments of freeway access road.

Partial Solution: A bikeway on State Street!

State Street Bikeway Map

Likely Results:
  • Residents of the inherently bike-friendly old neighborhoods south of the freeway will have a safe and convenient way to ride downtown or to the River Trail.
  • Residents of the condos and apartments along North Street will likewise have a connection across La Harpe. 
  • Property values of existing buildings go up on both sides of the freeway -> revenues go up for the city and county.
  • The seas of desolate parking lots along the route will be redeveloped thanks to their proximity to the top-notch alternative transportation facility.
Why State Street?
  • It's already a two-way street.
  • It doesn't receive a ton of car traffic.
  • No bus routes use it, so we don't have to design for bus-bike conflict
  • It crosses I-630 nowhere near any on- or off-ramps.
  • It traverses downtown with no interruptions and provides easy access to the River Trail.
Separated bike path in Assen, NL. From David Hembrow, hembrow.blogspot.com
Extending bike infrastructure south of Daisy Bates is absolutely crucial, and ideally the bikeway would cross 17th and even all the way through Roosevelt. I've drawn the route partially on Gaines on the map above just because State is fenced off at Philander Smith College. (Maybe in the future we should think about making bike and pedestrian access a condition of allowing private institutions to close down public streets. Just a thought.) Negotiating through-access with them would be cool, but I don't think the street choice makes a huge difference south of I-630 in this case. State, Gaines, Arch... any one would probably work fine. North of the freeway though State is the best choice for this part of town for the reasons listed in the section above.

Of course, a bikeway on State Street would never function well in a vacuum. It will need to intersect other bikeways to be of any real use. Capitol Ave, 7th Street, 2nd Street, (3rd Street too?) are all prime candidates for well-designed, convenient cycling facilities where people feel safe and encouraged to ride as they go about their daily business. It's all about connections (see here, here, here, and here, e.g.) And when those connections are built, we really, really, REALLY should take a lesson from some folks who have spent the last few decades figuring out how to do it well. See a proper Dutch bike intersection design here with follow-up here. Why should we try to reinvent the wheel when they've already done the legwork?

OK, A tour...
See the full route above. Here's the zigzag at the north end of State. You could also zig to the east on Garland if that makes more sense. The zag at the north end of Gaines has to cross about 20 feet of dirt path right now to reach the River Trail, but paving a connection would be trivial.
State Street to River Trail

Currently there is no safe way to cross La Harpe on foot or bike at State Street. In fact, the sidewalks abruptly end at the intersection with no crosswalks and no pedestrian signals (other than the tacit one that says "You don't belong here!"). Getting the traffic light to change if you're on bike is darned-near impossible too unless there's a car there to trip the loop switch embedded in the pavement. A properly implemented bikeway would fix all of this.
La Harpe and State Sidewalk End

Looking back toward LaHarpe from Markham below. State Street is four travel lanes wide in this block as well as in the one behind the camera (between Markham and 2nd). Total street width is a little over 40 feet from curb to curb here. I'd shrink the cross section down to two 10-foot travel lanes with a dedicated left turn lane where necessary on these two blocks. Then split the remaining 10-12 feet between a bike lane/path/track on both sides of the street, roughly where the street surface is concrete on the left side of this pic:
Looking N on State From Markham 

The street narrows south of 2nd to about 35 feet and we start to see on-street car storage. Oh my! There's no way we can possibly fit bike lanes/paths/tracks into the street now! Where would we put all of those cars?!!!!
State Between 2nd and 3rd

Fist of all, what cars? Second, if there are cars that need to park on that block, what about putting them here for now? This lot at the corner on the same block had 62 out of 75 spots available when I took the pic on a Tuesday afternoon.
13 out of 75 Spaces Filled Today 

The next block has a couple of apartment buildings and the onstreet parking gets a little more pressure. Not too much though, because apparently we don't even put enough value on the limited spaces here to charge people to use them.
Cars Parked on State Between 3rd and 4th

And here's the scene around the corner on 4th. Only one out of 20 spaces was taken on this non-holiday Tuesday afternoon:
1 out of 20 Spaces Taken on 4th 

The next block of State borders the center of the U.S. Government's hub of operations for the state of Arkansas. Surely demand for these primo spaces is sky high given the parking crisis that everyone knows afflicts downtown Little Rock!
Nope. Doesn't look like it...
Cars Parked by the Federal Building

And there are plenty of open spots on Capitol too:
Capitol Ave. Spaces Less than Half Full 

Pedestrians all up in da house! Whoo whoo!

A sea of cars in the area... It's too bad that views of oceans of cars don't bring the same increase to property values that views of real oceans do. 
Sea of Cars

The view north on State from 10th Street (a.k.a. access road for Wilbur's Wall). Just imagine what could be...
State Street Bridge

10th Street / 630-frontage gets very little traffic here, not nearly enough to justify the over 30 feet of one-way travel lanes. We could easily shrink this down to one travel lane for cars, have room for separated bike facilities, and maybe even mark some onstreet parking for the church at Philander Smith college.
Excess Capacity Personified

The gross over-allocation of limited urban space to cars here is even harder to justify when you consider that the road narrows down to just one lane anyway in the next block before reaching Broadway:
W. 10th Narrowing to 1 Lane

And then here's Gaines Street between Mt. Holly Cemetery and Philander Smith College. It looks ripe for resurfacing soon, and I see no reason not to include bike facilities at the same time.
S. Gaines between Mt. Holly and Philander Smith 

Makes sense to me. Hopefully some of that new sales tax money coming to LR soon will be spent on investments like a State Street Bikeway. Stodola? Erma Fingers Hendrix? Anyone? Anyone? Let's think big!

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Cap I630

I don't quite know if this would work here, but it's worth the read.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Car Free Week

Leslie Newell Peacock over at the Arkansas Times ran a short piece yesterday about Mayor Stodola kicking off his week-long challenge with a mixed mode bike- and bus ride to work Monday morning. It generated some great comments. Other than a few negative rants and a short side conversation about where Orbea bikes are made, the comments in general were quite positive and well-thought. Here're some highlights from the commenters... 

"while there are people who can’t utilize the bus system because of limited hours or coverage. Most people can. Hopefully all the Arkansas Times Blog readers are going to try it out just for this week!"

"With CATA and a serviceable bike, there are very few places you can't go in Pulaski County.
And kudoes for supporting Orbea, a local business... even if their bikes are really made out in the Pyrenees."
(ed. note: it was later decided that Orbeas are made in China and assembled in / distributed from NLR.) 

"The must-have for any future city I move to is that it's possible to live well without a car.
I'm sick of driving a car: the gas, the pollution, insurance costs, maintenance costs, etc."

"'No public transportation system in the world operates at a profit. Not in any major metropolitan area in the US, England, Japan, France, etc.'
This includes our roads and highways which cost way more to maintain than any public transit system."

"Way to Go Mayor Mark! ...[t]he people on the bus are no different than anyone else. They are headed to work or to school or to the doc or to the bank or spend money in a store. They are polite and friendly. You hear about Road Rage. You don't hear about Bus Rage. It's a Big City thang to do, so try it sometime."

"I'd love to see central Arkansas invest in bus rapid transit rather than continue to dedicate all this money towards freeway expansion."

"Jane Holtz Kay really nailed this in 1997 book "Asphalt Nation". Read her book to learn how the owner (or leaseholder, in most cases) of a BMW is subsidized by his or her countrymen much more than a humble, planet-saving bus rider!"

"Lots of the cargo bikes staring to show up around town... Saw one fellow the week before last at the commuter fest who was hauling his polo bike on the back of his cargo bike."

"Kudos to the Mayor, everyone should take a few minutes to really plan how they would get around if they had to bus/ride a bike, just as an exercise.
I would be interested in knowing how to best be a squeaky wheel to get longer hours/more frequent stops. Like ArkFiddler said, it would be really difficult, but I would like to do something besides bitch about it to friends.
I walk to work and rarely use my car, but I could really cut the car out if the bus system improved. Being almost car free and road rage free is a wonderful way to be : )"

"I applaud Mayor Stodola for bringing attention to mass transportation in Little Rock. After spending a week taking alternate forms of transportation it will give him the insight he needs to really make CAT into a service that more of us can use. I would love to see Little Rock develop a mass transportation plan (and implement it) that will reduce the growing grid lock of cars from Cantrell, Markham, I430, and I630. We don't need to spend more tax dollars on widening roads that just encourage people to move farther out of the city, we need better mass transit to give us alternatives to driving everywhere making it easy to move around Little Rock. Hopefully, the staff at CAT also took the Car Free Challenge this week!"

"The problem is not with CAT's lack of wanting to do or lack of initiative. The problem is the lack of money for CAT to do anything with. CAT does alot with what little revenue it has.
So the question should be how to get CAT the funding needed for the services desired."

"Until there is a moratorium on building more parking lots in Little Rock, we will continue to have cars be used for an hour in the morning and another hour at night, usually at the busiest period of road use to spend the balance of the day parked. Get some express bus routes from Conway, Benton/Bryant, and Cabot to Little Rock and back out and maybe we wouldn't have to continue to widen those asphalt parking lots called I40 and I30 and 67/167.

St Louis set up a system on their light rail that you can ride for free from 11 am until 2 pm in the business district. Since parking is minimal in the downtown area, it keeps major traffic jams from occurring. How much business could the River Market area take at lunch if there were express bus services from Chenal, past Baptist and Children's Hospital to the district and back out. Lots of new business and no additional car traffic. Might make people actually want to visit downtown. Could run it past Park Plaza on both ways for people who work downtown and want to shop out in the centers at lunch without driving."

Saturday, October 29, 2011

4th & Louisiana

Take note of how the white car is blocking the lane forcing south bound traffic to turn left into the middle lane. This is a common occurance in the afternoon.

It's great to have a school downtown. eStem has made great use of some wonderful historic buildings, adding to the daytime vibrancy and diversity of downtown. It's also changed traffic patterns from about 7:20am - 7:50am and about 4:00pm to 4:50pm. Turns have been disallowed in two spots at various times. No left hand turn signs were added on 3rd & Louisiana at two different spots. Currently, no eastbound turns are allowed though at one point no southbound turns were allowed. If there was publicity about the changing turning options, I didn't see it. It resulted in a few tickets for regular travelers who just 'didn't see' the new signs. Traffic is a manageable thing with the right plan, signage and education.

The left hand land of 4th Street going east becomes a feeder lane onto Louisiana during the drop-off and pick-up periods. Adults driving their children to school turn a partial lane, littered half with parking meters (half are shutdown via 'not in use/no parking' bags). This creates a scenario where drivers, some of whom are surely not parents waiting to pick-up their children, will not turn left due to the backlog of cars in line for the pick-up spot. In an effort to 'beat the light' you'll see cars half-way on 4th & half on Louisiana. For a while, there were cars lined-up on the left hand side of 4th waiting to turn into the alley near the school. This, despite the sign clearly stating: "No parking, stopping or standing anytime". Thankfully, that issue seems to have taken care of itself.

The concern here is safety. Children are crossing between cars on Louisiana, near the school in the morning, often not using the crosswalks. It's not just children, I've seen parents and staff (they wear name badges, so you know they're staff) cross between cars during the drop-off periods.

Credit to the three police officers directing traffic (does every school have three traffic cops?), they're quick to reprimand and point out the danger. The crossing guards are mindful, as well. It appears as it's often the parents directing the children to what they must think is the quickest way to the door. Quickest doesn't always mean safest, however. I fear the safety of the pedestrian. Parents & teachers, do your children a favor, teach them about crosswalks.

I took a few photos during the 4:30ish period to note the dangers.
This car created its own lane in an effort to get in the pick-up line/lane. It was at a stop due to the line of cars in front of it. You will see this every school day.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

More Details on Sunday's Learning Fair

1:00-3:00 on Sunday, Oct. 30, at the River Market Pavilion. Amongst other fun things, Central Arkie Transit is going to have a bus there so you can see the inside and practice using the bike rack if you want. They're also giving away some bus passes as prizes. Check out the flier below...

Click to embiggen.

The Pavilions are just west of the A, but this'll get you to the general vicinity.