Friday, August 26, 2011

Cantrell Road Widening

The Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department (isn't it funny how even they draw a distinction between the two?) is itching to get started on yet another road widening project, this time the stretch of Cantrell Road from Mississippi Ave. to Perryville Rd. to accommodate a turning lane in the middle of the 4 lanes of thru traffic.
Link to G Maps here.
By Google Maps' reckoning this project would add roughly 0.6 miles worth of turning lane to a road that's already wide, fast and very dangerous for anyone on foot or bike and even for people in their cars.

This scheme is all about packing more cars onto our roads while completely ignoring the more important issues of mobility, safety, choice, economics and livability. Instead of going along with the status quo this seems like a great opportunity to reject the false logic we've operated under for the last few decades of planning in central Arkansas that calls for fighting congestion with ever more roads. There's a growing body of evidence that increasing road capacity only serves to increase traffic-- induced demand  they call it-- yet here in Arkansas we continue to try to pave our way to empty road bliss. It ain't gonna work. Our pro-sprawl policies have left us with traffic that's much worse and much more widespread than should be expected or accepted in a city of ~180,000. It's time to acknowledge that adding space for more cars will only serve to increase the amount of traffic in the long run while doing absolutely nothing for the local economy other than slowly grinding it to a halt.

One corollary of induced demand is that reducing capacity will actually reduce the number of cars on the road. People will seek alternative routes, shift to a different mode altogether (bike, foot, bus, personal jet pack, etc), choose to take optional trips at non-peak times of the day, work from home or just decide that maybe walking Sugar around the block is better than driving to the dog park to let her get some exercise. Instead of widening Cantrell to five lanes why not put it on a road diet and take it down to three? Seriously. No joke. You'd still have one travel lane in each direction so no one could yell "You commies are taking all our centrally-planned state-funded roads away!" and you'd be able to allocate the space of the third lane for left turns, side bus stops, and on-street parking, depending on the context within each particular block. Going from four lanes to three would also leave plenty of room on either side for a protected bike lane and make Cantrell much much easier to cross on foot. Right now if someone's doing laundry at the Fun Wash and wants to legally and safely pop over across the street to Damgoode Pies for some breadsticks they're pretty much out of luck unless they want to walk all the way to Mississippi Ave. So realistically, either (a) that person has to get in their car for the 75 foot trip (thus adding to the traffic on Cantrell), or (b) the person just sits in the laundromat watching reruns of Golden Girls while his socks dry instead of contributing more to the local economy and socializing. That we would create such a situation in the middle of our city is completely ludicrous... almost as ludicrous as saying people can't walk across the street from Little Rock City Hall to Robinson Auditorium. Oh wait... we did that too.

Obviously for this kind of change to occur there will have to be no small amount of coordination between AHTD, the City of LR, Central Arkansas Transit, the residents, and the business and building owners between Reservoir Park and Perryville Road. Despite the people-repelling road in the middle this stretch maintains quite a few businesses, many of them locally-owned. It's still Strip-mall-landia personified though, and it's not hard to imagine it becoming a more vibrant, livable area. For this to become an interesting place that people might actually want to linger in (picture Hillcrest but longer) there's going to have to be a major shift in building form and a big change in the city's old-fashioned rules about parking minimums. Also, this would be a perfect excuse for CAT to upgrade the #1 bus line to Fast CAT service (as far as I know I came up with that name, but Central Arkansas Transit is completely free to use it any time they wish) with buses running at least every 10 minutes in both directions during the day and late into the night so that folks have a compelling alternative to their cars for many trips. While we're at it, why not design in some crossings at the bus stops too? Right now there's a really nice covered bus stop with seating in front of Stein Mart (where the heck did it go?!), but the stop for the obligatory other half of the round trip is across five lanes of traffic (there's already a center suicide lane on that short portion of Cantrell) with nary a sidewalk in view and definitely no cross walk to connect the two. No wonder no one rides the buses here. That must be fixed. We'd also need better transit service to the commuter towns to give some of those drivers who just pass through the area on their way to downtown a choice instead of taking up precious space on Cantrell. And of course the bike lanes would have to connect to some sort of larger bike network to be a useful part of the local transportation system at large. Little Rock- where the heck is your Bicycle Master Plan and why aren't you implementing it faster than the mayor can say 'sales tax increase'?! We're halfway through 2011 for cryin' out loud! The River Trail alone will only get us so far. But I digress...

Just picture it: an elegant boulevard winding along the ridge line through an attractive commercial district with a wide variety of stores, restaurants, offices, and maybe even a quirky 3-screen movie theater. Imagine a place where people feel welcome and even encouraged to walk. Imagine apartments above some of those stores. Imagine a thriving neighborhood center with real street life instead of the sub-urban sprawl that plagues the area now. Utopian dream? Maybe so. But I think it makes a whole lot more sense than the current model, and when the money-holders recognize there's a problem in need of spending our tax dollars I think it's the perfect opportunity to put all the options on the table and consider a paradigm shift in how we deal with traffic and how we arrange our surroundings.

The decision makers who determined how the area should develop 50 years ago didn't have it all figured out back then. They weren't omniscient super beings who expected their ideas about city planning to last in perpetuity as the number one best example of how to do it. They just did what they thought was right for the Little Rock of the 1950s and 1960s. They were innovators in their time who questioned the previous paradigms and offered new solutions. That all happened a while ago though, and those solutions are looking a little long in the tooth these days. The time has come again for our leaders to question the status quo we've slipped into and come up with some new solutions appropriate for today's reality. Unfortunately, many of them seem to be clinging to ideas from the middle of the last century with the empty and dangerous hope that just expanding a few more roads will make everything right one of these days.

What was Einstein's definition of insanity again?