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,
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."