Transportation expert Jon Kaplan had an unexpected hour to kill in Lebanon, New Hampshire, so he made a quick case study. Result: a timely lesson in how we can make our towns friendlier to walkers, bicycles, and baby carriages.
I’d like to be able to turn off the part of me that sees things through an engineer’s eyes, but I can’t. For most of the past 30 years, I have worked on making the transportation system work better for people walking and bicycling. My experience has shown me how car-centric most of our roads and streets are.
A few weeks ago, I had to drop off our car at a U-Haul store in Lebanon, New Hampshire, to have a hitch installed. They told me it was going to be at least an hour, so I had time to walk around and notice things. Lebanon has a nice village green surrounded by historic buildings, restaurants, a beautiful library, the City Hall, and post office. The first thing I noticed was a section of sidewalk closed off because the pathways within the green were being repaved. A hastily placed orange barrel and some flimsy yellow tape cordoned off the closed area with a “Sidewalk Closed, Detour” sign. This was more than I have seen some contractors put in place, but far from adequate. The “detour” was nothing more than the arrow on the sign. There was no temporary ramp to use if I had been a wheelchair user. No temporary crosswalk. No other signs. Essentially, pedestrians were dumped out into the street to fend for themselves. Or, if using a wheelchair or some other mobility device, they would be forced to backtrack hundreds of feet to the nearest crosswalk.
I did notice some positive uses of road space. One entire block next to the popular Italian restaurant Three Tomatoes had been completely blocked off to traffic and a large tent erected to create additional, socially distanced seating. Temporary planters marked both ends of the street and created suitable barriers. Another temporary seating area had been created from what had formerly been on-street parking along a block anchored by Salt Hill Pub on the corner. Again, a large tent with tables and chairs had been erected. I couldn’t help wondering whether some form of these temporary facilities would remain as we emerge from the pandemic.
I noticed other things as I walked around this quaint New England village center. Many of the roads leading into the village center seemed overly wide, with multiple travel lanes and separate turning lanes. These are features that encourage higher speed driving, often at the expense of people walking. When I needed to cross the street, I felt like it was risky behavior. Even with marked crosswalks, I felt like I was the outsider invading the space that had been given over to cars. On the plus side, there was a sidewalk network for me to use. Unfortunately, most of the sidewalks were right next to travel lanes, which doesn’t make for the most inviting environment for walking. A design that is more inviting to pedestrians is to provide a buffer between the walking area and traffic. This buffer can be green space, bike lanes or other decorative features.
As I crossed a bridge over the Mascoma River, I was struck by how little access there was to the river. Drivers motoring over the bridge at thirty or forty miles an hour certainly didn’t see it. At least while walking, I could stop and enjoy the rushing spring water roaring over rocks as it made its way west toward the Connecticut River, which forms the border between Vermont and New Hampshire. I spotted a smaller bridge below me that looked like it might be a path or trail and remembered that there was a rail trail in Lebanon. I made may way over toward the bridge and spotted a kiosk at what looked like a trail head across the street. Unfortunately, between me and the trail was a complicated intersection of four streets. It took me several seconds to see what some well-meaning traffic engineer wanted me to do as a pedestrian. I had to cross two different streets to get over to the rail trail, going out of direction and not in any way intuitively what I wanted to do. I could tell from the numerous arrows painted on the street that this intersection must be confusing for drivers as well. Infrastructure should be intuitive to use. Users shouldn’t need multiple signs and pavement markings to safely navigate.
After checking out the kiosk at the trail head, I made my way back to the bridge. It brought me really close to the river and away from the noise of the intersection. There was some construction work happening beyond the bridge, so I didn’t get a chance to see how far the trail went in that direction.
The other thing I noticed was how much space was given to car parking. To be fair, COVID was probably still keeping shoppers away, but the parking lots were generally less than half full.
All of this pavement has a number of negative impacts. In warmer months, it absorbs heat from the sun, radiating it back out to create a heat island. It is impervious to rainwater, and usually there are drains that collect the water—together with oils, tire particles, and other contaminants—and direct it all into the nearest river, degrading its water quality. But almost worse is that this valuable space could be used for other, more beneficial, purposes. Additional commercial or residential development could be built there. Or it could be a park, adding much needed green space and places for people to gather and interact. Additionally, this surface parking is often placed between the building entrance and the street. That’s fine if you are one of the first people to arrive by car, but if you are walking or taking transit and getting off on the street, you now have to navigate your way through the unruly parking area a couple of hundred feet to get to your destination.
My phone buzzed, and there was a text from the U-Haul store letting me know my car was done. As I walked back, I saw a father with his young daughter at the edge of a crosswalk. They were looking both directions, trying to find a gap in traffic where it would be safe to cross the four-lane road. On the other side was a narrower residential street lined with modest but attractive houses. I imagined that he had picked her up from dance lessons at the studio located downtown. I thought about how their conversation might have been interrupted by the continual sound of traffic roaring by on the adjacent road. And I could see the worry in the man’s face as he held his daughter’s hand tight, knowing the danger that the cars posed. After spending the past two hours walking around and observing, I understood his concern.
The good news is that we don’t have to continue to abandon our downtowns and village centers to cars. There are plenty of examples in both the U.S. and abroad that we can look to. And there are lots of resources to help. One really helpful organization is the Project for Public Spaces. They have tools to help citizens and communities rethink how to use the valuable public space that belongs to everyone, not just car owners. The general term for this is placemaking.
So, I challenge you to pick a place and take a walk. Pay attention to how it feels. What do you like about it? What don’t you like? What feels uncomfortable? Upon further consideration, I’m glad to see the world through the eyes that have been shaped my career.
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