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We CAN Have Nice Things

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The dream of flight

Flight – a common dream of my past

After living in the Midwest for a decade, I began to doubt whether our communities had any chance of making progress on plans for public transportation. The support for these initiatives was obvious as almost every referendum about public transportation would successfully pass when held to a vote.  But for many reasons, citizens were being blocked from investing more in their transportation options.

Public transportation is important to the US economy.  And perhaps more important for American cities than anywhere else in the developed world due to our sprawling infrastructure and geographically scattered labor force.  Without public transportation, a significant number of our neighbors can’t access jobs, healthcare, education, or other critical institutions.  It is a sad situation.

Because I felt that only cities with public transportation have any future, it became a priority to be located in one.  So, while living in the state known as the “Crossroads of America” I ended up at a certain crossroads of my own.  I decided to pick up and move somewhere that public transportation was robust and useful.  I moved to the San Francisco bay area, and now feel blessed to live in a place that values public transportation.

Port of San Francisco

Port of San Francisco

In fact, the ability to get on a train, cablecar, streetcar, light-rail, bus, or ferry and quickly travel around the city is nothing short of a miracle to me.  Yes, local and state taxes are high, but oh-so-worth-it.  For me, deciding to get onboard with public transportation was a one-way ticket: I can’t imagine life without it now.

These days I have a real sense of why public transportation is important, rather than despair over a broken infrastructure funding system.  I have come to realize that there is very little standing in the way of better transportation options.  When the US is ready to build a better network, I’m sure that we will.

Open-air streetcar on Market

We CAN have nice things!

In the meantime, I offer encouragement in the best form I can imagine – an open-air streetcar running along Market St and Embarcadero.  Not a utilitarian or mean vehicle, this one reminded me that we can still achieve the city of our dreams.  Combined with the workhorse BART and MUNI systems, it is a perfect way for this city to celebrate it’s commitment to public transportation.

The Hazards of Crossing the Street

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Earlier this year I witnessed a terrifying event while out in my neighborhood.  Textbooks would refer to it as a “pedestrian-vehicle conflict”, something that can be observed at any number of intersections several times a day.  Seeing it play out in reality, I began to realize that our built environment has done a very poor job of training drivers to watch out for pedestrians.  One glance at the number of pedestrian fatalities statistics shows the devastating consequences on our society.

A Dramatic Encounter at the Intersection of Ritter and Washington

The situation happened along East Washington Street in a pedestrian friendly commercial district.  A car stopped at a red light and wanted to turn right.  At the same time a young family with a baby in a stroller arrived at the corner and wanted to cross the side street.  The family saw the “Walk” signal lit for them and proceeded across the street.  The driver, having earlier noticed the family, failed to anticipate that they were going to cross the street and shifted attention to traffic from the left in the main street.

What happened next is the stuff nightmares are made of.  When the family was halfway through the lane, the driver saw a break in traffic and began accelerating.  There was a loud noise and a scream, but thankfully it wasn’t what I feared.  The husband had slammed his fist down on the car hood and yelled “STOP!”, and luckily the driver found the brake quickly enough to prevent disaster.  It happened so fast that I could barely process that an entire family had almost been killed or seriously injured, just because they wanted to cross the street during a nice summertime day.

This incident reveals a larger problem with our transportation system.  Humans are great at identifying threats to them, but not so good at identifying the threat that they pose to others.  In addition to this, drivers often have a hard time recognizing pedestrians and cyclists as rightful users of the street.  They don’t realize that pedestrians don’t always stay on the sidewalk or that cyclists don’t behave like cars, especially if the drivers never spend time as pedestrians or cyclists themselves.

While this conflict had a fortunate resolution, many other conflicts don’t turn out so well.  Are there steps that Indianapolis and other cities can take to make street crossings more safe for pedestrians?  The answer is a positive YES, and that is one of the goals behind the movement referred to as Complete Streets.  It is surprising that more citizens haven’t actively supported complete streets here in Indiana (see Indiana Complete Streets Campaign), because it gives us something that has a huge amount of political support – better streets and more opportunity to walk and bike places.

The Worst Parking Lot in Indy

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Hey Indianapolis!  I’ve been away from the keyboard for a while, but I’ve been busy studying cities at Ball State’s Indianapolis Center.  The one thing I noticed in my studies was how much parking lots we have in our cities, so I’m going to bring you a few posts that focus on them and what we can do to minimize their impact.  Let’s start off with a competition of sorts – What is Indianapolis’ worst parking lot? 

Recently, Indianapolis finally gave up big plans to redevelop the old Market Square Arena site.  This was my hands down favorite for worst parking lot (WPL).  For a decade, citizens endured an enormous gravel parking lot adjacent to the densest urban neighborhood in the state.  In its place, we now have a paved lot (hooray?).

The previous title holder for "WORST PARKING LOT IN THE CITY"

 

So, we bid farewell to our old gravel lot, which clearly held the top spot as worst parking lot in the city.  Not only for being gravel, but for occupying a valuable space in the city and destroying the connection of downtown to the near eastside.

We have a few contenders that I want to nominate for consideration (and please feel free to add your own in the comments).

WPL Candidate #1:  Under the freeway
If you have ever driven under I-65 along the north side of downtown, you have probably noticed that this space is used as a parking lot.  It’s a subtle reminder that freeways kill urban land use.  It’s dark, depressing, and without value.

If you like raised freeways, you'll like this parking lot too

 

WPL Candidate #2:  The Zoo Lot
The environmental costs of building a society dependent on automobiles are often hidden, but the Indy Zoo shows how our priorities affect the world around us.  We have marginalized nature, even in the places where we seek to celebrate it.  The Zoo fights hard to create special places for the animals, but its difficult when they need so much space for visitors to park.

A great view, but a bad parking lot

 

WPL Candidate #3:  The Market Square Arena
The previous title holder isn’t giving up that easy.  It wants you to know it is still here, and still taking up valuable space in downtown Indy. Is this really what we want fronting our Cultural Trail?

The new paved and landscaped parking lot

 

WPL Candidate #4:  The Northwest Side (aggregate lot)
Sometimes it seems like this part of the city is nothing but parking lots.  We’ll just lump them all together, because the effect of that much paved surface is 1 big dead spot.  The sad part is that this is adjacent to the only rail transit we have in the city (people mover), and also within walking distance of the canal, the central mall, downtown, and the cultural trail.

Is it parking lots like these that are truly responsible for urban design crimes like DeRimini?

Lots of Parking on Indy's NW side (image credit Curtis Ailes)

 

WPL Candidate #5:  IUPUI Campus (aggregate lot)
IUPUI has a land use other than parking lots somewhere (because the parking lots are always full), but I think the proportion of parking lot to academic space makes for a very non-urban place.  It is also lacking that “integrated campus” feel, because the only thing continuous throughout is the paving.  This place has a history of being a commuter campus, but what’s so wrong with buses, bikes, and walking as a school transportation policy?

Surface and garage lots leave less room for campus

City Celebrates St Patricks Day

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The city welcomed St Patricks Day on Thursday by dyeing the canal green and holding festivities around town.  Judging from my scenes out of my window, the revelers started early and kept going late into the night.  I’m sure the fact it fell on a Thursday and featured beautiful spring weather helped the turnout.  I hope everyone enjoyed the holiday and is looking forward to more sunshine, warmer weather, and more streetlife.

The Indy Canal near the Govt Center

Ball State’s Indianapolis Center

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My interests in cities led me to enroll in Ball State University’s Master of Urban Design (MUD) program at their Indianapolis Center (CAP:IC).  Urban design focuses on the public areas of our cities, including parks, plazas, transportation, and zoning/land use policy.  The MUD program and CAP:IC are part of an effort to bring new ideas about planning, design, and theory to Indiana’s capital.  The long-term mission of the center is “be a catalyst for recovering and redefining the experience of urban places.”

The CAP:IC Storefront Studios

The CAP:IC Storefront Studios

The purpose of the MUD degree is to integrate knowledge from the fields of urban planning, landscape architecture, community advocacy, and real estate development into a single curriculum.  While I am an engineer by profession, current and past students have come from all kinds of backgrounds related to urban design.  A good illustration of this interdisciplinary effort is our recent participation in the ULI’s design competition where I worked in a group of 5 graduate students, including 2 urban designers, an architect, an MBA student, and a landscape architect.

Interdisciplinary design meeting (with coffee)

One of the goals of the Indianapolis Center is to become a trusted resource for Indy’s urban design questions.  You may never have heard of CAP:IC, but the people here have helped facilitate important initiatives including:

  • Indianapolis Regional Center Guidelines
  • Great Indy Neighborhoods
  • Historic Irvington Neighborhood Plan
  • Speedway Speedzone plan
  • workshops, charrettes, and other community actions

In our studio work, my classmates and I are focusing on the next big plan for West Washington Street.  The corridor is active and full of opportunity, and our job is to suggest a vision to the community of how it could develop over the next 30 years with the right mix of policies, investments, and infrastructure plans.  I guarantee that when the final projects are submitted this summer, there will be many entertaining and educational concepts presented.

The students and professors are hard at work finding solutions

The center is located at Meridian & Maryland, just down the street from Monument Circle.  Basic information on the program can be found at the school website, and the work of previous students can be found online at Indianapolis 2.0.  So far it has been a great experience and I look forward to each new project.

Test Blog

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This is a test of my blogging system. Foo.