Thursday, January 21, 2010

Smackdown: Austin vs. New Haven!!

I was in Texas a while back, staying with family. Specifically, Austin, the Texas mecca for those of us who are into alternative transportation. And bubble tea. Seriously, go there, check out Toy Joy, and then go to Half-Price Books. Half-Price Books is where Texas kicks Connecticut's ass until it whimpers for mercy. Wait, I was talking about something...right. active transportation.

Shopping delights aside, I noticed that everywhere we went, we drove. We went down to this Toy Joy place, then got in the car and drove for a while to see the campus of University of Texas Austin, then drove some more. None of the landmarks were close together. Same could be said of almost all of Connecticut, I know this. I live in New Haven and I'm spoiled. I walk to the grocery store, I walk to the drugstore, and can cycle downtown for dinner. Somehow, I expected a city of comparable importance to Texas as New Haven is to Connecticut to be just as walkable. But New Haven's neighborhoods were almost all built B.C. (before cars) and Austin's A.C. (after cars). It shows.

I saw a grand total of five cyclists the whole time, although it was about 40 degrees out and that would discourage most cyclists that far south. Two of them were on the sidewalk ignoring the bike lane, and frankly I might have too. There were a LOT of cars going REALLY fast for a city. That's just how the roads are built. The heavy traffic is a common topic of conversation. On the other hand (sorry New Haven) the only people who asked us for money didn't follow us down the street hassling us, which happened to the family I was visiting when they came to New Haven.

It might have been because I was staying with my altogether delightful and progressive family, but from what they said the citizens of Austin are really engaged in the problem of making their city easier to navigate without a car. The city has been building a new light rail system – unfortunately, a disaster, and one I will address in another post – and it has bike lanes and sidewalks. It has a great bike and pedestrian plan. But here is the problem they have, and it is the same problem every city in America has: everything that is built puts cars first.

I visited a newly built community just outside Austin which is supposed to be for active adults. These are people who are moving into a place to retire, and they don't really want to have a car for each adult in the household. They want to be able to walk around, and get by with just one car, and know that if they ever have to give up driving, they could stay in their homes. Which are great: affordable, energy-efficient, well-designed, and really comfortable. There are lots of nicely landscaped walking trails and pretty wooded common areas. But the developer built that place for cars first, and not people. It is supposed to be walkable but the streets themselves are not. I felt it the most strongly when I went for a walk on one of the winding side streets. The cars that passed us were flying. Not because they are bad people, but because the roads are wide and curved just right to make 40 mph the most comfortable speed.

There's an older neighborhood near the university that was also built A.C. However, it was built when the city still laid out the streets (and before the onset of Levittowns), so the streets are in short grids. There were a few cars zooming around, but most were not and it felt great to walk.

The developer was just building what he knows will sell. The city was building what it thought would work. Should the layout be up to the developer? Would the city build those streets now?

1 comment:

  1. The goal of any development project should be to improve the space in a way that will benefit not only investors but even tangential users. Developers need to decide if they want to make an investment in the local housing market or an investment in the local community. It's basically a political/ethical debate: Which do you value more - financial or social capital?

    The city's role should be to assist/encourage "smart" developers and restrict/regulate greedy ones.

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