Saturday, February 19, 2011

State of Our ROWs

2011 begins with my first job as a the great city of Albuquerque! While I'll miss riding the bus to UW, walking downtown to shop along Pike and Pine, and taking light-rail to the stadiums and Sea-Tac, I am wholly content to begin my career in the Duke City.

I now find myself commuting in my SOV to work while lamenting our auto dependence. Absorbing the scene, I find myself contemplating the various reasons our right-of-ways (ROW), and our sidewalks, in particular, aren't filled with pedestrians and bicyclists. Sure we see a few gusty winds, a few weeks of warm (almost hot) temps, and occasionally frigid temperatures now and again. But overall, our weather is pretty temperate when compared to wet and gloomy Seattle (yeah, yeah, Summers are great but what about the other 9 months?), and extremely hot and muggy and/or frigid and snowy rest of the country. Sure, I left out a bit of the country or glazed over some of its intricacies but overall our weather rocks. Take that, Austin! What's up now, Portlandia? Go shovel your driveways, Denver.

So what gives? Where's the street vitality? Well, it doesn't take too many Marble brews to figure out that it's our streetscape design. Let's take our prime pedestrian friendly corridor, Central, through Nob Hill as our case study. How many open air patios can you count along that corridor? How many pedestrians do you see socializing along the street? The answer is not that many. I have not seen traffic counts in that corridor but I'd venture to guess in the realm of 35,000 vehicles per day. Each of those pollution belching motors revving along at 35+ miles per hour does not facilitate the pedestrian experience that architects like to render in their utopian collages. While urban design elements such as street trees and sufficiently wide sidewalks go a long way in aiding in this effort, even more is necessary.

Once the city figures out what it really wants to do with its streets, and more importantly its centers and corridors plan, then it can begin to structure its arterials in a complementary fashion. While the Great Streets plan attempted to address this effort, it can be argued whether or not it really followed the centers and corridors plan as a guide. Central Ave, from Washington to the Rio Grande will never be the pedestrian corridor it can be until its design is properly addressed. This change may necessitate a designation change. I'm not familiar with the classification system of ABQ but I'd assume it needs to be downgraded from major(?) arterial to a minor arterial. This change would allow sufficient modifications to the street to provide the elements within the ROW that need to happen for Nob Hill to truly flourish as a pedestrian environment. Protected bike lanes, anyone?

This process is gaining popularity and is known as a "road diet." The city is dabbling in this movement along the segment of Central between downtown and Rio Grande. I'm unsure where plans currently lie but I'm aware of an existing proposal/plan that aims to do so. I think Lead and Coal also followed this movement before it had a name. But what's interesting about this plan is its location. Very little development has taken place along that corridor over the last decade compared with the entire length of Central between downtown and Washington. I suppose it was more palatable to start in a less congested segment? The problem with doing this is the city will see a muted result due to the intensity of development along that portion of the corridor. So, unless the economy changes for the better in the near future, we may not see the ramifications of this reconfiguration for at least a decade. Why not go straight to our greatest neighborhood and let it be all that it can be?

The sooner we see the benefits of tailored street designs the sooner we can modify various corridors near those so-called "centers" so that they can create what I am assuming is the vision of the comp plan. Or we can study what other cities have done and how they've managed to successfully implement these roadway changes in exchange for healthier neighborhoods. Regardless, let's hope the upcoming update addresses this centers and corridors concept's lack of clarity. While it takes a step in the direction of establishing the necessary framework, there is much work to be done. Inner city sector plans which require one parking spot per bedroom with a maximum of two per unit is not going to get us to where we are claiming we want to go with our envisioned "sustainable" future but that's a whole other related discussion.