When was the last time you set off in your own neighborhood, on foot or bike, to explore just how far you can get before it becomes a real chore to get where you really want to go? This task happens often in my household since we are a 3 member family with one car and the resulting choice of transportation often involves a bicycle.
I don’t often take time to write about the environment of the neighborhood in which I live, but a recent experience caused me to put my urbanist hat on to explore the root cause of a difficult street crossing. I was riding my wife’s bike with our tow behind trailer and 3 year old son riding co-pilot. The time of the day was roughly 6pm and I had a suspicion that getting where we wanted to go might involve some difficulty. Just how much we were going to encounter might have caused me to re-evaluate our route choice if I had to do this over again. Our destination was Canterbury Park, one of my son’s favorite playgrounds. We set off northbound on our journey and encountered 52nd street where we were forced to wait for nearly 5 minutes before we could cross to the west bound bike lane because of frequent and rapid automobile traffic.
We were not close enough to the Monon to use it as a gateway which would have been ideal. Furthermore, there are no additional signaled crossings or traffic lights for pedestrians along this stretch. When you think about 52nd street between Keystone & College, your first impression might not be that of danger and the need for caution. Indeed, this stretch used to be comprised of 4 lanes for cars before it was put on a lane diet and reduced to 1 lane in each direction, a center turn lane and curb bike lanes. This is a recipe I have supported in the past in strategizing how we decrease our city’s automobile lane miles with the goal of creating safer designs for cyclists & pedestrians.
However, while these improvements may have added a measure of safety, crossing the street, especially at rush hour, is still difficult for cyclists & pedestrians. Part of this difficulty lies with the fact that no additional physical traffic calming features were introduced with the lane diet. Features such as bulb-outs or pedestrian striping could have went a long way towards calming traffic speeds. The speed limit is 35mph but I can attest first hand, that the cars feel like they move much faster than this when standing on the sidewalk attempting to cross. Furthermore, the only traffic lights on this stretch are located at Keystone Avenue and College Avenue, a distance of 1.3 miles, creating a long stretch for motorists to accelerate to and maintain high speeds. The only real features which might cause a motorist to instinctively slow down are a slight chicane just east of the Monon Trail, and the trail itself.
Bottom line, the design of the street is such that automobiles move freely east & west and pedestrians or cyclists attempting to move across have a tremendous barrier preventing them from safely crossing. In hindsight, simply removing auto travel lanes and adding bike lanes has done essentially nothing to encourage walking and leads to segregated neighborhoods as a result.
How does this design affect our neighborhood’s connectivity? One might simply conclude that the presence of bike lanes helps, but when crossing the street to use them proves to be as big a task as before, what good are they? Additionally, the lack of space between the sidewalk and roadway puts pedestrians very near the fast moving traffic. Who wants to attempt to move their children across this sort of landscape with the ever present threat of cars quickly zipping by?
While the simple fact is that our city lacks the money to properly modify this street to be the pedestrian-friendly arterial that it could be, something should be done with the design to encourage long term confidence in residents and perhaps create an environment that sheperd’s family growth in this part of town, something that is sorely lacking.
This problem isn’t unique to 52nd street. 46th street, a similarly designed street just blocks south, is encumbered with the same design. How could neighborhoods take action to increase safety along this stretch?