Tag Archives: cars

Three Easy Ways to Fix the Streets around the College

For a few more precious weeks, she sits in front of me as I ride her home from school. The bleary-eyed days of babies screaming the house awake two hours before dawn are being replaced by mornings I consider serving the kindergartener a cup of coffee before school.

Today, though, this last baby chatters about the “app-ohs” she had for snack, asks if dragons are allowed in our house, and repeatedly demands chicken nuggets for lunch.

DSCF6584

We cut through Hope College’s peaceful campus to take advantage of their leafy sidewalks, but a wrong turn this week brought us down one of the streets directly adjacent to the school instead. It was lined with parked cars on either side, and we enjoyed the slow pace of the street, a pace that matched our own. A car pulled out behind us as we rode that street, glided past us as we turned the corner. Two blocks later the driver pulled into a driveway, safely home.

American to the core, the student appeared to have driven five meager blocks. And this is our culture: we drive as a default, as a reflex. We drive because it feels like an indulgent waste of time to spend those precious minutes on a walk. We drive because it’s easy and we’re promised parking on the other end – and sometimes because it freaks us out to cross that one road. Most of us have done this, myself included.

But this student’s journey suggests a set of solutions to the questions our city is facing this season.

Front page in the local paper last Tuesday: Record enrollment at Hope College has huge impact on Holland.

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The two big issues are parties and traffic/parking.

The college has and maintains 998 total parking spaces, said Tom Bylsma, Hope College’s chief financial officer and vice president of business. Students must have permits to park and earlier this month, a total of 955 had been sold. It is standard to leave a small cushion of spaces for snow piles in the winter, he said.

“That should be enough,” Bylsma said, adding that historically, about one-third of the students have a vehicle.

The car-lined streets in the Hope College Neighborhood is a concern mentioned numerous times by people who live there.

Homeowners on 12th Street said if there is practice or a game at the soccer stadium, it is near impossible to get in or out of driveways.

Yet Hope officials have not had any formal discussions about a parking structure, Bylsma said, but added they would be open to conversations about it with city leaders.

“We want to be good neighbors,” Bylsma said. “No matter what college or university you go to there will be parking challenges. We feel the parking is sufficient.”

The real challenge is parking behaviors of people, he said. People tend to want to park as close and conveniently as possible to where they want to be “and often people park where they shouldn’t,” he said. “And often times that is what creates the problem.” (Emphasis mine.)

“I see the biggest problem is going to be parking,” City Councilman Wayne Klomparens said Wednesday, adding it was a problem when he went to school there.

Councilman Myron Trethewey suggested allowing parking on only one side of the roads in that neighborhood to help ease congestion.

I rode through campus again today to see how all those parking lots are looking, and I bet you’ve guessed it already:

Hope College - parking lotb

Tom Bylsma, quoted above, nails it: we want to park as close to our destination as we possibly can, and will only choose otherwise if there is a compelling reason to do so.

In addition to all the dedicated student parking lots, there is free street parking everywhere in the city during daytime hours. Much of this parking is blocks closer to the classroom buildings than the parking lots. The streets by the college are, indeed, lined with cars for much of the day.

Hope college - 12th street

Much to the neighbors’ chagrin, there is no disincentive to driving five blocks.

This is actually not a problem that’s difficult on a technical level. It’s been addressed, successfully, in many other places. But it does require us to begin to think a little bit differently about when and how we use our cars in the city. With that said, here are some great options:

Option 1: Meters

This would be a fun experiment. Leave everything precisely the same as it is now, but meter the on-street parking at a reasonable rate (I’ll leave it to the experts to determine what’s reasonable, though parking guru Donald Shoup suggests setting a price that produces 85% occupancy). Given my memories of how far I was willing to walk in college to avoid paying for parking, this might solve whatever problem we have all by itself.

The powerful thing about this option is that it’s revenue-producing. Even though we think of providing street parking as a free service, it’s not. Our streets are built and maintained out of the big bucket of property taxes that we all pay into, so we’re subsidizing all this extra driving and parking as a community (city-wide, not just in this area). Although we could just use the revenue to offset the additional wear-and-tear from the weight of the parked vehicles, this would also be a great opportunity to improve our city’s bikeways as an additional step in solving the parking problem. We’ll talk a little more about that below.

Option 2: Parking districts

Chicago parking pass

Homeowners on the street might not be any too enamored with the idea of meters on their streets, but there’s a tried-and-true workaround here, too – the parking district. The sticker above is still stuck to the windshield of my car from last weekend’s trip to visit my adorable niece (and her wonderful parents) in Chicago. My brother has a resident sticker on his car, and can park anywhere in his neighborhood zone for free. This is a guest pass, which is good for 24 hours and cost them about fifty cents.

(As a side note, maybe someday I’ll tell you guys about how much car ownership costs in Japan. Seven years back, and I still can’t get over how cheap it is here in comparison!)

Option 3: Quality network of bike lanes

Putting a price on parking will deter students who drive five blocks, but presenting a viable alternative to driving is essential for those who live further off-campus. Replacing parking lanes with appropriately-sized bike lanes – ideally, separated from moving traffic – would respect the transportation choices that so many students are already making and be an economic win for the city as a whole, too. I’m hoping to talk about this in more detail in coming weeks, so I’ll leave it there for now.

Rainbow shoes

My friends tell me that the pigtailed toddler in rainbow shoes will be headed off to college before I know it. I hope the city of her choice, the school of her choice, will have set up systems that make active transportation easy. I hope that spending the inordinate amount of money necessary to own and maintain a car will be a choice for her, and not a requirement. I hope that someone has decided to make room for her on the roads if she chooses to travel on two wheels, as she does today. And let’s do the same for our neighbors kids.

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She Wants to Ride the School Bus, but It’s Not Working

This cartoon popped up in my Twitter feed via @BrentTodarian. I haven't found the artist yet.
This cartoon Yehuda Moon cartoon (produced by Rick Smith & Brian Griggs) sums it up – but for parents making this decision every morning, it’s not quite so simple.

“It’s not the first two streets that are the problem; she can cross those. It’s that last street, because it doesn’t have a stop sign. And people drive SO fast through town.”

We stood in one small circle of conversation among many others, the room buzzing with questions about the first week of school. Flocks of small children swooped around our legs, swiping cups of lemonade before flying off to bring mayhem to some formerly-quiet corner of the church.

“It’s frustrating, because I really, really wanted her to ride the bus to school. It’s good for her to learn to take the bus and to have that independence, and to know that if she’s not out there on time she’ll miss it.”

I play with the edges of the paper coffee cup, folding the handle up and down as I listen. The coffee is thick and almost greasy somehow, leaving its mark on the sides of the cup.

“But I have other kids, too – honestly, if I have to wake them up anyway to walk her to the bus stop, it’s just easier to stick them in their car seats.”

Yes, the agony of organizing multiple children for school runs. Pulling the sleeping child out from under their blankets, draping that floppy, unwilling weight over your shoulder as you run out the door, returning to the house to pull a second droopy kid from bed. Tears falling from those bleary eyes, always, mama frazzled and late.

We talked through a couple of possibilities. There aren’t any other kids on her block going to the same bus stop, so a walking school bus (uh… to the school bus?) is out. The problem is that one street that’s hard to cross.

Almost all of the east-west streets around here stop at every intersection, but the north-south streets normally go eight blocks or so between stop signs. Of course, this means that traffic on these streets is much faster and that they’re more difficult and dangerous to cross. They’re designed so that people passing through by car can make good time – but they don’t add value to our neighborhoods.

I can think of three women just off the top of my head this morning who are driving their kids to school because there is a street too busy for their child to cross. I accompany my capable children every day for this same reason. The profound irony of this, of course, is that 20% or more of morning traffic is made up of parents doing just that. Which comes first, the chicken or the egg?

When we begin to talk about a Montessori City, we’re talking about a place where kids can practice age-appropriate behaviors without being unnaturally constrained by their environment. This is entirely do-able, but it’s going to require us to make some changes – and the sooner we allow our kids to live full lives right in their own neighborhoods, the better off our whole community will be down the road.

“It takes me seven minutes to walk her to the bus stop, longer if her little brother insists on walking. It takes me ten minutes to drive her to school. I think I’ll let her take the bus home, but I’m going to start driving her to school. This just isn’t working.

What Cartoon Are You Living in?

The Jetsons’ city, built around the flying car.

The way we get around shapes the world we live in – and vice versa.

George Jetson is ejected from his cozy bed in the morning right onto a conveyor belt that draws him through his whole morning routine (and with my toddler getting up for the day most mornings at 5:30, WHAT I WOULDN’T GIVE for that contraption!). He dials up a push-button breakfast, then is delivered to his flying car for a grueling two-hour work day.

We’ll ignore for now the fact that George would surely not have maintained his svelte figure if he’d never had to move a muscle all day long, thanks to the conveyor belts that rendered functional feet obsolete.

The Jetsons’ Saarinen-inspired community – can we call it a community? – is suspended impossibly in mid-air, perched atop narrow pillars that inexplicably never seem to sway. Although the family lives in an apartment, the show portrays the ultimate suburban dream – lots of space, yet everything is easily accessible. A futuristic world built around flying cars looks appropriately weird to our eyes.

(Go ahead, take 56 seconds to relive your childhood and watch the intro.)

It’s worth noting that as much as the way we get around shapes the world we live in, the converse is also true: the world we live in shapes the way we get around. Taking a walk would involve a long, treacherous fall for a Jetson – the flying car was it for them even more than our grounded vehicles are for us.

postcard - radiator springs

The movie Cars is similarly unbelievable. In this case, rather than being set in the far future the movie is peopled entirely by, well cars.

The little burg of Radiator Springs has seen better days. The interstate passed them by and the poor cars of Radiator Springs languish, desperate for a visitor to bring business in to town.

Lightning McQueen, the little racecar who could, growls around town with the locals. A tire shop, a drive-in themed motel, racing the roads outside of town. Much of the action takes place in streets or parking lots, a logical public space for cars.

Radiator Springs isn't immune to sprawl.
Radiator Springs isn’t immune to sprawl.

Radiator Springs could be any of our towns, its main street found anywhere in North America. Wouldn’t you think that a city designed for a movie in which cars are the main characters would look a little strange? I mean, it’s built for CARS. Not people. Our cities are built for people – right? But a town built as a habitat for cars looks completely familiar and comfortable to us… because our cities are built – or have been retrofitted – for cars.

The shape of our community shapes our sense of community

The interesting thing about these cartoons is the relative presence and absence of public space. In the Jetsons, there really isn’t much public space – it’s hard to build a park mid-air. Interestingly enough, we see technology – like video calls – taking the place of that in-person interaction.

In Cars, on the other hand, almost all of the action takes place in the public realm. The streets of this little town function like the public plaza of a medieval city, where everyone gathers by intention and runs into each other through the course of their day. Cars don’t fit in houses very well, after all.

Neither of these communities is built around the individual person. That works well for the cars, because they ARE the individual people in their story. I suspect that the world of the Jetsons would have been somewhat less rosy in real life.

A couple other cartoons that are interesting for seeing how characters are portrayed getting around are Curious George (since monkeys don’t drive)…

And Richard Scarry’s Busytown, where apparently all animals drive everywhere and all the time:

So what do you think? What cartoon do YOU live in? What would your kids say? Feel free to leave a comment, or e-mail me at tulip.lane@outlook.com.

One Too Many Close Calls: Women and Bicycles

“I just had one too many close calls.”

That was what Rachel said. We were standing in a little circle, she and Bernie and I, chatting about what bikes we rode, and the big White Pine Trail ride she took last year, and all the kinds of things you tend to chat about when you find out that the people around you share your special brand of crazy.

And at some point in the conversation, she said this. How after bike commuting all through the warm season, day after day after day, she tapered down to nearly nothing by the end of the summer. The guy who waved her in front of him… then hit her rear wheel, knocked her down, and raced off. The woman who nearly hit her, braked, and then nearly hit the son who was following her.

One too many close calls.

I get it. I DID it. I rode through 110F heat (not recommended), and on windy, blustery days. I felt like I was getting away with something, leaving the girls with the sitter and riding away ALL BY MYSELF for a half-an-hour break before work.

But the day that the woman in the gray sedan cut me off pulling into the Secretary of State, when I braked and swerved and barely missed being hit… Well, I drove to work the next day. And the day after that. I had a nine-month-old at home! I don’t remember when I rode in after that, but it was much frequently than I had before.

One too many close calls.

I linked to an article over on our Facebook page a week or so ago that addresses this specifically. On a population basis, women are substantially more sensitive to the safety of the bicycling environment than men are. The presence of dedicated bicycle infrastructure – bike lanes and paths – also make a bigger difference to the numbers of women who choose to ride than the number of men who do.

An excerpt from the article:

The big question, of course, was what kept more women from biking. Men and women gave several of the same reasons for not riding, … but the biggest disparity was a safety concern regarding nearby car traffic. While 43 percent of women cited that concern as a reason they didn’t ride, only 28 percent of men said the same.

We’re just not into close calls.

As spring approaches, I’ve been eagerly anticipating getting my bike on the road again. I’ve been brainstorming ways to get more than one girl on the bike that I have now – can I rig something up on my rear rack for the preschooler? What will it feel like to carry two on this bike? Can we make it work? I’m excited to get out there, get moving, to feel the wind and the sun and listen to the spring peepers and smell the thawing earth. Like this woman in Traverse City, I’m eager to trade in the gasoline and make almonds and dark chocolate my fuel of choice.

But will I? Or will traffic make me too nervous, or actually present itself as too dangerous? If someone cuts me off with kids on the bike, will I just hang it up and start trolling the internets for houses and jobs in Portland? (We don’t really ALL have to live in Portland, do we?)

I won’t know until I try. I’ve heard mixed reviews on the forums, with many parents saying that they feel drivers give them much more space when they’re traveling with their children – and many leaning out their windows to tell them that what they’re doing is a bad idea. We don’t change the status quo by following the status quo.

But I’m like Rachel. I’m not into close calls. So… stay tuned?

Around the web on this topic:
Infrastructure to Blame for the Cycling Gender Gap

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