Thursday, February 06, 2014

ON THE AVENUES: No, John; congestion is our friend. Help us achieve it, or get out of the way.

ON THE AVENUES: No, John; congestion is our friend. Help us achieve it, or get out of the way.

A weekly web column by Roger A. Baylor.

For months – nay, years – we’ve remorselessly documented the fear, confusion and sheer intellectual laziness of local officialdom when it comes to grasping the basic tenets of street grid reform in New Albany.

It’s true that some of them are further along the path of righteousness than others, but virtually all are afflicted to some degree with a myopic inability, or maybe a plain unwillingness, to think clearly about the topic -- much less to do so openly and for attribution.

Festering at the heart of this ongoing disconnect is a fundamentally flawed understanding of the revitalization New Albany has managed somehow to achieve, against all institutional odds, in recent years: Who has propelled it, why it has occurred, and the incalculable extent to which such progress might be aided and abetted by immediate year-round infrastructure changes guaranteed to be far less costly than a part-time aquatics center.

Precisely because city officials don’t have a clear grasp of cause and effect, they are too easily afflicted with paralyzing dread of the unknown, which merely compounds the dead weight of a civic inferiority complex they simply can’t seem to shake.

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Conventional ruling wisdom is this: If we as a city do anything that might be remotely construed as discouraging the unrivaled hegemony of the automobile, or if we fail to resolutely mimic the residential and commercial logic of the suburb, these are signs of electoral weakness, and suddenly, no one will like us any longer – both as politicians seeking votes, and also as a municipal entity begging for attention in a crowded marketplace.

It’s inane drivel, but bizarrely resonates among the defeatists. It’s almost as though city officials are conceding that to them, the very idea of an independent business-led downtown revival always was doubtful, at best, especially when most folks (read: “city officials”) still prefer those nice dependable plasticized multinational chains crowding the former pastureland out along Veterans Parkway.

Sadly, this rampant manure fertilizes pervasive wrongheadedness.

In football terms, the governing deletes harbor an attitude similar to the infamous “prevent” defense, which typically stifles vigor and initiative, except that in football, coaches don’t start misusing the prevent until they’re ahead. Here, we’re doing it from behind.

In Junior High School terms, it’s like suffering from rampant adolescent insecurities and low self-esteem, and trying to dress and act like everyone else, just to fit in, only then belatedly realizing that not being yourself is no way to find yourself.

In economic development terms, it’s just plain unimaginative, derivative, non-creative insanity.

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As it pertains to the street grid, and as befitting those ordinary citizens of a similar age and demographic background who have traveled but paid depressingly scant attention to what they were seeing in a wider world, certain of our city officials evidently believe that the logic of the suburb applies equally and inexorably to the city center itself – that success can be achieved only by maximizing access via automobiles, whether it’s a doctrine applied to arterial streets that handily desecrate entire transitional neighborhoods, or surface parking that both mars the historic streetscape and prevents infill.

It is a self-defeating fallacy for an urban area, but it is the inextricable root fallacy of our detached leadership cadre, many of whom seem proud to know absolutely nothing about the contemporary ideas advanced by Jeff Speck (among others) in the year 2014, as opposed to 1964, and even though we’ve been talking and writing about these matters here at this blog since 2004.

That’s because when challenged to think, they fall back on their native “common” sense, gleaned from confounded, compounded incomprehension, and therefore not very sensible at all. I don’t mean to be harsh, but really, sometimes one must step away from the pasty white Cracker Barrel banquet table, break open an actual book, and learn something.

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In some respects, I do take city officials at their word. I believe they genuinely grasp that as the Ohio River Bridges Project advances from construction displacement through invasive tolling regime, New Albany stands to be badly harmed by hordes of pass-through cars and drivers, and by the congestive havoc they’ll cause.

However, I don’t see them grasping one iota of the curative logic, albeit counter-intuitive and requiring deeper thinking than suffices for watching network television, which explains the single best counter-active strategy available to us, as prefaced by Jeff Speck:

“Were it not for traffic congestion, we would drive enough additional miles to make congestion."

In short, to reduce congestion, induce congestion, although characteristically, city officials appear to be frozen in the approaching Hummer’s headlights as they grapple with their reigning congestive vision failure.

There’ll be congestion caused by the pass-throughs … but geez, how do we cope with congestion by reducing and slowing vehicular access … shouldn’t we be adding lanes and increasing speeds … hell, those neighborhood people gripe all the time, and they knew their quality of life downtown wouldn’t be half what it is on Rainbow Drive … can’t we just sit here and do nothing, because maybe a few of those cars will stop and eat, and then we can call it economic development, declare victory, and get re-elected and shit.

No. No. No.

NO.

To reduce congestion, induce congestion.

We must actively and unapologetically move to intentionally “congest” our current one-way arterials by making them two-way streets again; reducing lane sizes; lowering speeds; crowding them with walkers and bikers; and even adding a few of John Rosenbarger’s trademark totemic, fetishistic bump-outs of the sort be believes alone can transform paradigms over endless decades of gradual implementation.

But why fight congestion with congestion?

Because if we don’t, people in outlying areas will see downtown New Albany’s streets in precisely the same way they will view the Sherman Minton Bridge: A cost-free route for immediate passage.

Therefore, we must add user costs so as to discourage them, and seeing as we’ll not be tolling city streets during peak usage like London does, purposefully congesting the streets is the only way to impose a cost in extra time for the prospective pass-throughs, encouraging them to self-divert to avoid the cost in time, with the additional practical effects of (a) curbing bad congestion by using good congestion as a tool; (b) enhancing neighborhood quality of life; and (c) helping small, independent business to remain the driving force of downtown redevelopment.

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Now, here’s where the inferiority complex comes in.

But, omigod, Roger … if we do these things, then they’ll stop coming here, and everything we’ve tried to do …

Wait.

Everything YOU’VE tried to do?

Please.

It seems to me that if the indie business community has the confidence to grasp that street grid reform will deter unwanted pass-throughs while creating urban conditions all the more favorable for the great customers we already have – accepting the obvious fact that we’ve invested far more in money and time toward downtown revitalization than local government has ever dreamed of expending – why not take our word for it?

The people who are spending money downtown right now are not doing so because it has the same vibe as Veterans Parkway, or because we’re a convenient destination. New Albany’s always been out of the way, hasn’t it?

They’re doing it because downtown is different. Street grid reform stands to make downtown even more different, and better for the change; this can only increase consumer loyalty, not defeat it.

As an added bonus, lifting the quality of life in neighborhoods by ending the tyranny of one-way arterials stands to bring more of the neighborhood back to downtown, in effect adding the housing we currently lack in the epicenter. Why? Because they’ll be able to walk and bike and use the grid between their homes and downtown as human beings, not merely driving cars.

What stands in the way?

Essentially, an outdated mantra: “But it’s the way we’ve always done it.”

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Boy, haven't we. And see where it's gotten us?

While I continue to believe that public works ├╝ber-honcho John Rosenbarger “gets” all this, I’m finished defending him against his detractors, because it has occurred to me that never in my experience advocating for two-way traffic, when John’s somewhere within earshot, has he unequivocally endorsed the idea. Not once.

Rather, each time, he has uttered a disclaimer: Well, if not two-way streets, then traffic calming, and yes, this might make sense if he had a record of actively spearheading traffic calming and complete streets, but while he’s always talked a wonderful game about them, it has taken three decades for us to boast even the miniscule, scattered and pathetically unconnected examples we have now.

Sorry, but it’s time to say it publicly: For reasons unknown, John’s fatally biased against two-way street reform, perhaps because of his preference for the lifelong bureaucrat’s creeping bump-out incrementalism, which we no longer have time to indulge. He’s not helping us; he’s pushing back against us. In fact, I’ve come to believe that John is a major force against the changes we need right now, whether intentionally or otherwise. That’s too bad, and I wish I knew why. He’s not helping us. He’s hurting us.

Concurrently, I believe that economic development director David Duggins is fully capable of understanding the points I’m making here, but chooses not to do so, probably because there are no one way streets in the industrial park.

Moreover, perhaps as few as two, maybe three council persons see the merit of street grid modernism. And, honestly, I have no clue what Mayor Jeff Gahan sincerely believes about this topic, or for that matter, what he believes about anything at all. He remains a sphinx, forever guarded.

The fact is this: We’ve utterly wasted ten years on slipshod photo-op chicanery best symbolized by two bike lanes on each side of a one-way street, attached to nothing, and sheltered not one jot from unregulated vehicular traffic that negates the effort of painting the stripes, and if people like John Rosenbarger want to boast about this as though it were some semblance of a professional legacy, that’s exceedingly odd, because it isn’t, unless professional legacies typically embrace perpetually parsing fifty shades of stalled congestive anxiety, then waiting another few years before refraining from doing anything yet again.

Those municipal officials seeking a substantive legacy might consider leading change rather than road-blocking it. Otherwise, getting the hell out of the way would be a nice alternative, or at least not sabotaging the effort of those who’ve actually put money where their mouths are.

I’m ready to start painting yellow lines.

Aren’t you?

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