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January 17, 2014

Something to walk about in New Albany

Author talks walkability in crowded event in New Albany

NEW ALBANY — Author Jeff Speck criticized traditional city planning that widens traffic lanes, discourages walking and isolates retail, commercial and residential uses, and added its incumbent upon communities to foster pedestrian travel by making it useful and interesting.

Speck, author of “Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time,” said pedestrians need not just a reason to walk, but they also require a sense of comfort and a general interest in their surroundings.

“In most of America these days, we’re looking for walkers by choice,” said Speck to crowd of more than 100 people who came to hear the city planner and author speak at the New Albany-Floyd County Public Library on Thursday.

He touched on a variety of topics related to pedestrian travel including some that are quite timely for New Albany residents and officials.

Speck said traffic lanes are traditionally designed too wide and thus encourage faster travel by motorists. The city is set to start a project this spring to improve Main Street, and the effort will include the addition of a median and cuts to the lane widths.

“The wider the lane the faster people drive,” Speck said.

Planners should look for struggling one-way streets where business activity may be depressed or pedestrian travel is inhibited and consider changing the flow to two-way traffic, he continued.

The New Albany Redevelopment Commission approved pursuing a study on Tuesday that will include examining downtown one-way streets for possible conversion to two-way traffic.

One-way streets are bad for pedestrians and they don’t encourage people to frequent businesses because motorists are traveling too quickly to notice much, Speck said.

“You’re looking for the faster way through,” he said. “They distribute energy unequally.”

There are exceptions to every rule, but Speck said generally one-way streets don’t encourage walking.

He referred to New Albany’s Market Street as the “most bizarre street I’ve ever been on in my life” due to its features and design.

There’s already a median in place for a portion of the street that would make it conducive to two-way traffic, yet Market Street remains a one-way road, Speck continued.

But he added Market Street is somewhat pedestrian friendly, and that changing its flow would likely benefit businesses the most.

He did concede that while two-way streets are the ideal, they probably aren’t mandatory as they pertain to planning.

Roundabouts have also been a hot topic in New Albany, as one was scrapped from the Mt. Tabor Road improvement project design following complaints from a multitude of residents.

Speck said four-way stops in downtown settings are safer for pedestrians than roundabouts and cheaper than traffic lights.

 His comments were mostly about downtown streets, as he said the urban core of most cities already contains necessary features and infrastructure to make them more walkable.

When asked by a member of the crowd if such principles could be applied to suburban living, he responded it’s basically a lost cause.

It’s unlikely zoning will change to allow mixed-use sites in suburbs around the country, he said.

“There’s very little hope for changing those places,” Speck said.  

And zoning has a lot to do with how walkable a community is or can be, he continued.

Isolating large public facilities or restricting land uses to specific areas depresses pedestrian travel, according to Speck.

If services, entertainment and residences are located near each other obviously people will be more likely to walk or bike to those destinations, he continued.

Which is why zoning is important to encouraging walking in a community, Speck said, as he added that just because there’s not abundant pedestrian travel in New Albany now doesn’t mean there wouldn’t be if the infrastructure were in place to promote it.

“It’s one of those rare ‘build it and they will come’ facilities,” he said of walking paths, sidewalks and general efforts to improve pedestrian travel.

Cities need to identify sectors that would encourage more pedestrian travel and rate them so they can identify where they can improve, he continued. New Albany, for example, should encourage more residential living downtown as it would help cultivate a walking culture, he continued.

It’s important for proponents of enhancements to improve pedestrian travel to dispel myths about enhancing walkability in their communities when faced with opposition, Speck continued.

Most roads are designed for far more cars than they will ever hold, so cutting lanes to install paths for biking or walking doesn’t mean vehicle capacity will be reduced below existing use levels, Speck said.

He believes many engineers fall victim to “induced demand,” where they add traffic lanes that aren’t needed and believe they are vindicated when more traffic arrives.

Studies prove that when you add lanes and make it easier to commute on a road more motorists will choose that route, Speck said.

“In congested systems, the primary constraint to driving is congestion,” he said.

Several area officials and planners attended the event. Speck was invited to speak by city officials and Develop New Albany co-sponsored his appearance.

Mayor Jeff Gahan said the city doesn’t fully know what the impact of the Ohio River Bridges Project will be on downtown New Albany streets.

“But we are committed to being prepared,” Gahan said.

 

 

 

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Jamie Collins, Scottsburg, works on lesson plans in her classroom at Scribner Middle School on Monday afternoon. Collins was the recipient of a $100 gift card to the Your Educational Supply Store from the New Albany-Floyd County Consolidated School Corp. Education Foundation. All first-time teachers in the school system received a gift card to help them set up their classrooms.

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