• Tue May 27 2008
  • Posted May 27, 2008
Rox Laird With gasoline nudging $4 a gallon and people increasingly aware of the need to walk or bike more and drive less - for their health and the health of the planet - interest is growing in transportation alternatives to automobiles. The trouble is, it is nearly impossible to navigate the modern city without an automobile. It's time to rethink the way we design cities. Transportation planners in the Des Moines metropolitan area are beginning work on a new transportation plan for the next three decades that will help determine how tax money will be spent on streets, highways, rails, trails and public transportation. For Des Moines, this is a perfect time to start thinking about how to modify the plan to make it easier for people to choose alternatives to driving. There is no reason a new Des Moines plan that would make it easier for people to get around without automobiles could not be a model for other cities in Iowa, and the nation. The first step is to think about how we got to where we are today in Des Moines, and in most every other city, and why we are so dependent on automobiles. Before the automobile age, cities were limited in how far out they could grow by the distances that people could walk or that trolley lines extended. Cities were far more densely populated and tightly packed with multistory office and apartment buildings. Narrow shops lined sidewalks crowded with pedestrians who bought only what they could carry or could be delivered later. Compactness meant economic classes were less segregated. Life was more communal, and the streets were more lively. In the 20th century, the mass production and mass consumption of automobiles liberated cities, and we have built a marvelous network of streets and highways that allow people to live far from work and to travel great distances with relative ease for shopping, entertainment and other activities. Tax money earmarked for road building, cheap gas and public affection for the freedom of motoring conspired to strangle public transportation. Planning and zoning standards that mandate minimum-sized parking lots for all commercial buildings push the city ever outward, and density declines at the edges as the sizes of homes and lots have grown. The automobile not only changed cities, but the way we live by allowing us to work in one town, to shop in another and to transport kids to school, baseball practice or violin lessons in still another, all the while traveling distances that would have consumed a day or more in our ancestors' time. Today, the transportation system of greater Des Moines consists of a 2,700-mile network of streets and highways. According to a study by the Des Moines Metropolitan Planning Organization, 93 percent of all trips are made by automobile, 5 percent on foot and 1 percent each by bus or bicycle. The vast majority of driving trips are not commuting to work - which represent just 16 percent of the total - but for personal trips for church, recreation, shopping, running errands or going out to eat. Making these trips by car is largely a personal choice, to be sure, but the choice is greatly influenced by a lack of alternatives. If people could walk to the corner store, or wander in and out of shops along Main Street, they might be encouraged to do so. But few urban residents have that option. Consider a typical suburban shopping center, with each big-box store floating in its own asphalt sea of parking. No safe, clearly marked walkways link them. Shoppers are forced to drive from one to another. Another example: Zoning rules that segregate commercial from residential preclude a neighborhood grocery store, forcing people to drive for a loaf of bread. Some cities are rethinking these rules of urban design in an effort to resurrect the elements of early city planning that made cities more people friendly. A new upscale shopping center in north Kansas City, Mo., for example, features narrow, winding streets lined with storefront shops. It looks like a Walt Disney creation of a 19th-century town. A local example is the new Prairie Trail mixed-use development in Ankeny, which could grow to 10,000 residents. The plan includes a "city center" that resembles a classic Iowa town square, with a bandstand, library, shops and offices, and tree-lined walkable neighborhoods scaled to resemble Beaverdale or the Drake or Sherman Hill neighborhoods in Des Moines. Ankeny wants this development to be among the first destination points for a proposed "bus rapid-transit" service that would run express buses on a dedicated lane to whisk commuters downtown. Ankeny's Prairie Trail and similar projects in West Des Moines and other cities are efforts to turn back the city-planning clock to rediscover what worked in the past and what still works in most every small town in Iowa. Developers are also exploiting the growing green movement to design low environmental-impact communities that use natural drainage and landscaping to minimize the need for sewers. Architects also see more interest among builders in green buildings that use recycled materials, require less energy and trap runoff water to irrigate landscaping. This movement is not limited to new development in the suburbs. The trail circling Grays Lake in the heart of Des Moines is a hugely popular destination. Older neighborhoods are threaded with a growing network of trails for cycling and walking, and more communities are aware of the need to integrate bicycle lanes into existing city streets. Nor is it necessary to rebuild existing cities. Modest changes can make a big difference, such as connecting destinations with clearly marked sidewalks or free shuttles. None of this change will happen in a serious way until the public demonstrates that it is ready to embrace a new direction in how cities and communities are planned. So, citizens should let their elected officials know they are ready for urban planning and commercial and residential development that account for means of transportation other than just automobiles on four-lane streets.

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