Oklahoma City: Capitol of the New Century. Boomtown. One of the best places to move if you’re looking for a job. Home of new skyscrapers and corporate headquarters. Thief of basketball teams. Nice place to live, but…well, actually, you might want to visit there.
In the decade or so since I left town for school (then more school, then publishing, then…whatever it is I do now), the city’s changed. Money does that to cities. Perfect and combine a couple nifty tricks that open up new oil and gas formations, and it’s like 1972 all over again. People are moving in, and parts of the city I never knew existed in the 19 years I lived there are now Places. Walkable, bikeable, sustainable, and urban Places, I’ve been told—and great Places to score Professorcoats dating from the last oil boom.
Yeah, okay, I kinda took notes when going out with The Parentals for tasty Salmon and Such.
So, here’s the strange thing: the suburbs have an excellent recreational trail network; the developing urban core, with bike parking, higher density, and the kernel of a bikeshare system, has signs and sharrows. Our best infrastructure is tucked away in out-of-the-way places, and the places that people go get signs and wide lanes.
They’re really nice signs, mind. “Bikes may use full lane, change lanes when passing bikes.” But when I’m biking past a highway interchange with 50 MPH traffic passing me, one of those nifty buffered bike lanes might be nicer.
So, when looking at this new schtuff—or even at some of the older, denser, more diverse clusters further out in the ‘burbs that Jane Jacobs would have loved given a judicious road diet—there’s an odd contradiction between diverse streetscapes at or above Hyattsville, Brookland, Trinidad, or College Park diversity and density, sometimes with bike racks or bikeshare stations out front, and nothing more than a couple signs announcing there’s a bike route on the street. It’s the bassacwards school of putting in infrastructure where it’s politically easiest to put it, for people who have the choice not to use it for transit, in places where nobody actually much wants to go. Buffered bike lanes are lovely, but would be lovelier still if they kept going into the residential neighborhood, rather than ending with the isolated block of light industrial shops.
Here, let me show you what I’m talking about.
This is the Oklahoma River Trail, just south of downtown—there’s another identical trail on the other riverbank. Now, this particular part isn’t any more or less empty than the rest of the trail; if anything, the nearby skatepark (behind me and upriver a bit) makes this section less isolated than some of the rest. Now, it’s hard to build too much in river floodplains—yes, even the former North Canadian, which was once characterized as “the world’s longest drainage ditch” before we dammed it and gave a couple miles of it a new name—so it’s kinda understandable—but not this! This is isolation and stagnation! There’s a busy and developing Hispanic neighborhood (Capitol Hill) a few blocks to the south with a historic main street lined with stores catering to the local community. Yet, despite the need, despite the opportunity, the paths are located where there’s nothing and nobody, and the places where the people and traffic are get ignored.
A bit downriver, and you come to the boathouse. Now, I’ll be the first to grant you that this place is kinda neat. It’s a world-class training facility for rowing, whitewater kayaking, and other sports; but, again, a bit dead, a bit athleticism/recreation focused rather than transit oriented, a bit hemmed in by two highways, a few major streets, and a river to develop outwards. If you’re looking for a border district, I think we just found one. Now, some of this might be due to how new all this is; a primary use attraction like this one takes time to develop secondary uses around it. It might also be that overcast and cold afternoons in late December aren’t the liveliest times for rowing facilities. It might also be that nobody’s figured out a way to develop and capitalize on the unique attractions here. And yet, I can’t shake the feeling that there’s a missed opportunity, and a trail to nowhere, that could use at least a good spur (if not a rerouting) leading north to the Bricktown entertainment district where OKC’s modern redevelopment first got started.
Actually, why don’t we head north ourselves? We’re right next to the Bricktown Ballpark here, at the southeast corner of the neighborhood—or pretty close to it, since I don’t like thinking about Brass Po any more than I have to. It’s also the southeastern Spokies station—yes, Oklahoma City has a bikeshare system now. Of course, rather than the more familiar REQX-Alta/Bixi/Devinci bikeshare system (like DC’s CaBi) OKC uses a system from Sandvault using single-speed Worksman Industrial Newsgirl bikes—a fair sight cheaper than the standard-issue Devinci three-speed tanks, if not quite as fully featured (e.g., no lights or generator hub) or bombproof. Of course, this makes sense for a lightly used and small system confined to a single well-lit, flat neighborhood like OKC’s is; if you can’t ride more than a mile and a half (and likely just a mile), things like gears and adaptation to heavy use just aren’t as necessary as they would be in and around DC.
However, the limitations of this system reveals quite a bit about how the City thinks about cycling and its role in transportation. These bikes aren’t meant for going from neighborhood to neighborhood; they’re meant to let you snag a free parking place on the outskirts of downtown, then see the sights, have a night out, or make it to the game without having to fight the congestion or parking meters. Unless you live in Midtown—which, let’s face it, not a lot of people do—you’re not going to be able to use bikeshare to get where you’re going without combining it with a car. The parking lot and the bike station have to go together.
And for those of you wondering about multimodal options and combining other forms of public transit with bikeshare: that would be the water taxi. No, seriously. In Oklahoma City, the water taxi counts as public transportation. I think I knew one person who had ever ridden a city bus; you might know they existed, but you also knew they were as good as useless, and good as unused.
Which brings up those nasty, thorny problems: the high cost of free parking; of encouraging density without effective transit, encouraging transit without effective density; of challenging autonormativity; of trying to gradually alter generations of expectations, conceptions, and explicit & implicit teachings about class, traffic, and cities. There are a lot of parked cars along that stretch of road there, about twenty-five more in the coffee shop’s full parking lot just out of frame, and one parked illegally on the sidewalk. There’s a law school campus about to move in behind my (very patient) father just as soon as they put the finishing touches on the building and the road. People are wanting to get to this place, it’s becoming a neighborhood that more businesses and organizations are wanting to move to, and yet, so long as it remains dependent on the current “parked car” paradigm, everyone’s kinda stuck. Try to make streetscape improvements, and you’ll end up taking out a parking lane that people currently use; build a dense, multi-use development, and you’ll have to pave over adjacent lots for parking so that customers can come to you and residents can go anywhere else in the city. This is an area that could potentially support denser development, transit infrastructure, and streetscape improvements if it weren’t being choked by a need to keep places to stick unoccupied cars.
Which, in the end, may be what’s keeping Oklahoma City from realizing its potential. Hamstrung by parking requirements both de iure et facto, the higher densities needed to catalyze urban growth, transit infrastructure, and redevelopment just aren’t going to happen. Parking lots are dead spaces. Street parking is a lost bicycle lane that could have been used by potential customers. Lots kept vacant or underdeveloped because of the need for parking are a waste of opportunities (and, dare I say it, a diversified tax base for a city that desperately needs one). The need to accommodate neither drivers nor traffic, but large and inert objects, has created sick empty spaces in otherwise vibrant neighborhoods.
I may be a bit of a biased observer, though; after several years in DC, I’ve probably come to instinctually associate emptiness with blight and decay. If there’s a space available in a place people want to be, by God, someone’s going to develop it! In dense cities, the question is not why is there something rather than nothing; it’s why is there nothing rather than something. The presence of buildings, people, and use is assumed, and emptiness, openness, and abandonment is a sign that something is wrong, that there are forces and reasons keeping people away. So to see so much open space in an area I know is thriving, where people are moving, where people want to be, where there’s not enough room under the present paradigm for all the people who want to move or be there…yes, it’s strange.
I want to see neighborhoods realizing their potential. I want to know that the home of the parking meter can kick its parking habit and bring people together, use its resources, and become more than the much-maligned exemplar of The Sprawlmonster. All it’ll take is some paint, some private development in previously empty space, and removing a couple parking meters. People like those things, right?
Yeah, that’s right. I almost made it sound easy.
Next time: you call it sprawl, I call it “neighborhoods you’re too blind to see because they don’t look like Manhattan.”