2: Retrofitting Suburbia

  The key, I think, to making infrastructure work out in the ‘burbs is less to try and copy what worked in the core, but rather to take advantage of what already exists. It’s a key concept behind Dunham-Jones and Williamson’s Retrofitting Suburbiarather than raze and rebuild, find ways to adapt and work with what already exists.

So what do we have to work with out where the sidewalk ends? Calm, suburban streets. Existing recreational trails along rivers, old rail grades, and parkland. People who already walk or ride bikes somewhere other than their neighborhoods. People who already walk or ride in their neighborhoods, but become invisible people in a car-centric environment. In the best of cases, small, local civic governments that respond to the needs of their citizens. That’s more than a bit, come to think of it.

In this environment, the simplest solutions can sometimes be the most effective. A well-executed wayfinding system—you know, signs—can help people navigate suburban back streets, directing them around terrain features and busy roads and keeping them from getting lost in the twists and cul-de-sacs. Frequent signs also send the subliminal message that cyclists and pedestrians are not merely accommodated on the street, but even expected and welcomed; rather than the usual “well, we have to tolerate you, I guess” of “share the road” or “cyclists may use full right lane” signs we occasionally see, an ubiquitous network of visible, frequent signs that cater to people on foot and bikes makes it clear that their presence is a part of the streetscape.

Of course, not all wayfinding signs are created equal. “Bike Route Q” doesn’t tell me much, nor does it do me any good to be treated exactly like a car, able to take the shortest on-road route between two points, over hills and in traffic. A good wayfinding system should accommodate for user comfort and stress, even making the assumption that some of the users might be young, carrying heavy loads, or unfamiliar with the neighborhood. Every point where a wrong turn could be made should be signposted, easier routes should be chosen, and conflict points—places where people who walk, ride, and drive might come to grief with one another—should be avoided or clarified.

Beyond signs, connections in the network should be made. Informal demand paths, where pedestrians and cyclists have cut across open ground with enough frequency to wear a trail, should be improved. Clearly, people are trying to move from one place to another; the demand and user base exists, and ought to be accommodated. Short connectors between existing recreational trails, trail/street junctions, spaces between parking lots and streets, or even narrow gaps between streets are all ideal candidates for small connectivity improvements. A main neighborhood through street should not simply dead-end a few grassy uphill yards from a well-used multi-use trail. A shopping center and grocery store with three muddy and rutted pedestrian demand trails coming from the surrounding neighborhood is clearly being visited by non-automobile traffic that its designers did not anticipate when it was built in the 1970’s, but is clearly crucial to the now-present businesses. These last few yards are sometimes all that is needed to end convoluted and discouraging workarounds by people who walk and bike.

Another way of viewing connectivity, however, is across jurisdictions. I know I talk about this quite a bit, but there’s a reason why—some of the best infrastructure in my backyard goes unused because a key connection through another town, installation, or campus doesn’t exist. The town of Hyattsville has a pretty good wayfinding system already in place—but, in order to get there, you have to know which turns and back streets to take in Calvert Hills and University Park. Along that route, signs (when they exist) aren’t standardized, don’t seem to be presenting the same information, don’t seem to have the same navigational priorities (are we trying to route people towards historical markers? Government buildings? Trails? Local landmarks? All of the above?), and, as a consequence, don’t seem to be as useful as they could be. This might be a job for local advocacy, tourism, transit, or intercity councils…or for someone with great faith in bureaucracy to get things done.

Then there are the expensive solutions. Bike paths, cycletracks, bike boulevards…things that take money, political will, and putting pressure on a few folks in the city council chambers or statehouse. Never underestimate the ability of the State Highway Association to simply not care about what every local constituency wants, even (or especially!) when that apathy has very serious, expensive, and sometimes tragic results. Yes, these are great “headline” solutions, with the potential to completely change communities and transit networks, but if the political will and force to fund and complete these kinds of projects doesn’t exist (and it so very, very rarely does), then they can’t happen. No, signs aren’t sexy, but they get done. A paved trail passing through four jurisdictions will be in need of maintenance before the delayed development going smack in the middle lets it be completed.

Not to say that these aren’t worth lobbying for, of course; they’re often the backbone of pedestrian and bike transit networks, and for good reason. They’re great ways to reuse abandoned railroad rights of way (common in older suburbs that were created along streetcars and railroads) and riversides (also home to older communities). As a few local business owners have found out, easy access to prominent non-motorized thoroughfares does mean more customers will be coming by. There are very real and concrete benefits to these big projects; they’re just big. Big scares the folks in county government or the SHA. Big looks like you’re trying to create recreational amenities for gentrifiers, rather than transit networks for residents. Big is challenging the well-understood and well-established artificial order of the civil engineers in which the needs of human beings are subordinated to the needs of their machines. Big is hard.

So we work for the big and transformational projects, but use the smaller, easier retrofits not just as stopgaps, but to create a meaningful network, connecting destinations that already exist and planning for improvements yet to come.

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