Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Just like Frogger...only real...

As a regular pedestrian in Town Center, I can sympathize with this:

Martin Kinsler lives so close to The Mall in Columbia that he can walk there. But, rather than cross one street, he gets into his car and drives.

The 64-year-old resident of the Evergreens apartments, a rental community for ages 55 and older, said crossing Ring Road, the roadway that circles the mall, is life-threatening.

"I was walking across to get to the mall, and it was difficult. ... Me and my wife were nearly hit," said Kinsler, who said several of his neighbors had similar experiences and now drive across the street.
Pedestrian safety – or the lack thereof – in Town Center is nothing new. It has been brought up repeatedly in during the master plan process and before then, was a major topic of discussion during the two zoning cases involving the Crescent.

The mall’s management, however, is taking steps to make this area of the Ring Road safer. To wit:
Karen Geary, manager of the mall, and public officials met with residents of the Warfield Triangle in February to address the pedestrian problems.

Geary said this week that the following actions are expected to be completed by the end of this month:

• Rumble strips will be installed on Ring Road between the Evergreens apartments and the Cheesecake Factory.

• A marked crosswalk will be added on Ring Road between the AMC Theatre and Cheesecake Factory.

• Pedestrian signage will be increased in the area, and the yellow lights affixed to stop signs at the three-way intersection next to the AMC Theatre will be changed to red.
That’s a start, but these – like most of the pedestrian accessibility measures we currently have in place – are just cosmetic. Town Center – as currently construed – is fundamentally an auto-centric area and painting more crosswalks and adding more signs, though admirable, ain’t gonna change that.

Making downtown more pedestrian friendly isn’t that hard – at least from a physical standpoint. Better connections, more sidewalks, better streetscapes and such are all part of the master plan, but are not on their own going to make Town Center suddenly a place where pedestrians feel at home. No, that requires something a little more difficult: Behavioral change.

At the first charrette meeting, I argued with a couple at my table who wanted to be able to walk around Town Center at will, but at the same time wanted to make the trip from Oakland Mills to the mall in only five minutes. Reducing the speed limit or number of lanes on Little Patuxent Parkway was not an option, nor, for that matter, was inconveniencing drivers in any way.

Pedestrians, by their very nature, are an inconvenience for drivers if we assume, as we should, that one of the main purposes of driving is to get from one place to another in the most efficient (read: quick) way possible. Pedestrians just junk up the works.

Usually, changing human behavior is next to impossible, but in this case it shouldn’t be, as the process is cyclical and self-driven, albeit with a little help from outside forces. For example, enhancements are made that increase the safety, accessibility and enjoyment of walking in Town Center. More people start walking. Drivers, in turn, notice – either on their own or by coercion – that more pedestrians are on the street, and they start slowing down. As driving slows, it becomes less convenient to hop into the car and go from one part of Town Center to another. Accordingly, more people start parking their cars and using their feet for something other than pushing the accelerator.

It’s not exactly that easy, but the train of thought gets to the point I’m trying to make, which is: there’s a delicate balance between "safe for pedestrian" and "convenient for drivers." How far towards one side or the other we go depends on what our true priorities are.

Yes, we can have both, but only to a certain extent. Like in everything, we have to make tradeoffs based on our priorities.

So what’s more important to you in Town Center: walking or driving? I'm not trying to be flippant. Whichever we decide -- and to what extent we value one over the other -- has a huge impact on the future of our city.

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