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Oklahoma City’s choices


Chance Hunter August 17th, 2011

Oklahoma City was built for cars. Like many young cities in this part of the country, its growth sprawled out across a grid of major streets intersecting every mile, overlaid by a wider grid of in-town highways. Most trips take just 10 or 20 minutes even if they take almost as many miles.

Which means I’ve been able to see a lot more of the city since I moved back in January, in less time, than I would have been able to in the other two cities I’ve lived in, Boston and Atlanta.

So much has changed. Downtown came back from the dead, an NBA franchise moved in, and the whole city pulsates with a life that just wasn’t there when I moved away 15 years ago. When I go to the downtown Festival of the Arts and see the Myriad Gardens renovation almost finished and newly planted trees lining the streets, it feels like a lot more than 15 years’ progress. It feels like a whole new city growing up out of the cracks.

The old downtown died in the second half of the Cold War, its death hastened by new highways that made for quick commutes to the suburbs. There are few signs of the privately owned system of streetcars that my mother took from Bethany to visit her grandmother downtown. The bus system held its own long enough for my other grandmother to commute to the department store she worked in downtown, but there are no department stores there now. The bus system is now a pale shadow of what is needed, with a handful of routes that go places most people don’t need to go. I’m glad it’s still there, and I’m glad I don’t need it.

Building a comprehensive public transit system in a city as spread out as Oklahoma City is no small task. But a good transit system doesn’t need to go everywhere at first, any more than the highway system started off going everywhere you’d want to go in the metro area. It took more than half a century to build the web of interstate highways, state highways, toll roads, and loops that weave the homes and workplaces of 1.3 million people together today. It will take that long to build a comparable public transit system, too.

Great cities are all about choices.

Good cities have one or two world-class things to do on a Friday night — like an NBA game — and one or two ways to get you where you’re going — say, city streets versus the highway. Great cities offer several world-class things to do on a Friday night, and more than just one or two ways to get there. Great cities make room for a whole host of options, and people choose.

In just 122 years — a blink of the eye by global standards — Oklahoma City is well on its way to becoming a world-class city. It’s made some great choices since the first MAPS project, and it has many years of great choices to make still ahead.

Hunter, graduate of Putnam City North and Oklahoma City University, recently moved back home to OKC after living in Boston and Atlanta for 15 years.

 
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