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Oklahoma Rising?: Part one, Walkability


Ben Fenwick September 4th, 2008

State pride swelled and the nation took notice as Oklahoma celebrated its first 100 years in 2007. After sweeping up the confetti, our state embarks on a new century invigorated with promise and hope....

State pride swelled and the nation took notice as Oklahoma celebrated its first 100 years in 2007. After sweeping up the confetti, our state embarks on a new century invigorated with promise and hope.

While the state leads the nation in many respects, Oklahomans face significant hurdles that continue to challenge our spirit and resolve. Believe it or not, our fair city and state still dwell in the basement in several categories nationwide.

WORST IN WALKABILITY
PREDICAMENT
AUTO LOVE
GETTING IN STEP
PEDESTRIAN-FRIENDLY
'MOVIN' AROUND'

A cornerstone of Oklahoma Gazette's mission is to improve the quality of life in Central Oklahoma. Our six-part "Oklahoma Rising?" series examines several categories where our city or state ranks last. We'll examine why we're there, explain some of the root causes and look forward to alternatives for a better tomorrow.

WORST IN WALKABILITY
When city employee Anna Jenkins visited Penn Square Mall in Oklahoma City recently, her husband dropped her off, then drove the car next door to the Belle Isle shopping center with their children to do some shopping.

After her time in the mall, Jenkins was to stroll over to the other shopping center to meet them. However, when she exited and walked toward Belle Isle, it didn't work that way. Although the two shopping areas are only yards apart in some places, there was no pedestrian link between the two.

"I couldn't do it," she said. "I said, 'This is crazy. My husband and children are over there, and I am over here.'" She had to call him on the cell phone. "I told him, 'You're in the car. You come over here.'"

The incident was not without irony. Jenkins, who is the director of the Midtown Redevelopment Corporation, is one of several in a public-private walkability subcommittee of Movin' Around, a city project which brainstorms ideas to fix Oklahoma City's mode of transportation dilemma.

"Have you ever tried to cross Northwest Expressway to get to Starbucks?" asked Betsy Brunsteter, an architect chairing the subcommittee at a recent meeting of the group. Brunsteter had ridden her bicycle to the meeting at a downtown restaurant.

Nods of understanding went all around.

"Have you ever been at Penn Square Mall and tried to cross the street to 50 Penn Place?" asked Nancy Anthony, the executive director of the Oklahoma City Community Foundation and a walking enthusiast who was a guest at the meeting.

Groans were heard. "No way," said several. Another death race across the Expressway.

PREDICAMENT
The architects, business people, city leaders and entrepreneurs on the subcommittee spent the afternoon on the predicament of unwalkable Oklahoma City, kicking around ideas large and small. Soon they adjourned with a long list and homework to pare that list down into something workable, something to help city residents walk in their town. 

And none too soon. This year, Oklahoma City came in last " again " in walking, according to a leading health magazine. Of the cities examined, OKC came in at No. 1 in Prevention magazine's list of least walkable cities, and the write-up for our town is damning.

 "In fact," stated the magazine, "Oklahoma City is the worst city for pedestrians in the entire country. The state's biggest city has its highest crime rate and one of the lowest percentages of people who walk to work."

The study stated that downtown is "too car-centric for walking" and that it is in the "low end "¦ for school and park density."

 "Overall, this city needs more work than any other on our list to become a city for walkers," Prevention concluded.

AUTO LOVE
How did it become impossible to walk in Oklahoma City?

Its situation is not uncommon in those cities that came of age during the reign of the automobile, according to researcher Clark Williams-Derry, who works for the Sightline Institute in Seattle. Most recently, he was a consultant for yet another study on "walkabilty," or pedestrian-friendly city planning.  The walkability statistics garnered from the study are used on a new Web site, WalkScore.com. In Walk Score's study, Oklahoma City fared only a little better than in Prevention's " it came in 36 out of 40.

"These cities grew up since the advent of the automobile," Williams-Derry said. "Residential neighborhoods grew up essentially separated from the commercial zones " stores, services and those sorts of things " and those separated from jobs. In an old downtown area, housing was very close to stores and services, and everything was very close to jobs. The decision we made to separate out different land uses " a space for homes, a space for businesses, and a space for stores " that was driven by automobility."

Oklahoma City's love for the automobile is no secret. It isn't a coincidence that OKC was the birthplace of the parking meter. As the city grew with the car, homes, businesses and work moved farther into the countryside. The city expanded to meet it, until Oklahoma City's area spread over 621 square miles " one of the largest cities in the world in terms of land area. In terms of population, OKC is ranked 31st in the country " spread out.

Now, however, the issue has come full circle, Williams-Derry said. High gas prices are making driving more expensive and making living away from the action more costly, less attractive and less sustainable.

"There is nothing inherently wrong developing that way, but once you start having issues with energy resources, once you start seeing prices go through the roof, you have higher congestion, higher energy costs and less opportunity to walk in your daily life," Williams-Derry said. "A lot of cities have decided 'We don't want to make walking pleasant and convenient. We want to make driving pleasant and convenient.' And in those cities, we have emphasized driving over walking, reducing the diversity and reducing the density, and inhibited pedestrian design, and as a result, made those places pretty unwalkable."

GETTING IN STEP
But not all the places in Oklahoma City are that way. Things are changing.

There are a lot of reasons why Bricktown is successful, but among them is that one can walk around there. Once one parks " in itself a matter of some contention " one can walk to the Harkins Bricktown Cinemas, buy some popcorn and watch the latest flick. Emerging from that experience, one can saunter over to one of the restaurants lining the Bricktown canal and have dinner, then maybe take a stroll down the canal to have a nightcap at one of the establishments there. 

If one lives in a hip apartment or condominium at Deep Deuce or Block 42, it's an easy walk home. Wouldn't that be nice?

That's why developer Grant Humphreys put Block 42 there.

"It's very much within walking distance to Bricktown, the (Downtown Family YMCA) health center and the downtown CDB (Central Business District). I look at a five- to seven-minute walk as what people will do without thinking of hopping in the car," Humphreys said.

Development, like Deep Deuce and Block 42, is the key to turning it around, according to Williams-Derry. Density, diversity and design are three terms he uses.

"'Density' means how many people live in the neighborhood," Williams-Derry said. "'Diversity' means how many different things are close by. 'Design' means how we lay out our streets and infrastructure to make walking pleasant and convenient."

However, there is still a lot of work to do, Humphreys acknowledged. For instance, that five- to seven-minute walk time might really be lower in Oklahoma City, according to studies specific to the area, he said.

"In Oklahoma City, they say that might not be the case "¦ but that's because they've never had anything enjoyable to walk to. It's usually "¦ taking your life into your own hands. Even in downtown, we've got some areas that are pretty hazardous from a pedestrian standpoint," Humphreys said. "The flip side to it is it can't get much worse. You have a lot of people who are progressive-minded, forward-thinking people working hard to change that situation."

PEDESTRIAN-FRIENDLY
However, changing the city's mean streets to pedestrian-friendly ones isn't easy. Mayor Mick Cornett said the city reversed itself on policy, and now requires new developments to build sidewalks.

"But it's hard to go back, to a city as large as ours, and try to re-create or correct decades of that auto-centric culture," Cornett said. "It's hard to go back and make it pedestrian-friendly, but we are doing it as fast as we feel like we can."

Among such plans, he said, are new sidewalks, which the city is to build on a piecemeal basis during ongoing construction projects.

"In the last bond issue, we got voter approval to build 300 miles of new sidewalks "¦ (to be) constructed when we are already working on that street," Cornett said. "If we are going on and resurfacing, that's when we go in and do the sidewalk. So it's while the project is already in the area " that way, you save on construction costs."

However, there are others who want to take it further.

Selling walking as an idea in a city on wheels isn't easy. Among Jenkins' ideas that she came up with for Movin' Around is a big one, perhaps somewhat expensive.

"I believe every arterial street in the city should be lined with sidewalks," Jenkins said. "We should just make it happen. It would be nice to know, like, what would it cost to fill in the gaps everywhere. Just to have a number and get a handle on what kind of interest there really would be in making it happen. Maybe a public initiative of some sort so people could tax themselves a little bit to make the city pedestrian-friendly."

"I feel like there is incredible interest," she said, "but that it's really hard to do."

'MOVIN' AROUND'
Criteria important to pedestrians have been identified by those on the Movin' Around walking subcommittee in Oklahoma City. Some of its ideas are: 

Improve crossings at major streets. Increase crossing times. Make areas of refuge in the center of streets. Have wheelchair ramps line up with crosswalks. Make crosswalks visibly more pronounced. Provide beeping crossing signals. Provide sidewalks where there are none. Create a completely accessible downtown. Make the walk more interesting. More murals. Encourage retail and restaurants to participate in the pedestrian experience. Create pedestrian gateways into various areas with distinct atmosphere (an opportunity for public art). Plant more trees and add awnings to create more shade. Provide benches. Rethink parking lots to be more pedestrian friendly. Create walking paths that are safe, clean, well lit that can be distributed in a map form to visitors and citizens. Provide information stands at intervals throughout the downtown area. A map of a walking trail through the downtown should detail historical and current points of interest.

Residents with"walkability"suggestions can call Betsy Brunsteter at 239-3259. "Ben Fenwick

 
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