Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Desire Paths: Mapping Bossier City's Missing Sidewalks

Since relocating to Shreveport-Bossier and starting this blog, I've focused mainly on Shreveport. As the principal city in this region, I've always felt that as Shreveport goes, so goes the rest. If Shreveport improves its livability and urbanist design, the effects should, by default, trickle down to Bossier City as well. However, in focusing on Shreveport, I ignored a lot of things in Bossier City, and have now realized that as far as Shreveport has yet to go, Bossier City lags far behind, missing many of the infrastructure features that even a basic town should have. One of Bossier's biggest problems--at least certainly the most easily identifiable--is that there is a serious lack of sidewalks in this town.

Outside of planned housing subdivisions, few streets have any sidewalk at all. Of the streets that do, even fewer have a viable sidewalk. In most cases the sidewalk is either butted right against a lane of traffic with no buffer zone (as on Airline Drive), gravelly and potholed (sections of Texas Street), or disappears for blocks only to reappear on the other side of the street (Benton Road). And these are the best cases, the few places where a sidewalk in any form even exists.

A great example of the poor sidewalk planning is the section of Old Minden Road between Northgate Drive and I-20. I've made some Google Maps screenshots to illustrate the problems.

First, the intersection of Northgate Drive and Old Minden Road:

To begin with, there is not a sidewalk in this picture. But to be fair, why would there be a sidewalk anywhere near a skating rink, bowling alley, skatepark, and elementary school? Surely, all of those patrons must be of driving age and own a vehicle.

Next, as I've labeled in the picture, there are dangerous curb-cuts and crosswalks that go nowhere. This intersection, with its designated right turn ramp, creates a very dangerous situation for any pedestrian crossing at the marked crosswalk between the curb cuts. As drivers approach the intersection, right turning drivers are told that they are so important they do don't have to stop at the light--just veer right, barely reduce speed, and yield to any traffic that may appear. There isn't even a sign of any kind to warn drivers that they are approaching a place where pedestrians have been directed to cross.
Then, if the pedestrian does make it across to the island, they are stuck. The island has a signaled pedestrian crosswalk to go north across Old Minden, but not one to go west across Northgate, to the other island and the other dangerous curb cut and crosswalk. So, in order for a pedestrian to continue west down Old Minden Road, they must cross Old Minden northward, then--I'm not sure, super broad jump--across Northgate, then cross Old Minden again, southward this time, before continuing westward along Old Minden. Only to immediately face another doozy: Old Minden and Airline Drive.

As you can see, once again not a sidewalk in sight, and this intersection features no signaled crosswalks, so a pedestrian crossing the street must cross five lanes of traffic without the protection of a signal (six lanes, if going northward along the east side of Airline Drive). The right turn lane creates an added level of difficulty for a pedestrian heading west on Old Minden Road on the north side of the street. The green arrow indicates the most direct line of travel for a pedestrian; however, the right turn late dictates that pedestrians follow the yellow arrow to cross the intersection. Then, even when doing that, they are in a particularly dangerous situation, as they must cross at the same time as right turning traffic will have a green light (and, as mentioned above, the creation of a right turn lane can give drivers the idea that their turn has priority over other traffic). And once again, on the other side, still no crosswalks.

A bit further along, our westward bound pedestrian hits the next intersection with a traffic light, Old Minden and Waller Road.

Here, a sidewalk is in view, along the south side of Old Minden Road. This sidewalk appears out of thin air about 200 yards earlier. As an intersection with a traffic light, this represents an ideal time for a pedestrian on the south side of the street to cross north. However, there is not a pedestrian crosswalk or signal, nor is there a sidewalk on the north side. Ok, so what, no big deal, right? Well, about 300 yards west of this intersection is T.O. Rusheon Middle School, on the north side of Old Minden Road; and, since there is no traffic light in front of Rusheon, children walking to school have to rely on a crossing guard to stop five lanes of rush hour traffic before crossing.

Should we really be surprised by rising childhood obesity when we've designed a city that doesn't allow them to walk to school?

Oponents of sidewalks (such a strange sentence--how could anyone be opposed to sidewalks?) will argue that most residents of Bossier own cars and that there is not enough demand to justify sidewalks. I reject that theory.

First, the large number of cars on the road in Bossier does not signify a lack of demand for sidewalks--it signifies that there are lot of cars in Bossier, and that's it. There's no way to know how many Bossier residents would walk more of their short trips if the city put in proper sidewalks and crosswalks. Research has shown that bicycle ridership increased once proper bike lanes were installed. Sidewalk construction could easily have this same effect on pedestrian traffic.

Second, there is physical evidence of the demand for sidewalks in Bossier City:

The trails in these pictures are called desire paths by urban planners. They are highly valued by urban planners, who look at desire paths when planning sidewalks. These paths clearly show a demand for sidewalks. One person randomly walking along the road does not create a path like this. It takes a lot of foot traffic to wear this kind of mark into the ground.

Finally, I know there are many residents of Bossier City who will never walk anywhere, even if sidewalks paved in gold crisscross this city. They might wonder why their taxes should pay for something that they will not use or benefit from. They will benefit, even if they themselves don't use the sidewalks. Next time they sit in traffic on Airline Drive, they need only imagine if ten percent of the other vehicles on the road were gone, replaced by pedestrians on sidewalks. Also, there is something to be said for doing something for the good of the community as a whole, not just the individual. Consider this proverb from Ancient Greece: "A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in."

Sidewalks are more than just something put in residential subdivisions to keep kids out of the street. Sidewalks tell the populace that it's okay to walk places. Signaled crosswalks remind motorists that pedestrians actually do have the right of way, and that crossing a street on foot is not against the law. Sidewalks show that as a city, you are committed to making sure that all residents can travel safely and efficiently, regardless of the mode of travel.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Mapping Shreveport's Bike Lanes

Shreveport does not have bike lanes.  There are a dozen or so sharrows, such as the one pictured above, that alert motorists to be on the lookout for cyclists and remind motorists that cyclists and drivers alike must share the roadway.  These sharrows are scattered around downtown and the periphery, mainly on Marshall and Crockett Streets, and many have faded to the point that they are almost invisible.I’ve said before that I’m actually against full-on bike lanes; in most cases, I believe—and some research has shown—that sharrows, when implemented properly, are more effective at reducing accidents between cyclists and motor vehicles than fully marked bike lanes.  However, one thing that marked bike lanes do a great job of, is letting cyclists know which streets are best for cycling.  In addition to these marked lanes, many cities have designated bike routes with signs for the cyclists, helping them to stay on roads that are better suited to cycling.

With the absence of both bike lanes and city bike routes, cyclists in Shreveport-Bossier are left to discover the best routes on their own, sometimes with deadly consequences. For example, I had to learn the hard way that the Shreveport-Barksdale bridge is not really a viable place to cross the river, and that regardless of my trip origination or destination, the river should be crossed using the Texas Street Bridge.  Well, after two car-free years in Shreveport, I think I’m qualified to help.  On the [hipster] Shreveport tumblr, I’ll start a collection of recommended bike routes to and from popular destinations.  These are the routes I use, and I’ll add my own bits of knowledge about road surface conditions, traffic, etc.  To find these posts, click the link at the top of the tumblr page, or search for tumblr posts tagged “Shreveport Bike Routes".

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

I Hate This Commercial

Laws exist, for the most part, to keep us safe.  Sure, there are some strange ones out there (it’s illegal to boo at a sporting event in Louisiana), but most exist to keep people safe from other people.  As a society, we generally accept this, and we accept that there are punishments for breaking the law.  If you rob a bank or murder somebody, then you are going to go to jail.  Most of us have no problem with this.  There are, however, a few laws that most people view differently:  traffic laws, particularly speed limits.

Ask anyone about their most recent speeding ticket.  It will go something along the lines of “I was only going like five miles an hour over the speed limit” or “I was really in a hurry, and it’s not like I was going that fast.”  They will probably even go so far as to blame the cop for the ticket, as if he is somehow being a jerk for upholding law and order.  In fact, Americans will even go to great lengths to help other drivers avoid cops, by posting speed traps and DUI checkpoints on Facebook or by flashing lights at oncoming drivers to alert them to a police officer’s presence.

Compare this to any other crime, and the behavior seems ludicrous.  Imagine coming home to find a neighbor’s house being burglarized; now, imagine that rather than call the police, as most would do, you offer to stand lookout for the thief while he pilfers your neighbor’s DVD collection.  Or, imagine you are caught robbing a bank, and you testify in court that you “only stole a few hundred dollars, what’s the big deal?”

Of course, the difference between these crimes is that one set of crimes is seen as victimless, while the other crimes have a clear victim.  Americans view speeding laws as an inconvenience at the least and as a government money grab at the most.  No one seems to understand that speed limits are not an arbitrary number selected to cause the most trouble on your commute to work, but are instead the maximum recommended speed to safely navigate the roadway in ideal conditions.  It is not the slowest speed you should be going.   

Car manufacturers play into this fetish for speeding, by continuing to create street vehicles that can more than double most highway speed limits.  Cadillac markets its CTS-V as the “Fastest production sedan in the world,” as if that’s something to be proud of.  In the commercial posted above, Mercedes essentially proposes that it’s reasonable to drive like a jackass just for the sake of keeping your daughter’s ice cream from melting.  Seriously?  There’s not an ice cream shop closer to your house, you lead-footed suburban twit?

Let’s pretend, for the sake of the argument, that speeding is not dangerous, it’s just an inconvenience.  How much of an inconvenience is it, really?  How much time is lost or saved by a 5, 10, or even 15 mph difference?

Trip Time at This Speed (MPH)
Trip Distance (Miles)

(times in minutes)

So, for a twenty mile trip, about as long a distance as you’d likely travel in an urban environment (as a reference, north Bossier City to Southern Trace is about twenty miles), you’d have to average fifteen miles per hour faster in order to save ten minutes.  At five miles, you save two and a half minutes by going fifteen miles per hour faster.  Have we really reached a point where ten minutes is that important?  Could you not wake up ten minutes earlier to save that time, rather than endanger the lives of fellow citizens?

Disclaimer:  For the record, I’m referring to driving on surface streets here, those streets with driveways, intersections, stop signs, sidewalks, pedestrians, and lots of other traffic.  I’m not discussing interstate highways and other limited access highways.  On these roads, with little to hit, speed limits could be raised or abolished altogether, except in construction zones and busier sections (such as through cities).