September 10, 2012 in DTE Paul Haeder, Health

Seattle neighborhoods look for ways to increase walkability

Effort hopes to grow People-Dollar Power
Paul K. Haeder Down to Earth NW Correspondent
 
Photos.com photo

A group of Seattle residents are trying to promote walking and evaluating different communities for their safety and ease for pedestrians.
(Full-size photo)

Clint Eastwood at halftime during this year’s Super Bowl may have tipped his hat and holstered his .357 magnum for the almighty car – “It’s Halftime in America. And our second half is about to begin. All that matters now is looking ahead and finding a way forward.”

That million-dollar ad was brought to us by Chrysler and the federal government (or, more precisely, to the tune of $34 billion in taxpayer GM-Ford bailout funds).

The rationale for the bailout is tied to the multiplier effect that the US auto industry is responsible for – all those closely and loosely linked businesses, services and industries tied to the manufacturing of internal combustion machines.

Imagine a bailout for communities to fix sidewalks and install traffic calming devices. Funny thing is, for more than two decades, practitioners of New Urbanism have been trying to put feet first and to work with communities to bring neighborhoods back from the brink of decay largely created by a car culture.

The $105 a barrel for crude also helps bring walking back to the planning table.

In late February, North Beacon Hill’s Merchants Association sponsored a walk: 26 brave residents and the non-profit Feet First took up the challenge of Dirty Harry in one easy swoop.

Active living is what transportation planners call it. Doing business in your own neighborhood, and discovering it on foot not only multiplies and accelerates those dollars spent on local goods and services – they call that the multiplier effect of spending locally – but it’s good for health.

According to Feet First, walking to school, work and to shop – 30 minutes a day, 10-minutes at a time – can improve human health if done 5 days a week. The goal of the Merchants Association, according to Angela Castenada, who was there as one of the leaders and participants Feb. 25, is to have the walking advocacy group Feet First come in and help with a 90 minute quick audit to improve connectivity and build upon the impetus of new businesses that are now becoming part of the North Beacon Hill built environment.

Think of this as a sidewalk-storefront-crosswalk-community ambiance rating transect, done with clipboards, digital cameras and several people from Feet First guiding the outdoor charrette.

“The fact is according to many studies consumers or customers who walk spend more in those neighborhoods than do people using cars, buses and other public transit methods to get around,” said Lisa Quinn, with Feet First.

Angela Castenada is looking toward improving the Beacon Hill neighborhood plan by creating another layer to it – connectivity in the neighborhood for walkers. An added incentive for North Beacon Hill is Jefferson Park’s centennial celebration July 14, 2012. The Beacon Hill Merchants Association is looking at a 12 hour park-block party, with food, live music, community-directed family fun.

For some of the walk audit participants, the idea of land use and the built environment’s various elements as influences on walking and biking are old hat – how streets, sidewalks, and buildings are all related to each other. For many on this walk, it was clear early on that there are many impediments and barriers to walking.

* cracked and uneven sidewalks

* poorly marked crosswalks

* long delays for electronic crossing lights

* fast traffic

* noise

* houses and businesses boarded up or dilapidated

Revitalizing the neighborhood and designating part of the land along thoroughfares as a Greenway are just two overarching goals of the Beacon Hill Merchants Association, which is going into its second year, under the direction of Robert Hendricks, a business owner on Beacon Hill.

There’s no question that $7 or more a gallon for gas, the rising costs of maintaining a private vehicle, gridlock and underemployment have already factored into higher numbers of people riding public transportation, using bikes to commute, and walking to get things done.

Beacon Hill is a diverse neighborhood with many Asian, Latino, African and Slavic cultures represented, and as a new resident to the neighborhood who is a bicyclist and walker, I’ve seen plenty of people going to and from stores packing groceries and other items.

Feet First’s Gia Clark, the lead on this walking audit, predicts much more walking and biking in this neighborhood’s future, now sort of a destination place since new shops, restaurants, El Centro del la Raza, a new library and the light rail link and plaza have added to the historic North Beacon Hill.

In 1912 with the completion of the 12th Ave. Bridge – now Jose Rizal Bridge – Beacon Hill became linked to Seattle’s downtown streetcars. Thirty years later, Seattle started ripping out tracks.

A lot of pooh-poohing of alternative modes of transportation goes on in development-planning-financial circles, since for most, the car has dominated every single thread to the fabric of the unraveling quilt that is community, neighborhood. And, like Beacon Hill resident, Mark (just gave first name), many see their hood “as the next big new thing in Seattle … . I’ve been hearing that for fifteen years.”

Whether through economic revitalization, land use retrofitting/rezoning, and the principles of new urbanism, it’s a sure thing that literally hundreds of this country’s neighborhoods like Beacon Hill, Columbia City, Ballard or Freemont will have to prepare for a more dense urban population, the rising price of a fossil fuel, more cultural diversity all still reliant economically, lifestyle-wise and with their land use plans tied to the car.

The price of cultivating walking seems pretty cheap in the scheme of things like multi-billion dollar tunnels and unending noise and pollution from the internal combustion drone we call Auto Nation. Even Clint doesn’t believe we can go back to a Grand Torino in every driveway.

With the startling fact there are more cars than licensed drivers in the US – 700 cars per 1,000 population – walking and biking and rickshaw-ing will indeed be coming into favor in large and medium sized metro areas.

“My basic thesis is, ‘There ain’t room on the road,’” said Lee Schipper who works at both the Global Metro Studies program at the University of California, Berkeley, and the Precourt Energy Efficiency Center at Stanford University.

“You can’t move in Jakarta or Bangkok or any large city in Latin America or in any city in the wealthy part of China. I think Manila takes the prize. Yes, fuel economy is really important, and yes, hybrid cars will help. But even a car that generates no CO2 still generates a traffic problem. Sadly, what is going to restrain car use the most is that you can’t move.”

Get more information at: FeetFirst or Congress for New Urbanism.

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