By Dom Nozzi
Several years ago, I spent the MLK weekend in West Palm Beach with a friend who was the former Gainesville, Florida transit director, and who was, at the time, transit director for Palm Beach County.
My friend gave me a quick “tour-de-sprawl,” showing me the unsustainable, retched, horrifying things that are happening in Palm Beach County and Broward County. Nearly every arterial was an 8-laner, and it was obvious that the excessive street capacity built in that region was fueling an unbelievably costly, auto-dependent, quality-of-life degrading sprawl. The future of the people living in South Florida is bleak.
It was no wonder that so many were fleeing to north Florida from south Florida.
Headline news in the Palm Beach Post while I was there: JEB! (former Florida governor) to pour $4 billion into widening roads in Florida, including taking a 4-laner in Palm Beach to 8 lanes.
Ian Lockwood, an inspiring transportation engineering hero of mine, took us on a morning tour of the street redesign projects he was orchestrating. I was astounded, envious, and felt very optimistic about the future for the neighborhoods he had transformed. In nearly every case, he had redesigned a street in a crime-ridden, low-income neighborhood, and nearly overnight, the street had become much safer, much more attractive, there was more bike and pedestrian activity, and the property values have increased dramatically.
At several intersections, he had removed a left-turn lane to make the intersection safer, and to create space for landscaping and traffic calming (mostly bulb-outs). He was also removing several traffic signals (plans were to remove nearly every signal in downtown) in order to make conditions more ped-friendly (this was possible because the street redesign slowed down cars substantially, and reduced crossing distances for pedestrians).
He had plans to use traffic calming designs to slow and humanize US 1, which startled me in its audacity.
The design speed in West Palm was now low enough on several streets that Ian thought it would be perfectly okay for bicycles to share travel lanes with cars, instead of building bicycle lanes.
Most of the re-done streets had attractive street lights at a modest, pedestrian-oriented scale, which provided tremendous ambiance improvements. The lights were paid for by the neighborhood, and the city paid the installation cost, which was about 80 percent of the cost. Many (most?) of the street redesign projects had been paid for by stormwater utility fees (as a part of a stormwater project being done on the street).
Gas tax money was also used, as were housing grant dollars. Several speed humps were used, and they were relatively attractive because they are stamped asphalt and brick-colored. He has also installed a number of speed tables (raised crosswalks at intersections).
There was a long waiting list of neighborhoods begging to get the “Ian” treatment, and there was no expressed opposition.
Several streets were being put on a “diet”, i.e., travel lanes were being removed for on-street parking, calming features, etc.
Ian noted that West Palm had discovered that real bricks were less costly to maintain than, say, stamped asphalt in streets, so they always tried to use real bricks.
A huge Home Depot project had gone through site plan review, and after negotiating with staff, Home Depot had agreed to install a gridded, interconnected street pattern over their site. To me, that was a stunning, laudable achievement that I could never even dream of doing in my work as a town planner in Gainesville. Home Depot corporate offices loved the idea, and planned to use it elsewhere.
A new city hall building was planned for downtown, and the proposed location will put it in the middle of a six-lane downtown street intersection (the building would become a huge roundabout).
Overall, Ian Lockwood had, in a few short years, transformed West Palm Beach to start it on a path towards a much better future than the path that so much of south Florida finds itself on. West Palm Beach was moving away from the decades long path that south Florida had spent billions of public dollars to destroy themselves with: bankrupting themselves in a hopeless effort to make cars happy. A path that is, ultimately, a road to ruin.
West Palm Beach was starting to move back to the timeless tradition of making people happy, not cars.
Visit my urban design website read more about what I have to say on those topics. You can also schedule me to give a speech in your community about transportation and congestion, land use development and sprawl, and improving quality of life.
Or email me at: dom[AT]walkablestreets.com
My book, The Car is the Enemy of the City (WalkableStreets, 2010), can be purchased here: http://www.lulu.com/product/paperback/the-car-is-the-enemy-of-the-city/10905607
My book, Road to Ruin, can be purchased here:
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