Monday, March 20, 2006

Narrow Streets aren't Retarded

This letter to the editor ran Sunday in the Benton County Daily Record:

Idiot, reveal yourself

Who is the idiot that planned a median on J Street? Don’t our city planners understand the traffic problems we are having in Bentonville? I just tried to go to Rogers on Arkansas Highway 102 from South Walton Boulevard. It took me more than 25 minutes to get to the other side of NWACC before I gave up because the traffic was completely backed up from that traffic light to the next one, a mile away. I tried to come back on J Street and found that some mindless planner decided we need to make J Street pretty instead of useable. I am flabbergasted!

Mark Lankford / Bentonville

Hmm. Where to begin....

The road in question is Northeast J Street, north of Highway 72 (Central Avenue). And just across from Memorial Park and John DeShields Road in Bentonville. The photo here shows the offending median while looking north along J Street towards John DeShields, and Legacy Village, the new senior housing cooperative that is under construction.

This letter ticks me off in so many ways, but at the end of the day it's written more out of ignorance than anything else, so I guess I should control my emotions. I think what they are doing with J Street is a fantastic idea, and makes sense on so many levels.

J Street from Central Avenue north to Tiger Boulevard is in the process of being widened and improved from a narrow two-lane road with no curbs, gutters or sidewalks, to a three-lane roadway with curbs, gutters, AND sidewalks. J Street below Central Avenue (also Highway 112) is soon going to be de-mapped from the state highway system, and widened to five lanes all the way from 102 to S. Walton Boulevard, but that's a different story entirely.

So there's this little pictured stretch of J Street with a median that starts south of John DeShields Blvd. and runs past John DeShields, with a curb cut for John DeShields, which is the entrance for Memorial Park. Incidentally, going the other direction (left in the photo) is going to be the car entrance for the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art when it opens in 2009.

I'll say this to our letter-writing friend to begin: An extra lane on J Street won't help ANYONE get to Rogers on 102. That's for sure. And what help would a turning lane provide for traffic on J Street or anywhere else? And what about this median makes J Street "unusable?" J Street through there is NOT going to be four- or five-laned, simply because it doesn't need it.

It has nothing to do with J Street, but if you try to drive from Walton to Rogers on Highway 102 between 4 and 6 p.m., it's going to take 30 minutes. That's just the way it is. Poor decisions regarding the design of the 540/102 intersection, as well as development too close to the interstate have made that a bottleneck that is exacerbated by the massive numbers of people trying to leave Bentonville at 5 p.m.. for points unknown. No extra lanes on ANY north/south streets anywhere are going to fix that. Period.

This guy who wrote the letter doesn't understand 3 simple concepts (as well as automatically qualifying as the village idiot):

#1 There's no need for a third lane through this stretch. It would benefit absolutely NO ONE, except for allowing the single-lane of sporadic traffic to feel like they can drive faster (see #2). Traffic on J Street or anywhere else would NOT be affected by a turning lane running the length of J Street. By definition, a turning lane is for turning. At no point is there a place to turn where they've put this median in. What's the point of having a turning lane if there's no curb cuts to turn into? And there won't be any anytime soon as the property to the west is either residential, Crystal Bridges, or part of First Presbyterian.

#2 Narrow roadways serve to slow traffic, acting as an unnoticable traffic calming device that's not as unobtrusive as speed bumps or something similar. This one is a little harder to explain. By nature, when we are behind the wheel, we are going to drive the speed that we feel most comfortable driving. Yes, we have speed limits, and at the end of the day, that's what we pay attention to, but there's something to be said for how a road "feels."

This roadway pictured here, which runs through a neighborhood immediately south of Bentonville High School, has a speed limit of 25 mph. Regardless of the speed limit posted, one could easily head down this road and easily navigate the street with one finger on the steering wheel and a foot jammed on the gas pedal, hitting speeds of 45 or 50 while still feeling "safe."

But the problem is that you wouldn't be safe. Well, behind two tons of glass and steel, YOU would be safe, but children playing near the sidewalk-less street or parents out for a walk wouldn't be. Not to mention the tons of students who walk out through this neighborhood each day after school.

In regards to the massively wide streets that are the suburban norm these days, Andres Duany puts it this way in his book Suburban Nation:
The intention is to provide greater safety by allowing drivers to see farther in front of them, but the result is that drivers feel more comfortable driving at higher speeds, making walking all the more dangerous.

I've even heard conversation from residents wanting speed bumps or another traffic calming device installed in this neighborhood. If the road was designed with a slight curve, while maintaining the street grid, and was about 10 feet narrower, no traffic-calming device would be neccessary. If a car was parked on the street on this road being 10 feet narrower, you wouldn't feel safe going 45. And if another car was coming, you'd both slow down to pass by each other, because you'd never feel safe passing by going 45 mph.

This is what the Bentonville Planning Department had in mind for J Street when they called for this median. If the turning lane is not neccessary because there's nothing to turn into, and narrow streets reduce speed and make for safer streets, then why in the world would you NOT put the median in?

Keep in mind that J Street runs through a residential area, next to a church with a daycare, next to the entrance to the biggest city park, beside a senior housing cooperative that is touting their sidewalks and walking options along J Street, and next to the entrance to the coming Crystal Bridges Museum.

So the median will naturally slow down traffic through this area where three lanes is unnecessary. What's wrong with that?

#3 The last reason that this is fantastic is because it will beautiful the area. This same bozo who wrote the letter claiming that "we don't need pretty streets" probably enjoys driving up and down Central Avenue in Bentonville, where redbud trees frame the roadway, and older trees provide a canopy for one of the most beautiful streets in the city.

Why in the world would someone complain about the city planting trees in the middle of a road where there aren't many on either side? Since when is it not valuable to us in our city to have streets and a built environment that is aesthetically pleasing. Do we need more Walton Boulevards in Bentonville, 412's in Springdale, or College Avenue's in Fayetteville? Wouldn't most people agree that it'd be nice to have more Central Avenues, Dickson Streets, or Mountain Streets?

And keep in mind that this stretch is going to be THE entrance into the Crystal Bridges Museum of America Art, which is expected to bring arond 250,000 people into the city each year. What in the world could be wrong with making sure that the gateway is going to be beautiful and aesthetically pleasing? Would we be better with 6 lanes of pavement and pawn shops on both sides of the street?

"Welcome to Crystal Bridges! Be sure to stop at Tim's Pawn Shop on your way out for all of your stolen jewelry needs!!"


Next time you're driving along 102, look down at your speedometer and see how fast you're going, and think about how fast you COULD be going and still feel safe. Then, the next time you drive down one of the narrow, old residential streets in Bentonville, look down at your speedometer and do the same thing.

J Street is going to be a hybrid. It is more like Central Avenue (right) than an old, narrow, residential street on the city grid. It IS going be three lanes, and it is going to have to move more traffic than North 2nd street or NW D Street. But what's wrong with making a small stretch of it that's important to the city more beautiful, while also slowing down traffic a little bit in a crucial area in a manner that doesn't kill your suspension like speed bumps?

Part of the problem with addressing the growth in Northwest Arkansas is that we have to deal with ignorant bozos like the guy who wrote the letter who don't understand a thing about the relationship between land use and transportation.

I give a great big thumbs up to the Bentonviille Planning Department for this one. And I'll be sure at the next General Plan meeting to push for more of the same on improved roads in the future. Imagine a four-laned Eighth Street in the future with a tree-lined median running the length of it. Sure would beat another Walton Boulevard running through the heart of Bentonville.

Ahh, another post for another day...

read more: bentonville, urbanism, the bentonville general plan, roads, photos, development, crystal bridges museum, northwest arkansas