Thursday, August 8, 2013

Transportation and Place at First Wednesday: Downtown Salem Rides, but can We All Ride?

Officially the theme for First Wednesday was "Downtown Salem Rides," but another theme ran a loud counterpoint: How do we ride with the little people?

N3B Magister Scheppke talks about bridge alignments and
Helen Caswell's photos of people in the way
Helen Caswell's show at the Photo Diner highlighted some of the ways proponents of a giant bridge and highway seem ok to ride roughshod over those they consider the "little people" in Highland and in West Salem.

Of course a family bikes on the sidewalk to downtown -
are they going to bike in the road, on High Street? -
they locked up to the first staple they found
Earlier, on the way to downtown, a family was riding on the sidewalks.  There was no place safe or comfortable on the road for their little person.

Both were reflections of the prevailing priority for cars, and illustrate why sometimes people flee more than flock to downtown.

Though there was a bike corral at the Elsinore just two blocks up from Pringle Plaza, after dismounting for the pedestrian zone, the family locked up to the first staple rack they saw. Between the one-way grid and the sidewalk prohibition, there wasn't really a family-friendly way to bike to the  corral. The staple racks offered better security, anyway.

It is interesting that we'll block off a full road for a concert, but we still can't wrap our minds around a single lane for people on bike.

As for the bike parking, the whole bike corral pilot may be too tentative, too provisional.

The High Street corral at 6pm was empty -
but from a distance, is it obvious this is parking?
Mixed-messaging on the barricades might also send potentially confusing signals. Do they invite or do they prohibit? If things might be clear to those "in the know" or to "confident and fearless" cyclists, to ordinary people who might like to ride a bike instead of driving the car, things may not be inviting enough.

A different use for the same barricades -
the mixed-messaging is clear!
Fortunately, again Venti's was busy and while bike business was a little quiet at 6pm, by 7pm it was hopping:
There was more activity at the work stand at Bike Peddler.

Robert wrenches at the Bike Peddler Station
FoxBlue had printed up a couple of infographics on bikes, business, and bike parking, and mounted them on a sandwich board.

FoxBlue printed up infographic sign boards -
Bikes are good for business

The other side!
It would be great to see this where undecideds and sceptics might be able to review it leisurely!  Here it was at a bicycling destination, a place where people already sympathetic to the case for bikes would be.  Maybe it would be put to better use adjacent to a more autocentric location.  It's not people who regularly bike, after all, who need to be persuaded.

Barricades, construction, and traffic: A "Walkable" Parkway OR-22?
Elsewhere, Project Space held an opening, and the Parkway/Highway 22 is just a lousy place for walking.  Many people accessed it by the alley after crossing State Street, and avoiding Commercial or Liberty.

Too Much Autoism

All these downtown sites show the perils of too much autoism.  One of the reasons downtown is not healthy is because there are too many state highways and busy major arterials with one-way traffic slicing through downtown.  Too much carspace and not enough people space.  First Wednesday really needs to think about traffic in addition to events, to "how" and not just "what."

An out-of-town vistor remarked last year that
local residents and businesspeople have a lot of reasonable complaints: downtown streets are wide, the lanes are many, and the traffic is aggressive by design. As long as the connective tissue between the historic blocks, the bookend public amenities, and the larger urban renewal area remains oriented to the automobile, Salem’s historic district and larger downtown will inevitably languish and suffer the fate of our shortsighted post-war transportation decisions.

what downtown Salem needs most is something much more obvious: a walkable and calm street network that compliments the textured historic buildings of its historic district. After all, their builders didn't design them to be used and loved from the window of a Prius, but used and loved by shoppers, residents, and tenants (and their wallets). Slowing and narrowing the rivers of traffic lanes will connect the islands of great buildings that today sit there, waiting for the inevitable day when they realize their full potential once again.
As long as First Wednesday and whatever group is administering the downtown Economic Improvement District give insufficient attention to how people circulate once they are downtown, and instead think the mission is simply attracting cars, neither First Wednesday nor downtown generally is going to flourish fully. We need to think more about the "connective tissue" and less about auto through-put, the "rivers of traffic," more about people and less about machines.

Business Closures and Free Parking

On a related note, it was interesting to see the article in Salem Weekly recently on a business closure downtown, that of Normandy Guitars.

Normandy Guitars Recently Closed its location at State and Front
with a final salute to Salem, Oregon
Although nothing touches directly on the parking meter debate, some of the comments indirectly seem to do so. In clarifying comments post-pended to the story, Jim Normandy adds:
some of the disappointment surrounded a lot of the customers that came into the store. With the economy being what it is as well as the amount of transients and teenagers hanging out downtown, most of the people who came into the store didn’t buy anything and pretty much just wasted my time…..I had to be up front in the store area when customers were there and that kept me from working on my aluminum guitars…..really my fault for sure….I just wasn’t prepared to deal with all of the meanderers (for lack of a PC word).

So, add those problems on top of bullsh*t downtown politics and all of the damn taxes the city levies on to downtown businesses and I had no desire to stick around!
The parking tax is certainly one of the "damn taxes the city levies" and it is interesting to see that free parking was not much of a help in getting ready-to-buy actual customers (as opposed to the "time-wasters") in the shop.

It is important to note this is hardly determinative.   It is possible that the local market for aluminum guitars is too small to support a storefront of any kind, in any place, in the city.  Not too long ago Tim Knight closed his Guitar Castle business downtown, after all. This may be a niche too specialized for a bricks-and-mortar store in Salem.

But what is interesting is that plentiful free parking - and by extension more cars - was not "mission critical" for this business.

(This location at the gateway to Riverfront Park might also call for a different kind of business - a pub or something that works better with casual foot traffic and with the Park itself.)

Mary Lou Zeek is also closing her gallery on State Street.  Here too free parking doesn't seem to have been mission critical.

One of the things that proponents of plentiful free parking might be missing is that for many people all the cars downtown constitute a barrier and disincentive to visit.

By rethinking how we conceive of curbside space, we might well be able to perform addition by subtraction. It's worked for other cities, even cities with a "parking problem" orders of magnitude greater than Salem's.  Here's New York City:

Parklet for Parking:  172% increase in retail sales!
Measuring the Street: New Metrics for 21st Century Streets
New York City Department of Transportation
Reconfiguring carspace into people space will likely yield more cultural vibrancy and more economic prosperity.

A Trial Parklet Ran into Roadblocks

Interestingly, it happens that last month for First Wednesday, local impresario Ross Schwarzendruber tried one out. Unfortunately like some other recent experiments, it did not seem to meet with the City's embrace.  But this is exactly the kind of thing we should be experimenting with!

A Parklet with picnic table, hobby horse, and potential for fun
It was even permitted!
But the City apparently shut it down.

But the City shut it down anyway
It's possible that the most important element to downtown vitality is getting more people to live downtown. Downtown residents will walk and shop hyper-locally, right there, and it may be that this is the single ingredient most important to attaining critical mass for vitality.

But the way we manage traffic and circulation is right up there, and as long as First Wednesday thinks mainly about trip-end events and especially downtown as a car destination only, and not about trips, about the multiple ways for "how to get there," and "how to move from A to B," it may be that First Wednesday remains hamstrung.

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