Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Travel Salem's new Bike Route, our Autoism, and our Incrementalism

Last month Travel Salem published a revised set of bike maps and routes aimed at visitors and tourists. There is one for downtown and four others at various distances from the city. (The page also links to other established routes and places.) They look to be a great improvement on v1.0, but in the context of a couple of other downtown initiatives, they show an inclination to accept things as they are too easily and not to point the way to change and a better future.

Revised Travel Salem Historic Downtown Bike Route (detail)
You might remember that the first version of the downtown map was impossible to use legally. It employed busy streets that lacked bike lanes and also required illegal travel against the one-way grid. It was a mess, unfortunately. Happily, maps are not so difficult to redraw, and the errors easily correctable.

First draft Historic Downtown Route and 2012 Salem Bike Map
(click to enlarge)
But because of downtown's autoism, it was very difficult to map any kind of useful and pleasant loop. The best I could think of was a cruciform plan that used the axes of Chemeketa and Winter Streets as two-way streets to reach meaningful tourist destinations. But it wasn't a loop or a route in any meaningful way. So the conclusion was that in order to have a meaningful bike route downtown, we need to change the streets, and the action item was principally advocacy, not simply better mapping:
Travel Salem, let Council know that this is a difficult project and that to support bike tourism, you need more bike-friendly streets - more better, and more of them. Don't let Council be complacent and think the job is done
The new sheet and route
So now we have a new edition of the downtown route.

State Street is rarely comfortable
It is much smaller and is just a loop on State and Court Streets. Though it is labeled "easy," that refers only to the lack of hills. Since State and Court Streets lack bike lanes, the route requires vehicular cycling, and that's anything but easy for most people who might like to bike.You may recall when David Fox engaged in some protest and education agitprop on this stretch of State Street (here and here).

MassDOT Separated Bike Lane Guide
As a route, a Court/State loop really serves only those with a "higher stress tolerance."

So while the geography of the route is "easy," functionally it is difficult, and is not something to recommend for tourists interested in a casual cycle around the city.

(At the same time, it is important to repeat that it's not at all clear there's a superior option, and so Travel Salem made a set of very defensible choices in this revision.)

But if we want any and all tourists downtown to feel comfortable, we will need a different approach.

Our Prevailing Incrementalism

Our current approach on this has much in common with other projects. 

Over the years one of the themes here is the conservatism in Salem (not conservatism in politics, but in sensibility) that prefers to wedge things into our existing systems, often making use of different kinds of spandrels, metaphoric and literal, rather than having a vision for something new. It is too often a timid incrementalism.

A different example of this is the way On Your Feet Friday has shied away from any street closure, and instead asks people on foot to stay on the sidewalks and in the crosswalks. It accepts the primacy of autoism and fully accommodates those traveling by car. We don't use the event as a way to reconfigure, at least temporarily, our public space. Instead we jam activity and people in on the edges and into empty lots. We ask adjustment from people walking not from those driving.

"The Cube" installed a in tree well - via City of Salem
Another example is our new Public Art program for downtown, which makes use of tree wells in "bulb-out" curb extensions at corners. Rather than conceiving of art as integral to a place, we find a slack, underutilized space and insert or apply a piece of art. We decorate otherwise blank spandrels.

The first piece in the art program, "The Cube," in this context looks more like refuse that missed the garbage can. It is misplaced and perhaps even misused. Even with the partially reflective surfaces it is more inert than active in space. It is still too much an aesthetic object to be contemplated and not a creative source of life that offers many different interactions.

The Oregon Artist Series Foundation is, together with the City's Public Art Commission, collaborating on the art project, and they are working on the next installation in front of Liberty Plaza at the recently closed Starbucks site on the corner of Liberty and Chemeketa.

But again, they are going to wedge a modest sculpture into a spandrel. At best this is an imperfect realization of the goal:
As stated by the Salem Public Arts Commission (SPAC), the arts throughout history have been the catalyst for creating unique public spaces which have yielded physical, social and economic benefits to communities. The aim of OSAF is to create a more vibrant downtown, which will benefit local businesses, enhance tourism and provide a tangible link to the creativity of Northwest artists.
But really, The Cube at its present location just simply fails at "creating a unique public space." It's just an ornament.

Over on the Facebook, they recently linked to something much more promising.

Artsy Crosswalks - via Oregon Artist Series
In some ways these "decorative" crosswalks are probably regarded as a lower form of art. They are not "pure" or "absolute" art. They are applied art, practical art, maybe even just "craft."

But if the goal is to participate in "creating unique public spaces," a transformed crosswalk offers delight and whimsy for the person on foot - and more crucially, tends to calm auto traffic. It actually alters public space and the activity in it. It warps creatively.

Until our art and event programming actually grapple with cars and car traffic, grapple with our transportation system, all we do is rearrange the deck chairs, fiddle with the surfaces.

In the Sculpture Garden at the Conference Center there is a citation from Ada Louise Huxable, and you might recall she also said:
Some day, some American city will discover the Malthusian truth that the greater number of automobiles, the less the city can accommodate them without destroying itself. The downtown that turns itself into a parking lot is spreading its own dissolution.
It is the sculptures, like The Cube, and the way we install them, that are merely decorative. Artsy crosswalks could actually be more profoundly transformative and therefore a deeper expression of art. Our approach to art in downtown too much accommodates the automobile and our mania for parking. In this it is too shallow.

Sometimes incrementalism is important and useful, a better approach than whole-hogging it in big transformation.

Structural change can also be incremental
Polka dots pilot curb extensions and a right-sized intersection
But we're not talking here about creating a car-free zone downtown, something utopian like that. It's more about accelerating things like the project for High and Church Streets, which this summer is reallocating a surplus car travel lane for a bike travel lane. Converting more downtown streets to two-way and adding bike lanes and enhanced sidewalks. The recommendations in the Downtown Mobility Study are already baked and they should be our starting point.

If you can stage photos like this on Liberty at State,
that's evidence we have excess capacity!
(via Downtown Salem fansite)
Our commitment to cars warps our public spaces in very negative ways. More than anything else, downtown Public Art should reallocate or stage interventions on excess carspace and reclaim that space for people.

Equally, our approach to tourism should recognize that tourism happens on foot, and that our tourism promotions should privilege non-auto travel.

It is a central claim here that in order for these programs to be really successful, especially in the context of making downtown really vibrant, whether for walking or biking or art, we will have to contemplate and then execute change at the level of systems, especially those for cars, not merely fiddling with local detail in a way that ends up being fundamentally ornamental and decorative.

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