Warning: Vehicles May Not Stop!
Our firm was recently selected by the City of Dallas to design improvements to transform a section of Cedar Springs Road to a "complete street". City staff held a public meeting last night to kick the project off and gather an initial round of input from citizens and business owners prior to starting the conceptual planning phase. We're not under contract yet, but we offered to attend the meeting anyway so we could listen in on these initial discussions and gain a better understanding of what the stakeholders want.
Cedar Springs between Douglas and Oak Lawn is currently a 4-lane STROAD with restaurant/entertainment, retail and office uses on both sides of the roadway and residential on nearby side streets. On the evenings and weekends, the corridor is flooded with pedestrians dining, shopping and hanging out at the various businesses, making it one of the city's most fiscally productive areas. There are some wide sidewalks, on-street parking and spotty landscaping, but much of it is in poor condition and not sufficient enough to clearly establish the area as pedestrian-friendly. According to the latest traffic data from the city, the road carries roughly 18,000 vehicles per day. The posted speed limit is 35mph and there are a couple of signals, but it's not uncommon to see cars blowing through at 50mph or more. Parking is limited in the area, so much so that a taxi service has leased a space in front of one of the bars and has cars towed if they park in the space. In it's current form, the STROAD doesn't consistently move and serve vehicles, but it's also not safe for pedestrians. So, I was curious to hear which would be a higher priority for the local citizens and businesses - moving and parking cars or making the area safer for pedestrians.
As I wandered between the various tables listening to discussions, the answer was clear. When asked to describe the issues, the first thing people brought up was pedestrian safety. Everyone wants this corridor to be safe for pedestrians. The business owners said they depend on the foot traffic and people having ability to walk from place to place. Nearby residents talked about how their children play in the front yards and have had more than a few "near misses" when chasing a ball out into one of the side streets. Stories of pedestrians attempting to cross the street and getting hit and killed (at marked crosswalks, even) were shared.
The interesting part to me was when the conversation switched to discussing ideas for what the people thought should be done. The majority of the ideas tossed out were related to ways to slow cars down and improve their awareness of pedestrians. Better lighting and signage (especially at intersections), speed bumps and gateways at either end of the corridor to let drivers know they were entering a pedestrian area were a few of the most popular ideas. Most people were describing their suggestions to improve pedestrian safety in terms of what had to happen to change drivers' behavior. Only a handful of people were thinking from the pedestrian's perspective and describing suggestions that would make their experience better, with or without cars. These suggestions including widening and improving sidewalks (via bricks or stamped concrete), removing signage and other structures that are currently located in the middle of sidewalks, improving the pedestrian lighting, adding street trees and landscaping to provide more shade, and adding or better delineating crosswalks in areas where crossing the street is common.
Toward the end of the work session, I overheard a staff person reminding the group about the traffic counts and how many lanes would likely be needed to accommodate all the cars, to which one of the residents responded "We don't want the cars here!" Another person said "If we could eliminate cars on this street altogether, that would be great." It got me thinking of what the possibilities might be if this corridor were converted to a true street, focused on the pedestrian experience, as opposed to a "complete street" that's attempting to accommodate multiple lanes of cars and the people. Sure, some of the traffic would need to be shifted to other roads in the area, but would business be more consistent throughout the week, and even more productive during peak times? Would there be fewer fatalities? And, going back to the group's top issue, would pedestrians feel safer?
My colleagues and I went outside after the meeting to do a quick brain dump on what we had heard. We happened to be standing right next to a mid-block crosswalk that has big bright yellow lights that flash when a pedestrian pushes a button and wants to cross. Right next to the button, there's a sign that says "Warning: Vehicles May Not Stop". I grabbed these pics off of Google Streetview because it was too dark to get a good picture of them. They're a bit blurry, but you get the idea. In the ten minutes we stood there, we saw an older gentleman push the button and start to cross when the lights started flashing, only to have a car accelerate to get in front of him, a couple that entered the crosswalk briefly before jumping back onto the curb to avoid a speeding truck, and a bicyclist that had to bob and weave his way between cars going different speeds to successfully across. This was at night when the flashing lights were impossible to miss. I can't imagine what it's like during the day when the lights aren't as obvious. Either way, it's one of the most unsafe crossings I've ever seen. I loved playing Frogger as a kid, but watching it in real-time with real people was pretty concerning.
We've made lots of progress in recent years to bring back pedestrian-friendly places, but it's still our initial instinct to discuss cars first. Complete Streets that provide well integrated multi-modal options are a huge step forward, but in some cases, a corridor may be most effective if it's designed as a pure street focused on fiscal productivity, place-making and the pedestrian experience. I don't know which option will be best for Cedar Springs, but I hope to encourage the city and the stakeholders to explore all of the possibilities.