ON THE AVENUES: When the engineer uttered that scandalous word aloud, it was like Christmas in June.
A weekly column by Roger A. Baylor.
Interpreting streets as places only to move cars instead of people turns cities into uninviting places for people.
— Janette Sadik-Khan, Street Fight: Handbook for an Urban Revolution
On Tuesday, I had the rotten luck to find myself at a meeting of the Board of Public Works and Safety, but then an unprecedented bit of truthfulness broke out.
Now I’m worried – nay, terrified.
Was it the wrong teleprompter? Did someone spike my gin? Will we ever be the same again?
For those just tuning in, one consistent theme has emerged from four and a half years of Royal Attitudinal Gahanism (RAG): Appearances count for everything — unless they count for nothing at all.
Nowhere is RAG better illustrated than in the city’s ongoing streets saga, otherwise known as “to complete, or not to complete.”
For two years, the mayor’s minions privately have insisted that even Jeff Speck himself doesn’t understand two-way walkability quite as well as Jeff Gahan, rube suburbanite turned urban savant.
They’ve also acted in concert with their perpetually bunkered boss to prevent any of this stunning expertise from being revealed publicly, where it might lead citizens to understand the stakes of street grid reform – and if information isn’t solely controlled by City Hall, then what?
Amid the ongoing stasis, we turn to the very end of Tuesday’s BOW session, when Pinocchio Rosenbarger bounded forward to inform the bored about what is generally being called the Spring Street/Silver Street intersection project, which includes a “reconfigured” traffic pattern from Beharrell to Vincennes.
After Speck’s plan was handed in 2015 to HWC Engineering’s sawdust sausage makers, this Spring/Silver project suddenly was prioritized, becoming the focus of the city’s rice-paper-thin public relations outreach.
Unsurprisingly, talking points have been devoted exclusively to automotive safety issues, with scant mention of a suggested “bonus” for bicyclists in the form of yet another set of bike lanes beginning nowhere and leading to sharrows – surely the laziest concept in the checkered history of American traffic engineering.
But I digress.
On Tuesday the Gods were merciful, and the ever unctuous Rosenbarger quickly yielded the podium to Wes Christmas of Clark-Dietz for the project update.
Verily, Christmas is neither Jeff Speck nor Janette Sadik-Khan. He’s a by-the-numbers engineer working for a by-the-numbers engineering firm, and both will continue to derive the greatest portion of their paychecks from the prevailing cancer of auto-centrism, as passed through a prism of by-the-numbers local campaign finance, with a dainty garnish of paving contractor slush for uniform beak wetting.
As Christmas began, there was nothing to suggest a departure from the same tired bromides. The engineer briefed the bored on the project’s July starting date (ending in October), and reiterated the reason for the largely federally-financed reconfiguration: Drivers and their vehicles.
It’s about wrestling this Four-Lane Crash-Generating Death Road to the mat, putting it on a diet, and making it safer for internal combustion, with a few negligible side benefits for those pathetic creatures too poor to own a car.
The yawns were palpable … then Christmas abruptly departed from the script, saying that he wanted to make sure everyone understood what was about to occur as this stretch of asphalt was altered. His tone of voice changed, as though a confession was about to be ventured.
Traffic will be snarled during construction, said Christmas.
(Nods and papers shuffling. Labored cell phones.)
What’s more, continued Christmas, no sooner than the work concludes, Ohio River Bridge tolling begins, and an expected inflow of traffic on Spring Street as drivers from far and wide seek a quick path through New Albany to the toll-free Sherman Minton Bridge.
There’ll be even more delays, snarls and slowdowns when toll evasion begins, even though INDOT predicts these disruptions will be brief (one month or less), and the overarching point everyone at BOW needs to grasp is this revamped section of Spring between Silver Creek and Vincennes is intended to be a check valve, to do exactly this – this process, this choking off … to willfully cause …
Boom, and out it came: CONGESTION, this glorious word finally liberated and unfettered, because as Christmas explained, CONGESTION is the key to coping with an unwanted proliferation of pass-through drivers seeking easy toll avoidance, because while we can do nothing to dissuade them from evading tolls, we can impose costs of added time and unease on those choosing to pass through New Albany.
Hallelujah. A concept, CONGESTION, free at last — and me, without a hankie.
Christmas might as well have been reading Speck’s Downtown Street Network Proposal verbatim, and boy, it would have been appropriate had he done so, given that many city officials present haven’t ever heard (or read) Speck’s actual words.
It is essential that downtown street networks be designed based upon the amount of traffic that they experience rather than in anticipation of larger volumes. This is particularly the case when a community is threatened by an onslaught of new traffic as is feared from the new INDOT tolling regime. A street system that is designed around higher-volume and higher-speed traffic can be expected to quickly receive this traffic—especially trucks, whose drivers are keenly sensitive to the time and cost of travel.
In contrast, a street system that is designed to accept reasonable volumes at reasonable speeds is likely a city’s only defense against the noxious impacts of pass-through traffic.
CONGESTION. It’s our friend. At long last, this fact was conceded, publicly … by an engineer.
Jeff Gahan hasn’t referenced “CONGESTION” for attribution. Not one peep from the collective Board of Works. Redevelopment? Mum.
But the functionary from Clark Dietz did, and good for him. Now, I’m not sure why this happened. Perhaps Christmas is our Günter Schabowski, the East German media liaison whose confusion over hastily scribbled notes led to an inadvertent announcement that brought down the Berlin Wall in 1989.
So much for the good news. Now, for the bad.
With no imminent plan to tame the city’s one-way arterial streets downtown via Speck, and prior to tolling, the Spring/Silver project represents all available eggs of contingency deposited into one tiny basket of “preparation.”
Maybe a start, but only minimal. It totally neglects the imperative of dispersing traffic in both directions on multiple reconverted two-way streets.
Obviously, imposed congestion between Beharrell and Vincennes does nothing to address traffic eastbound from the toll-free Sherman Minton Bridge, heading back to Clark County.
These are the helter-skelter, pass-through drivers of cars and trucks who’ll be racing down Market and Elm, making a mockery of what little walkability we enjoy at present and hurting, not helping, downtown businesses.
Does the rube suburban turned urban savant have an answer for this?
Maybe Wes Christmas can interpret Jeff Gahan’s perpetual silence, and do the community a second favor.
Fortunately, not all of New Albany’s older white men are clueless, even if it usually seems that way. I bumped into one of the exceptions on Wednesday, and “Sid” asked me what I thought of the paper’s most recent two-way street spotlight article.
“Miserable bilge,” I replied. “Think of it as Chris Morris’s revenge, and it makes perfect sense.”
“That’s about right,” Sid said. “At the same time, it’s not like there’s ever been any governing management at the ‘Bune. The article was embarrassing. All the new restaurants and shops, and they didn’t ask a single one of them what they thought about two-way streets.”
Sid smiled teasingly: “So, how’d you like ol’ Bobby Caesar’s testimony?”
My lips formed a sneer.
“Nothing unusual; lots of personal opinions about the lessons he learned, holed up on Pearl Street for 40 years, stewing with mall envy. No facts from Bob, ever. The thing about Caesar is that he doesn’t even understand his own business career.”
I launched into a familiar rant.
“Bob still thinks his customers came to him only because one-way streets made it easy, but in reality, it never was fast and easy to get to Endris Jewelers. Ever. People always went out of their way to come to downtown New Albany, and still do.
“For all those years, his store was a destination business – and with destination businesses, speed and location don’t matter. People come to see you because you provide them with valued service, just like when we started the pub.
“Bob looks in the mirror, and he still can’t grasp that people went out of their way to see him not because a one-way street saved them 45 seconds of transit time, but because Bob was good at what he did.”
Sid rubbed the gray stubble on his chin.
“Well, his dad – maybe.”