Finding a balance between auto and community needs FTC

July 12, 1998|By Elise Armacost

AMERICANS are trying to build better, more livable communities, but we are caught in a stubborn gridlock.

After four decades of following the recipe for suburbia, we are rediscovering the virtues of the traditional Main Street. We like the idea of communities with personality, where it's pleasant and safe to stroll down the sidewalk to this store or that restaurant, the way our parents and grandparents did.

Slaves to the auto

But this is not 1910. We are a nation of drivers, a people in a hurry. Drive-through pharmacies and multipurpose gas stations are the latest thing. "People want to pull in and pull out as fast as they can," says Raymond Heil, manager of Baltimore County's program to revive and rebuild decaying streetscapes.

And so, we're stuck trying to reconcile appealing elements of traditional community design with an automobile-oriented society. Consider:

Taxpayers are spending $25 million in state and local money on the Baltimore County streetscape program; other local jurisdictions are investing in streetscape revitalizations, too. In downtown Reisterstown, $1.7 million has bought brick sidewalks, street lamps, a freshly paved Main Street. It looks so good, the Reisterstown-Owings Mills-Glyndon Chamber of Commerce is confident the new, walkable ambience can spawn an honest-to-goodness downtown business district.

But at the north end of Main Street the integrity of the streetscape project "goes down the tubes," as Sandra C. Smith, executive director of the chamber, puts it. A new commercial center at the intersection of Main Street and Route 140 features the worst ingredients of the suburban recipe:

A huge new Food Lion ridiculously out of context with Main Street, facing away from the street, toward the backs of houses. Of course, it has a huge asphalt parking lot. Soon that intersection -- already busy and complicated with entrances and exits into various businesses -- promises to be dangerous as well as aesthetically deficient. A gas station, car wash and drive-through convenience store will be built there, with another access onto Main Street.

Suburban nightmare

The intersection promises to be a nightmare for motorists. As for pedestrians, it's hard to imagine many walkers attempting the sidewalks.

It wasn't supposed to be this way. The original plan called for a pedestrian-friendly village-type development, with two points of automobile access for the entire commercial parcel. But the plans changed as individual businesses, presuming motorists want to get in and out as quickly as possible, each demanded more exits.

"Ultimately," sighs Mr. Heil, "we're trained to design sites to accommodate the automobile."

Another streetscape project -- in Essex, along an old section of Eastern Boulevard -- has run up against auto-related concerns, too. The county plans new tree-lined sidewalks -- and elimination of the road shoulder where patrons of nearby businesses now park illegally. At least three pedestrians have been hit there during the past five years.

Business owners are fighting the renovation. They fear customers will go elsewhere if they have to walk a block.

It's silly, of course, to think that in this day and age we can avoid some deference to the automobile, even in traditional settings. I live a comfortable walking distance from a small grocery, and there are times when, depending on weather, time constraints and my mood, I drive.

But it is one thing to address motorists' needs and quite another to let our insatiable craving for speed and convenience dictate development and transportation policy and threaten public safety. That is what has happened over the past few decades.

It is good to see local jurisdictions seeking a better balance between the automobile and other community needs. Sidewalks, bike trails, walkways across busy streets and shopping centers, narrower roads, restrictions on direct access to commercial corridors, roundabouts and other devices to slow traffic -- these make neighborhoods suitable for human beings as well as cars.

Changes abound

Such changes may inconvenience us a bit while we're behind the wheel. But before we grouse about that, we should ask whether it's worth sacrificing a lovely community and the well-being of our families and neighbors for the ability to shave a few hundred feet off a trip to the gas station.

Elise Armacost writes editorials for The Sun.

Pub Date: 7/12/98

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