Thursday, May 22, 2014

Forbidden feet.

Travel any reasonable distance in this country, across multiple political boundaries, and you will inevitably discover a variety practices in handling traffic.  We see it everywhere: speed limit differences, right turns on red (or not), the size and generosity of the turn radius at an intersection, the style and design (or even the very existence) of pedestrian amenities. Though it may be a bit hyperbolic to assert that these idiosyncratic distinctions arise from the constituents applying representative democracy to get the system they desire (within the bounds of federally mandated core standards, that is), it isn’t far from the truth either.  Some states have developed their own characteristic strategies: the Michigan Left that I wrote about a few months ago has earned its significant detractors, but enough traffic engineers recognize its merits that other states have started adopting it.  (They still call it a Michigan Left.)  And everyone on the East Coast knows New Jersey’s penchant for the jughandle style of “left” turns, which also has apparently generated enough backlash to prompt injunctive legislation.

But one state has managed to surprise me with its dogged tendency to feature a particular sign—something I have only seen on extremely rare occasions elsewhere, but in this state the sign is commonplace.

Even amidst the dusky, grainy quality of the photo, it is obvious what this sign is trying to convey: no pedestrians allowed here.  Granted, it’s not an area that most would consider a pedestrian paradise: a post-war suburb to a large metropolitan area, in which big-box chains, strip malls, and sizable parking lots flank both sides of a six-lane highway.  Again, the twilight haze might obscure the clarity of the photo, but not enough to point out the obvious.

These signs are not along a limit access highway, an environment that disallows pedestrians through the vast majority of the country.  No, this is an area with plenty of stop lights, curb cuts, and choke points for vehicular traffic.  It’s not an attractive, desirable, or particularly safe area for walkers, but must they be forbidden?  Is it perhaps an isolated instance—a particularly hazardous location in which the sign emerges out of a genuine public interest to inhibit those without motors?

No, these signs are everywhere.  Here’s another intersection a half mile down the road.

Granted, it’s probably a horrible intersection to traverse by foot.  But to forbid it altogether?  Where is this?!  The lighter sky helps clarify, while the concrete “Jersey barrier” separating the directions of traffic flow might offer a hint as to what state this is.  But no, this isn’t New Jersey.

It’s a larger and even more populous state: the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.  I’m not as well-traveled as some people out there, particularly when it comes to the western half of the US, but I have still never seen a state where “no pedestrian” signs are as prolific.  I frankly can’t recall seeing them anywhere in most states except along expressways.  But they’re just a part of the roadside landscape in PA—in exurbs, rural areas, or major suburban thoroughfares like this one.

I’d be shocked if local police enforce this regulation outside of places where pedestrians typically are forbidden—i.e., legitimate limited access highways.  While it is unfair to form flattering or degrading inferences about an entire state from something as petty as a roadside sign, it’s hard not to wonder what elicited this sign in a state like Pennsylvania, where the settlements, the housing stock, and the roads largely existed before the automobile.  To this day, most Pennsylvania cities and towns—particularly those in the eastern half of the state, where this photo comes from—stand upon a tightly wrought grid with narrow streets, tiny parcels, small setbacks from the sidewalks and an overwhelmingly walkable character.  The interstices between towns might be filled with conventional suburbanization, but the old towns remain quite compact.  This pattern contrasts sharply with a state such as Nevada, where virtually all inhabited areas owe their layout to the ubiquity of the car.  Since around 1970, Pennsylvania has also remained one of the slowest-growing states in the country; population growth in the 2000s was less than 5%.  Thus, Pennsylvania can claim many more intact pre-automobile communities than most states.  And its largest cities, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, have public transportation systems that, at least by American standards, are fairly robust.

The Keystone State should boast better-than-average pedestrianism, and—for the most part—it probably does.  But somehow, among its successive legislatures, this red, white and black sign slipped into the inventory for various municipal traffic engineers, and in quite a few places they have deployed it with abandon.  My hope for those Pennsylvanians who lack the option or ability to drive is that all police offers turn a blind eye to this regulation.  While the photos above don’t depict a particularly walkable environment (sidewalks are sparse), how is anyone supposed to respond to a scene like this?

The municipality’s public works department has paved along the sidewalk easement, but then it restricts people from walking through the installation of this sign.  It might not yet be dusk, but it’s close enough to the twilight zone.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

When the best preservation efforts go up in smoke.

My latest is up at Urban Indy.  It focuses on a charming Victorian double in the historic neighborhood of St. Joseph, immediately north of downtown Indianapolis, perfectly visible in this Google Streetview image.

At least, that's how it looked in the summer of 2009.  This is what it looks like now:
It's gone.  Demolished.  One could argue that protections for "contributing buildings" in Historic Districts don't give enough teeth to enforce demolition, but that wasn't the problem here.  In the spring of 2010, the building burned to the ground--a fire of undetermined origin.

My research, revealed in full at Urban Indy, determined that it was not a suspicious fire by a landowner who wanted to rid himself of the structural albatross in order to offer the adjacent apartment buildings some quick-and-easy off-street parking.  I actually spoke with the owner of this tragically destroyed home, who made every attempt to save it.  The actual narrative, and the parcel's uncertain future, get full exploration, in an attempt to reconcile the need to preserve the "character" of a historic district (always a fuzzy word) with the understandable aspiration to maximize the marketability of a small, constrained piece of land.  Comments and further observations are strongly encouraged--residents of the St. Joseph neighborhood would certainly appreciate what outsiders might have to say!