Monday, April 18, 2011

If it's not for cars, it's a waste of our money!

For the past two weeks, I have grown more and more confused by the signs popping up all over New Canaan, CT, where I work. Dotting front yards everywhere are signs that say, in one way or another, "Vote YES and support our roads" or "Build sidewalks, pave roads, vote NO".

Finally, I picked up a little card at the local sandwich joint today and ascertained what the heck is going on. According the card and this article, New Canaan recently approved a $4,000,000 road funding project. The money was to go to general road projects, and especially toward repaving some of the roads damaged most severely by this year's awful Northeast winter.

Parallel to the road repair issues, there has been an ongoing debate about adding sidewalks down Main Street as it leaves the heart of New Canaan. Even outside of the downtown area (where it is a true urban street with well-defined street walls, parallel parking, low speeds, and other good stuff), Main Street remains fairly narrow (see map/satellite) and is lined with stately older homes. It connects to an important town park, and heads toward the school campuses south of town.

New Canaan is a town full of runners, walkers, and other pedestrians, as well as bikers. In the mornings, I'm constantly amazed by the number of early bird exercisers on the roads connecting Stamford, Darien and New Canaan. The latter two towns are two of the wealthiest in the nation, and they are places where kids tend to roam free on the streets and where walking the dog sometimes looks more like a catwalk.

So you'd think a simple sidewalk in a extremely wealthy town would be a no-brainer. Not so - apparently "New Canaan Citizens for Responsible Spending" are up-in-arms over the proposed use of the funds for sidewalks. Now, the town is forced into a rather confusing vote, which brings me back to the signs. This vote is to repeal the referendum allowing the $4,000,000 appropriation to be used partially toward sidewalks... so voting "yes" means you want a repeal and therefore are against sidewalks. A little tricky.

The bigger issue here, though, is the underlying attitude that comes through in the quotes and arguments from the sidewalk detractors. Our nation has come to see personal vehicles as the only primary form of transportation. Anything and everything that threatens that supremacy is verboten. In several of the articles above, the concerned citizens worry that making Main Street slightly narrower will be "more dangerous". For whom? The folks that speed down the road and take its winding turns too quickly?

Particularly interesting is one man's objection: "This end [of Main Street] was meant to be more residential, but it’s become more of a thoroughfare." (from here) We take this point of view for granted in America now - once a highway is in place or a road is widened, we cannot remove any capacity or promote any other type of use, even for highways that sit unused during rush hour. We have adopted a paradoxical view of "mobility", one which strives to increase vehicle access, parking, and traffic flow to the detriment of absolutely every other mode of transportation. Even better, the quote above points out that the street's character and how it is used have changed over time. Apparently, that evolution is no longer necessary.

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