Monday, July 28, 2014

We're Walking. We're Walking.

There are pedestrian friendly places and then there are pedestrian centric places. With the former you have a pretty good chance of crossing the street without getting run down. With the latter as you approach the curb at a marked crossing auto traffic actually stops while you cross. There is a town that would best be categorized as one of the latter within a reasonable distance of daVille, but we're not going to tell you where*.

But we will tell you what it is like and offer a few reasons why Dunwoody will never be like this.

It is a town, not a city with a population of around 12,000, so about one fourth that of Dunwoody. It covers approximately 6 square miles putting it just below one half of Dunwoody's 13. The town was founded in the early to mid 1800's celebrating its sesquicentennial before Dunwoody was envisioned. Except in the outer fringes bordering a lake the houses are older with ample yards and blessed with trees that were planted before any of the current residents, no matter how old, were even born. A tall building downtown is two stories and while some residences might reach three it is a stretch as you'd have to count either the basement or the attic or both. The downtown definition of "apartment" would translate here as "house for rent" and multi-tenant rentals top out at "duplex."

The approach to the town from the nearby highway requires visitors to traverse not one but two roundabouts. And these are not the sprawling wastes of space we see in Roswell but are double lane (in the circle) yet quite compact. This facilitates pedestrian traffic by keeping crosswalks close by. It also gives visitors a gentle clue about priorities in this little town. The highway also separates the newer lakeside area from the older, more historic town center.

While Dunwoody has Perimeter Center to fill its coffers this little town has a real Main Street with many small shops and restaurants in buildings that come right to the sidewalk so by and large the locals actually pay for their own town. Where there is parking it is parallel or slant-in and free of charge. For most businesses along Main Street, particularly restaurants, outdoor dining is behind the building between the building and parking at the rear (where most parking is located). Some restaurants do not have a street front presence at all and while this makes them harder to find they are well worth the effort. Like Dunwoody this town hosts a college but one that is significantly smaller than Dunwoody's Perimeter campus and is a significant component of downtown. Also like Dunwoody it appears to be relatively free of homeless bums and blessed with enough Mexican labour to keep the place neat and clean.

This little town grew organically over an extended period of time. It is mature, even old. Where we start our pontifications with "I've lived in Dunwoody for X-number of years" it is not uncommon for adults in this town to be fourth or fifth generation and they generally do not feel the need to brag about it. It is their town, their birthplace and their ancestral home. Dunwoody is a neo-bettendorf with a better name and a serious identity crisis.

It is, as most small Southern towns, built around a single dominant industry. People who gathered around that industry joined together sharing common interest and formed the town. Dunwoody is the byproduct of the greed of suburban transients whose anger was born of sending tax money southward and receiving less than we felt our due in return.

But this is about walkability.

The little town has a relatively flat aspect. While this is the South and heat is unavoidable, mature trees provide ample shade (which does nothing for the humidity). Sidewalks are where they need to be and go from curb to storefront on Main. Streets that would be four lanes of traffic in Dunwoody are two lane with parallel parking at the curbs which are then separated from traffic by bike lanes. Pedestrian centric goes foot in stirrup with bike friendly.

Crosswalks are well marked and never more than a city block apart--if that far. On each side is a small pole with a container for orange flags. Should a pedestrian be worried that they are not seen they take a flag on one side and deposit it in the container on the other side after completing their journey.  You are your own crossing guard but the fact is you don't really need to be.

Drivers making a left turn are required to yield to crossing pedestrians. And the crosswalk light that would cause this to happen turns to "walk" at the same time as the left turn signal goes green and if there are enough pedestrians or they take long enough to cross then you're just not going to make that turn.

You're probably wondering how this can be anything but Redneck Frogger. Perhaps you think it is a form of that Southern Malady that causes folks to pull over for a funeral procession. Maybe it is something in the water. It is actually much simpler. This town has two speed limits: slow and slower. To be more precise some areas sport a blazing fast 25 MPH speed limit while most areas, including Main Street are set at 20 MPH. And these limits are universally observed and no one seems to believe that their horn is directly connected to the gas pedal of the car ahead of them. The chicken-egg dilemma is whether the limit is observed due to diligent enforcement or if observance obviated the need for enforcement. In any event you don't see speeders so you don't see them pulled over.

You could say this town is an "existence proof" that true pedestrian communities can be built. Perhaps. But not here.

In Dunwoody the flags would probably be red but it wouldn't matter as they would quickly be stolen. In this little town folks don't lock their doors or chain their bikes. One renter lost his keys and rather than get replacements simply left his doors unlocked. For the last six months of his lease.

There are 25 MPH postings in Dunwoody and not just at key hours in a school zone. But outside of those school zones these limits are never enforced or observed. They are rarely enforced in school zones. The simple fact of the matter is Dunwoody would never tolerate the perceived cost in time and convenience required to achieve what this little town has. Consider the public comments should someone suggest that Chamblee Dunwoody and Mount Vernon in daVille suffer a 20 MPH speed limit. Three minutes is not enough.

This town is not a product of the bureaucratic fa├žade we call Complete Streets and was not built by Federal grants according to a distant, detached, dictatorial social architect's blueprint. Instead this is a cohesive community willing to accept the costs in time and money to make a pedestrian centric community a reality with a long term commitment to keep it that way. And it is the citizens who for the most part pick up the tab. This is not in Dunwoody DNA.

This town is nearly heaven on earth for those who live there--as close to Mayberry as  you're likely to find.** If we're being truly honest and self-aware all of us in the Wold know we'd rather watch Mayberry on TV than actually live there.

* This unanimous decision was reached by the TOD editorial board with almost no discussion whatsoever. To a person the board is "American by birth and Southern by the grace of God" and have just about had it with many of the finest places in the Southland being ruined by carpetbaggin' Yankees and we'll have no part in the ongoing destruction of our homeland. 
** We admit that we have not done an exhaustive search. But we're working on it.