Wednesday, August 31, 2011

When "improving" a road means destroying everything that makes it pleasant

In this post I will talk about a Fresno road project in which the importance of moving traffic trumps the aesthetic charm of a local road, to the point that a residential neighborhood is being leveled to let commuters speed by on two new lanes.

----

Fresno is lacking when it comes to good looking roads. This isn't intended as a bash on Fresno, but just an observation that is painfully obvious to anyone who lives here or stops by to visit. Fact is, most of our main streets are exceptionally wide and bordered with parking lots and signs. It simply isn't attractive.

The sad part is, aesthetics of our main travel-ways is not set in stone, but a result of a series of policy choices. What is sadder is that instead of recognizing this failure in design, local government is pushing for streets that do not conform to ugly standards to be "improved" so that they too can be wide and depressing.

Fresno is set up in a grid pattern, with major roads usually spaced out .5 miles apart. In some parts of town, they're as much as a mile apart. With the exception of the older streetcar suburbs and downtown, it is impossible to make a thru trip using minor roads. These minor roads are designed for local traffic only, with curving detours, cul-de-sacs and other obstacles that funnel all traffic to the avenues.

So anyone who drives in Fresno is familiar with these main streets, as they are your only real choice when it coming to getting from here to there.

The problem is, because Fresno has decided to focus all traffic on these major streets, the only logical choice is to then widen these streets to handle all the traffic being forced onto them. And with that widening, comes the destruction of any sense of beauty.

So of course, drivers in Fresno spend most of their driving time in an atmosphere that isn't attractive, relaxing or pleasant in any way.

Here are some examples.

Blackstone Ave. The green pine tree median does not distract from the ugly signs, the asphalt and the wideness. 6 lanes + 2 unused parking lanes + turning lanes.
Photobucket

Shaw. The grassy side does not hide the fact that behind it, is an enormous parking lot. Asphalt, signs and more asphalt.
Photobucket

Cedar. Less wide (only two lanes each way) but again, bleak and depressing.
Photobucket

Chestnut. Being residential does not make this street any more of a pleasure to drive.
Photobucket


I think you get the point. These roads may be functional, but they're certainly not stimulating or attractive.

Fortunately, Fresno does have a few attractive roads, and they are found in the older parts of town. What makes these streets attractive is a combination of results that stem from the fact that they weren't designed to be enormously wide.

For example, being narrower means the amount of asphalt is not as overwhelming (in both visual and heat retaining senses). Being less wide also means that the trees are able to provide more of a canopy (yay shade), which is impossible when the right-of-way is a massive 120 feet wide (like blackstone). Finally, even when the properties are set back from the street, they are still closer than they would be on a newer road, which makes the corridor more enclosed.

Why "enclosed" at first may sound like a negative word (think of a cramped, claustrophobic hallway), humans are actually more comfortable in smaller spaces. Wide open plains historically provide for no protection from attacks, and it can be unsettling to walk across such wide expanses with nowhere to seek shelter. Think, for example, of a visit to the mall. The walk from the car to the mall entrance across the open and barren parking lot may feel exhausting, even though the walk inside the mall (with walls on both sides, and a roof) may be many times longer, but will feel more comfortable.

Here are some examples of older, more attractive streets in Fresno:

Huntington Blvd is known for the large houses and wide median. But because the road itself is narrow, the trees can provide a comfortable canopy. (Personally, id plant trees in the median as well)
Photobucket

Fulton Street (seen before the recent road diet which added a bike lane)is a quick way from the 180 freeway to the downtown core. It moves traffic effectively without sacrificing the pleasantness offered by the narrower corridor
Photobucket

Van Ness (also seen before road diet) is the northbound partner for Fulton. Again, traffic moves smoothly, but it's certainly not ugly.
Photobucket


And finally, that leads me to the point of this entry.

Peach.

Peach Ave, shown in the thick red line in the middle, is one of those major streets I was talking about before. The street serves south Fresno and provides connections between the airport, 180, across Kings Canyon and eventually down to 99.

Photobucket

A "improvement" project is in place to widen the road to allow for quicker commute times. Apparently it does not matter that as part of the grid system, suitable north-south routes are available .5 miles away (highlighted with thinner red lines). Peach must conform with the road system and have two lanes each way, with a center median.

"The project will construct the widening of Peach Avenue to a four-lane divided arterial with a landscaped median island from Belmont Avenue to Kings Canyon Road."


Here is the scope of the project, which will cost $25,080,000. I am not sure if this amount includes the cost of the 45 property acquisitions.
Photobucket


And finally, here is the section I will be focusing on, which is truly the only section that can be called attractive.
Photobucket


So why do I consider this section attractive? Because it is only two lanes wide. No, not two lanes each way, but a grand total of two lanes. On each side are residential homes and large trees which enclose the corridor.

There is a trail crossing which is manageable because trail users need only to cross two lanes.

One section even has a series of enormous palm trees, possibly marking the border of what was once an enormous ranch.


Narrow.
Photobucket

Easy crossing
Photobucket

Large palms
Photobucket

Not the worst drive is it?
Photobucket


Now, if you are reading this and thinking "that's not that attractive, I've seen better" I agree. In a world with billions of streets, you can certainly find a nicer one elsewhere.

But lets compare this very same road just above and beyond where these images were taken, in locations where the street has already been widened.

At the northern portion of the project, the road widens to what eventually will be the true girth of the avenue.

Isn't it fantastic?

Photobucket


Let me bring the point home. This is the southern end of the narrow bit.
Photobucket
Photobucket


And a 180 degree turn in the exact same spot yields...
Photobucket


Amazing. See how a little widening can drastically change the feel of the road?

Unfortunately, it's not some kind of blog trick. Here is is again with the narrow and wide bits in view.
Photobucket

Sort of depressing.

To be fair, the widening project includes a green median. So lets move a few yards further south to see what the future holds.

I can't wait.

Photobucket


I hope I'm not the only one disappointed by this "improvement". I'm especially going to be sad to see the hundreds of mature trees be chopped down and replaced by little stickly things that will take 20 years to grow to wider stickly things. Median trees just don't grow like residential trees do.


Note: Sharp eyed readers may have noted that some of the homes in the screenshots above have boarded up windows. The city has purchased land from 45 properties, and will demolish the majority of them. Demolition has already begun on many. A classic way to liven up a neighborhood is apparently to evict everyone.

So homeowners be forewarned. If your residential street becomes a popular cut-through route, and you are in search of measures to calm the traffic (like a r traffic circle), be wary. Your city might take the Fresno approach and solve the problem by simply removing the residents. Mustn't let silly homes slow down the traffic.

2 comments:

  1. That section with the palms on peach reminds me of Long Beach. It instantly reminded me of Broadway and Ximeno.

    http://goo.gl/maps/sJOzF

    Take note of how the city didn't activate the traffic signals by fitting them with flashing red lights. The signals clearly show a good deal of age as you can see the rust on the No Parking sign. You might like that kind of setup. All traffic must come to a stop regardless of intent except for emergency services, and that means most people won't be barreling down the street past the green or to make the light before it changes. It basically has a calming effect making the street and crossings a bit more approachable, and thanks to the high powered lights,250 watt cut off models typically reserved for big intersections,

    http://goo.gl/maps/dopca

    crossing at night under the good deal of light is a bit safer as well.

    The styling of the light poles isn't bad either. They have a classical and decorative style stone pebbled base. The pole throughout it's height has a pleasant and interesting pebbled facade.

    http://goo.gl/maps/4ZJak

    I also like the smooth arches of the arm and the guy wires that hold it up, a bit more superfluous decoration.

    http://goo.gl/maps/jn5lb

    The lights also are interesting in their presence. They look like traffic signals, and to a driver that may as well attract more attention which is important to a pedestrian and vehicle crossing point.


    http://goo.gl/maps/auBOe

    Sorry about that off tangent, I meant to talk about Peach.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I believe in the past Fresno used to go to flashing red at night. Havent seen it in years. Theyre obsessed with traffic lights everywhere that are 24/7.

      Delete