So many things on the blog come from our daily observations and experiences, including the following piece on the experience of picking up my daughter from school. This is a post internally that we were all drawn to for the 2010 Best of Blog series. Not only because of the humor of an angry kid theoretically flipping the bird to parent(s) too lazy to get out of the car and retrieve him, but also because of the sad realities of how we have conditioned our built environment to be so inhospitable, even near a school. The post, which originally ran on September 20, has a short epilogue from a Friday News Digest that I have included here. There is also a companion piece that was written by Sarah Goodyear of Grist that is well worth reading.

No Car Left Behind 

It is amazing the lengths to which we go -- and the things that we unconsciously sacrifice -- to enable the auto-centric development pattern we have grown addicted to. I use the words "enable" and "addicted" purposely because at some point we crossed over into a very unhealthy and destructive downward-spiral of a lifestyle that, at its core, is very analogous to that of an alcoholic. Could we stop if we wanted to?

In the brief two weeks I have been driving my daughter to kindergarten on my way to work I have noticed enough design nightmares in my hometown of Baxter to fill a dozen blog posts. Consider this one that is more pathetic than life-threatening:

The school has designed their parking lot so that parents can actually queue in their cars along a designated pickup route like they were at a McDonalds drive thru. When they get near the front of the line, they give their McChild's name to a lady with a blowhorn who shouts out said name. At this point, the McChild dutifully reports to the curb where they climb into the car and the "family" then motors off to make room for the next car. I can't wait to see how this works in minus-ten degrees, if the parents that today are too inconvenienced to get out of their cars and walk thirty feet to the fence to meet their child will actually allow them to stand outside in the cold an extra ten or fifteen minutes so they can use the "drive thru". If so, I will cheer for the child that displays this response.

We drive to school. Even if we lived close enough, you can't walk, despite the fact that the school district policy is not to pick up anyone who lives within a half mile. Sorry, kindergartner from a family in poverty that does not have two cars (or two parents) and nobody is available to drive you. You get to walk 2,640 feet through a car-only environment, playing Frogger across the highway if you are lucky enough to avoid getting knocked into the ditch on your way there. Again, September weather is fairly forgiving. January is not. I don't see how this works during winter months.

On our way in we circle around the back of the school to reach the parking lot / queue area. This takes us through a residential neighborhood where there are houses on each side of the road and, for part of the trip, a cemetery.

One obvious observation about this area is that there is no place for people to walk. If someone was theoretically crazy enough to walk this during the school day, they would have to avoid the fast-moving traffic on this road. I drive slow through the neighborhood and each day have an irritated parent feet from my bumper. Ironically, if there are kids in this neighborhood they probably get driven to school, despite literally being able to see the building from their front stoop.

There was one small design feature that typified the city's approach that I wanted to share here, something that most people would probably not even notice. I'm going to point it out to you because I guarantee you will likewise see it in the crazy neighborhoods you live and work in. It is an auto-reflex to our development pattern, pun intended.

The street through this neighborhood comes to a 90-degree corner as it rounds the cemetery. As an engineer, from a design standpoint a 90-degree corner means cars are going to be slowing down to a near stop as they navigate the turn. In a residential neighborhood such as this, with many driveways, kids playing in the front yards, the peace and serenity of a cemetery, the theoretical chance of a pedestrian, etc... such natural traffic calming would be welcome. It would slow cars down to match the characteristics of the neighborhood. Improved safety and livability.

But the cars and their drivers do not play along. Evidently slowing down considerably was passe and so many cars were cutting the corner. This is natural since the street heading into the corner is designed for higher than neighborhood speeds. Drivers were cutting across the grass and breaking up the edge of the pavement. 

How would a modern city handle this? They could put in a raised curb to slow down the cars and keep them on the road. They could put in a fence or some short shrubs to create a modest barrier that would have the same effect. They could narrow the road and slow cars down ahead of the corner. 

Or they could just put in more pavement so people didn't have to slow down, which is what they did.

They are actually being a little cheap here. Their "No Car Left Behind" road standards call for a 30 mph speed through this section. To maintain that speed the street should not just have an increased turn radius, it should actually be superelevated.

When we collectively don't bother to consider that driving at speed through a residential neighborhood next to a school just prior to opening bell may not be the best policy, but instead we condition our entire built environment to handle our 2-ton prosthetic devices, we know we have a problem.

Repeat after me.....My name is __(insert name)__ and I'm an autoholic.

 

Epilogue from the September 24 Friday News Digest

As a follow-up to the original post, here is a photo of the line of cars waiting in the rain for their McKids yesterday. I got a glimpse of how things might happen this winter; they queue the kids in the school building instead of making them stand in the rain. No wonder they get released from school a half hour earlier than I used to - it takes at least that much time for these "parents" to simply make it through the drive thru.