By: Timothy Hullihan
North Palm Beach, Florida, is a special place, but it is hard to articulate exactly why. This is because the things that make North Palm Beach special are deeper, and more intrinsic than the things we typically associate with extraordinary places.
North Palm Beach is not shiny and new. In fact, in many ways it is ordinary and little old-fashioned. Its 5,000 homes were mostly built in the 1950s and 1960s, and its commercial areas date back that far as well. Yet, it is a desirable place to live, with many of its residents being proud 2nd or 3rd generation residents.
Stated another way, North Palm Beach is stuck in the 1970s. This sounds like a bad thing, but it is, in my opinion, a big part of the reason it is so great. Because the 1970s were the beginning of a 30 or 40 year period that brought a lot of poor urban planning to cities and towns across America, and many of those places are still trying to recover from those poor decisions, North Palm Beach has very few scares from that destructive time.
North Palm Beach is locked into its municipal footprint by adjacent jurisdictions and other barriers to sprawling growth, so it has grown internally and refreshed itself regularly. Rather than sprawling away from its historic town center, and leaving it to crumble, it has continually restored, or rebuilt its public buildings and parks, and maintained a fairly bicycle and pedestrian friendly way of life.
There are a few scars from the 1970s and 80s that need to be repaired, however, and wisely, village leaders recognize the importance of keeping North Palm Beach simple, quaint, and stuck in a more enlightened time period.
The most glaring scare in the village is the U.S. One Corridor. It was widened to 6-lanes in the late 1970s when the completion of I-95 was in doubt and transportation planners needed a back-up plan for a high-volume north-south corridor. It is also lined with a series of office buildings that mirror the office park concept of that period that, across the country, are failing and forgotten places today.
The good news is, I-95 was completed a long time ago, and the burden of having a high volume corridor through the village never happened. It presently has a design volume that is 3-times its actual usage, so there is an opportunity to redesign this street to make it more consistent with the bicycle and pedestrian friendly way of life that exists in most other parts of the village. As it is now, it is a classic 1970s highway that was designed with only the efficient moving of cars in mind. The narrow and unprotected bike lanes are dangerous and unused afterthoughts. Its narrow sidewalks are precariously close to fast moving vehicles and unpleasant to use. Its wide lanes encourage higher traveling speeds than the posted 35 MPH limit, thus increasing the danger for pedestrians and cyclists.
More good news: FDOT offered to pay for the redesign of US-1 in 2003, and they will be coming back to us in 2018 with the same pot of money. We passed on the offer in 2003, but with a recently completed master plan, we have every reason to be up-to-date on why prioritizing walking and biking equally with automobile travel is essential to our future. For example, the retail expert, Bob Gibbs, who was one the highly acclaimed design consultants for our master plan told us that 85% of all new retail in America is the “walkable” town center variety, and our master plan shows us where and how to create a walkable town center on US-1.
Understandably, not everyone agrees that US-1 should be redesigned, however. There is even a resident taking a petition door-to-door in an effort to stop any momentum towards redesign before it starts. The petition is based on the notion that “we are a car culture,” and it is foolish to spend millions of dollars on softening the brutal presence of a 6-lane roadway that is unsightly, over designed, underutilized, and a barrier to safe walking and biking between the two halves of the village it so blatantly demarks.
What is needed is an informed dialogue. The petitioner is a wise and educated man. He has a Doctorate of Education and is a retired school teacher, but my efforts to discuss the issue with him have been turned down. He is passionate about what he believes to be true, and I respect that.
If he would allow me to speak with him, here are some of the things I hope he would learn.
1. When a community must drive a car to participate in its economy, it is a wasteful economy. A recent comparison prepared by Patrick Kennedy, an urban planner in Dallas, analyzed two similar cities, Copenhagen and Houston, to make this point. Copenhagen, a famously bicycle-friendly place spends only 4% of it metro GDP on transportation (public and private), while Houston spends 14%. This is because Houston residents make 95% of all trips by car, while the residents of Copenhagen make only 54% of their trips in an automobile. These differences translate into nearly 3.5-billion dollars wasted annually to create and maintain the infrastructure needed to help Houston residents access the local economy by car. Houston is a typical American city committed to a car-culture, but once someone learns the high-cost and wastefulness of maintaining a car-culture, they are more open to alternatives.
2. Because we have been designing and building roads with only cars in mind since the 1970s, we have a lot of dangerous roads in America. Roads that equally prioritize pedestrian, bicycle and car traffic are not nearly as dangerous as their counterparts in a “car-culture.” The number 1 killer of children in American is automobile related accidents, and 1970s-style road designs are a leading contributor to this alarmingly high and preventable number of child deaths. Once people learn this, they are more open to alternatives.
3. We are finally curing ourselves of our car addiction, and the “car culture” that existed in the last half of the 20th Century is becoming less prominent. Vehicle miles driven (VMD) flat-lined at the beginning of this century and stayed there. This decline in car use will expand further as Millenials become a larger segment of our economy, autonomous cars make car ownership less necessary, and retail trends toward walkable town centers make cars less necessary. Some estimates have personal car usage dropping by as much as 54% over the next several decades. If US-1 is presently over designed by 3-times, it will be 4 or 5 times over designed in the near future. Making U.S. One slower, narrower, safer, and much more attractive begins to seem like a reasonable alternative once we understand that we are already a culture that is shifting away from car dependency.
4. As mentioned above, narrowing US-1 is actually the idea of FDOT, not NPB. The key point is that FDOT pays for projects like this with repair money already allocated. We are schedule for a costly grinding and resurfacing of US-1 in 2018, but FDOT would rather spend that money more wisely. Once we realize that the redesign of U.S. One will be mostly paid for with FDOT maintenance funds, we realize that we are not wasting money after all.
5. If air pollution is something that worries you, exchanging car trips for bike trips should be something you value. According to the EPA, 31% of all carbon emissions in the US come from transportation. If you remove mass transportation from that number, the cars we drive put 27% of carbon emissions into the air we breathe. So if we can create a US-1 corridor that is pedestrian and bike friendly, and replace some car trips with non-polluting trips, we would become a cleaner village too.
I respect the petitioner’s passion for what he believes to be true. Door-to-door petitioning is a great American tradition. However, there is a lot that we all need to learn about the US-1 Corridor, and I hope we can get together as a community and discuss it so we can make, collectively, the best decisions for our village’s future.
Timothy Hullihan is and architect and a board member of Sustainable Palm Beach County.