Tag Archives: Bike lanes

People and cars

Different priorities

European cities are moving aggressively to promote alternative forms of transport to the car in their downtown areas, not just with friendly programs like easy public bike rental stands (one in Copenhagen is pictured above), but with  programs that are downright unfriendly to the automobile: street closings, traffic light sequences designed to slow car commutes; disappearing parking spaces; hi gas taxes and usage fees. An article in the New York Times discusses this in depth.

Lots of public expenditure for warehousing single-occupancy cars

Meanwhile, with a few exceptions, American cities are still overwhelmingly planning their cities around the automobile (above is a large parking deck recently finished in downtown Birmingham whose volume is almost entirely given over to the daytime warehousing of single-occupancy vehicles. At night, its eerie fluorescent lights hum over thousands of empty square feet at a prominent intersection, Richard Arrington Blvd. and 4th Avenue North).

Current zoning laws require far too much parking for certain uses in certain urban environments. Even when they don’t, market forces–including lending institutions which refuse to contemplate anything but car-centric projects–end up mandating the same car-dependent situation. European cities have learned that vibrant center cities are vibrant because of people, not vehicles. Public policy, gas taxes, and history make this an easier sell over there. Here, it’s a lot easier to pave a road for cars than to stripe a lane for bikes, or construct a decent transit system. We can’t turn ourselves into Europeans, but we could sure learn a lesson or two.

[thanks to mreames for the bikes shot; terry mccombs for the parking deck shot]

The fraying fabric of Five Points (2)


In the second article about the critical period Five Points South is going through right now, the above image should give everyone pause. It seems not too long ago, this little strip mall on the 1900 block of 11th Avenue South was home to a longtime hairdresser, hot dog stand, and convenience store, as well as an H and R Block. The convenience store remains, but the hot dog stand is closed and cardboard boxes and rear ends of display cases block the plate glass. A vacant storefront has a “This is not parking for restaurants” sign menacingly scrawled, amidst other cheaply done, temporary signage. In fact, the cacophony of old and new signage, “temporary” banners and posters, and the overall complete lack of street presence makes this surely one of the most shameful urban presentations in Five Points.

Worst of all is the new “Bail Bonds” sign, in horrific black and white, with an incredible graphic pasted across the storefront stating “Arrested? Bond, James Bond, Inc. ALWAYS OPEN”. Is this for real? Did it really get approved by Design Review? Here’s a detail of this storefront below:

...and again, really?

If ever there was an example of the need for a redevelopment authority, which years ago could have acquired this property and solicited for redevelopment more appropriate for the neighborhood, this is it. As it is, the property and its tenants have really sunk to a new low, and it’s depressing. I mean, Bail Bonds? In the middle of Five Points? Not exactly the image we’d like to convey in the metro’s center for dining and nightlife.

On a more positive note, the local merchants (and there are many wonderful merchants who keep us optimistic about the place) have formed a committee to address “immediate tasks and long term goals” for the area. There’s a piece in the Birmingham Business Journal on this announcement here.

And on another positive note, unrelated to Five Points but a few blocks south–a friend alerted me to the fact that Tom Leader, the Berkeley, CA-based landscape architect responsible for the design of Railroad Park, now features that park on the front page of his website. Here’s one of the aerial pics you can find on his project page, showing the elegantly layered design of the park from above:

let's densify the edge and connect it with bike paths!

So far the main complaint I have about the park is the lack of sidewalks bordering it on 1st Avenue South (hopefully they are coming soon!?!). Oh, and one more complaint–that greenways/bike lanes aren’t already in place making it easy to reach this incredible space from across the city by bike. Regardless, I’ve been there almost every day or night enjoying it (walking or biking from home), and it looks like the rest of the City is too. That gives me hope after a grim meet-up with “James Bond” up the street.

[Thanks to Tom Leader Studio for the aerial pic]

Anticipation (on a positive note)

Nature comes into the city

On a cool, cloudy Monday, Katherine Billmeier of the Railroad Park Foundation gave me a tour of the soon-to-be-completed park (Katherine says July). As many times as I’ve seen the plans, and biked past the park to view progress from the street, entering the park itself was an entirely different experience. It felt bigger than I had thought, and more diverse. The details, whether salvaged cobbles and train tracks from the site transformed into paths and ledges, or the light standards and bridges—it all felt first class. It’s all too rare in this city to see a major public project done right. This feels like that sort of project.

The quality shows

Katherine explained the concessions service: it will be contracted out (they don’t know to whom yet); it will be “upscale” sandwiches and snacks, but at an affordable price point so students can comfortably eat here. There will also be beer and wine on sale–the very idea seems so New Orleans and so not Birmingham, it seems too good to be true. The concessions and other amenities will be housed in boxy pavillions designed to recall old-fashioned box cars, as seen in the below rendering:

Superior design

One item that may interest readers: a small area is being designed for skate boarding (you can read our earlier post on this subject here). I was told that not only this area, but any paved area of the park would be open to skaters–as long as they share the space responsibly. Peter Karvonen, our friend at Faith Skate Supply, is cautiously optimistic that the park’s embrace of skaters will endure. He also realizes that it will be up to the skaters to coexist peacefully with joggers, pick-nickers, walkers, bikers, and all the others we hope use this park. We really think that this mini-skate area could demonstrate to area leaders that a full-size skate park is vital to this metro area.

Preparing for skaters

Finally, this last shot I think starts to capture how this new public space can transform how we see the City: we are all familiar with the Daniel Building, and some of us with Cityville housing whose construction is finishing in the next months. Both are a couple blocks away from the park, but just seeing an office building and apartments glimpsed from across undulating hills and trees helps us imagine the new projects that could line the park. There is really no other place in Birmingham that has this sort of potential private-public synergy. This could be the big win we all really need right now.

Seeing the city in a whole new way

PS–Katherine is already looking ahead, beyond the park just connecting UAB to the northside; it will also connect with new bike trails and green space from Sloss to I-65, and from there on to the new Red Mountain Park and beyond. Now that’s thinking big, and then thinking even bigger. After the recent gut-punches of Chick-Fil-A and Walgreens, I hope this post let’s us all hang in there and realize we do have some things to be proud of here. Keep it coming!