Act Now! For a Livable Downtown

The plan for making downtown more pedestrian, bike, and business friendly will be presented and voted on at the Board of Supervisors meeting this Thursday April 18, at 6:30 PM, in the Carson City Community Center’s Sierra Room.  Your attendance at this meeting is vital to ensure that this project moves forward!

Board of Supervisors Meeting – Thursday April 18, at 6:30 pm, in the Carson City Community Center’s Sierra Room

The plan for putting our main street on a Road Diet (see my previous post) has turned out to be quite controversial.  The estimated cost of the project is only $30,000, but it will bring big changes to the look and feel of downtown.  If approved, the half-mile stretch of Carson Street through the downtown area of Carson City between Fifth Street and Ann Street would re-striped to reduce travel lanes from four to two, add on-street parallel parking, and the fences along the sidewalks would be removed.  The sidewalks, median, and turn lanes would not be altered.

Carson City Historic District

Opponents of the project seem to have mixed fears, not really knowing what to expect from the outcome. Some think there will be traffic bottlenecks.  Others think the opposite, that traffic will drop, go to other streets, and hurt business.  There are also a few that simply fear they will no longer be able to speed through downtown unimpeded, arguing that an extra 30-60 seconds of possible drive time is unacceptable. If the reaction at the last Public Works Department workshop is any indication, the opposition will be at the Board of Supervisors meeting en masse to share their fears and doubts.

On the Road in Colorado
Downtown Durango, CO

Thankfully, the Downtown Action Advocacy Group 20/20 has formed with a clear vision of our city’s future. Business owners, property owners, and other citizens have joined together to not only support the project to be presented to the Board of Supervisors this week, but to continue working together to make our downtown a better place to walk, park, shop, bicycle, work, and drive.  A place to live, and not simply drive through.  Muscle Powered, Citizens for a Walkable and Bikeable Carson City also supports this project to help make our city more bike and pedestrian friendly.

On the Road in Colorado
Downtown Durango, CO

Creating a vibrant downtown Carson City sets the stage for bigger and better events. At the last 20/20 meeting I attended, Tim Healion, chief of the Tour de Nez-Vada was there to talk about bringing a leg of the popular Tour de Nez-Vada race to our downtown. It would be a criterium style bicycle race, a loop course of less than a mile through downtown, with high speed action. This event would attract thousands. It was a very inspiring meeting full of innovative ideas and discussions on how to overcome the challenges we face.

Grand Junction
Downtown Grand Junction, CO

Remaking the Public Realm

What makes the 20/20 group so confident the plan will succeed?  Because what we’re doing here in Carson City is nothing new.  Many other cities around the country have already done the same thing and are seeing good results. There are many successful case studies and documented best practices.

Here are the Five Principles of Urban Street Design from the National Association of City Transportation Officials.  NACTO believes that designing world-class streets begins with a restatement of the problem and the means by which to understand that problem. These five principles establish a clear understanding of the primary goals, ideals and tenets of world-class street design.

  1. Streets are Public Spaces – Streets are often the most vital, yet underutilized public spaces in cities. Conventional highway design standards tend to look at streets as thoroughfares for traffic and measure their performance in terms of speed, delay, throughput and congestion. In reality, streets play a much larger role in the public life of cities and communities, and should be designed to include public spaces as well as channels for movement.
  2. Great Streets are Great for Business – Cities have realized that streets are an economic asset as much as a functional element. Well-designed streets generate higher revenues for businesses and higher values for homeowners.
  3. Design for Safety – In 2010, 32,885 people were killed in traffic crashes, which are also the leading cause of death among children aged 5 to 14. These deaths and hundreds of thousands of injuries are avoidable. Traffic engineers can and should do better, by designing streets where people walking, parking, shopping, bicycling, working and driving can cross paths safely.
  4. Streets can be Changed – Transportation engineers can work flexibly within the building envelope of a street. This includes moving curbs, changing alignments, daylighting corners and redirecting traffic where necessary. Many city streets were created in a different era and need to be reconfigured to meet new needs. Street space can also be reused for different purposes, such as parklets, bicycle parking and pop-up cafes.
  5. Act Now! – Implementing projects quickly using temporary materials helps inform public decision making. Cities across the US have begun using a stepped approach to major redesigns, where temporary materials are used in the short term, to be replaced by permanent materials after the public has tested the design thoroughly.

Grand Junction
Downtown Grand Junction, CO

One of the best ways to learn about downtown design is to travel and walk other city’s downtowns.  My family recently had the opportunity to visit a few cities similar to our own: Moab in Utah, and Durango and Grand Junction in Colorado.  I’ve included a few photos from these cities in this article.  Like Carson City, these small to medium sized cities are centers for exceptional outdoor recreational opportunities, and all have vibrant downtowns. Durango is an official Bicycle Friendly Community, and Moab is applying for BFC status (Carson City received an honorable mention for our last BFC application). Grand Junction has a very pedestrian friendly downtown with wide sidewalks, short pedestrian street crossings (courtesy of narrow traffic lanes and curb bulb-outs), outdoor cafe seating,  planters, sculptures, and other artwork throughout. Common to these three cities were easily accessible businesses and lots of bike parking everywhere. Carson City can definitely do better in this area.

Lots of bikes and bike parking are the sign of a healthy downtown

The only real difference between these three cities and Carson City is that they are a few steps ahead of us.  Where we currently favor thru-traffic, they have made their sidewalks and streets more bike and pedestrian friendly.  Their businesses are easily accessible with parking instead of barriers in front of them.  Because of this, they have attracted a wider variety of businesses, and the customers have responded.  Carson City can get there too by following their examples. We are almost there.

Like the 5th principle of urban street design states, we must Act Now!  This is a cheap fix to our main street.  By only re-striping the road, the design can be tested, studied, and refined with more permanent alterations in the future.  Once again, the Board of Supervisors meeting is this Thursday April 18, at 6:30 PM, in the Carson City Community Center’s Sierra Room. Show up early. Come say a few words or just be present in support of the project. Be a part of history in the making. You can really make a difference!

9 thoughts on “Act Now! For a Livable Downtown

  1. Awesome write up Jeff!

    You’re dead on….right now I consider Carson a place I have to “get through” to get to/from my destination (Tahoe, Mammoth, Kirkwood, wherever). It’s completely related to how the town’s main drag is designed, and truly needs a facelift in terms of use of space.

    I really find it surprising that shop owners think this traffic configuration works for them. Ninety percent of the time this traffic configuration is what keeps me in my car and headed to or from my destination (rather than stopping off for a beer or a much needed bike part)!

    So business owners, if your listening…..Make the town more bike/ped friendly and less of a funnel to other places. The business will follow (both locally and from your Reno neighbors!

    p.s. Please feel free to read this at your meeting…..we’ll be fighting a development at Keystone Canyon (our local trail head) at the same time!

    1. Amen! Very well put! I met a few business owners and they fear this will dampen their business. My thoughts that a revitalazation to make this a walkable downtown will bring in way more people (including us) resulting in more business, rather than the boring pass through that it is now. I think people would be lucky to own such property on the strip. I dont get it? Carson can actually boast that it was a key destination to the world famous gold rush, why not capitalize on this and make downtown a historical tourist destination, who isnt facinated with our great history? Again, I dont get it? Sorry..

  2. While these type of streets are nice to have, just changing the traffic patterns will have little affect on the outcome without the support from local business. Most will not see a reduced traffic count or a congested traffic area as being a plus.

    You will also need green spaces and plenty of nearby off street parking for all those people you are talking about attracting. Green spaces will take away tax revenue from the city and compact, attractive parking areas that will fit in with the surroundings are expensive and not economically feasible.

    Our local downtown has been going thru the same changes over the last decade making our downtown a destination with restaurant, bars, and shops. Millions of tax dollars have been spent on street scapes with fancy brick inlayed colored concrete sidewalks, bike racks, planters, and new lighting. It did bring people to the downtown area and is a great place to meet friends on a nice night. Unfortunately as more and more people found out how nice it is you could not find a place to park. The cities solution was to raise parking meters fees to .75 an hour and build a $18 million parking garage on prime downtown real estate. Parking in the garage is .75 per hour as well.

    The parking lot sits nearly empty most of the time and business is down because of the high price/hassle of carrying all that change to feed the meters.

    So over time tens of millions have been spent on an simple idea to improve the downtown area that will serve a very small percentage of the population while other areas of the city deteriorate from lack of available funds.

    Proposals like this may sound good and are made with good intentions but should not be rushed thru without public hearings and a long term look at the economic feasibility of the project. While the writer doesn’t think $30,000 is a lot of money, in this economy with government agencies budgets already stretched thin, any investment (read: new spending) in public funds should be scrutinized.

    1. A response to Tom:

      I think you might be missing the point of the redesign. Yes, the streets designed like this are “nice”. The point is not to reduce the traffic count and a myriad of studies show that reducing lane count doesn’t result in congestion. It does lower accident counts, decrease average speed (which is usually above the posted speed limit), and primarily makes the street and surrounding area more appealing to non-vehicle traffic (e.g. bicycles and pedestrians).

      These other users don’t require green space. They are there to shop and spend money at the businesses located on the main drag. Parking is also NOT a problem in this area of down town. You simply turn off onto any side street and will find parking within a block or two. And shockingly, people will walk or bike significant distances to get to down town. For them, parking is never a problem! The key is these pedestrian oriented folks ARE willing to walk a few (or several) blocks if the main drag is pedestrian friendly!

      The fact that the city raised parking rates is more a factor of the city (and state) economy. If anything it is better for local businesses because it turns over clientele….people can’t park there all day for a few bucks, taking up parking and not utilizing the businesses they park in front of. The parking garage….well, talk to the traffic engineers trained in the 1970’s for that one.

      Furthermore, the millions of “tax” dollars your mention with respect to bike racks, planters, and fancy sidewalks are mostly not tax dollars. Most bike racks in Carson are sponsored (paid for) by Muscle Powered. Planters are often business sponsored (or sponsored by individuals) and the costs of fancy sidewalks are offset by grants, individuals, and businesses, based on the cost over traditional base construction.

      The cost of a project like this ($30,000) is less than 1 percent of Carson City’s annual roads budget….just to keep relative costs in perspective. The review process is substantial with multiple public meetings and review stages. Compared to building a mile of new road at a cost of 2-3 million per mile or repaving a mile of road ($350,000 per mile), this project is CHEAP!

      Anyway, just some points of clarification….

    2. We don’t have a parking problem in the downtown. We have plenty of free parking on side streets and back lots. The problem is that the businesses along main street are facing a lifeless traffic corridor, their front doors blocked by an iron gate. Adding parking along main street does a few things. The obvious thing is that it adds additional parking directly in front of the businesses. The other things may be less obvious. A parking lane next to the sidewalk creates a safe barrier between traffic and pedestrians. Right now you can reach out and touch the cars as they go by (the reason for the fence). It’s a lot safer for a pedestrian to cross 2 lanes of traffic rather than 4. With the fence removed, cars parked out front, and easy access, the visual image is, “We are open for business, and people are here.” When I’m driving through an unfamiliar town looking for a place to go, I’m looking for where the people are…what looks to be popular. In our main street’s current configuration, it’s hard to tell. There will be less speeding. And hopefully people looking to just go through town will go around. They weren’t planning to stop downtown anyway. We want to favor people whose destination is downtown.

      If re-striped, it may take a little while for new traffic patterns to form as people try new routes or stoplights are tuned. But really, if there are any delays during peak traffic minutes, we’re talking a minute or less most likely. As someone who walks and rides a bike most of the time, the time argument seems silly. I’d be willing to leave my house a minute earlier if it was that important.

      Most of our downtown businesses are on board with the project and are excited to see it get underway.

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