Sunday, January 9, 2011

Bike Trails -- commentary

Jonesboro transportation planners have raised a little ruckus with their proposals for making bicycling and walking more attractive alternatives for our community. Those in opposition see it as part of a United Nations plot forcing us to live in more densely populated areas.

I am no friend of the United Nations, but even institutions I don’t care for can have a good idea occasonally. It’s an old country saying that “even a blind hog can find an acorn once in a while.” I don’t know whether this is some kind of conspiracy by control freaks, but I do see it as an effort to rectify the unintended consequences of an early attempt at social engineering.

Turn your calendars back to the early 1900’s. The automobile was beginning to come into its own. Henry Ford and his Model T made it possible for common people to own a car. As a side note, this created havoc with a burgeoning motorcycle industry. People could now buy a car as cheaply as a motorcycle and they found it more comfortable being out of the weather.

Up through the 30’s, most cities had good mass transit systems. Many store owners lived in apartments above their stores, and most people lived within walking distance of their employment. Cities with mills often had mill towns that housed mill workers within walking distance of work. Though the sawmill has been closed in my home town for decades, the old mill town is still there and the houses still occupied.

With politicians promising a chicken in every pot and a car in every driveway, the social planners realized we could now spread out away from city centers and they created a phenomenon called the suburb. For the two college girls I overheard trying to figure out what a suburb is, it is short for suburban. Sub is a prefix meaning just outside of and urban is Latin for city.

Suburbs begin to grow like weeds around cities, creating “urban sprawl.” To encourage people to move to the suburbs, and as a sop to the growing automobile industry, social engineers and urban planners convinced cities to purposefully dismantle their mass transit systems, making cars a necessity. They did not envision what an environment would be like with millions of cars and millions of miles of concrete and asphalt road ways.

Now we know. The problem is, we are hooked on our automobiles and our big houses and yards in the suburbs. We no longer want to live in apartments above our stores and in small houses near the mine, the mill, or the factories.

Head out of town on any given work day between six and eight a.m. and you will be met with a parade of factory works heading into town to work, and in the evening the parade is reversed. I remember a friend remarking that it seems that all the people who live on the west side of town drive to work on the east side and the east siders all drive to work on the west side. They should just trade jobs or houses.

So, the social planners now want us to live in tighter communities, to live, work, shop, go to school and to church in the same general area. This trend makes sense. When I was in the navy reserves, I always preferred my two weeks active duty to be in San Francisco rather than Los Angeles. There were hundreds of things to do in San Francisco, and since the city was so compact and had such a great mass transit system, I never needed a car. There were also hundreds of things to do in LA, but LA was designed around the automobile. These things were miles apart and the mass transit was not very good. Without a car, I couldn’t enjoy them.

Trying to get the modern American to give up his car and a nice house in the suburbs, however, will be a bit like getting an NRA member to give up his rifle. Still, I would like to see this town more bicycle and pedestrian friendly. When I left Anchorage back in 1990, we had about 110 miles of bicycle trails and they have added many more miles since. These trails are used for recreation every bit as much as the city parks. On nice summer days you will find bike riders, inline skaters, joggers, mothers with baby carriages and walkers using them. They are much safer than competing with traffic on the over used streets.

Building bike paths and sidewalks will probably not accomplish what the planners envision, but it will improve the quality of life for people who choose to use them. Maybe the UN found an acorn.

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