Monday, April 21, 2014

A Complete Streets Posterboy

A lack of complete streets requires the elderly to just make do.
Photo by Jim Freeman
by Jim Freeman

I spent Easter weekend with my family in southern Missouri.  My sister lives in Nixa, Missouri, which is about 5 miles south of Springfield or about 40 miles north of the Arkansas border.  There are almost no sidewalks in Nixa.  In fact, it seem like there are no sidewalks in southern Missouri apart from the central downtown districts.  The park in Nixa, a few blocks from my sister's house, has no sidewalks providing pedestrian access, but it does have parking for 20 or 30 cars.

Necessity dictated that I spend part of the morning at the local Walmart Auto Center for an oil change as it was the only place open on Easter Sunday.  While I waited an elderly man entered the service station from an exterior door.  He had a walker with four wheels that had been fitted with a box with a capacity of about three cubic feet.  It held what appeared to be his lunch and some personal effects.  He was dressed in a pair of striped overalls and a high visibility reflective vest (a clear sign to me that this man is loved).  Slowly, he made his way into the service center waiting room, helped himself to a complimentary cup of coffee and sat down with his lunch.

The man, Paul, was born in 1926.  Paul was a local to the area, and we discussed the many changes Southern Missouri had undergone in his lifetime.  His impression was that before WWII most of the population was rural.  Everyone had heir own garden, and they stocked their basements with the bounty of the season for the winter ahead.  He remembered a time when his family went swimming in the James River on Easter, and it was so cold that there was still ice creeping out from the riverbank.  Paul has four children.  His children have children, and he claims his family now numbers around 50 people including, "in-laws and out-laws."  When we met, Paul was in the process of getting his daily exercise.  He planned to spend the rest of the day with his family.

Paul currently lives down the road from the Walmart in what I suspect is a retirement home.  As there are no sidewalks, Paul is accustomed to walking in the street to make his daily walk to the local Walmart.  Most of the time he walks the whole way without resting.  Today, he admitted, he took a break for a couple minutes somewhere in between.

As we headed out of town I snapped the picture above.  This is not Paul, and I suspect that  it is not unusual to see two elderly people in the road in the span of 20 minutes.  Notice that there aren't any sidewalks or shoulders on this road, and that is pretty much how the roads are set up in Southern Missouri.

Complete Streets is a transportation policy and design approach that requires streets to be planned, designed, operated, and maintained to enable safe, convenient and comfortable travel and access for users of all ages and abilities regardless of their mode of transportation. Complete Streets allow for safe travel by those walking, bicycling, driving automobiles, riding public transportation, or delivering goods.   Many communities, such as Nixa, have been designed to facilitate easy and fast access to destinations via automobile. In rural and suburban communities, people often rely on the automobile as their sole means of transportation.  In such communities, automobiles are the central focus of transportation, infrastructure and land use policies to the extent that other modes of transportation, such as walking, cycling and mass transit, are viewed as impractical.

If all we do is focus on transportation by automobile we neglect a piece of the population who cannot drive for one reason or another.  Pedestrians in Nixa walk in the street or in the ditch.  If we're lucky, all of us will be so fortunate as to live as long as Paul and the man in the hat.  Once we reach that age, if we live in a community that has not adopted a complete streets policy we will be forced into local transportation under unsafe conditions, or depend on others to provide for our auto transportation needs.  I, for one, am way too independent for that.

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