Adapting to myths vs confronting themEvery Tuesday, the Glens Falls (NY) daily Post-Star runs a feature called P.S. In it, journalists publish brief (1-3 sentence) observations, quips and stories from their rounds.
Today's edition mentioned an anecdote from Glens Falls PR maestro and General Electric mouthpiece Mark Behan. In doing research for his work, he came across excerpts from a 1950 mayoral campaign speech. The candidate in question noted downtown parking as the top issue he'd tackle if elected; he was. Yet, alleged lack of parking remains a perceived problem downtown.
As many of you know, transportation is one of my major concerns. Since I choose not to own a car or to drive, I face a very difficult task navigating city streets where non-cars are a peripheral concern at best. I was reminded of these issues today by the appearence at the Rock Hill Bakehouse Cafe by writer and critic of suburbia James Howard Kunstler. (I'll have more on him and his speech in a future entry)
For decades, people have argued that Glens Falls would die if it didn't cater exclusively to the automobile. Some power brokers are even pushing the abominable plan for building a hideous parking garage.
Much of the opposition to the long-overdue Crandall Library expansion was based on the myth that there's not enough parking (even though Library officials can't control parking). In reality, there's plenty of parking about 100 yards from the building in a bank parking lot.
The fundamental problem in Glens Falls is not a lack of parking downtown. The fundamental problem is the refusal or inability of citizens to walk more than 10 feet to a shop -- unless they're at a suburban mall where they have no problem walking 100 yards to the entrance and then walking around the inside of the mall for hours on end. But given the question of pedestrian safety in downtown Glens Falls, perhaps I can't blame them!
Some say that this is the unchangeable reality, that we need to accept the myth and adapt to it. Some say we ought to subsidize this civic self-destructiveness with millions of our tax dollars to build a parking garage. Some say that pedestrians are a quaint relic from a bygone era; the law says we can't run them over but that's about the only concession some would make.
Yet this boondoggle will not revive downtown for one simple reason: the instant you leave your car, you become that quaint relic from a bygone era. The instant you leave your car, you become a pedestrian.
We shouldn't adapt to myths, especially self-destructive ones. We shouldn't spend huge sums of money catering to people's false perceptions; we ought to work to change the false perceptions.
The bottom line is that it's difficult, sometimes insanely so, for pedestrians to cross the street in downtown Glens Falls. This is true whether you initially arrived via auto, foot, bicycle or bus. Once you leave your car, bike or the bus, you face the same challenges as the person who walked downtown. Wasting millions of dollars on a parking garage will not change this fundamental dynamic. It's simply rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic (while adding huge weight to the Titanic's deck in the name of municipal debt bonds).
The city of Glens Falls has many wonderful civic and cultural institutions. The Hyde Collection. The Civic Center. Crandall Library. The Chapman Museum. But in order to get from any one to any other, you have to cross the street. Wasting millions of dollars on a parking garage will not change this fundamental dynamic.
Replacing the stoplights at the five-way intersection with a roundabout will only make crossing the street on foot even more suicidal. I have to time my run perfectly and sprint across the way, and I'm a 30 year old man in decent shape. I can't imagine how hard it is for senior citizens to do it. No sane parent would let their kids try it alone.
City leaders are so concerned about people being able to get THROUGH Glens Falls quickly and smoothly. Shouldn't they want people to STOP in Glens Falls, walk around, experience our wonderful town and spend money? The city can't properly be enjoyed from a car window.
What can be done?
We can start by not making things worse. Don't build a pedestrian-hostile roundabout. Don't waste millions of dollars on a parking garage that can't hope to make any significant contribution.
Take some of the money saved and install crosswalk signals that actually work. This also requires all stoplights at an intersection to be red for a brief period of time.
How about a civic campaign to encourage people to walk or bike when they go downtown? Surely downtown businesses could be involved.
How about taking some of the savings from not building a parking garage and investing in a few bike racks? Crandall Library has the only real bike rack in downtown Glens Falls (there is a tiny, insignificant one hidden near the bus stop). Neither City Hall nor the Civic Center, two of our most significant downtown institutions, has a bike rack.
I don't propose banning cars from downtown. I don't propose eliminating all parking either. I don't even ask that non-automobile transportation be put on an equal footing with cars, which would be a behemoth change.
The increasing pandering to automobile traffic (along with the general industrial decline of the northeast) has coincided with the economic decline of downtown Glens Falls. We've changed our cities to cater almost exclusively to cars. It hasn't worked. So let's try something else.
All I ask is that bikers, walkers and those who use the modest public transportation system be given minimal consideration. Bikers, walkers and those who use public transportation are taxpayers too. And what's more: they're consumers as well.
Shameless pitch: Esmond Lyons is the only current mayoral candidate who has shown the slightest inclination not only to address these issues, but even acknowledge that these issues exist. I'd encourage you to check out his campaign's website at: EsmondLyonsForMayor.org for more information on his ideas.