Sunday, April 15, 2007

Germantown Is Pretty Smart, After All

I’m walking across Poplar Avenue thinking about Mary Cashiola.

In itself, that probably doesn’t make me particularly unique. But it’s the day after her must-read column in the Memphis Flyer, In The Bluff, dealt with Germantown’s smart growth program.

So, here I am thinking about Ms. Cashiola, because I’m walking across Poplar Avenue at Germantown Road, one of those super-wide suburban streets that she says she won’t drive down, much less walk across.

Asphalt As King

But I’m doing just that, wondering with each step when the tragic decision was made that traffic engineers would become chief urban designers for our city and county, contributing roadways that carve our community into dysfunctioning, disconnected sections and that create barriers rather than bonds between all of us.

More precisely, Ms. Cashiola referred to Germantown Parkway as one of these kinds of highways in her column about Germantown. But while I curse the overly wide road I’m walking across, I’m also thinking that Germantown actually gets more right than wrong.

In truth, the highway I’m crossing and Germantown Parkway are not of Germantown’s making. Rather, they were designed by Tennessee Department of Transportation, that bastion of the state’s most powerful special interest – roadbuilders. In the industry’s worldview, there’s never a road design that couldn’t be made better by two more lanes of asphalt.

Pocket Liners

In its infinite devotion to roadbuilders, state traffic engineers have insisted on the devastating designs that sacrifice the quality of our state’s communities in exchange for car-centric highway designs that line the pockets of the political powers who control it.

To its credit, Germantown’s engineers show more sensitivity. Amazingly, Germantown Road, entering the city limits from the south, is still two lanes. The one constant in the city is that the straightest line between two points is never a straight road, and it’s impossible to speed from one side of town to another because roads are not designed for speeds higher than those posted (a common philosophy in roads designed by city and county governments).

In other words, the intuitive message sent to drivers in Germantown is that they should slow down and smell the roses. As numerous studies point out, the overly wide highways popularized by traffic engineers tell motorists to ignore the speed limit, because the road is designed for higher speeds.

Ribbing And Results

While Germantown takes its share of ribbing, both good-natured and not, it’s really hard to demean its public attention to design, ambiance and community.
And don’t make the mistake of thinking that the tongue-in-cheek news reports reflect any serious opposition by Germantown residents to city policies that keep the city off-limits to billboards, restrict sign dimensions and heights, encourage landscaped boulevards and discourage drivers speeding through neighborhoods.

Much of this can be credited to Germantown Mayor Sharon Goldsworthy, who has brought a steady hand and concern for the future to City Hall. Best of all, she resists the temptation to take anti-Memphis positions for her own political benefits or to respond in kind to the periodic outbursts of anti-suburban rhetoric from her Memphis counterpart.

Instead, she speaks convincingly of the inextricable ties – economic and historical - between Germantown and the major city whose orbit dominates its own. There are many public positions taken by Germantown with which we disagree, but at least they have none of the “we versus they” rhetoric often found in Memphis City Hall.


Unlike many suburbs of similar size and with similar commuter predilections, decisions in Germantown are much less likely to pivot on cars than those made in Memphis and Shelby County Governments – not to mention Collierville and Bartlett.

Germantown’s new Smart Growth Plan appears to be built loosely on the now generally accepted principles of New Urbanists. In fact, conventional wisdom to the contrary, Germantown’s population density per square mile is only nine percent less than Memphis itself. In fact, Germantown’s population density is almost twice Collierville’s to the east and Shelby County’s.

Of course, the real difference between Memphis and Germantown is in the density of housing units. Memphis’ density is 20 percent greater than the suburban city, but then again, Memphis’ percentage of unoccupied housing is about three times larger than Germantown’s.

Smart Cities

At any rate, suffice it to say, any city that develops smart growth policies is a smart city, and it’s an approach that could well serve as an example to Memphis and Shelby County where talk about smart growth far exceeds action on smart growth.

Back to Ms. Cashiola, as usual, she points her pen at an important issue in this community, and if you’re interested in the implications of public policies here, you have to read her column each week. Even a reference to the “downtown Memphis renaissance” can’t deter us from hanging on her every word.


autoegocrat said...

I'm not quite enlightened enough to appreciate a road that unites rather than divides, but I will give a hearty three cheers for a road that will simply get me from one place to another in a timely fashion.

If the highway designs around here were actually car-centric it wouldn't be so bad. Based on my own personal driving experience, I just assumed that traffic engineers were deliberately trying to cause the maximum amount of suffering and chaos on the roads, particularly on I-240.

Look at the bright side, Smart City. At least the snarled-up traffic jams surrounding Walnut Grove give motorists a chance to enjoy each other's company, sometimes in unexpectedly intimate ways.

Germantown is even smarter than you say they are. Thanks to their ban on billboard advertising, Germantown will never have to suffer fools like William Tanner or Joe Cooper. Who would have ever thought that government corruption could be squashed dead by a beautification ordinance?

Smart City Consulting said...

Roads that divide are those seven-lane monstrosities regularly built in this area. They not only become obstacles to knitting a neighborhood together - think Winchester compared to any of the Parkways - because of their width, but they are a shot to the heart of walkable communities and essentially become dividing lines that separate us. And by designing them to carry traffic at speeds much greater than the speed limit, they are by their very nature a contradiction in terms.

And what happens too is that the engineers design every road capacity for the two hours a day when it's crowded. Once the Kirby-Whitten Road through Shelby Farms Park is resolved, just watch for the city traffic engineer to begin fulminating about the need for Walnut Grove to be widened by at least two more lanes.

Anonymous said...

As someone who lives in Germantown, has dealt with Mayor Goldsworthy, I agree with your assessment. I would add, however, that Germantown needs a serious infusion of "third places," good non-chain restaurants, clubs with quality live music, and more sidewalks and walking trails. However, Germantown gets most things right.

Justin W. McGregor said...

I was having an off-line conversation with Gates of Memphis this morning and was struck by the thought that a nice vision for roads such as Germantown Parkway, Poplar, and Union would be to develop them into something more like Canal or St Charles in New Orleans.

The nice part about both of those (though particularly St Charles) is that even though the end development comes out to less lanes, it retains a very drivable open boulevard feel but still the neutral ground in between is very pedestrian friendly for folks making the cross. As a rule traffic distribution on both tends to be more even and the speed at which the cars travel is infinitely more sane than what we get now (as you well noted).

And of course down the center of both: public mass transit.

Even in the height of Mardi Gras traffic, the 5 mile stretch of St. Charles from Carrollton into downtown only took me about 20 minutes. I'd be lucky to do the equivalent distance anywhere on the stretch of Poplar from Midtown to Germantown (or, God forbid, Germantown Parkway from Bartlett to Germantown) in any given rush hour, much less peak holiday traffic.

Also as a side note, interesting that Anon should bring up walking trails in Germantown. I was Geocaching there a few weeks ago and was surprised to learn how many nice trails are there... not that Germantown (and every place else) couldn't use more :-)

Anonymous said...

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