Forest Drive/Eastport study offers hope for better walkability

Appearing in The Capital, March 9, 2019

The Forest Drive/Eastport Sector Study takes a small step in the right direction towards a more satisfying future. It is not a plan but it is a hope, a strategic hope. And one must hope and envision in order to get anywhere.

We need to accept the study and keep going.

The Sector Study does accomplish, among other useful things, a vision. It does this by taking what might seem a radical perspective, and that is the perspective of a person walking from one place to another. Why is this important?

Virtually every trip begins with pedestrian infrastructure, whether you are walking or using a wheelchair. People like to walk and ride bikes. You can see this in small and large cities around the country including the older neighborhoods right here in Annapolis.

There are several main factors that affect walkability: efficiency, interest and comfort. Trips have to be close, the path has to be interesting, and people need to feel safe and comfortable. People will typically walk a quarter to a half mile such as around downtown, West Street, Eastport, and West Annapolis because it’s pleasant, interesting and often easier than driving. Biking for transportation is pretty much the same except the distances you can cover are about five times longer, up to two miles for the average person.

But if the trip is interrupted by unsafe or uncomfortable spots with no easy alternatives, walking ceases to be an option.

Unfortunately, this is the situation along the Forest Drive corridor, a typical autocentric pattern where businesses are separated by long distances and the only connection between them is on a sidewalk six inches from 50mph traffic. This environment is hostile outside of a car, so everyone drives even if going between two neighboring businesses.

Furthermore, as we’ve seen areas where we attempt to mix fast traffic and commercial activity, the combination ultimately devalues the land resulting in ugly strip malls.

The area is this way because we’ve made it this way based on the zoning and autocentric requirements we’ve had in place for a long time. Band-Aid solutions such as adding a sidewalk or a multiuse path to the side of Forest Drive are not reasonable as they don’t fundamentally address the conditions that enable people to want to walk or bike.

The vision outlined in the sector study is the first step in addressing these problems. It suggests changing the existing character of specific areas to be more people oriented by having a pattern that is mixed-use and human-scaled, which is shorthand for “things are not far apart and it’s pleasant and efficient to get around outside of a car.”

If we have places like that, we have a real chance to move between them without requiring a car trip. It could be walking or biking or even some kind of specialized transit, like entrepreneurial, privately owned shuttles.

Of course, the area will still accommodate cars for people who need to drive and we will always have significant traffic on Forest Drive given it’s the only major road and the number of people who commute in and out of the city.

But walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods that are efficiently and pleasantly connected with the rest of the city will cut down on local car trips and provide options for people who don’t drive.

As mentioned in the study, under current law there is significant capacity for development now. Stopping the study does not stop development, it just gets us more of the same, which is clearly not working. A popular opinion I’ve heard at public meetings is we have to fix all the infrastructure before we do anything else.

That view assumes the status quo, doubling down on an untenable path. At the very least, the vision of the study moves in a direction away from the autocentric policies of the past.

Alex Pline is a member of the Annapolis Planning Commission. This editorial is his opinion and does not represent the opinion of the Commission.

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