Sunday, July 20, 2014

Waking Up From The American Dream - Suburbanization, Public Transit, and Racial Segregation

Here at Carless In OKC, it's probably fairly obvious that we are not fans of suburban sprawl. The suburbs themselves are not inherently harmful or offensive; it's what they represent, the circumstances from which they grow and thrive, that are problematic. The history of U.S. suburbs is quite insidious, and it's good for everyone to know why they developed in the first place. Other factors contributed to suburbanization, such as the rise of the automobile, the post-WW2 economic boom, and the growth of the U.S. interstate highway system, but it is undeniable that racism and classism played a considerable role in how our current urban/suburban model of living has developed. 

You've probably heard the term white flight before, but in case you're unfamiliar with it, I'll define it here. White flight is a term that is used to describe the vast migration of mostly middle- and upper-class whites from increasingly racially mixed urban regions to racially homogeneous suburban areas. The term "white flight" is somewhat of a misnomer because it implies that whites left the area immediately upon the arrival of minorities into their neighborhoods, but that's not exactly how it went. Yes, there were some who packed up and got out of Dodge the moment they saw (or thought they saw) a non-white person move in on their street, but there were many more who stayed, at least for awhile, and defended "their turf" using various unsavory and unethical methods.



Over the following years during this post-WW2 period there were many practices and institutions in place that served the purpose of preserving the homogeneity of the white urban neighborhoods. Redlining, named for the lines on a map that denoted unfavorable (read: predominantly non-white) areas, involved denying or charging more for services like banking and insurance for residents or businesses within those areas. Institutionalized mortgage discrimination enabled its sinister companion, contract sellers, who preyed on would-be black homeowners by collecting payments on a home and not relinquishing the deed until the contract was paid in full. This effectively stripped the "homeowner" of the ability to build equity while simultaneously saddling him with all the responsibilities of home ownership, along with the looming possibility of being put out on the street in the case of a single late payment.



These practices, along with racially restrictive covenants and violence and intimidation, disenfranchised and discouraged minorities from owning homes or living in certain areas. This cycle went on for at least a couple of decades, most notably in cities like DetroitChicago, and St. Louis, until they fell (or were legally forced) out of practice. The damage, however, had already been done throughout the years of quasi-segregational practices, and when the smoke cleared, by the 1980s, urban and suburban areas were, for the most part, heavily divided along racial lines. (To read more about this time in American history and how it still affects us today, I highly recommend this incredible piece by Ta'Nahisi Coates.)

Since then, there are many metropolitan areas where the public transit situation has deteriorated and consequently reinforced these racial and socioeconomic divisions. In Atlanta, for example, proposed extensions of the local rail system (MARTA) into the surrounding counties have been defeated again and again, despite the fact that Atlanta suffers from notorious traffic congestion and would greatly benefit from expanded public transit for commuters. Why would these municipalities knowingly reject a plan that would relieve one of the biggest problems of the region? Many say - and there's considerable evidence to support this idea - that it's the same old white flight song and dance; namely, that affluent whites who live in the suburban counties don't want to extend public transit to their areas for fear of poor minorities from the inner city gaining access to their precious exclusive neighborhoods. Fearmongering around this idea is widespread; for years, opponents of public transit have spread lies about increased crime and decreased property values that are sure to follow the expansion of service into the Metro Atlanta suburbs, and unfortunately, many have bought into these lies.



Furthermore, a stigma has grown around public transit in many cities, not just the ones with firmly defined urban/suburban racial and socioeconomic regions. Public transit such as commuter rails and buses were once viable transportation options for everyone, but as negative ideas about public transit have spread in some areas, ridership has decreased among those who have the choice to drive. As a result, those left on the buses and trains are the groups who don't have the choice. As this ridership demographic shifts, so does the opinion of what it means to take public transit. This is why, in certain cities, those who utilize public transit are pitied or labeled as less fortunate, regardless of their actual circumstances, and this discourages many people from taking public transportation. Using public transit has become a stigmatized activity in places like Oklahoma City, and as long as this is the case, problems with racial diversity and transportation will, at best, remain stagnant, if not worsen. 
I am not trying to say that everyone who lives in the suburbs is racist, just like pointing out that white people benefit from privilege and institutionalized racism isn't the same thing as saying that every white person is a racist. This is a commentary on the societal systems that have been in place for many years and how they have informed our current state. The way to move forward is to raise awareness and to be open to ways that we can mitigate these conditions for the betterment of everyone's way of life. The first step, to me, is to approach city planning with an open mind - as far as I'm concerned, that's an entirely reasonable order, with the potential for revolutionary effects.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

The Sincerest Form Of Flattery - Lessons Learned In Portland, Oregon

In our last post, we talked about our fabulous vacation to Portland (and Bend) Oregon, and what we experienced while using the superb array of transportation options there. Here, I'd like to cover what we saw as takeaways from those experiences - the lessons that we think would be helpful here in OKC as we expand our alternative transportation infrastructure.


1. One little tidbit we picked up in Portland is streetcar sponsorships. The Embark buses obviously already sell print advertisements and bus wraps on the outside, which brings in revenue, but the Portland Streetcar went a step further: the "voice" that announces stops inside the vehicle would add, "The Portland Streetcar: Brought to you by (insert company name here)." I'm sure a local company would love to pay to get that exposure, maybe even enough to help close the funding gap that's keeping Embark from providing evening and Sunday service on all routes. Just a thought.
The MAX pulling up to Pioneer Courthouse Square
2. The pedestrian infrastructure in Portland is extremely conducive to walking as a way of getting around. There are sidewalks and crosswalks everywhere, along with automatic walk signals. How does this differ from normal walk signals? Automatic signals don't have a button that has to be pushed to activate the signal; when the traffic light turns green, the pedestrian signals in that direction immediately switch to "walk." It's important psychologically to not have to "ask permission" to cross at an intersection as a pedestrian. This simple change makes a pedestrian feel welcome and included, rather than alienated. I can't tell you how many times John and I have come up to an intersection in OKC just as the light changed, but because we pushed the crossing button at just that moment, we didn't get the walk signal. It's frustrating and demoralizing; and worse of all, since we usually just go ahead and cross (after checking to see if cars are turning across the crosswalk), if we happened to be struck by a car, we would bear the liability because the walk signal wasn't on. We shouldn't have to wait through an entire traffic light cycle just because we arrived a second too late to hit the button, and we should also have some legal protection if we get hit by a car when lawfully and reasonably crossing the street at a crosswalk. 

Another great feature of Portland pedestrian crossings: the "walk" signal stays on - not blinking, but steady - for a LONG time. There's none of this getting the "walk" signal for 5 seconds (not even enough time to cross the road in most places), then blinking "don't walk" for 10 seconds. Again, this is another subtle difference that makes a pedestrian feel welcome and protected.

Walking across the Burnside Bridge - note the car lanes, sidewalks, AND bike lanes.
Sunset view from the streetcar - yet another way to get around in Portland.
3. Similarly, the bike infrastructure in Portland is supportive of cyclists. To some extent, it's as simple as having lots of bike racks available all over the city. We also found that bike lanes are nearly universal; if there is a main road, there's a bike lane on it, period. Even when we headed out of town on our way to Bend, we were still seeing bike lanes at around 200th Street and beyond. This was an area that you could barely call the city anymore, bordering on woodsy. And better yet, people were still USING the bike lanes at that point. With bike and pedestrian infrastructure, there really is a level of "if you build it, they will come" that plays into it. From a public health standpoint, this is a no-brainer: want a healthier, more fit population? Provide your citizens with ways to walk, cycle, and move more, and they will use it; everybody wins.


Part of the Riverfront Bike Trail

View from the Riverfront Bike Trail
4. In that same vein, another big asset in Portland is the connectivity of public transit to hiking and biking trails, and how this plays into the overall connectivity of the city. As I said in our last post, we were able to take a bus out to a wilderness hiking trail and then hike in the forest for 7.2 miles. At multiple points during our hike, we could have hopped onto a bus (there were bus stops out there) and gone home, and when we reached the end of the trail, we were able to get on the MAX light rail train and head back into downtown Portland. Between the extensive bike lanes, the various bus and MAX routes, and the many miles of hiking trails, we could conceivably walk, bike, and hike all over the city, anywhere we choose. This is helpful to John and me as people who choose not to own a car, but it's also a great option for anyone who wants to get out and move more rather than driving. OKC is already working on extending and improving bike trail connectivity, and I'm here to say that we need to keep doing exactly that! I've seen the future and it's totally worth it.

Finished hiking? Just catch a bus back home!

Finished hiking? You also have the option of taking the MAX light rail.

The Washington Park underground MAX light rail station at the end of our hike through Forest Park.
The point here isn't to dump on OKC. Portland has its own issues, like the skyrocketing homeless population (to be fair, however, this is not because Portland repeatedly fails its most vulnerable citizens; the situation is quite the opposite. And while we enjoyed our riverfront bike ride on Thursday morning, John and I both had to admit that we definitely prefer the river trails in Oklahoma City - they're much easier to navigate. The reason we're talking about this is because evidence shows an upward trend of young people moving into walkable cities, and if Oklahoma City wants to continue to attract that demographic, it will have to keep making changes that align with that culture. So far, OKC has been doing many things right, but there's still a lot of potential for improvement. I've seen a great deal of community pride and excitement since moving to OKC, so I have faith that the city can continue to grow in a way that will make us the kind of place that other cities aspire to be be like.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

The Paseo District and First Friday - Carless Rating #9

Borrowed from VisitOKC website -- The Paseo District is Oklahoma City's local art district

Let's do a carless rating! But first, some thoughts on art and what it means to a city...

Creative types get a lot of flak in modern society, being seen as flighty, lazy, and self-absorbed; artists for artists' sake. But this viewpoint is poison. We're all artists; if we want to be.

Something that strikes me about the concept of art is its inherent uselessness. Sure, there's interactive art, but I think the real beauty of art lies in the fact that it requires concerted effort towards the creation of something that does very little more than exist. Objects in space that interact with the people who find themselves in their presence. And every piece of art, means a great deal to someone. We see ourselves in art -- the celebrated, and the forgotten, the realism and impressionism. Pieces of art are collections of the interior beings that created them, put on display for all the interested people.

                                           "Yes, I like this piece.. the colors, the brush strokes, the joining members..."

            "Look how the artist chose to mix media."
   
                               "It's as if the subject is breaking out of the frame, transcending worlds."

These matters of opinion let us into the mind of someone else for a moment. They're exposed. The psychology of association allows us to draw conclusions about another person's life, while we compare it to our own experiences.

A painter was painting this fantastic portrait during the First Friday event!

And can a city really be a city without local artists? Sure. But without culture, a city is just a machine. A robot. There are signs of humanity, but any emotional expression is superseded by the whirring of turbines, the clanking of steel, and the repetitious banging of hammers. 

That's why the Paseo District is important to Oklahoma City. 

We visited the Paseo District on a recent First Friday. Whether you like the art or not (and I do like some of it, but also feel there is waaay too much pseudo-Impressionist work -- making it feel like people acting like artists rather than artists contributing their insight to the culture sorry for being blunt!) there is an frenetic energy during First Friday that swirls through the air whispering in your ear how desperately Oklahoma City wants to express itself. Musicians occupy any gap in the sidewalk they can nest in, while their melodies overlap with their adjacent neighbors, creating a symphony of earnest creation.

This image is borrowed from our friends over at Downtown on the Range. It really captures the energy of First Friday.

So, in principle, First Friday is fantastic. In practice... it's still pretty great, but some things are amiss. Half of the so-called galleries are actually women's retail outlets that pass for galleries because they have aquamarine-colored stones in their necklaces (again, sorry for being so blunt!). I don't have a problem with these types of establishments, and First Friday is a great way to increase their visibility (thereby strengthening a very localized economy), but I can’t help but feel that it cuts the art walk in half (especially for men).

Regardless, I enjoy the galleries that do feature work from different artists. It seems that Paseo is halfway between being a retail district and an arts district, without completely being either one. There are shops with paintings and sculpture for sale, a pottery studio, and plenty of shops that sell odds and ends.

Yummy pizza and beer at Sauced.

As far as food goes, this is where Paseo impresses me the most. I've only eaten at Sauced and Picasso, but I've been very happy with the quality of food, service, and atmosphere. The price isn't half bad, either. SOS Bar is a great place to grab a beer and hang out, and is especially busy during First Friday.

This is us and our friend enjoying beers from SOS in the same area that patrons of Sauced eat dinner.

Alright, so now let’s move on to the carless rating:

We're going to change a section in this carless review to evaluate the walkable infrastructure located within Paseo (or any district from here on out). The letter values will still be A = 5, B = 4, C = 3, D = 2, and F = 1. There will be five categories: Distance from home, Infrastructure between home and the location, infrastructure within the location, atmosphere, and land use choices.

Aerial view of the Paseo District on a sleepier day.

Distance
Paseo is a 2-mile journey from our building. By foot it'll take a little more than a half hour, but by bike (our new favorite mode of travel to Paseo) we get there in around 15 minutes. This scores a C on our scale.

Infrastructure between Home and Destination
Getting to Paseo, we travel north on Hudson into Heritage Hills, then cut westward to Walker and go north across 23rd and up to around 28th Street. There are sidewalks the entire way (though they are not very accessible between 23rd and 28th), and there are bike sharrows the full way (though these are not a very powerful form of bike infrastructure). Unfortunately, bus line number four no longer comes by Paseo as it was removed from service with the recent changes made to the Embark (formerly Metro Transit) system. The closest route now is on Classen, a 7-block walk from the Paseo District. I'd give the sidewalks a B, the bike infrastructure a C, and the transit infrastructure a D. Giving an average of score of C for infrastructure between home and the Paseo District.

Infrastructure within the Destination
Sidewalks line the streets of the Paseo District, but there is surprisingly only one crosswalk along 30th Street.. There are no bike lanes and only one bike rack at a private business. Parking is limited to mainly on-street parking. It doesn’t seem like much thought has been given to making the area accessible to the surrounding areas, and would be low-hanging fruit to really improve the district. For Oklahoma City, this area scores a C, but in many cities Paseo would be a good example of bad walkability.

Land-Use Choices
As I’ve stated, Paseo is somewhere between a retail district and an arts district, being home to dozens of small locally-owned shops, all with unique qualities. There are restaurants, a bar, and even a convenient store. There are multi-family residences and single-family residences all around the district, and common areas for people to gather. Paseo is a good example of the benefits that a diverse land-use mix can have on an area (property values have increased steadily since the district has regained strength in recent years.) I’ll give Paseo District an A in this category.

Atmosphere
Paseo teems with energy when events occur, and is somewhat sleepy at other times. It can be busy and crowded, or virtually abandoned. I’d recommend visiting at times of each, because the character differs in mostly pleasant ways. I really enjoy walking from store to store, quelling my curiosity around each corner. Musicians, painters, sculptors, restaurant owners, and residents all value the space and keep it a positive (wink wink) Paseo. I’ll give Paseo an A here as well.

So that is three C’s and two A’s, giving a final score of 19 out of a possible 25. We'll be recapping the first 10 carless ratings in an upcoming post to compare the different locations. 

Paseo is a great asset to the Oklahoma City community, and it would benefit greatly from efforts to better integrate it into the city’s transportation networks. I’d like to see a portion of Paseo permanently closed to car traffic to serve as a pedestrian mall, but a good first step would be to add crosswalks, bike lanes, and bike racks.

What do you think would improve the Paseo District? What do you love about the Paseo District?


Thanks for reading!

Thursday, June 26, 2014

No Car? No Problem! - Our Trip to Portland, Oregon

Hello everyone! We are back from Oregon and feeling - well, pretty tired, to be honest, but that's because we had a fantastic time on our vacation. The first few days of our trip were spent in Portland, and it's true what they say - the dream of the 90s is alive and well there. When you're in Portland, the prevailing attitude is No car? No problem! Needless to say, we fit right in, and our decision to forego a rental car while we were in the city was a smart one. (We did drive a rental car when we left Portland to drive to Bend for the wedding weekend. It's also worth noting that we took Uber to and from the Will Rogers Airport on each end of our journey, which was easy, efficient, and cost-effective as always.)

Portland International Rose Test Garden
Once we arrived at PDX, we were immediately taken care of transportation-wise. The MAX, which is Portland's light rail system, leaves directly from the airport, so we were able to hop right on with our luggage to head to our hotel. Before we got to the MAX, however, we passed a group of several FULL bike racks, as well as a "bike assembly area", which must be a place where you can make adjustments and repairs to your bicycle before or after riding. It seemed to us like the airport employees overwhelmingly took advantage of the opportunity to cycle to work, which makes sense in a place where it's made so easy to do so. As we rode away from the airport on the MAX, we could see many paved trails available for cyclists in addition to the bike lanes on the roads.

That's a lotta bikes outside the airport.

Bike assembly area
That's what I'm talking about! The bike assembly area.
As we approached our MAX stop, the light rain progressively worsened, and by the time we stepped off with all of our luggage, we were assaulted by a full-on downpour, complete with hail. Our umbrellas provided pitifully little shelter for us and our huge suitcases, and our feeling of unpreparedness was compounded by the fact that everyone around us seemed blissfully impervious to the rain. The citizens of Portland were splashing around in sandals without umbrellas or waterproof jackets, riding bikes and going about their activities while we dragged our sopping luggage behind us and tried desperately to figure out which way we were headed, blinded not just by the rain but also by our sense of disorientation in a new city. Luckily, the torrent let up a bit once we were under our bus stop shelter, and we were able to hop on our bus with ease.

Once we got to our hotel and unloaded our belongings, we headed back out to explore the city. We were struck immediately by two things: first of all, we were shocked at how many dang cyclists there were. People were biking everywhere! At any one moment, we could look around and see at least 3 or 4 people on their bikes nearby, and it was clear that the vast majority of them were commuters - as in, not pros wearing kits and training, just regular people toting backpacks and traveling from place to place running errands. Bike racks were located *everywhere* and I rarely saw an empty one.

WAIT HERE, CAR. Bike lanes at intersections in Portland.
Secondly, we found out that being a pedestrian in Portland is the easiest thing in the world. There are sidewalks, crosswalks, and crossing signals everywhere, and furthermore, most of the crossing signals are automatic - as in, you don't have to press a button when you get to the crosswalk. The signals switch with the traffic lights. If there's a green light in the direction you're going, then the walk sign is on, period. Furthermore, drivers take pedestrian (and bike) right-of-way very seriously. Cars never creep into the crosswalk, and they always allow pedestrians to cross without trying to beat them or cut them off. Even when a sidewalk crosses a driveway, cars leaving the parking lot are very patient to let oncoming walkers cross before proceeding. This attitude is, to say the very least, refreshing. Being a pedestrian among a culture that accepts you wholeheartedly has interesting psychological effects; namely, it made us want to be better pedestrians. We never jaywalked or took any other kind of shortcuts; we always waited patiently for our signal, because we always knew the signal was coming, and that the surrounding cars would let us take our turn to cross. It was a surreal experience for us.

John on our riverfront bike ride.
The next couple of days were spent in much the same manner, but we did cross the river to spend more time downtown. The same alternative transportation infrastructure applied to the bridges across the river; we didn't experience a single bridge that was built only for cars. They all featured bike lanes and sidewalks, period. We meandered and eventually made our way to Washington Park, a huge, lush park that's home to the Portland International Rose Test Garden and the Portland Japanese Garden. Both of these attractions are beautiful, but we would particularly recommend the former, where hundreds of varieties of roses are grown in pretty structured gardens, and you can see it all for free.

Pioneer Square - an amazing public space. Note the MAX in the background.
We also got the opportunity to take a 7+ mile hike in Forest Park, which is an incredible wilderness experience considering that it's still an actual part of the city. Our path crossed the road a few times, and about half of those times, there was a bus stop located right off the path. You can literally take a bus to the middle of a hike in the woods in Portland. Furthermore, once we reached the end of our hiking trail, we were able to hop directly onto the MAX and take it right back into downtown. Being able to do this was an unparalleled luxury for the two of us.

Need to take a bus to the middle of the woods? Go right ahead!

Sequoias in Forest Park... IN Portland.
In Portland, we were constantly surrounded by alternative forms of transportation. Yes, there were plenty of cars and traffic, but there were ALSO many other options, and at times, we could look around to see the MAX, the streetcar, and several buses, as well as many people walking and cycling. The buses run out to the suburbs and multiple lines run every 15 minutes in those areas. Public transit is truly a viable option in Portland, and because of the positive culture surrounding it, people of every age, gender, race, and socioeconomic class make use of the many forms of transportation. What's happening in Portland is what I imagine to be close to the ideal of urban transportation, and I believe that Oklahoma City could take several lessons from them in order to develop into a world-class city of the future.

Stay tuned for our next post, a summary of what we see as the takeaways of our trip - the lessons that OKC could take from Portland to build a more pedestrian-friendly city with greater transportation options.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Carless and Loving It - Reflections on the First Six Months

Hello dear readers! I realized this morning that we've been writing this blog for a little over six months already! I realize that this is the most cliche thing I could possibly say, but it really seems like just yesterday that we were sitting in McNellie's Pub, googling "hobbies for couples", and deciding to start a blog together. Yes, that's really how all of this started - the blog part, anyway. We've been without a car in OKC for about nine months now, and while this started as a great experiment, living without a car is now a seamless and inextricable part of our lives. I wanted to take a moment to reflect on some of the things we've done and learned in the first six(-ish) months of writing this blog.
Hanging out at our beloved Elemental Coffee.
1. Haters gonna hate. - "Hate" might be a strong word for it, but I can assure you that some people will never be convinced that living without a car isn't crazy. It doesn't matter how much you explain the health benefits, the environmental benefits, or the financial benefits, there are many people for whom the idea of living without a car seems truly impossible. It's incredible how many people will straight-up tell us that living without a car simply can't be done here in Oklahoma City, despite the fact that we're living proof that you can not only live, but thrive, car-free in OKC. That said...
John + bike at the Skydance Bridge.
2. OKC is an incredibly supportive community. - Since we've started Carless In OKC, we've received so much positive feedback regarding what we're doing here. From our radio interview on KOSU to our appearance on the Fox 25 local news, to our win for Best Green Blog in Green Oklahoma's Best of 2014 Reader's Choice Awards (which YOU won for us with your votes!), there's been no shortage of interest from OKC citizens. We discovered Timecar, which has become a valuable resource for us, because Benny Jacobs, their founder, heard about our blog and reached out to us. We've also met quite a few friends as a direct result of the blog, which is definitely helpful for us socially, considering that we moved here in September and didn't know anyone.
Enjoying The Loaded Bowl during H&8th the first weekend that we lived here.
3. Where there's a will, there's a way. - 99% of the time, we can get where we need to go and do the things we need to do with no problem whatsoever. There are other times when circumstances call for us to get a little more creative. In those instances, we implement the "patchwork" method of transportation, in which we'll utilize a combination of walking, cycling, riding the bus, taking a taxi or Uber, and/or renting a Timecar to achieve a certain errand. It takes some finesse, but it gives us a chance to flex our creative problem-solving muscles, and it transforms a typical weekend errand into an adventure that we can undertake together. 
John during one of our "patchwork" trips.
4. Being carless brings us closer together. - Not to get all sappy on you, but I firmly believe that living without a car has made us a stronger couple. The fact that we spend time on foot and biking together gives us a lot of extra time to talk and enjoy our surroundings as well as each other's company. Our experiences walking and cycling together stand in stark contrast against the times we've spent in the car, which are usually stressful because of traffic and navigating directions; additionally, whomever is driving must concentrate on the road, which creates a disconnect and is not conducive to quality time together. And like I said in #3, our otherwise-mundane travels sometimes turn into interesting journeys that we must figure out - facing that low-level adversity as a team strengthens our bond.
Ready for a carless Valentine's Day date at Packard's.
5. OKC is a city on the verge. - We knew there was something special about Oklahoma City from the first night we spent here when we visited for John's job interview. After an evening spent checking out the city and eating dinner at Redpin by the canal in Bricktown, we were hooked, and knew that we wanted to live here. Once John got the job and we made the move, our already-high expectations were met and exceeded again and again as we settled into our life here. Up-and-coming retail and entertainment districts? Check. Friendly people? Check. Top-tier NBA team? Check. Booming local economy? Check. Delicious food? Big-time check. Even the areas where we could hope for improvement are, for the most part, already being dealt with. Our biggest concern, the necessity for better public transportation and alternative transportation options, is an item that the city government has taken an interest in. The downtown streetcar, the MAPS 3 trails project, and the newly-passed extension of two bus routes (11 and 23) to offer evening service are all steps in the right direction toward a greater array of transportation options. One of our favorite things about OKC is the desire to improve, not just on the part of the citizens but also on the part of the city government. We moved here from a place where the city government seemed to actively try to implode the city at every turn, so it's refreshing to see a new, more positive attitude here. If Oklahoma City continues on its current trajectory, it will truly be a world-class city in the very near future, and we are so excited to be here to be a part of that.
OKC from our window.
Our first dinner & evening out in OKC at Redpin while we were here for John's job interview.
The first six months writing for Carless In OKC, and our first nine months of being carless in OKC, have been more rewarding than I could ever have imagined. What started as an interesting experiment has turned into a way of life for us, and we have no intention of going back to the car lifestyle. We can't thank you, our readers, enough for taking us in as part of your community. Here's to the next six months!

With that, we are off to a week-long vacation in one of the country's foremost walkable cities: Portland, Oregon! (Well, we're spending half the week in Portland and then the weekend in Bend for a friend's wedding.) We will report back soon with our experience of being Carless In Portland! Follow us on Twitter at @CarlessInOKC for pics and updates while we're there!

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

You Versus a Force Of Nature: What To Do If You're Caught Outside During a Tornado

One of the most significant identifying characteristics of Oklahoma City, and the region in general, is the high occurrence of tornadoes in the area. When we found out that we were moving here from Georgia, the first thing out of everyone's mouth, upon hearing the news, had something to do with the dangerous weather. Now, I might just be restating what the locals already know, but as a Georgian who grew up in cushy, more-or-less non-threatening weather conditions, I thought it might be worthwhile to talk briefly about what to do if a tornado hits when you're outside walking or cycling. 

Don't be like this lady - take cover!
First, familiarize yourself with the signs of an imminent tornado. The main things to look and listen for are:

  1. A dark, greenish sky
  2. Large, dark, low-flying, fast-moving clouds 
  3. Large hail
  4. A loud roar that sounds like a freight train.
If you are out walking or cycling and you see or hear one or more of those, you should take cover until you know that the coast is clear.
The best thing to do is take shelter in a nearby building, preferably one with a solid in-ground foundation or basement. Large long-span structures like movie theatres or gymnasiums may be the easiest to get into, but their roofs are only held up by the outside walls and don't have good structural support, which means that they collapse easily - not good news for the people taking shelter inside if a tornado strikes the building. The same goes for large common areas within a building like cafeterias or auditoriums. Once inside, stay away from windows and get to the lowest, innermost level of the building. Don't use the elevator in case the power goes out, leaving you trapped inside. Ideally, you want to be able to get into a doorway or small, windowless interior room like a closet. Crouch down and protect your head and neck.


If you are outside walking when a tornado is coming and you aren't in an area where you can immediately take cover in a building, you need to find the lowest point possible and lie down face-down with your arms protecting the back of your head and neck - the ideal area would be in a ditch or similarly sunken or recessed area of ground. If you have a jacket or backpack, you can use that to cover your head and neck as well. Because tornadoes can pick up trees and other heavy objects which can then harm you if you're in the path where they're flung, you'll want to try to take cover as far away as possible from anything that can be lifted up and thrown. For this reason, I would assume that you wouldn't want to lay your bike on the ground right beside the place where you're lying down - it might be picked up by the tornado and thrown at you. Highway overpasses may seem like a good place to hide, but they're still relatively open and leave you vulnerable to flying debris.

There are also many mobile apps that you can use to receive tornado updates and alerts. Staying informed about the possibility of severe weather is very important, and if you can stay indoors, in a safe place, when the risk of tornadoes is high, that's the best course of action that you can take. Sometimes, however, you have to travel no matter what, leaving you especially vulnerable if you're using alternative forms of transportation, which is why I've covered these bases today. This is all new for me, since the biggest weather risk in most of Georgia is heatstroke from the godforsaken heat and humidity. Thanks for reading, and stay safe!





Thursday, May 15, 2014

Where Do The Children Play? - Gang Violence in OKC

"Cities are never random. No matter how chaotic they might seem, 
everything about them grows out of a need to solve a problem."
 - Neal Shusterman, Downsiders


We normally keep it pretty light-hearted at CarlessInOKC, but today I want to talk about something more serious.

What is the scariest thing about a city? The buildings aren't scary. Streets as a physical construct, aren't scary. Parks aren't scary. Sidewalks aren't scary. What's scary are things that are out of our control: weather, loose animals, and most of all, other people

I recently had the opportunity to work with a school in the northeast of the city, where the group I was with taught 5th graders about walkability. We took them on a walk in the neighborhood around the school and got them to talk about areas that needed improvement. When asking them what the biggest impediments to walking to school or around their neighborhoods was, a surprising theme arose -- they didn't rank lack of sidewalks or bike lanes highly, nor the amount of lighting; they were afraid of kidnappers, of gangs, of being hit by cars, and of vacant buildings (because there might be scary people in them). Their biggest hindrance to being out and about is that they don't feel that they can trust the other people who would be around. 

We got the students to write letters to their Councilman, and one stood out. 
This 5th grader's letter was one of the most eye-opening things I've seen since beginning work in OKC. He wants to be able to play outside, go to his park, play basketball, but he's afraid of the people he may encounter on the way. It's an injustice that a child can't enjoy his neighborhood for fear of violence. 

Gang violence is an issue in Oklahoma City, and it's not easily remedied. In fact, Oklahoma City was ranked in the Top 5 U.S. cities for worst gang violence by the CDC. In neighborhoods with high poverty and low social mobility, gangs have become a solution (albeit a faulted one) to the problem of a lack of support from a community. The violence and illegal activity are side-effects of a much deeper problem. The maps below show where the highest rates of gang activity occur, as documented by incidences that resulted in police action.

Heat map showing where gang violence occurs
Map showing ZIP codes with highest rates of gang violence
Here are the incidences of the top 5 most common gang-related crimes committed since 2008. Notice the upward trend of drug-related arrests.

Year
Drive-By
Assault with a Deadly Weapon
Poss. Of Controlled Substance
Poss. Of Firearm
Shots Fired
2008
123
135
9
24
65
2009
98
125
7
25
58
2010
86
98
14
15
30
2011
129
108
36
25
30
2012
189
91
91
47
X
2013
85
87
162
86
X
Total
710
644
319
222
183

Crime is a complex concept, and it would be a dubious venture to attempt to correlate any social trends with the numbers above; however, it is interesting to see the reliance upon drive-by shootings in a city that is known to be very car dependent.

39 of the 63 ZIP codes within the Oklahoma City municipal boundary have at least one recorded incident of gang violence. The table below shows the five ZIP codes with the highest number of gang-related incidences since 2008, as well as the five ZIP codes with the highest number of gang-related incidences per capita (population of respective ZIP codes).

ZIP
73111
73119
73129
73114
73108
Total Incidences
308
284
238
231
210
ZIP
73111
73105
73108
73117
73114
Per-capita Incidences
26.14
19.00
13.68
13.48
13.26

Often, these areas with the highest incidences of gang violence seem to be forgotten when all the great improvements to the city are occurring, and the situation doesn't seem to be getting much better. The quality of schools, grocery stores, housing, and infrastructure decreases because these areas must compete in a free-market economy with regions of the city that have more wealth and a much more well-represented citizenry.


"Bad areas of town" needn't remain that way, and they don't have to be "gentrified" to improve. What we need is a concerted effort by the community to improve blighted areas -- incentivize revitalization and rehabilitation of housing in the area; improve streetscape designs so that people without vehicles can access their daily needs; incentivize grocery stores and clothing stores to open businesses in these areas; and grow a sense of total community such that people from all over the city can participate in helping to bring these areas up to a more livable standard. We need intervention in the lives of at-risk teens, and support for families. We need a lot.

It’s difficult to overstate the importance of being able to trust people in your community. No child should be afraid to go to the park because of the threat of violence. They can't drive, and they are citizens just like the rest of us; we should build sidewalks and bike lanes with that in mind. Oklahoma City has so much potential, and I’d be very happy if it could be realized for everyone across the city, regardless of where they live, what their income is, and how old they are. 

I don't pretend to know how to solve all of the issues related to scary people, and I would love to hear from you about your ideas to improve conditions for children; maybe, together, we can make a difference.