Tuesday, July 29, 2014

How To Beat The Summer Heat Without A Car

Summer is in full force, which means very high temperatures in Oklahoma City. Now, I know there’s always someone who lives in a hotter place (trust me, I’ve lived in Georgia most of my life) but no matter who lives in the hottest area of the world, this post offers tips for what has worked for us in beating this summer heat on foot or by bicycle.

First thing is first: You’re going to sweat. You can regulate it to some degree with the tips below, but it’s not likely you’ll be able to avoid it, so figure out what works best for you.

1. Stay hydrated!
Everyone knows the importance of this one. Dehydration has many symptoms that you should be aware of: Increased thirst, Dry mouth and swollen tongue, weakness, dizziness, palpitations (feeling that the heart is jumping or pounding), confusion, sluggishness, fainting, inability to sweat, and decreased urine output (WebMD). If you are experiencing any of these while outdoors, immediately seek water; this is your body telling you that something is dangerously wrong, so listen up! Don’t wait until you feel these symptoms to start drinking water. Drink water before you go walking or biking, and bring along the largest water bottle you can easily carry. A general rule of thumb is to consume 1 cup of water every mile (15 to 20 minutes) in addition to 16 oz. before you go out. Gatorade or something similar after a long walk or bike ride will help to replenish electrolytes.
This may be a little overboard...

2. Wear suitable clothes!
I walk to work in the morning, then back home for lunch, back to work after lunch, and back home after work. The temperature in the morning is always manageable, but around lunchtime and 5:00pm it’s typically very hot. Since I’m dressed business casual, I don’t have a lot of options to reduce the impact of the heat on me. What I can do is wear light colored shirts that reflect the sunlight rather than absorb it, and wearing a hat can provide a little shade for your face and neck. When not dressed for work you can wear sporty clothes that wick sweat from your body, and avoid cotton socks that may get damp and cause blisters on your feet. Breathable shoes are great as well. And, of course, wear sunscreen. You also always have the option to change clothes at work (and shower if you’re employer provides this option). Read about this from our friends over at BikeOKC.
These are knitted shoes -- very breathable!

3. Plan your route to be as pedestrian-friendly as possible!
Take the time to prepare your route to include as much shade as possible. While there is no rule of thumb about the difference in temperature between direct sunlight and shade, shade is your best friend on a long walk during the summertime. So, plan the shortest route you can that you know has vegetative cover. This can be pretty difficult in OKC, due to a lack of street trees. I suggest going through older neighborhoods where there are older trees along the streets and in people’s yards. You can still get sunburned if it’s overcast outside, and you likely won’t have a totally shaded route, so wear sunscreen.

These street trees provide ample shade; a perfect place for walking or biking when it's hot out.

4. Plan your walks around the daily temperature cycle!
If possible, take your walks in the morning and evening to avoid the heat of the mid-day. The angle of the sun will cast longer shadows at these times of day, giving you a greater amount of shade.

Even the President deals with the heat. It's okay to sweat, just be prepared like Obama!

5. Be aware of air conditions!
This applies to heat and air quality. The summer heat and humidity create conditions that increase ground-level Ozone (O3), which is harmful to humans and animals, potentially causing respiratory problems, particularly for young children, the elderly, and people with chronic diseases. Ozone is a by-product of motor vehicle emissions, and in Oklahoma City, very little mitigation has occurred. Oklahoma City will likely be considered a non-attainment area by the EPA in the next couple of years, which will cause stricter regulation to be taken to improve air quality. You can do your part to avoid this by driving less, making sure your vehicle is performing properly, and taking public transit when feasible. We’ll do a full post on air quality in the future.

Cough Cough

As always, being prepared is the best way to mitigate the negative risks associated with being carless. Whether the weather is very hot or very cold, making sure to take the necessary preparatory steps to ensure your comfort and safety will keep you happy. 

There are plenty of other strategies to beat the heat that we didn’t mention, so leave your tips and tricks in the comments!

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.

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.

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!