Urban Issues

Issues: Motoring in Tallahassee

MY VIEW — As in fashion, and with car designs, what’s old is new again. The same can be said for urban design in our cities especially in the age of rapidly-rising energy costs, inadequate infrastructure, and efforts to “go green”.

In many corners of Tallahassee, we continue to see efforts to employ the methods of yesterday to develop new communities throughout our city. Evening Rose is one example that comes to mind as we look at what is being done in the name of smart growth.

The entire development has been designed to create a safe and inviting walkable neighborhood, with pedestrian trails, sidewalks, and compact/dense building design. With an emphasis on Smart Growth, the entrance to the village center plaza will cascade gracefully amongst beautiful existing majestic oak trees, creating both a quiet refuge and hub of activity. – K2 Urban Corp

There was a point in time when most neighborhoods were built in the fashion of Evening Rose, near the heart of the city’s central core, with networks of sidewalks making it easy to transition from home to work, school, or shops. There is evidence of this type of development in Tallahassee as you look at some of the neighborhoods that surround our Downtown and Midtown areas, however, for the most part, many of us live in communities subject to the creation of the automobile and highway systems.

Modern living conditions, although often more spacious, have created a dependence on automobiles that will not be easy for us to break.

In the case of Tallahassee, the growth of our city did not translate into an expansion of our 1824 grid. One will notice most of the downtown remains true to the original pattern of straight, perpendicular East-West, North-South streets. Beyond downtown, however, Tallahassee’s roads bend, wind, curve and follow a pattern that is very difficult to justify from looking at the original city grid.

A great debate has gone on about what to do to ease traffic through the complexity of our hub-and-spoke city, some see the need to add a North-South spur to work in conjunction with the East-West Interstate-10 allowing quicker and smoother flow to points South of Tallahassee (Wakulla, Franklin, Hwy 98) some see the need for another circle well beyond or within the boundaries of Capital Circle (once a bypass around Tallahassee, now an inner-city road) to ease the flow of traffic, however many are having a difficult time deciding where such a road would be placed in our 180+-year-old city, or how such a project would be financed.

Efforts have also been underway for some time now to boost mass transit in Tallahassee. The City began its TalTran renaissance plan nearly 10 years ago, looking at ways to reduce the number of cars on Tallahassee’s streets and encourage us to ride buses. A product of this renaissance was a transformation from TalTran to StarMetro, new city buses, a new transit system director, and an aggressive marketing, re-routing, and service enhancement strategy aimed at attracting a class of new riders. Over the past few years, Tallahassee has seen the emergence of Park-and-Ride services, an innovative way of allowing commuters to drive shorter distances to work and thereby cope with less traffic. Early reports from these initiatives have been surprisingly positive with StarMetro showing a significant rise in passenger traffic on its 80X Routes to Southwood and Bradfordville, and plans for expansion in the near future to the Tallahassee International Airport.

Yet despite the efforts of local government and our neighborhood and transportation planners, many Tallahasseeans are having a hard time peeling their hands from the steering wheels of personal vehicles. Some say they are unable to wait around for the buses to pick them up as the intervals on certain routes may be up to an hour at a time, others cite the extremely hot and unpredictable Florida weather as an impediment to their use of mass transit. Yet most admit they have no plans to ever give up their cars.

The challenge we face looking at the rise in the price of gasoline nationally is the threat of a critical shortage in fuel or prices far beyond the reach of most of us earning a living wage. As difficult as times have become, with our wages not keeping pace with the rise in the cost of everything from groceries to homes and everything in the middle, how will we move around our city if we lose the option to drive our cars? Fortunately, our city has an extensive network of sidewalks and bike lanes on most of our roads. Should you lose the ability to drive your car, would you consider living in the heart of the city in a high-rise condominium building? Would you transition to the buses? Would you use a bicycle or walk?

It is very apparent to me that no matter the method of transportation we chose for our personal lives, our leaders should not turn a blind eye to the need to modernize how we move around our community. Most people agree that the multitude of traffic lights throughout our community are the source of very frustrating driving conditions as it seems they are not in sync causing severe stop-and-go driving conditions, excessive time in traffic, fuel consumption and emission of waste to the environment. Traffic engineers need to work a little harder to ensure substantial “cohorts” of automobiles are allowed to travel safely throughout our city without stopping at every light. This should be more the rule than the exception, especially along our major federal and state roadways. 

We should also be working with our regional partners in surrounding counties to create a network of roads that allow for smoother vehicular exchange between the counties as Tallahassee-Leon is the hub of the region that most in this part of Florida and portions of South Georgia travel into for work, goods, and services. Interstate 10 remains the only expressway running through the area connecting points east and west. Tallahassee, however, as a region is more oriented North and South extending from the Gulf of Mexico in Wakulla County to Thomasville and Bainbridge, GA. We need to find a quicker way to move people throughout the region, perhaps in some cases allowing them to by-pass the city without having to stop at every light or clog our surface roads unnecessarily. Done properly, we should be able to reduce the congestion on our inner-city streets and improve air quality to inner-city neighborhoods. 

StarMetro is likely years away from streetcars or any sort of light rail service, buses will remain our most viable mass transit option for the foreseeable future. However, in my opinion, we may want to look at going back to the system that existed before Nova2010, where all passengers traveled through the central downtown terminal to their ultimate destination. For a hub-and-spoke city, this just makes the most sense. Frankly, the new system is far too complex and confusing. As a passenger, it’s easier to rely on the original central hub routing system as there’s less concern about whether or not you have taken the right bus to your next connection. All connections would once again be centralized. 

We will likely see the return of Amtrak to Tallahassee. It’s too bad we do not currently have a centralized transportation hub that connects rail, bus, air, and potentially automobile (rental car services) options in one compact area. I’ll revisit this thought again sometime in the future as I delve into an idea which proposes to offer this exact concept. 

Meanwhile, Tallahassee needs to take a long hard look at how people move through this region of Florida. It’s a long-held belief of mine that through improvements to our transportation system we can reduce motorist frustrations with smarter traffic engineering, improve our air quality, improve the efficiency of travel through the city which will encourage people to get out and explore their own backyard, shop, attend events, etc., and improve our local economy as the flow of goods through this area would occur at an accelerated pace. – TJL

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