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Connecting campus: Tuscaloosa strives for walkability

Alexandra Ellsworth

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Andrea Mun?oz needed to renew her license during her sophomore year of college, so she had to get downtown. Since Mun?oz does not have a car, she walked from Regions Bank on campus adjacent to Mary Burke Hall to the License Commissioner’s Office downtown. The distance was only about two miles, but during August in Tuscaloosa, it felt much farther.

Though Mun?oz, a senior majoring in biology, enjoys walking and biking, she does not feel safe enough doing it off campus, she said.

“It was kind of scary, actually, and I went during the day,” she said. “I would definitely never walk down there at night.”

(See also “City protects cemeteries“)

Katie McWain, a first-year doctoral student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, has a very different story. When McWain wants a cup of coffee or to see a movie, she said she has no problem walking from her apartment to get wherever she needs.

UNL’s campus is located in downtown Lincoln, Neb., and is surrounded by a surplus of restaurants and the Haymarket district, a historic area of boutiques and restaurants. McWain said it is easy to get around her city and to commute from campus.

“I walk to school every day,” she said. “I live in a downtown apartment three quarters of a mile from campus, so I hardly ever drive my car. I absolutely love walking. It saves money I would be spending on gas, parking and wear and tear on my car. I also avoid the mess of parking garages and paying for permits.”

Though The University of Alabama is not located in the heart of downtown, it is only about 1.5 miles from campus to Greensboro Avenue. The city of Lincoln is much larger than Tuscaloosa, but students in the University’s Plan First class said they still believe Tuscaloosa could be a more walkable and thriving city.

Last fall, students in Plan First, an Honors College service learning class focused on city planning, presented their proposals to Mayor Walt Maddox and Tuscaloosa City Planner John McConnell.

The students presented four different ideas they said would be beneficial to improving downtown Tuscaloosa. The proposals ranged from suggestions for public art to public transportation, and one encouraged the development of a surface parking lot. Madalyn Vaughn, the director of the course, said the goal of these proposals was to see some of them implemented.

“Last year we were focusing on the Strip, and we saw some of those proposals implemented, so I expect we may see some of these, as well,” she said.

McConnell said they would consider much of what the students presented, as the city is currently working on several ideas to improve downtown Tuscaloosa. In 2010, the city adopted the Greater Downtown Plan. However, as they were preparing to implement the plan, the April 27, 2011, tornado deterred it. Now, the city is back on track, creating a new system of codes and changing its regulatory scheme to help accomplish the plan.

“The plan has everything to do with making the city more walkable and biker-friendly, more people-friendly in general,” McConnell said. “The city has always been very auto-centric. Ten years ago, downtown was completely dead. It was full of auto garages and had some office uses and some things that you had a little activity during the daytime, but at night, it was completely shut down. There were a lot of abandoned buildings and under-utilized space. It wasn’t a pleasant place.”

Then, the Urban Renewal program began to make changes. Students may not recognize the changes if they did not grow up in Tuscaloosa, but the Government Plaza park and federal courthouse were part of that program. The roadwork that many students have seen over the past several months is ongoing from that same plan. The city is also partnering with the University to improve the connections between the University, the Strip and downtown.

City and UA officials have started a corridor study on University Boulevard, because it is the clearest connection, McConnell said. The study will probably take about four months and aims to create better sidewalks or possibly bike lanes.

“They are so geographically close that we need to do something to bridge that gap,” McConnell said. “For many reasons, both residents and students don’t feel it is a comfortable connection. It’s not a desirable walk, but it’s not a long walk.”

(See also “Bike bedlam: SGA, Transportation Services Office propose new bike-share program“)

Mun?oz said she would opt to walk or bike before driving, especially since she does not own a car. However, it is the disconnect between campus and the rest of the city that makes it hard for her to feel like she can choose one of those options.

“I’ve seen so many improvements just since my freshman year on campus when it comes to biking or walking, but nothing really past it,” she said.

However, the city has added Jeff Speck t o the engineering team that has been charged with improving the connectivity of campus and downtown. Speck, a city planner and architectural designer, has worked in Seaside, Fla., and Rosemarry Beach, Fla., and he is the author of the book, “Walkable City.” He said he believes walkability is crucial to a thriving downtown.

“Polls and mapping shows that millennials and empty nesters are moving to walkable cities for the active, non-car-dependent lifestyle they offer,” Speck said. “Demographically, these two cohorts represent the majority of the population. The downtown and downtown-to-campus sectors of Tuscaloosa will either become more walkable and thus populated by these groups, or will not and those with means will choose other cities instead.”

Speck said he also believes that Tuscaloosa can contend with other university cities that have viable downtowns.

“Beyond a certain small minimum, cities of every size can be or become walkable – or not,” Speck said. “Tuscaloosa is certainly large enough, and the downtown is close enough for it to attract so much more walking and biking than it does now. While improvements are certainly needed, I’ve never seen such a theoretically walkable campus with more car ownership and use.”

Speck and McConnell said they recognize that this will be a long process. There are few immediate and simple fixes to an issue such as this.  As with any plan that affects infrastructure and the way people are used to doing things, it will take time to see results.

“It’s not as simple as one sentence, but you need to identify the places that are almost walkable and make them so, while connecting prime walkable zones with bike lanes and a dedicated short-pulse transit service,” Speck said. “It is physically easy and cheap, but can be politically difficult until citizens have the chance to learn about the benefits.”

McConnell said he has to remind himself and his team that what they are doing is not for their own enjoyment.

“It’s definitely a long-term plan in that you look 20 to 30 years into the future, and that’s what you plan for,” he said. “I’ll always remind myself and remind my colleagues and citizens, the planning we are doing today is not for ourselves. We have to remove ourselves from the equation. We are planning for our children and our children’s children. So we have to be very conscious of those generations and what their preferences will be, and not so much what we want today.”

Tuscaloosa is taking its first steps to become a more walkable city in an attempt to make downtown safer and more convenient for students such as Mun?oz to opt for more sustainable ways of travel. Though it may be a long process, it is one that city officials said they believe will be worth it in years to come.

(See also “Downtown Revival: City still considers entertainment districtsA”)

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Connecting campus: Tuscaloosa strives for walkability