“Times They Are A-Changing.” If I remember right, that’s an old Bob Dylan song that cropped up in the 60s, and things they were a-changing, but nothing like they are a-changing today. I know some of the rapid changes seem to be gradual, but that’s because we live in a world that seems to be spinning faster and faster, and a today’s gradual changes would have been earthshaking events that would have rattled us back in the ancient 60s. So, let’s look at a change that is coming down the pike faster than anything I have ever seen.
Are you ready to ride an electric scooter to work? No? Well, I think, in five years, 20 percent of Arkansawyers, who live in town, will be riding scooters to work every day. I know you’re shaking your head, but get ready, they’re coming, and in places such as Fayetteville (Just try to find a parking place near the University during classes) the numbers will be above 50%. Yes, electric scooters are coming, and I can’t wait to ride to work on one. The head-shakers are going at it again, but those are the same ones who shook their heads at the idea that El Dorado would have Uber. We do.
Here in Arkansas it’s hard to imagine riding an electric scooter anywhere, but check out major cities, and you’ll find the demand for scooters outstrips the supply. It’s easy to see why. For short rides to work on any city street, the scooters are quicker, more economical, easier to park and maneuver in traffic than any other method of transportation. Your parking problems are solved and every mile you ride is a plus for the environment. That’s why they are sweeping the country.
Yes, scooters are the hot item right now in transportation, but companion links such as sidewalks and trails will naturally pick up more support. After all going back and forth to work is only one part of our transportation needs, and millions of folks live within a half mile of where they shop, dine, and are entertained. Scooters are perfect for those little trips. But in order to really link with our coming transportation needs, we should work to extend sidewalks and trails to as many parts of our towns and cities as is reasonably possible, and that’s almost everywhere. All trails and city streets can be used by scooters, but our exercise and bicycle needs should also be a priority for every town and city in our state. We should try to emulate cities like Seattle. Believe it or not, 30% of their downtown workers either walk, ride a bike, or now ride a scooter to work.
Back in 2001 and 2002 Dr. Edwin Glasser from the University of Arkansas led a design team to El Dorado, and after a year’s work developed a comprehensive report aimed at helping El Dorado revitalize itself. It covered the entire incorporated town and included the Municipal Airport, Mellor Park Mall, the re-use of abandoned buildings, and transportation needs. As a part of this study an extensive trail study was included. Well, it’s been 18 years since that study was completed, so I know you’re interested in howmuch we have accomplished that was in the sturdy. An abandoned brick building in the south part of town was restored as a community center. That’s it! The rest of the study was put on the shelf. Dr. Glasser and team were obviously ahead of their time.
However, if we dust off the trail study it gives our town an outline of how to connect various parts of the community. Dr. Glasser proposed trail plan is structured to give individuals in a community the option to walk or bike, or now ride a scooter from one area of the community to another. In other words, trails can be used as an exercise route for an individual, but they should have a destination. Dr. Glasser’s proposed trail map has trails from the Municipal Golf Course to Downtown, and from Downtown to the shopping areas on North West Avenue. Trails are not just circles around a park. If you want a circle trail, go to your local high school and walk around the track. Trail should have a destination.
And now to sidewalks; as Cadillacs developed fins in the 60s our cities and towns stopped putting in sidewalks. You can easily spot the older parts of any Arkansas city or town by noting the sidewalks, and as you travel to the newer parts of town watch as the sidewalks disappear. As we look back to see how design-stupid fins on a Cadillac were, we can also see how short-sighted our city planners were to not have mandated sidewalks everywhere pedestrians walk.
Every city in our state should budget money to add and extend sidewalks, and every city should have in its building code a requirement for sidewalks to be put in every area where pedestrians are present. It’s the smart thing to do, and it’s the overwhelming focus in cities that are on the forefront of quality of life communities.
In El Dorado, we have two major shopping areas, downtown and North West Avenue, our primary entry-way into the city. Those typical shopping areas are present in almost every town in our state. In El Dorado we have new brick sidewalks downtown, but the half mile walk to the North West Avenue shopping area, or on out another three-quarters of a mile to the Walmart Supercenter will put your life at risk if you walk down North West Avenue with four lanes of fast traffic, an endless turn lane, and of course, no sidewalks, but I see folks trying to walk it every day jumping upon the curb as traffic whizzes by. The city should have put in sidewalks when the shopping expansion from downtown to North West Avenue happened, but it’s not too late. El Dorado has, as every town in the state does, plenty of right-of-ways to put in sidewalks, trees, and underground utilities, but it’s like pulling teeth to get any action. I’ve offered to plant 50 trees down the Avenue, and all the city has to do is cut the hole in the right-of ways they own. I’m still waiting.
I’ve used El Dorado as an example, but every town in our state has the same problem. We do have some cities adding sidewalks, trees, and underground utilities, but it’s like pouring molasses in January. We’re moving at Glacial Speed.
America’s west coast cities are leading the wave of the future, and if you want to see how an Arkansas town might look in 20 years, you should travel to any of the cities in that area. Some folks may not like their politics, but we will emulate them. It’s just a matter of time, and as surely as we pick up our cell phone or check our Facebook—all developed on the west coast—someday, we’ll ride scooters and put in sidewalks and trails.
Richard Mason is a registered professional geologist, downtown developer, former chairman of the Department of Environmental Quality Board of Commissioners, past president of the Arkansas Wildlife Federation, and syndicated columnist. Email richard@ gibraltarenergy.com.