I have two items I want to write about. Getting kids to school and back and underground utilities, and from what I have observed, both items need our attention. First, getting kids back and forth from school. I have noticed in this pandemic, it has become a nightmare. Lines to drop off kids and pick them up stretch around the block, and if you have been in one of those lines, I feel sorry for you. This pandemic has caused simple things to become very difficult, and all of a sudden just getting a kid back and forth from school is a real headache. There should be a better way, and there is. First, let’s look back… way back to when I was in grade school. I lived a little less than a mile from school, and you couldn’t ride the bus unless you lived over a mile from school. Yes, we had a car, but I was never driven to school or picked up from school, and at age eight, I just walked.
Now let’s fast forward to our today’s endless lines to drop off or pick up kids. Surely we can come up with a better way to get kids to school and back. Of course, safety is a primary concern, but with extra police patrols in our school neighborhoods, and organizations such as Parent’s Patrol, hundreds of kids can walk to school, or ride a bike to school, or carpool or meet in an off-school parking lot to drop off or pick up kids. The problem is not that difficult to solve, and it would save thousands of moms and a few dads hundreds of hours a month.
Or why don’t we do what some colleges are doing, which is to encourage electric scooters. It seems, in El Dorado, that teens and preteens are renting them as an entertainment item to buzz around downtown. However, that’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to their uses. The University of Arkansas has seen the number of scooters on campus mushroom, and these aren’t joy riders who rent one for an hour or so. These students own their electric scooters, and they ride them because they get to class quicker and parking is easy. Traffic around the campus is terrible, and there is never enough parking for 20,000+ students. Scooters, ebikes, and regular bikes have seen a huge percentage increase in sales over the past year. Our cities, states, and the rest of us need to realize it’s not 1965 and get with the programs. Last year, before the pandemic hit, we were on vacation in New York City and watched as tie-wearing businessmen zipped by, weaving through traffic on scooters — why? Because scooters are a better way to get from one place to another when there is heavy traffic and no place to park. Or you can get your kid a motorized skateboard or just let them use a regular one. My granddaughter and her boyfriend commuted to work when they lived in San Francisco, on a skateboard for two. To say we’re a bit behind the curve is an understatement. No, I don’t think we’re going to see a swarm of El Dorado students zip by on motorized skateboards, but we sure have the ability to get kids to school without lining up in a string of cars a half mile long. I wouldn’t sit in a car and line up thirty minutes ahead of when school lets out, because there’s a better way, and if it meant putting my kid on a scooter so be it, and if my kids had to walk a few or maybe 10 blocks, I would put good walking shoes on them and shoo them out the door, and if I had safety concerns, I would walk with them. A couple of miles a day walk will do you a world of good.
When the new El Dorado High School was under construction, I met with the Superintendent of Schools and asked that sidewalks be built to link the school to the residential areas nearby. I was told no. What should have happened was a six foot wide sidewalk from the school to a monitored traffic walkway on Hillsboro Street, then let the city continue up Timberlane with a new sidewalk to Main Street. Every city should connect schools, shopping and recreation areas, with sidewalks and trails. El Dorado’s trail plan has already been done. Fifteen years ago Dr. Glasser and team from the U of A worked a year on a city plan, and the result was breathtaking. A detailed plan for the city, and part of it was to create a network of trails that would be wonderful today, but we didn’t construct one foot of trails. What if your child could just walk down a sidewalk that connected to a trail and walk on to school. Well, considering the snail’s pace of city governments, it may be a while before we see a lot of either trails or linking sidewalks. But it doesn’t have to be fifty years from now. Tell your mayor to form a committee to recommend a series of new linking sidewalks and trails that would connect every school in the city. If you want an example, check the sidewalks and trails that are already active in Seattle. Today, 30% of Seattle downtown workers walk, bike, or use scooters. El Dorado, as late as the 50s, had sidewalk crews who added sidewalks from downtown into the various neighborhoods, and if you live where these old sidewalks are still present, your kids can walk at least part of the way to schools. Most cities stopped putting in sidewalks in the early 60s, and in residential areas, they stopped repairing them. Today progressive cities are building sidewalks and trails. Are we doomed to always be 25 years behind the curve? Sidewalks and trails to shopping areas and schools should be a priority in every town in the state.
And now to the other gripe I have, and it is a simple one. Its past time to ignore the need to put electrical utilities underground, and it can be done without breaking the bank. Of course, downtown El Dorado never has a power outage, and we didn’t have one when Laura came whistling by. Why? We have underground utilities! Arkansas needs, just for starters, a mandate for underground utilities in all new construction, and a statewide plan to gradually, over the next 25 years, to add a percentage of the state with underground utilities each year. In every town and city in the state there are thousands of electrical lines hanging from poles, and the odds of a thunderstorm taking one of them out or an ice storm or just old age guarantees some Arkansawyers will be without power when it rains or storms or ices. Yes, it can be done, if we have elective officials who have enough backbone to demand it.
Kids getting kids to school easily, and houses not losing power every time a thunderstorm roars though the state, is not too much to ask.
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 [email protected]