Reinventing Our Streets - An Introduction

by: Nick Meyer

   Over the next couple of years, the City of Eau Claire has a significant opportunity to redefine the experience of driving, walking, and biking through our community. Two of our city’s most important streets need to be reconstructed, and both are slated for work soon. On one hand you have Hastings Way, the major north/south artery on the city’s east side, serving dozens of businesses and thousands of cars each day. After the addition of the 53 Bypass, which took much of the “just-passing-through” traffic outside of town, the street now has a dramatically reduced traffic load and serves a more local purpose than it once did. On the other hand is the south end of Barstow Street, the lengthy core of our downtown where cafés, retail spaces, offices, and many residents make their homes. These two streets serve very different purposes, but both present very real opportunities to recast what we know as possible for the streets of our community.

    Bollards, chicanes, salmon lanes, ped malls, mental speed bumps, traffic lights with pedestrian leading intervals – these unusual words and phrases are just some of the elements communities of our size are using to transform the culture of their streets and jumpstart the community’s interaction with them. Their efforts are creating healthier, more inviting, more sustainable (and quite possibly more profitable) business and residential districts that help revitalize their local culture. In the vibrant cities of today, streets are treated not as conduits for cars alone, but as public spaces built for all modes of transportation – or for simply sitting still and enjoying the day.

    Eau Claire’s (award-winning) public works director, Brian Amundson, gets this. Despite the limitations that sometimes come with limited budgets and varying public opinions, he knows where we need to be as a community. “Since the 60s we’ve built our neighborhoods as car-oriented. We drive in our car and live our lives in the backyard,” he said. “But there’s this human desire to interact with one another, and when you put in good sidewalks and orient people towards the front again, people reclaim their neighborhoods and their streets. Then you’ve got a really vibrant place.”

    When preparing this special “street culture” themed issue, we found Eau Claire street construction plans from the late 60s and 70s that proposed ideas similar to what you’ll find in these pages. For example, after creating our suggestion of a pedestrian mall on one block of Main Street in downtown, we discovered there were ped malls proposed in a variety of locations at different times – ideas and efforts that apparently failed. So why revisit such concepts now? For one thing, back then they were fighting into the wind. The 60s and 70s were tough times for downtowns across the country. Businesses were fleeing to shopping malls on the outskirts, and downtowns were beginning to decay as a result. But today, we’ve got the wind at our back. People understand the importance of reinvestment in downtowns – it’s at the core of a community’s quality of life. The momentum of our downtown in particular makes us ripe for a creative new approach to street life, especially now with our most important downtown street in need of repair and re-evaluation. But the importance of examining the culture of our streets goes beyond just downtown. The entire community must evolve to feature a transportation network that’s as easy to traverse with a car as it is with a bicycle or pair of sneakers.

    This feature highlights a range topics from bikes to public transit to parking. They cover local angles, national trends, and international results. They look outside our community for inspiration, while always looking back in for context. The concepts and illustrations we present here are meant as conversation starters – not necessarily our official position on what must be done. Projects like these take countless hours of discussion, planning, and consultation – and that window of opportunity is opening very soon. True success will depend on considerable collaboration from throughout the community.

    So, after you’ve read our efforts please join the conversation. Click around and you’ll find “interactive” versions of some of these concepts – and along with those some conversation from the community on their value or shortcomings. But more importantly, educate yourself on the design process and attend the public meetings. Let’s take advantage of this opportunity to truly engage with our civic leaders and crowdsource a bold new direction in Eau Claire’s city streets.

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