I am sure by now you’ve driven through downtown Pullman and seen the new parking experiment. But just in case you haven’t, it involves exploring a partial change from parallel to diagonal parking, requiring stopping and backing into a stall. The change amounts to a minor paradigm shift, not least because it demands a new driving protocol of slowing down and being patient while the car in front stops and backs in. No more racing through Main Street but taking stock in what is around.
Included in the change is a 6-foot bike lane, tucked between parking and sidewalk, moving the city in the right direction of a more walkable and bike-friendly place. Why it took the city this long to add this innocuous and self-evident linear piece of infrastructure is unsure. Hopefully it marks only the beginning of a much more extensive presence of bicycles throughout the city. Hooray to that.
There is much to be excited about. But there is a problem. For no sooner did the new scheme land, so did a line of concrete, better known as “Jersey barriers,” separating diagonal parking from the bike lane, presumably to protect bikes from cars. A more hideous looking thing there isn’t, made all the more so by the fact that for a while now it has been synonymous with car bombings and generally awful acts of terrorism. We see them typically around federal buildings or other high profile political centers such as the United Nations and the White House, fending off scheming attackers.
They may be strong and capable of stopping a car in its tracks, but they are also menacing in their looks. Over the years we have come to accept them as a necessary tradeoff for safety, especially in sensitive political spaces. But Pullman? Why do we need such an attack on aesthetics in a place where, thank goodness, threats of the kind that the barrier suggests are simply not there?
To be sure and to be fair, the barriers are, in all likelihood, a requirement by the Washington State Department of Transportation to, in their words, “reduce the overall severity of crashes.” Understandable but surely a simple discussion with WSDOT would alleviate the concern, pointing out that in good part the purpose of the parking experiment is to beautify the town and not the other way around. The idea is not to eliminate but replace the barriers with a design that is hopeful of things to come. And if not all barriers then how about a few, enough to make it clear that beauty has not been forgotten.
It bears repeating that the primary reason for going diagonal is not first and foremost more parking, although that is nice, but slowing down and giving local residents and visitors alike something beautiful to look at, including each other.
Unlike shopping at places like Walmart and Safeway where the relationship between shopper and shop is direct and singular, the one in downtown is predicated on a diverse set of exchanges-visual, physical and otherwise. In choosing Main Street over a big box store we aim for a bigger and more holistic experience, and one in which buying and selling is a function, indeed a pretext, to advancing community connections.
The alternative to concrete barriers need not be elaborate or expensive, but it does need to be aspirational. It needs to render an image of a future so compelling we can’t wait to have it. Ideally it would involve local talent and the demonstration that amongst us lies some of the more creative minds in the world, be they artists, designers or the many students and faculty up the hill.
Let’s not squander this opportunity to excite the community. We’ve started something good and it is important to build on it. The backup diagonal parking may have to reverse course and allow cars to go straight in. The bike lane may have to migrate to the other side of the road. These issues and more can be tweaked and fixed, but should all that maneuvering happen without the promise of a more attractive place to live, then all will have been done for nothing. Or almost nothing.
Ayad Rahmani has been with Washington State University since 1997 and is an associate associate professor in the School of Design and Construction.