Not much more than three years ago, downtown West Palm Beach was considered too dangerous to visit at night. Its streets were deserted, its shops struggling.
Today, children splash 15 feet from a major intersection in a newly installed fountain. Parents relax on comfortable benches, eating ice cream and watching their kids. Cars driving through downtown must slow down to negotiate crosswalks that have been raised to the level of the curb, permitting pedestrians, parents pushing strollers and wheelchair users to cross easily.
The new vitality is largely the work of the city's dynamic mayor, Nancy Graham, and the planners she brought in to redesign the city. Internationally recognized Canadian civil engineer Ian Lockwood, whom Graham hired as the city's transportation planner, says West Palm Beach's problems were typical of cities designed according to traditional traffic engineering standards.
“If you look at any transportation model for a city, the success of the city is based on how well the car is accommodated,” Lockwood says. In West Palm Beach, “The car was fine, but our city was dead 10 years ago. The street became the monopoly of the car to the exclusion of pedestrians.”
In cooperation with several noted urban designers, Lockwood hopes to have the entire eastern part of the city “traffic-calmed” in five years using techniques that have been employed successfully in Europe for the past 25 years.
Six-lane U.S. 1, which slices through the city in two broad swaths, one in each direction, will be reduced to two separate two- lane roads. To make “nice slow streets that are very pedestrian friendly,” Lockwood says, sidewalks will be widened, landscaping will be added on both sides and shady patios will be created on the sidewalks where people can sit and have a cool drink. “Now we have narrow sidewalks, and no one likes to walk along them,” he explains.
The move has won support from initially skeptical business groups because of the success in areas that have already received the Lockwood treatment. Commercial rents have risen from $5 per square foot to $25 in downtown areas that have been traffic-calmed. Once half-occupied, commercial buildings now have no vacancies. And downtown is becoming a popular place to live. The city is retrofitting lofts above stores for apartments and combined work-living units. In the next two years, the city expects to have 560 more new homes downtown.
West Palm Beach was founded in 1894 as the servant city for affluent Palm Beach, a quarter-mile away across the Intracoastal Waterway. Today, many waiters, maids and other service personnel who don't own cars walk to work. Forty-eight percent of the city is low- to-moderate income.
To help attract residents downtown, the city is subsidizing purchases by low-income homeowners as well as providing training in such basics as how to fix appliances. The city is also giving tax breaks to residents renovating historic homes.
Lockwood points to a typical inner-city street where the city recently invested $8,000 in traffic calming and beautification. It was lined with boarded-up homes and had become a favorite place for truck drivers to dump garbage. Parking a car on the street was considered unwise. The city is narrowing the street from 35 feet to 25 feet, putting in curbside trees and narrowing every approach to the neighborhood school so children can walk to school without encountering speeding traffic. In similar neighborhoods where the city has already made such changes, Lockwood says, garbage dumping no longer occurs, crime has dropped and homeowners take newfound pride in the upkeep of the neighborhood.
Typically, streets that have been traffic-calmed have 50 percent fewer collisions than conventionally designed streets and 80 percent fewer fatalities, according to Lockwood. When traffic is slowed to below 20 mph, stopping distances are shorter, the field of vision is wider and a driver is more likely to see a child running into the street from behind a parked car. The city has not had a single collision on a traffic-calmed street, Lockwood says.
The changes have not been without their opponents. “I get calls from commuters who say, 'Your job is to move cars as fast as possible,'” Lockwood says. “I say, my job is to make the city livable and sustainable. I don't think we should sacrifice quality of life in the inner city for people in the suburbs.”
Actually, when traffic calming is done right and the streets become more scenic, everyone should be happy, Lockwood maintains. “Drivers will slow down willingly and naturally, kids can cross safely, people can go shopping in harmony with the traffic and business won't dry up.”
As part of the city's campaign against traditional thinking, it has instituted a new transportation vocabulary. The word “improvements,” which to traffic engineers usually means new car lanes or other ways to move traffic faster, has been banned in favor of the more neutral term “changes.” It's no longer permissible to say a road is being “upgraded” when it's really being widened.
In fact, the city no longer uses the term “accident” because it reduces “the degree of responsibility and severity and invokes sympathy for the person responsible,” a city memo states. Now, in West Palm, the term is “crash” or “collision.”