COLUMN: New stadium in Oakley could hurt growing neighborhood's walkability

Pat LaFleur reports on transportation and mobility for WCPO, and often commutes on foot.

CINCINNATI -- The quest for a new FC Cincinnati stadium has included back and forth about the use of public funds, locations to build, infrastructure and Major League Soccer's quickly approaching deadline. But one concern that doesn't seem to be on the radar: What building a stadium adjacent to Oakley Station, as is currently proposed, will do to the neighborhood's pedestrian-friendliness.

The stadium discussion has shown how the term "walkable" -- when used to describe the design of an urban neighborhood -- can often become a hollow buzzword, simplified to mean that attractions in the area are in close enough proximity that it is feasible to park and walk to and from nearly everything.

The neighborhood's walkability has been touted as one of the reasons for selecting the site. Team leaders and elected officials alike have invoked images of families and friends visiting the neighborhood, parking in one of the many parking lots, having lunch or dinner and then merrily walking to the game.

But that's not the only picture this plan paints.

It also could mean taking Madison Road -- an already busy, heavily-residential span throughout the East Side neighborhood -- and widening it to five lanes. That means wider crosswalks and could mean less time for pedestrians to cross. The preliminary plan -- released in November -- also suggests removing the existing bump-outs on Vandercar Way, which would serve as an access road to the stadium. 

Bump-outs occur where the curbs at an intersection extend to the inner border of the parking lane, meant to shorten the distance and time a pedestrian spends in a crosswalk. Often the removal of bump-outs is the tactic to accommodate an extra lane by removing street parking -- another factor that hurts a street's pedestrian-friendliness.

It also would mean insulating much of the already-constructed Oakley Station development within a four-road loop, all of which would be five lanes wide.

The thing is, widening roads is never good for a neighborhood's pedestrian-friendliness. Study after study, time after time this has proven to be true. One study out of the Journal of Transportation and Land Use concluded that road widening to accommodate new developments is "largely symbolic." 

Not only does it mean wider crosswalks and sometimes narrower sidewalks for pedestrians, but also more auto traffic. The same study also found an increase in housing costs for neighborhood residents. 

True: A stadium at that site would put it within walking distance of the neighborhood's numerous destinations, attractions and dining options. But being within walking distance doesn't equal a "walkable" route.

Being pedestrian-friendly means a lot more than that. In their guide to urban street design, the National Association of City Transportation Officials identified other design features that contribute to making a street pedestrian-friendly. Protective barriers between cars on the street and pedestrians on the sidewalk -- such as a 24-hour parking lane, protected bike lanes, or a row of trees -- make up one such example. Whether a street is one-way or two-way can also impact auto speeds and, thus, risk to pedestrians, the guide said. 

This is in line with David Ginsburg's vision for a more walkable Downtown. Ginsburg heads up the nonprofit Downtown Corporation Inc. He told WCPO that walkable neighborhoods make pedestrians feel safe and welcome.

"It's where storefronts are interesting. It's where there's a lot of sidewalk seating," Ginsburg said. "It's just where there are more eyes and ears and people at the ground level."

I wonder what road-widening would do to any sidewalk seating that has popped up around Oakley Station.

Oakley is the city's 10th most walkable neighborhood, according to Walk Score, a real estate website that measures a neighborhood's pedestrian-friendliness based on criteria like pedestrian crossing infrastructure, storefront patios, green space, bike lanes, access to public transit and street lane width. On a 100-point scale, Oakley scored a 61 -- "somewhat walkable," meaning residents can run some errands on foot.

Walk Score ranks Over-the-Rhine, Downtown and West End as the city's most walkable neighborhoods.

City transportation officials say it's too soon to tell what the traffic impact would be for the Oakley Station area, should FC Cincinnati build a new stadium there.

That the city has not conducted a traffic impact study on the area was initially troublesome, but in this context, it actually provides a glimmer of hope. That's because the city still has time to make sure to keep its plan as pedestrian-friendly as possible.

And here's hoping the $37 million the city just pledged to the project is enough to make that happen.

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