Floods puts strain on dysfunctional and dangerous streets

Sunday, July 18, 2010 at 11:45pm

Nashville offers amazing music, grand civic buildings and a fascinating array of people.

But the city’s street infrastructure ranks among the nation’s most unattractive, dysfunctional and, in spots, dangerous. And the recent flooding has placed even greater focus on street conditions.

The T-intersection of Auburn Lane and Estes Road exposes this harsh fact. Located in the upscale Woodmont neighborhood and no more than four-and-a-half miles from Nashville’s bustling Central Business District — an area in which one would expect quality streets — the intersection’s southwest corner sees Estes perched perilously on essentially an earthen pedestal (with no guard rail), the road’s eroded western shoulder basically nonexistent. Motorists driving south on Estes enjoy no margin for error: A steering miscalculation at the T-intersection invites a two-foot plummet.

“I can’t tell you how many cars we’ve had in that yard over the years,” said Jeanine Johnson, who has lived in Estes Glen since 1996. “I’m surprised somebody hasn’t gotten killed.”

Disturbingly, there are hundreds of cases like this throughout Nashville. Much of the city’s streetscape system — particularly in areas three to seven miles from the downtown core — is pockmarked by inconsistencies in road striping; random curb types and conditions or no curb at all; and odd and/or potentially dangerous placement of mailboxes, signs and utility poles. Bike lanes and pedestrian crosswalks are rare. Deep ditches straddle traffic-heavy roads. And the city’s sidewalk network all but stops in any direction about three miles from downtown.

Many secondary and tertiary (or “collector”) residential streets in areas developed mainly between 1930 and 1960 — streets that feature the type of building density and layout that lend themselves to a more attractive and functional form than is currently the case — are in brutal shape. These districts include Inglewood, Eastwood Neighbors, Woodbine, Radnor, Green Hills, the Nations, Sylvan Park, Bordeaux and Sunnyside.

Even in attractive historic residential areas close to downtown, problems can be found. For example, consider the stretch of Calvin Avenue between 14th and 15th streets in East Nashville’s attractive Lockeland Springs. With no curbs, no white edge stripes and serious erosion on either shoulder, Calvin mimics a ramshackle rural road in some impoverished small town — its beautiful homes notwithstanding. A one-hour session with Google Streetview reveals that the Lockeland Springs-type districts in other U.S. cities simply do not have equivalent Calvin Avenues.

“In many urban areas, the street is the primary form of public space,” said Jay Everett, a project manager with Nashville-based Lose & Associates Inc. “In these situations, it becomes even more important that the street become a place where people want to be. It will promote the livability of urban neighborhoods and, in turn, will benefit local businesses.”

The shortcomings of Nashville’s streetscape infrastructure are multiple, historic, cultural and complex. But one example grimly crystallizes the issue: During the past 12 months, this glaringly sidewalk-deficient city has constructed only eight new sidewalks within the entire area comprising an approximately seven-mile radius from downtown.

Faced with hilly terrain, financial constraints and the seeming lack of a unified government and citizenry vision, Nashville’s challenge to retrofit an unsightly and unsafe system that has been allowed to spiral out of control for 60-plus years is daunting.

Enter San Antonio, an underrated Texas city that could serve as a template of sorts.

Twenty years ago, a fair percentage of San Antonio’s urban streetscape network was like much of Nashville’s today: brutal.

Then John German got to work. As director of the San Antonio Public Works Department beginning in 1992, German was perhaps the key visionary behind what is now the city’s Street Maintenance Program. Since then, annual spending on paving, installing new curbs and sidewalks, signage improvements, and so forth, has increased from $1.2 million to upwards of $70 million.

The results are evident: Urban San Antonio’s street system is orderly and consistent. Almost every street up to eight miles from downtown San Antonio offers, at the least, a curb. Roadside ditches (seemingly acceptable to Nashville officials) are rare and seriously frowned upon. Sidewalks are everywhere. Pedestrians
and bicyclists are respected. Other cities have taken note, and awards have been won.

“By demonstrating the value of good data collection and solving the worst problems first in a three- to five-year program, the city manager and city council began to appreciate the [program], and they began to allocate more and more money each year,” said German, who now works as a consultant. “It takes a lot of money, but it can done.”

Down the road

The Metro Public Works Department is faced with a difficult challenge, as Davidson County streets, historically, were constructed with no cohesive plan.

Lose & Associate’s Everett said Nashville — of the 100 largest U.S. cities — ranks sixth in vehicle miles traveled per capita, according to Brookings Institute findings.

“Meanwhile, our level of congestion has grown much faster than our level of population growth, according to the most recent annual urban mobility report by the Texas Transportation Institute,” Everett said.

Mark Macy, Metro Public Works’ veteran director of engineering, said a comparison with San Antonio — which may have developed
“in a much different economy than we have” — or any other city may not be useful. Macy has looked at public works departments in other cities but can never get an “apples to apples” comparison.

“I get oranges and cherries,” he said.

Metro Public Works is receptive to a more comprehensive approach to using, for example, white edge stripes and curbs instead
of natural ditches, Macy said.

“The challenge is for drainage to work correctly,” he said of curbs.

One option is the low-impact design approach, according to Harrison Marshall, a transportation planner with the North Carolina Department of Transportation and a former Nashville resident familiar with the city’s streets.

“[Such an] approach to runoff involves vertical curbs that have cuts or scuppers that allow stormwater to drain into ‘rain gardens’ or flattened swales,” Marshall said. He added that low-impact design streets are most common in the Pacific Northwest and Maryland, but the idea is spreading.

At minimum, every secondary and tertiary Nashville street could use white edge stripes, according to those interviewed for this article.

“Stripes help to define the roadway, which tends to slow [motorists],” said planning professional Phil Walker, president of Nashville-based The Walker Collaborative.

Bob Murphy, president of Brentwood-based RPM Transportation Consultants LLC, said the striping standards (two elements of which include 20-foot-plus wide streets and carrying 3,000 or more average daily traffic trips) are such that white edge striping could be justified on most of Nashville’s collector streets that lack form-defining curbs.

As Nashville moves into the new decade, both professionals and citizens will look to city officials to address the matter.

When asked if Estes Road is on the Public Works Department’s radar, Macy answered simply: “Yes.”

4 Comments on this post:

By: AmyLiorate on 7/19/10 at 7:58

Regarding San Antonio - "Since then, annual spending on paving, installing new curbs and sidewalks, signage improvements, and so forth, has increased from $1.2 million to upwards of $70 million."

$70M is a lot of money. I wonder how much Metro spends on all street projects in a year compared to San Antonio.

By: Kosh III on 7/19/10 at 10:35

Purcell ran as a "sidewalks mayor" but few sidewalks got built under his administration. It was all smoke and mirrors.
Drive up Dickerson and see what a short distance sidewalks go. In many places, there is nowhere to walk except in the ditches. But it's not Green Hills so who cares?

By: deninnash on 7/19/10 at 6:19

Great Article. We need more writers like you to shine a bright spotlight on the Nashville governments neglect of our roadways and infrastructure on both our major roadways and neighborhood streets. The infrastructure of this town is of a 1970's poor rural tiny town. No matter how many times you say it Mayor Dean, until I actually see widespread construction of sidewalks, I don't believe you are actually addressing this issue. The decrepit condition of this towns roadways, the dangerous ditches, the lack of sidewalks and curbs, the decades of unused and outdated wires dangling everywhere are all quite embarrassing. These issues demand major action, not the half-hearted and small-minded efforts we have seen.

By: dogmrb on 7/20/10 at 4:16

This is the key phrase: "Mark Macy, Metro Public Works’ veteran director of engineering". Wonder if he was in charge of building sidewalks when Bredesen was Mayor. Bredesen's sidewalks put utility poles and mailboxes in the middle of the sidewalks. Very handicapped friendly ;-) Purcell built more sidewalks that are useable than any Mayor in recent history but we're just a backwards city when it comes to infrastructure. William Williams always does a great research and excellent writing.