Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Of Fippery

Of Fippery

MINUTES by Stephen Kelly
October 2, 2011

Of Fippery

The great rascally landscape architect of the 19th Century, Frederick Law Olmsted, had an opinion on meddling city bureaucrats and civil servants who sought to install flowerbeds, statuary, ornamental gardens and carriage ways in his great masterpiece Central Park.  “They didn’t carry out my plan.  Confound them!”  Such tinkering with his vision of simplicity was, “unreasonable, unjust and immoral.”  It was “vandalism.”

When designing his other great masterpiece, the 1893 Columbian Exposition, he wanted to avoid what, in his opinion, was the disquieting, gaudy and childish landscaping of the 1889 Paris Exposition.  Instead, “simplicity and reserve will be practiced and petty effects and fippery avoided.”  Just so.

As I drove on Wheeler Avenue the other day and came to the intersection at Wellesley Avenue I came across a piece of fippery.  The City in its wisdom was installing a traffic circle.

These traffic circles (or as they are sometimes known by their relative’s name, roundabouts) have been popping up here and there throughout Saint Paul.  There appears to be no plan for where they’re placed or reason giving as to why the reliable old stop sign can’t be used.  One wonders who’s responsible.

In my imagination I see a City traffic engineer sitting at a convention of traffic engineers when a fellow engineer from Boca Raton, Florida, says, “hey, you know what we installed?  Traffic circles.  They’re all the rage.  Very European.”

An impressed Saint Paul City Engineer thinks, “European, well dang we need some of those!”  And so it goes.

Maybe that’s not how it happened but one has to wonder how it did.  We live in a beautiful city, with a grid system of tree lined streets and boulevards, parkways and parks.  Our City is characteristically American with its mix of 19th century and bungalow houses, detached garages, kids playing baseball across three yards and people biking, jogging and walking kids and dogs up and down sidewalks.  It is why it has been dubbed America’s biggest small town.

It also is easy to get around in a way suburban plight is not.  Instead of coming out of a cul-de-sac onto over crowed arterial street, up to a 10 minute wait at a stoplight and then onward to backed up highways, we in Saint Paul have the choice of movement that only the grid system of street can give you.  Come to a corner and you can go straight, left or right.  Times that by every intersection and you have the most efficient street system ever designed.  Lucky us.

Then every couple of years a city engineer or some street planning cabal gets it into its mind to add bump outs, narrow the streets, add bikeways, use big crossing flags to dart across Fort Road, stripe bike lanes, install center median which cut off access to residential streets, add vertical enhancements, allow boulevard planting, turn two ways streets into one way streets, turn four lane streets in to two lane and now impose traffic circles.  Olmsted would have raged.

I am not against traffic circles.  They look very good in Paris and London.  As for bike lanes, I bet they look great in Holland.  I can’t tell you where the crossing flags look good.  Maybe at halftime during the Marching band performance.

Olmsted believed in unity of design.  He advised one of his subordinates, “Let us be thought over-much plain and simple, even bare, rather than gaudy, flashy, cheap and meretricious.”

Instead in Saint Paul we have a hodgepodge of every latest flavor of the day to come down the pipeline, inflicted upon us by each new set of street designers and urban planners at the City.  One block of a street may have bump outs and the next does not.  A bikeway may have dedicated lanes for bikes, until it doesn’t and the sharrows inform us to share the road with the bikes.  And now traffic circles are randomly popping up.  What do you think the City will look like after another 20 years of this?  Instead of looking like a planned European metropolis the progressives want, we will look more like Beirut or Kabul, with roadblocks, concrete circles and barriers at every turn.  We will look less like Saint Paul, less American.

I call for an end to this street design by fad.  I call for us to reclaim our American city, our small town with principles of American street design: flow, choice, simplicity, freedom and unity of design.  I call for an end to fippery.

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