Joe Urban | Sam Newberg, Urbanist

Springfield (and Shelbyville): My Hometown, USA

Dateline: 7:02 am January 30, 2013 Filed under:

I forget if the ill-advised and ill-fated monorail from the Simpsons was in Springfield or neighboring arch-rival Shelbyville (or both). I just spent a four day working weekend doing a market study in Shelbyville, Tennessee, and they didn’t have a monorail. But maybe a little more coordinated transportation and land use planning would help not just Shelbyville but many cities across this land, at least based on the transportation calamity I constantly witnessed in my four day trip.

This gets at my larger point. For working in Shelbyville, I based myself in Smyrna, a southeast suburb of Nashville, and about 35 minutes north of Shelbyville. That way, I was close enough to Shelbyville but could also see a little of Nashville.
Approaching the city for the first time on a divided four-lane highway at 55 MPH, I missed a pretty bad car wreck by just a few minutes. A car crossing or entering the highway got nailed by another at a high rate of speed.

Later, back in my Smyrna (rhymes with “Verna”) hotel room overlooking Interstate 24 (the hum of the traffic lulls me right to sleep) I became aware that traffic was moving slowly, which was odd for a Sunday. I looked out the window to see a pretty bad fender bender between two cars spun out across several lanes of traffic. The freeway ground to a halt awaiting ambulances (there were no injuries but the hospital was next to the adjacent off-ramp so ambulances were first to respond). Soon the cars were cleared and it was as if nothing happened.

Back in Shelbyville the next day I noticed the utter lack of sidewalks, which matters less because the city of 20,000 spread out for several miles along the various highways that met there. The distances are so great, even sidewalks don’t provide many destinations. Needless to say, a monorail might not help much, and be the boondoggle it was in the Simpsons. The evidence is people who do walk there don’t even bother to find a crosswalk – they just go.

It is kind of too bad, because I became quite fond of Shelbyville, especially its historic town square surrounding the courthouse. As you might guess, it is quite walkable, with lovely buildings, employment, Pope’s Cafe, a public library and even a first run movie theater. How wonderful! (I couldn’t shake the feeling that this is the kind of town Bruce Springsteen writes about. The only difference is the factory hasn’t shut down.) Too bad the land use policy of the city allows the new hospital to be built six miles away (six miles is excessive in a town of 20,000) when a suitable site exists one block from the square.

You see, I don’t mean to pick on Shelbyville. After all, everywhere you go, poor transportation planning makes public rights of way unsafe for all, particularly pedestrians. In Hendersonville, for example, just after visiting the graves of Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash (within view of a Lowe’s home improvement store – ain’t that America!?), I was driving along the main arterial (called, of course, Main Street) and noticed a gaggle of junior high students cross six lanes of traffic in a feat of derring-do in order to reach the standalone KFC on the other side. Of course, there was a sign alerting drivers of a school nearby, but for the hungry students, it wasn’t worth walking several hundred extra feet of roadside drainage ditch to reach a crosswalk where you’d still have to dodge speeding turning traffic.

In the Simpsons, they never say where Springfield actually is, or Shelbyville for that matter. I guess it doesn’t matter. My weekend sums it up with high-speed scary car wrecks and unsafe pedestrians dodging cars. Everywhere you go, we build roads that are still unsafe for cars, and pedestrians are an afterthought, left to fend for themselves. The problem is these are someone’s home town, not just a place to pass through.

There is hope, though, and it involves land use and transportation policies that bolster the historic town squares we love and create neighborhoods close to them, not scattered miles away. And you connect it all with a more balanced transportation system that allows safe walking and encourages safe driving, and perhaps the occasional monorail.

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