Stepping up

Several large corporations and shopping malls sprang up on the fringes, while most upscale residential developments headed for the suburbs. Downtown was not a welcoming place after 5 p.m. on weekdays, as the exodus of workers left behind an area predominantly populated by vagrants.

Mass transit, for the most part, was allowed to wither, its bus system only for those who had no other option. By and large, living in Oklahoma City required a motor vehicle. The terms “walkable,” “bikeable” and “sustainable” were not part of the city leadership’s vernacular 40 years ago.

Slowly, that mindset changed. Passage of the original 1993 Metropolitan Area Projects (MAPS) initiative, in which taxpayers approved $350 million for downtown revitalization, kickstarted the city’s climb as a “big league” city, said Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett.

Still, it was an altogether different issue that brought walkability to the forefront for the city’s three-term mayor.

“My awareness began after I started looking at the obesity issue in 2007. We were placed on the list of the most obese cities in the nation,” he said.

At that point, Cornett and the city’s planning department started examining the metro’s infrastructure in connection with sidewalks, trails and pedestrian safety.

“We found it is difficult to get around redesigned downtown streets, sidewalks, parks and plazas to bolster appearance and make areas more pedestrian-friendly.

Outside the downtown core, however, sidewalks and trails were almost nonexistent. That problem prompted voter passage of an $835 million general obligation bond issue to fund an estimated 275 miles of sidewalks at a cost of about $70 million.

“We had built an incredible grid, but it was designed for cars, not people,” Cornett said. “We’re going to live healthier lives if we spend it outside our cars. When people walk, they engage with their neighbors and have a higher quality of life.”

Making more changes
Oklahoma City residents, fully aware of deficiencies facing the city, approved another temporary sales tax increase with MAPS 3 in 2009, which funded such projects as $39.5 million for 32 miles of walking and biking trails and $9.1 million for 35 miles of new sidewalks. Also included is a new convention center, a downtown streetcar system, a 70-acre public park and Oklahoma River improvements. Total, MAPS 3 will provide $777 million in public infrastructure improvements, many of which focus on an active lifestyle.

Not to be outdone, private developers — with the aid of some government financing — followed the city’s lead with new downtown housing as well as new businesses to accommodate the needs of a growing number of urban dwellers. Now, thousands of people live, work, play and shop downtown without needing a vehicle.

That’s good news since Oklahoma City still ranks sixth-worst in the nation in terms of obesity ratings, with 1 in 3 residents qualifying as obese, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Although new trails and sidewalks are being built, Oklahoma City is 48th among large cities in terms of walking and biking scores. Noting that its residents typically require a vehicle for their errands, scored Oklahoma City at 36 out of a possible 100 for walkability and a 39 for bikeability.

Ward 2 Councilman Ed Shadid said bolstering walkability is vital for better physical and mental health.

“It brings about psychological and spiritual health and a sense of community,” said Shadid, a spinal surgeon.

“With Oklahoma City’s urban sprawl and lack of walkability, the built-in environment pushes us to isolation from one another. When you have places that are not just walkable, but walkable destinations that people want to go to, you foster a sense of community and community-building.”

He pointed to the Plaza District along NW 16th Street. In recent years, the once impoverished neighborhood
has become a popular gathering place for neighbors and visitors. “That’s
a place where large patio areas were built in lieu of 4- and 5-foot
sidewalks. This allows people to dine outdoors, congregate and walk. You
can even put benches out there,” Shadid said. “It’s socialization that
brings people together. When people are sharing ideas with one another,
you get innovation.”

Getting personal
Burgess, his wife and their three children understand what Shadid is
talking about. Residing in the Deep Deuce area near downtown, they gave
up cars three years ago and are full-time walkers, bikers and bus

“We are
big walkability advocates,” Burgess said. “We use the bus all the time.
Obviously, it doesn’t provide doorstep-to-doorstep service like a car,
but I can’t recall not getting to a place when we needed to be there.”

family also makes use of the Spokies bike-share system operated by
Downtown Oklahoma City Inc., as well as the new TimeCar program. That
latter initiative, which opened four months ago at NE 2nd Street and
Oklahoma Avenue in Deep Deuce, allows members to rent a car by the hour
at any time of day.

“We use Spokies all the time, and if we have a long trip, we’ll use TimeCar. We just jump in and drive off,” said Burgess.

TimeCar also has stations at Oklahoma City University, the city’s University of Oklahoma campus and the Crowne Plaza Hotel.

When the Burgesses moved
from Washington to Oklahoma, they were a two-car family but quickly
decided to keep only one vehicle as a “necessary evil.”

“Getting rid of that first car was the biggest pay raise we’ve ever given ourselves,” Burgess said.

It wasn’t long before the couple decided to let go of that second car.

As Burgess noted, he and his wife are teaching their children — ages 7, 4 and 2 — how to live without a personal vehicle.

kids are fine with it, and they know the bus system very well,” he
said. “We adopted the strategy that when they learned to walk, they
walk. They’re good about getting around this area of the city. They
think it’s a big treat when we do use a car.”

Picking up speed
a strong, vibrant, walkable downtown is critical to any city’s success,
noted Dan Burden, executive director of the Walkable and Livable
Communities Institute, located in Port Townsend, Wash. Considered by
many to be the nation’s foremost authority on walkability and bicycle
and pedestrian programs, Burden said development of a city’s “core”
includes transforming industrial yards, cultural centers and river
fronts into attractive properties.

town makes it big without those investments,” Burden said. “You get
downtown where it’s picking up that energy, and then you go to the
second ring of neighborhoods around that core. Until the heart or the
core of the city comes alive, your home won’t be worth much. When the
core is making money, you have funds to put elsewhere.”

Oklahoma City’s case, that would include such areas as Midtown, Uptown,
the Plaza District, the Asian District and the Paseo Arts District.

think the city is starting to see areas outside of downtown as gold
mines,” he said, referring specifically to the Plaza District and the
entertainment hub along Western Avenue. “They are small, unique, good
neighborhoods. You fix the key streets and create more densification.”

Richards, Loeb Fellow at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, said
public and private investments should target areas where existing assets
can be leveraged. Citing Lancaster, Calif., as an example, she said
city officials there spent $11.5 million on a specific corridor that
subsequently attracted $300 million in private investments.

“They made it walkable, built 800 new homes and 60 new businesses.”

Pre-World War II
While walkability is the current buzzword in urban planning, it’s actually the resurrection of a decades-old way of life.

to World War II, cities were built along the same path as Deep Deuce or
Midtown, with a mix of homes and businesses in the same immediate area,
said Jennifer Gooden, director of Oklahoma City’s Office of

the last decade, we’ve been coming back to that because it creates an
enjoyable place to be,” she said. “It is not about getting rid of cars.
It’s an option to get around if you don’t want a car. Walkability served
as the baseline until after World War II.” Gooden explained that making
a community walkable eliminates the need for expensive gym memberships
while creating more energy-efficient cities that are “beautiful and

“We are at
a turning point. There is a strong interest across the board for all
ages, but there is great interest among the millennials. It’s also
important to retirees because it means independence for seniors who
maybe can’t drive anymore.”

Rolling along
people who prefer wheels but don’t want to drive a car, bicycles are an
increasingly popular mode of transportation that passes the green test.
Yet, Oklahoma City’s lack of trails can pose a problem for many
aspiring recreational bicyclists.

City is making progress, but they have a long way to go because of
decades of decisions regarding land use and placing cars over other
modes of transportation,” said Kate Brady, associate planner for bicycle
and pedestrian programs at the Association of Central Oklahoma
Governments (ACOG).

avid cyclist who rides to work every day, Brady said many city
residents have a “huge hunger” to bike and walk in their neighborhoods

“But it’s not
for everybody; there are large numbers of people who do not want to bike
or walk,” she said. “It boils down to whether you have the option of
walking and biking somewhere. If I can bike my two miles to work, that’s
a half-hour of exercise every day.” City planners are working to build a
bike trail loop that connects the metro’s three major lakes — from Lake
Hefner in the northwest section to Lake Overholser in the west and to
Lake Draper in eastern Oklahoma County.

city’s transportation planner, Randy Entz, acknowledged the city is in
dire need of more trails and dedicated bike lanes that make riders feel
safe. Currently, Lake Hefner offers the city’s only dedicated bike

“Fifty percent
of the trips you take are under five miles, and that’s easy if the
facilities are there. We don’t have a very friendly bicycle community
yet,” said Entz. “It’s going to take time. Our goal is to start making
[bike trail] connections to our neighborhoods. We want to put in bike
lanes and routes where we can.”

popularity of biking is evident by the increased use of Spokies, which
started last year. Between May and December of 2012, the program
recorded 4,369 rides. So far in 2013, more than 5,300 rides have taken

The program notched its busiest month in June with 1,659 rides.

kiosks are located at the Ronald J. Norick Downtown Library, the
Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum, Plaza Court in Midtown,
Deep Deuce at Walnut and Second Street, the south side of the Chickasaw
Bricktown Ballpark, the northeast corner of Reno and Robinson avenues
near the Cox Convention Center and at Ninth Street and Broadway Avenue
in Automobile Alley.

Learn more about program fees and future plans at

Tim Farley

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