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, walkscore.com 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.”
Sid 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 passengers.
“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.”
The 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.
“The 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
Creating 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.
“No 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.”
In Oklahoma City’s case, that would include such areas as Midtown, Uptown, the Plaza District, the Asian District and the Paseo Arts District.
“I 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.”
Lynn 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.
Prior 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 Sustainability.
“In 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 functional.
“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.”
For 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.
“Oklahoma 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).
An avid cyclist who rides to work every day, Brady said many city residents have a “huge hunger” to bike and walk in their neighborhoods safely.
“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.
The 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 trail.“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.”
The 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 place.
The program notched its busiest month in June with 1,659 rides.
Spokies 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 spokiesokc.com.