Over the Thanksgiving holiday, I spent just over a week in the Godless drug hell that is the state of Colorado. We spent time in Denver, Boulder, and Golden, and while I think Little Rock can hang with those towns in terms of fresh, exciting food and innovative techniques, I was struck by something that they have that we really don’t:
reefer madness pedestrian friendly shopping and dining areas. In each city, I was able to have lunch with friends, walk to a bar for an after-dinner beer, then peruse the shops and stores at an easy pace, all without the Road Warrior-esque madness that passes for traffic in the River Market.
The idea of pedestrian-friendly areas downtown isn’t original with me, of course — plans within the last couple of years for a “creative corridor” on Main St. anchored by The Rep have some concepts for walkers and bikers that I think could make a big difference. And while I like the idea of creating pedestrian areas around Main Street, I don’t think those plans go far enough — the obvious place for a pedestrian mall in Little Rock is the River Market, from just after the intersection where Cumberland becomes La Harpe down all the way down to the Clinton Library. Coupled with the River Market trail and some really nice pedestrian bridges across the river, much of Clinton Avenue could become the sort of place where people meander from shop to bar to restaurant, easy as pie.
As it stands now, there are many people who won’t go down to the River Market for anything. Some fear for their safety, but most just can’t deal with the terrible traffic and life-threatening street crossings — something that is only exacerbated by parallel parking on either side of the street. Little Rock may have been named the most dangerous small city in America due to crime, but I’m far more worried about some yokel in an F-350 running me down as I go from Gus’s over to the Flying Saucer.
Given the amount of uproar that happened when South Main went to two lanes, I expect there are plenty of people who think that pedestrian areas in downtown are a terrible idea. Our state motto might say “Regnat Populus” but it probably should be “Like Hell I’ll Change.” This is an infuriating attitude, because we’re basically shackling our downtown with chains made from a pile of cars, with the result that people avoid the area just to save themselves the hassle. On Boulder’s Pearl St. (in a town just around half the size of Little Rock), there are benches, information kiosks, and all the wide-open space you can think of. In the River Market there are cars, cars, cars. Colorado is the 2nd healthiest state in the country. Arkansas is ranked 46th. You do the math.
It’s an exciting time to live in Little Rock. We are, in many ways, a really wonderful small town. By creating pedestrian friendly areas in both the River Market and Main Street areas, we get people out of their cars and paying attention to the city (which means giving them things to pay attention to). As an added bonus, this corridor will connect downtown north of I-630 with areas south of I-630, a highway built with segregationist ideals that have no place in our modern city. If we want to keep the ample cooking and artistic talent we are currently blessed with, we are going to have to make these people some money — and bringing folks downtown to a wonderland of traffic-free walking is one way to do it. And if the City of Little Rock is wondering how they’ll pay for all these changes, Colorado has a few tips for us there, too.