Wednesday, March 16, 2011

It's Florida....

Looking out on a rainy Wednesday, I figure it is a perfect time to reflect on an annual trip I take. Like many New Englanders, come mid winter I desire some warmth. So, I like to visit Florida for some spring training baseball.

Now, I could recount the five baseball games I saw (in five days no less), but that isn't really planning related. Instead, I want to pass on some observations, which are planning in nature. As a quick aside, Amy, I didn't take any photographs of catch basins or manholes - sorry (enjoy the one from Seattle).


Air Travel
One thing about Florida from a transportation planning POV is that they have the airports/air travel aspect down. You'd expect this from an area with such a strong tourism industry. You can easily reach the airports, the means to get in and out are clear and the flow at the airport seems to work well. No issues with rental cars either.

Car Travel
Every road seems to be a major arterial. It is amazing to me what auto travel on roads that were not originally cow paths that were eventually paved can be like. I am not just writing about interstates here, nor the limited access state highways. Typically we have three types of roads, local roads (residential in nature), collectors (think Whittier Street, or Sixth Street), and then arterial (Central Avenue). Well, my experience in Florida is that the local roads might be the same, but the next step seems to be an arterial. These roads are designed to be four lane roads, with a very wide Right of Way - even if not all used - that are flat and straight. They are designed with limited access built in and are not to be traveled at a slow 30 miles an hour.

Bike, Train etc
Famously, now, the State of Florida has turned down the federal stimulus moneys to be used to expand train systems. The Governor has said he does not favor high speed rail, and does not see the value in linking Tampa and Miami via trains.

I found it odd, then, that there is a very strong bicycle ethic in Florida. Everywhere you turn there is a bike path, and I am not just talking about sidewalks that double as bike paths, though sidewalks are everywhere. It helps that so much of the terrain is flat, and it is impressive to see people using the bike paths. There were some along the highway, and you could see that people use them and enjoy them. I do wonder if it is an affordability aspect. Bikes cost less to purchase and operate than cars, and with a temperate climate, can be used year round for many trips. Florida things nothing of bike racks, stands as common place - from what I saw.

The development pattern seems to be very proactive. I am not sure who puts the infrastructure in, whether it is the government (County is very strong), or if developers put it in, but there is a long view horizon used in placing infrastructure in the ground. The roads are designed for future use, with curb cuts and water/sanitary and storm water infrastructure put in the ground for the build out, as opposed to incrementally upgraded. Roads that I drove in 2007 had the four lanes etc, and cow pastures on either side. Now they have commercial nodes or golf course subdivisions where the cow pastures were. They built it (infrastructure) and development came.

Speaking of development, it is very much its own animal in Florida, and for that matter maybe other locales. Being a tourism based place, much of the development seems to be national chains and familiar names. Looking for someplace to eat, you'll feel at home with the Applebees, Friday's, Denny's etc. I didn't see much local, though I am sure it exists, just not in the commercial nodes off the major roads. I suspect this comes to a cost of rent/lease rate issue.

One interesting thing to me, coming from an urban center (didn't say vast or large), is the suburban feel to it all. Sure you have great urban centers like Sarasota, parts of Ft. Myers, or nice downtown areas like Venice, but the majority of what I saw was suburban strip. The community I stayed in had a new town center, off a major thoroughfare, with a new City Hall and new post office. You have residential enclaves that have access to the arterial, which have commercial nodes off them. I saw very little integration of uses. There are few if any neighborhood stores. Sure the residential enclave might have a gas station/convenience store at the entrance, but beyond that I did not experience a mixed use center outside of the established downtowns, such as Sarasota.

I didn't get to experience it, and certainly I was a tourist, but I always wonder in scenarios like that how the community aspect is. Do people feel part of the "municipality" or are they more rooted in their residential development? Do they say they are from Sarasota, or from Sarasota County? What is community living like? It is so automobile centric, that I wonder if it is that much harder to develop that community - place - driven feeling we enjoy in Dover.

Obviously it doesn't snow in Florida - at least Southwest Florida, and if it does, it is not snow like we have in New Hampshire. This allows for much different infrastructure development. Not just more bike paths, and roads, that treat storm water run off differently, (scuppers instead of catch basins), and certainly the consideration for plowing is not present. But there is a different year round use of the commercial nodes and roads.

The weather, climate and terrain, allows for a much different street scape consideration. Beyond palm trees and the like, vegetation is very different. It has a different flow to it. It certainly is more tropical, and has a different hue to it. I also noticed that there is a lot more sand or grit in places I wouldn't have expected either element.

Overall, Florida is certainly not New Hampshire. Nothing bad here, just different. I think it is a important to see different communities and places, and am happy to have had the opportunity. Experiences frame our thinking and make us better planners. It is always good to research and learn from our neighbors and partners no matter how close or far away they are.

Speaking of learning, I'd like to remind you (presuming you've read this far), that this Saturday is TuttleFest. You can come and learn about the work we are doing to promote sustainability in Dover, and learn about local farming and agricultural needs.

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