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Driving a Spaghetti Western

March 7th, 2006 by dk

If consultants John Huyler and Dennis Donald want to understand consensus in Eugene around the West Eugene Parkway, they might call George Clooney for some advice. At the Academy Awards this week, Clooney demonstrated his understanding of the liberal mindset. As the winner of the first award given (for best supporting actor), his first words were: “OK, so I’m not winning best director” (for which he was also nominated.)

As promised, Clooney did not win for best director. The members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, a famously liberal bunch, divided the top six Oscars to six different films. There was no piling on.

Losers make liberals feel bad, so they spread their votes around. What makes conservatives feel bad isn’t losers, but losing. They’ll pick a direction and barrel ahead. So long as they win, there’s little else to consider.

Eugene didn’t open its downtown streets when a the buzz turned against their closure. That would have happened decades ago. We didn’t open the streets when most people wanted them opened. We waited until it was overwhelmingly favored. It was nearly 80 percent approved by some estimates before the work began, and even then we felt bad for the 20 percent. Whatever bad consequences have resulted from Connor and Woolley refusing to fill their storefronts just to maintain appearances, helping the public reach near-unanimity on opening the streets must be counted as a good consequence.

Roads are inherently coercive. Once they are in place, there’s no softening the edges left to be done. There are winners and losers and that’s that. Have you ever noticed how the roads in Eugene sometimes resemble driving inside an Escher print? Lanes keep ending and merging left until you’re sure there are no more lanes, but there’s another one, appearing from nowhere. There’s the West Broadway neighborhood where it seems every street is one way heading out, leaving no way to get in. There’s the higgledy-piggledy approach into east Eugene from the Glenwood exit. And of course, there’s always explaining to a newcomer how to get to Valley River Center from downtown, just for kicks.

Why do these roads twist and curl like entrails in the belly of a city playing hard to get? Because people were unhappy when the road design was suggested and nobody here likes anybody else to be unhappy.

Smart road designers came to town and declared that downtown’s central north-south artery was weakened by its one-way status from 13th to 20th. Willamette Street nearly joins the two buttes and represents “zero” on the streets that cross it. A strong divider between east and west only makes sense. Except a few business owners didn’t like it. They prevailed upon a city councilor, and the road is still one-way for a few short blocks.

Bus Rapid Transit will have the same cobbled-together design because squeaky wheels always get greased in Eugene. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it does make our ways daunting to newcomers. And since Huyler and Donald are new to Eugene, it’s best they understand our ways.

Every trip takes us a couple minutes longer than it should in Eugene, as we navigate one-way streets or twist and turn around some forgotten homestead, but this is our way of empathizing with those who didn’t want the road we’re using in the first place. It’s our way of giving six Oscars to six different films.

Roads are different in the Midwest, where grids celebrate the value of surveyors’ tools on a flat plain. In Colorado, the obstacles to any straight lines are visible for all to see. Here the obstacles are invisible, but no less real.

Sportscaster and radio legend Wendy Ray said it perfectly a few years ago when he considered aloud what Eugene really wants. “I can tell you what Eugene wants. It wants diversified consensus.”

Any West Eugene Parkway alternative that emerges must emblemize empathy.

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