Track Town Could Curb the Rat Race With Shortcuts

How could it be that my clearest childhood memory of summer is being in a hurry? Summertime meant no clocks to watch, so why was it also always so rushed? Everywhere I went, I needed to get there fast.

As soon as the school bell rang for the last time in June, I ran home. I celebrated not having to do things by making lists of things I just had to do before Labor Day: fill an old relish jar with lightning bugs, hold my breath from one end of the pool to the other, get my hand print immortalized into some new sidewalk cement somewhere, ride my bike all the way to the schoolyard and back (including the notorious Cumberland Lane hill) without stopping.

The recurring theme was “without stopping.” I didn’t want to feel later like I had wasted my summer. Every fall, I wished I could have done more. I wished I could have had two summers.

This year, thanks to air travel, I finally did.

I spent almost a quarter of last winter in New Zealand, having an extra summer. Now that Oregon’s summer has officially begun, I can unwrap for city planners the gift I brought home from Down Under.

It’s a gift for children and families who feel in a hurry. It’s a plan that will get neighbors bumping into each other more frequently. It will get many of us out of our cars for short errands, into our neighborhoods, and into the sunshine.

Auckland, New Zealand is three times as large as Eugene. Its terrain is hilly, so the streets tend to follow the contours of an elevation map. Like the oldest parts of Eugene, Auckland’s residential blocks are long.

Eugene could use what Auckland’s got. There’s probably certified planner terminology, but you’ll know them by what we called them as children: cut-throughs.

Back then, a full summer day of doing nothing ended with a race home for dinner. We weren’t racing the clock, because we didn’t have one. We hadn’t yet learned the term “rat race.” But we were racing nonetheless.

When you’re racing, there’s nothing better than a shortcut. We used to scout for unfenced yards owned by forgiving, inattentive, absent or slow neighbors — adults who wouldn’t punish us for cutting through to save a few steps.

Offer somebody a shortcut today, and they feel that same relief. But it’s not a memory; it’s very here-and-now. Don’t you feel like you’re racing, all day, everyday? We drive everywhere, even if we’re going just a few blocks. Walking is better for us, but driving feels more efficient.

Auckland’s cut-throughs change that equation, giving pedestrians and bicyclists an advantage. They look like ribbon parks — narrow paved passages in the middle of their long blocks.

New Zealanders value the commons more than most Americans. They don’t obsess about privacy and property rights the way we do. But Eugene could build cut-throughs without condemning private property.

If adjoining mid-block property owners voluntarily “gave” sufficient land for a pedestrian passageway, which the city then built, maintained and lit for safety, no government “takings” would be required. The city could incentivize strategic land donations by offering property tax rebates to willing homeowners.

I’ve discussed this with my backyard neighbor Michele and we’d both do it if we could, as a gift to our neighbors, our city, and our planet.

If your most direct path to the grocery store was only available on foot or by bike, you might not drive for a quick trip for a couple of ingredients. And if you bumped into a neighbor along the way and learned about another neighbor’s recent knee surgery, you might get a little extra at the store. Doubling your recipe won’t take any more time, and that recovering neighbor will be so grateful for the meal.

Communities grow together when small gestures like this accumulate. They happen naturally and require almost no effort, once we remove the windshields that separate us.

It’s a summertime solution, from somebody who got a little extra this year and wants to give back. It’s not as good as a hand in wet cement, but almost.

==

Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs.