Recently, a visiting presenter to Anchorage gave a talk that resonated with the Anchorage business community and many local leaders. Hosted by the AEDC, Roger Brooks, author and ‘placemaking expert’, spoke about how Anchorage could be a more attractive place for tourists. Brooks stressed the importance of navigable streets and wayfinding. He emphasized that cities should be designed around people, not only cars. He poked fun at our confusing and busy one way streets. Here’s the thing: although a polished presenter and entertaining educator, Mr. Brooks wasn’t saying anything new. Local advocates and community members have been shouting these truths for years.
The reality is that Anchorage, for too long, has been a city designed primarily around cars. Excess parking eats up our buildable land and policies that incentivize parking lots result in sprawling seas of pavement. High speed, one-way highways course recklessly through our urban core and frequently result in pedestrians being harmed. Skinny, rollercoaster sidewalks are interrupted by utility poles smack-dab in the middle of walkways. Pedestrians, cyclists, wheelchair users, kids walking to school during a bus driver shortage: Anchorage infrastructure is, frankly, not safe for these user groups.
Anchorage can and should be a model for better urban planning and infrastructure. We are the largest city in Alaska, and the northernmost metropolis in the world. We enjoy unparalleled access to nature–even in an urban context–via our trails and parks. We have boundless potential to be a city of innovation, whether in technology or in transit. To make that happen, we’re going to have to turn off the autopilot mode that simply maximizes high-speed vehicular flow.
The Anchorage Assembly is paying close attention to this matter and we are looking for solutions. First, we hope to organize a joint task force with ASD and the Anchorage School Board on safe walking routes to schools. Assembly members Cross, Sulte, and myself have volunteered for this task force and we are looking forward to this important work.
Second, members are interested in how we can harness the power of our Metropolitan Planning Organization, AMATS, to envision and build a safer, more pedestrian-, cyclist- and wheelchair-friendly city. When casting the future of our city in concrete, we need to ensure that the end product is inclusive of multiple types of commuters, resilient to climate change, and attractive to tourists.
Every four years, the AMATS Policy Committee creates a new Transportation Improvement Program, or “TIP”. The TIP prioritizes how federal dollars will be spent on capital improvements to our transportation system in the Municipality. It is a five member voting body, comprised of 1) two Assembly members, 2) the Commissioner of ADOT&PF or designee, 3) the Mayor of Anchorage or designee, 4) and the Commissioner of the SOA Dept. of Environmental Conservation or designee. This five member body decides which projects will be included in the next four years. There is also an Assembly member alternate position (currently yours truly).
In an effort to express our desire that the 2023-2026 TIP prioritize safety for non-motorized travel, Assembly members Zaletel and Dunbar, who serve on the AMATS Policy Committee, and myself will soon bring forward a resolution before the Anchorage Assembly that calls for the deletion of an unpopular and long-opposed highway expansion project in favor of adding a corridor study of the busy A/C couplet that runs from Midtown to Downtown. We want to know how this urban corridor can be made safer for all user groups. Additionally, the resolution supports a trail & easement inventory, downtown traffic signal upgrades, and a greenhouse gas emissions reduction plan. Although the entire Assembly doesn’t get to vote on the TIP, we hope that the resolution, if passed, will be a strong statement in support of the AMATS Policy Committee implementing these changes in the final approved version.
This resolution is the start of a broader policymaking conversation. It’s imperative that Anchorage go a step further and develop transportation plans that reflect the goals and values of our community. On interrelated issues of transportation, infrastructure, and land use, the time is now for Anchorage to make bold policy decisions and to embrace a design future that revolves around people, not just cars.
Daniel Volland represents District 1 – North Anchorage – on the Anchorage Assembly.