Tulsa-my perspective on the ground

 

Today I had the pleasure of going to downtown Tulsa for a long overnight.  My company so graciously put me up in the downtown Double Tree hotel. On the drive to the hotel from the airport, I asked my very talkative shuttle driver for recommendations for a great place to eat lunch.  Feeling in the mood for BBQ, he offered two suggestions in the Blue Dome District; giving the nod to Albert G’s Bar & Q restaurant.  I was completely delighted by one of their specialties; a smothered baked sweet potato, covered with brisket, BBQ sauce and sour cream.  The bartender encouraged me to try the pickle bar and it certainly did not disappoint.  A ton of food and very economically priced.  I arrived at noon and there was a brisk lunch time crowd. I absolutely loved the decor; the building was over 100 years old with exposed brick walls; high ceilings and a rustic look.  My bartender was quick to take my order and was outgoing and friendly.

I wanted to get a better feel for Tulsa’s downtown.  I came here about a 14 months ago and stayed downtown then as well.  At that time, I was able to ride bike along the Arkansas river on the trail.  A nice related story about that; I was going to rent one of the Tulsa “Townie” bikes parked along the trail.  I could not get the kiosk to rent me a bike; as this was not a familiar B cycle station, the bikes were managed by an independent company .  A nice lady saw me trying to figure out the kiosk and she tried to help me.  I told her I loved riding bike and was looking forward to a ride along the river. We could not get the kiosk to work and I was disappointed.  She quickly said, “My apartment is just across the street, you can ride my bike!” I was just overwhelmed by her midwest hospitality. Of course, I quickly said “yes!” and offered to leave my drivers license with her to prove I would bring the bike back.  She quickly added, “no, I can trust you.”  And she had the cutest 3 speed bike painted teal with a darling wicker basket. I had a delightful ride that day along the river.  I went all the way down to the casino and back.  According to MapMyRide; I rode 18 miles that day.  The trail is lovely; sponsored by the health system in Tulsa.  There are actually two paths that are paved; one for people walking their dogs and pushing strollers; the other for serious bikers.  There are beautiful trees; street lights lighting the path and great views of the river.  I returned the bike that evening after having a big salad at a restaurant right on the bike trail.  Since that great trail ride, I have judged many other city trails against the Tulsa trail. It truly is a very nice trail for the community.

This time I wanted to walk through the downtown of Tulsa and judge the city as a pedestrian. I am not an expert but I have read a lot about walkability, bikeability and pedestrian friendly downtowns. I watch webinars regarding bike friendly communities; walk scores and urban design & planning…just for fun!  This last year I have been consumed with learning about urban design.  My job as a flight attendant takes me all over this great country and I dearly love travel.  I have always loved great design and notice architecture everywhere.  I have read many books about sustainability and resiliency and I desire to further my knowledge in this field.  I have considered returning to school and formally learning the courses taken by urban planners and designers.  I would love to focus on biking transportation and pedestrian friendly communities.

It’s with the basic knowledge that I have acquired in the past year, I bring the following critique of downtown Tulsa.   As a flight attendant; I see many regional sized cities and can easily compare them to each other.  This critique only covers the area of downtown I walked around (over 2 miles total of wandering).  Tulsa is like many other cities; carved up by interstates and multiple lane highways.  The downtown area is essentially a circle surrounded by an expressway.  They have many one way streets; with multiple four lanes, all going in one direction.  Parking spaces line both sides of their one way streets.  Honestly; I feel Tulsa could go on a “road diet” as the roads are just not that busy.  A road diet is when a four lane road is taken and repainted to be a two lane road; with bike lanes added.  A turn lane is placed in the middle; the lanes are narrowed.  The curb to curb ratio remains the same but there is more space for bike lanes.  The roads I am talking about are all one way streets that are four lanes wide. I would love to find their actual “car counts” for some of these streets.  The DOT studies car counts all the time; I am sure the numbers are available somewhere on a website.   Tulsa was definitely designed for the auto dependent resident. The traffic that was actually driving on the streets was going quite fast as well.  Pedestrians feel allot safer when the speed of the cars racing by is lower.  Road diets also tend to lower the noise from traffic and make outdoor patio restaurant seating more inviting.  There was some nice sidewalk space in the Blue Dome district that could easily accommodate outdoor patios for three seasons. There were no bike lanes painted on any of the streets.  I did see two people biking today (temperature was 43) but they just took their space along the row of parked cars.  As a biker; I am always cautious of biking along a row of parked cars as I am always looking to prevent being “doored” when i am riding.

The one thing I did notice repeatedly; Tulsa has parking ramps!  Everywhere! above the ground and below the ground.  They take up 3/4 of a block sometimes or greater.  There is also an overabundance of ground parking lots and copious curb side parking.  A few of the ramps have tried to aesthetically improve the outside of the ramps but you can’t put lipstick on a pig I say! I imagine the zoning laws in Tulsa favor parking ramps.  I noticed the lots were maybe 60-75% full and parking costs were very cheap compared to other cities.  I say raise the cost of parking and get rid of about half of them!  Parking lots should be priced for 80% occupancy.  Parking spots are prime real estate and they are taking over the downtown!  If I was redeveloping Tulsa; I would reduce the zoning laws requiring parking spaces and I would get rid of a few of the ground lots and redevelop the space with 4 story mixed use/condo residencies; ground floor full of shops; floors 2,3,4 are condos.  Many cities are reducing their parking zoning requirements and allowing “shadow” parking.  Meaning, that a developer can count a parking space for the resident from 6pm to 8am and for business owner from 8am until 6pm.  This reduces the overall need for parking spaces.

Tulsa has some nice art placed through out the downtown; a sculpture here; a painted wall there.  But there could be much more art space through out.  The Blue Dome area has some nice galleries and artwork/signage. They have the four B’s found in downtown…Banners, Berms, Bollards and Benches.  There was some nice landscaping around some buildings.  Trees lined many of the streets.  I would love to see more green space though; small little parks (perhaps in a space that used to be a parking lot!).  There is some nice architecture; especially looking up at sky line.  But near the ground some of the store fronts in the core of downtown could improve their aesthetics. I imagine a few less parking lots would be helpful for Tulsa’s run off as well.  The downtown is a bit hilly and I imagine all the storm water flows towards the Arkansas river.  Parking lots and large surfaces of asphalt can cause problems with runoff. If they took a few surface parking lots and converted them to green space/parks or added some urban garden plots, the runoff would be more environmentally controlled.

I looked up Tulsa online and they did receive the Bronze award for being a bike friendly city. The signage downtown is thorough and plentiful.  Their trail system is very nice and I saw a racing group on a group ride the last time I was here. If they had a central area downtown where people could congregate to eat; where food trucks can be set up, that would increase foot traffic.  A place or two of green parks instead of so much parking. I would continue to develop the Blue Dome District and along the edges of it I would add more mixed use retail/condo buildings.  I saw bike racks parked through out downtown and the transit system is functioning.  I did not see many business people using the transit system.  The old YMCA building needs to be torn down and redeveloped.  I am excited to come back in the summer.  I see that Tulsa wants bike share companies to submit requests to the city so I hold out hope that B Cycle will come their way.  It is so much easier to see a city on bike!