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North Union Street Roundabout, USA

Swings and roundabouts

Olean in New York State was typical of many once-proud cities. The downtown area had seen much better days. Local business owner Jeff Belt knew how to save it. That bit was easy. But first, he needed to get his fellow residents on board.

New York Business Owner Jeff Belt

Jeff Belt

Sometimes you’ve got to make a stand. I’m a small-town-guy and I hate seeing what’s happening to small-town-America. I’m fed up of car dependency, urban sprawl and inner-city ghost towns. In the 1920s, our small towns were the best planned in the world. But we turned our back on them in the 1950s and left them to rot. I wanted to save this little town where I have a business. I dreamed of making Olean the beautiful and vibrant rural town centre that it once was and could be again.

Highways carve up cities, and they divide society too. We’re seeing a worrying division between those who can drive and those who can’t, such as the very old and the very poor. If you can’t drive, your prospects become diminished. You risk isolation. Whole communities are losing hope. We’re creating a society that leaves some people marginalised. Sure, it works when it’s working. But when there’s a crosswind, people get blown away. I could see it happening in Olean.

When I first recommended the traffic calming measures, I framed it as an economic development initiative. I met a lot of resistance, because the traditional leaders – whether in City Hall or the loudest guy at the end of the bar – couldn’t see the link. For them, economic development means a tax inducement to a big company. But that literally does not work in the US any more. If you want a strong economy, you must attract people with in-demand skills. Then the employers will choose your town. Look at Google. They ask their people where they want to live, then build a Googleplex in that community. They’re doing OK.

The two things people are most frustrated with are the status quo and change. There was huge fear of the unknown in Olean. When the roundabouts started to go in, people really reacted negatively. But when they started using them, they changed their minds. This is very predictable for traffic calming and passive intersection devices. Ultimately, people will like them more than huge roads and traffic lights.

Now, folk are out in the evenings and pushing strollers. It’s like having a linear park through the middle of our city. People are encouraged to walk and ride bikes. You’d never see anyone cycling on the old street scheme. We’ve truly civilised the downtown. Even the drivers are more polite.

The inner-city retailers are taking more pride. Footfall is up. For years there was no construction or improvements. Now, there’s a dozen storefronts being renovated. Property values are rising and new businesses are coming in. There’s a sense of renewed optimism. Olean is on the comeback trail.

You can get a good meal with the family too. Before, the restaurants didn’t address the street. Why would you with cars and trucks chugging past? Now, these buildings are being renovated with more glass out front and areas for outdoor dining. They’re piping music, whereas in the old days you wouldn’t hear it.

So, the vision is happening. I’ve said from the beginning: this is not going to fail. If you do a really good walkability makeover in the downtown area you’re going to get follow-on private investment. Fact. That’s why walkable urban placemaking is the single most effective economic development strategy in the US today.

I’m not really a high profile guy. I try to stay behind the scenes and give credit to elected leaders who need it more. But I like the fact I can walk my daughter to her dance class, and not fear we’re going to get squashed on the street. And I’m getting fewer evil looks these days. I don’t cringe when people approach me in a restaurant. They’re coming to shake my hand rather than shake a finger in my face.

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