Wednesday, March 30, 2016

What Streets Can Learn From Boardwalks

The Asbury Park Boardwalk and the Teacup

What would our streets look like if we gave them back to the people? In my opinion, they'd look a lot like boardwalks.

Recently I've been spending a bunch of time on the Asbury Park boardwalk. Just to orient you, the boardwalk runs north-south. To the east is the beach and the Atlantic Ocean. To the west is Ocean Avenue, on the western side of which lie a number of cultural attractions, including the Stone Pony, where Bruce Springsteen still shows up occasionally to jam. Madam Marie's is actually on the boardwalk, along with a bunch of pavilions that contain restaurants, saloons, a pinball museum that also sells pizza, and a variety of retail shops ranging from schlock to above my pay grade.

Towards the north, and straddling the boardwalk, lies Convention Hall, which has a bunch of shops, two theaters, two saloons, an oyster bar, and one of my favorite coffee shops in the world. I have to say that my favorite favorite coffee shop in Asbury Park is Volan, which is over in the business district, near Cookman Avenue.

Towards the south, near the Methodist camp meeting site known as Ocean Grove, is something called the Casino, which figured greatly in television news broadcasts after Hurricane Sandy. The Casino is a wreck. It was a wreck many years before Sandy. But still it was a good backdrop, and it helped bring money to the Jersey shore at an important time, so I'm not complaining about the journalistic shorthand. The main attraction at the Casino is the guy with the keyboard who plays carousel tunes - there once was a carousel in the carousel house next to the Casino, but it's not there anymore.

The Teacup
My favorite part of the boardwalk is the Teacup. It lies about midway between Convention Hall and the Casino, and it is part of a children's water park. The Teacup is very large and sits on a high podium; it fills slowly as the little children stand below, and when it is full it tips over and showers them - inundates them - with water. The children squeal with delight and run around. I stand and watch this, and I am delighted.

Photo by Alicia West
The Teacup tells us something about fun, and it reminds us that we were not necessarily designed for the world that we now live in. And here's the thing: the whole boardwalk is that way. It shows us, pretty much, what streets were like before the cars came.

Streets used to be about people on foot - pedestrians. Of course there were other occupants of the road, mainly horse-drawn wagons, carriages, and streetcars, but pedestrians set the tone, and most traffic didn't go much faster than a brisk walk.

And the street was not just for coming and going. It was also for socializing and entertainment - for dwelling. It was okay to stop in the middle of the street and talk to a friend you had just run into. And people did not march down the right side of the street in columns of four, like infantry regiments on parade. They wandered, they swirled, they doubled back to look at something interesting. Pretty much the way they behave on a boardwalk today.

No Lines, No Signs
Naturally there are those who would like to organize the traffic on the boardwalk, make it look more like the car traffic on the street. In Asbury Park even some bicyclists find the random, impulsive, darting behavior of pedestrians frustrating, and there has been talk of striping bicycle lanes on the boardwalk.

But the search for order misses the point. Carving up the boardwalk with separate lanes for different uses would simply turn it into a modern street. In the old street nobody owned a lane, and the pedestrian had the right of way over the street's larger, faster denizens.

And in fact there were no lane stripes. There were no traffic signals. People actually had to deal with one another and negotiate their paths. This goes on today, every day, on the Asbury Park boardwalk.

The system was a bit chaotic, but it allowed people to behave naturally, and everybody was moving slowly.

This approach to life on the street had been around for millennia, but it began to break down in the 1890's, with the arrival of bicycles and the electric streetcar. People were particularly incensed by rapid bicyclists, called scorchers, who had the temerity to pedal at 15 miles an hour!

Needless to say, the arrival of the car took everything to a new level, and fairly rapidly the old, pedestrian-centric street pretty much disappeared, except for niches like the boardwalk.

A Reasonable Compromise
Today, on the Asbury boardwalk, bicycles can and do participate in the dance of traffic until noon, which strikes me as a reasonable compromise. It can get very crowded in the afternoon. Service vehicles - the glorified golf carts used by the police and trash collectors - are on the boardwalk at all times. No horses pulling trash carts, but still the analogy with the pre-car street is strong.

We even have scorchers. Not many, but there is a lady on an elliptiGO - a mashup of an indoor elliptical trainer and a bicycle - who loudly bulls her way through the crowd. People make way, perhaps a bit grudgingly. Again, you're not going to go very fast on an elliptiGO; I personally think she's afraid of going too slow and falling over. Bikes are easier. You just put a foot down and wait.

The towns south of Asbury also have boardwalks; you can ride a long way. I've done it a lot, and it's a nice ride. However, many of the towns to the south have more restrictive riding hours than Asbury Park. I think the bicycle interests could do a good thing by asking these southern towns to extend their bicycle-friendly hours.

The guys on road bikes - the ones in spandex - will still need to go share the road with the cars. This raises the subject of protected bicycle lanes, which is a topic for another day.

A Liminal Space
Beyond being a pedestrian street, the boardwalk in Asbury Park is special in another, and probably more powerful, way. It is a liminal space, mediating the dry land of Ocean Avenue and the Stone Pony (well, perhaps not entirely dry) and the world of water represented by the beach and the ocean. There is a quiet magic to liminal spaces, perhaps none more so than at the water's edge.

And so people may not be entirely conscious of the undertow that the boardwalk wraps them in, floating them back into the old, pedestrian-centric street, an experience that is astonishingly rare today.

Perhaps tomorrow it will not be quite so rare. I hope.

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