Tuesday, December 27, 2016 Blog

Gifts of the magi. South Carolina reindeer. Friendly beasts. Unfriendly roads. City council capers. Calming the Crosstown (redux).

by Andy Hollis


Christmas Day was beautiful in Charleston, but unseasonably warm.  The Battery was packed with all types of vehicles – skateboards and bikes (some of which almost certainly arrived by sleigh Christmas Eve), exotic three wheeled motorcycles, conventional cars, and most of all, self-propelled humans.  (More on that topic shortly…)

In the Christmas spirit, this article from the Post and Courier reports that the increased value of frankincense, one of the three gifts of the magi, has placed the trees that produce it (in Somaliland) at risk.  Frankincense was traditionally used to make incense for religious ceremonies.  As such, it symbolized Jesus’ divinity.  (Myrrh, also derived from trees, was used in Egyptian burial ceremonies, and so prophesied Jesus’ death and resurrection.)

Forests are clearly important not only for environmental reasons.  They also serve as the source and foundation for much of human culture.


Out of the forests and into the suburbs, Sammy Fretwell with the State reports that the friendly elk (the closest relative to a reindeer we have in the Southeast) that began visiting homes in Pickens County has been captured and moved to Charlestown Landing.  Biologists with the S.C. Department of Natural Resources were concerned that he had grown too accustomed to humans, presenting the possibility of somebody (elk or human) getting in trouble.  This strikes me as less than a noble disposition for such a magnificent animal, but it is exciting that elk are doing well after their reintroduction in western North Carolina.


Speaking of friendly beasts, certain well-loved (and arguably overplayed) holiday songs assign heroic status to other species.  “Rudolph,” “Frosty” and “The Friendly Beasts,” come to mind.  In contrast, says Stephen Carter, a Yale law professor, the latest Star Wars movie is guilty of “speciesism.”  In this Post and Courier op-ed, he points out that the only characters in the movie with prominent, positive roles are homo sapiens.  Given that the galaxy is a place with a lot of brave, big hearted species, Carter believes this was a mistake.

We saw the movie Christmas night.  I think Carter is right about the oversight, and Rogue One is the worse for it.  Much of the charm of the first Star Wars movie, (the only other one I’ve seen), came from the noble Wookiees, Yoda and R2-D2 (who was not, strictly speaking, a biological species…)  Rogue One is a comparatively dry, humorless, high tech extravaganza.  Carter’s message is important, because George Lucas is not the only one downplaying the significance of animals of the non-human variety these days.


Now, from a galaxy far away, to a neighborhood nearby…  Ed Buckley, a columnist with the Post and Courier, does a superb job of explaining how to combat traffic congestion.  The blindingly simple (healthy, clean, energy-efficient, cost-effective…) solution is to drive less.  Ed points out that cities that have embarked on a frenzy of road construction, after spending hundreds of millions of dollars and enduring years and decades of construction delays, have ended up about where they started, still wracked with congestion.  Ed writes:

When roads get bigger, traffic gets lighter — but only for a little while. Over time, increased road capacity encourages increased development, and shortened commute times encourage people to live farther from where they work.

It’s a variation on “if you build it, they will come.” If you expand roads, people will drive more and farther. In a few years, it’s right back to square one.


So it has been encouraging and exciting to see the City of Charleston undertake a series of planning exercises to accomplish exactly the task of getting people out of their cars – by establishing development patterns that are hospitable to humans and less dependent on automobiles, by installing sidewalks and bike lanes and by improving the quality and reliability of mass transit.  The most recent, and highest profile, initiative is going on west of the Ashley.

In the spirit of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, the Post and Courier reports that the City Council voted 9-4 against signing a contract with the planning firm designated to produce the plan.  Council member Bill Moody voted against it, and opined that the cost was about $150,000 more than he expected.

That would be the same Bill Moody whose primary mission in life is to spend $725 million extending I-526 to John’s Island, even though the project is $300 million short of funds.  A simple mathematical calculation reveals that the I-526 shortfall, about which Council member Moody is unconcerned, is 2,000 times as large as the planning contract overrun, which he was compelled to oppose.


The only conclusion one can draw is that Councilmember Moody doesn’t really care about reducing traffic congestion west of the Ashley.

Failing to plan for walking, biking and transit not only wastes time and energy.  It can also be fatal.  Tragically, the Crosstown Expressway (about which I wrote last week) has claimed a third life in three years.  A pedestrian was hit and killed last week, in part because the walk light at the intersection of Coming does not provide enough time to walk, or even sprint, all the way across the intersection in one light cycle.


State Representative Wendell Gilliard, fortunately, is leading the charge against future deaths.  But unfortunately, he is calling for the construction of another caged, elevated crosswalk.  As well-meaning as that is, it fails to address the fundamental problem, which is that the Crosstown should not be a high, or even medium, speed expressway.  It should be a neighborhood boulevard, more like Calhoun Street than Savannah Highway or I-26.

Let’s hope that this third death is not in vain, and that the next steps on the Crosstown involve its reconstitution as a place that is as safe for pedestrians, and as welcoming for residents and businesses, as it is functional for automobiles.  This is not a difficult undertaking, but it will require a change in how we think about mobility and the purpose of streets in our growing cities.

Finally, Hanukkah converged with Christmas this year, beginning on December 24 and ending on January 1.   (As a result, it seems to have been overshadowed, at least in Charleston.)

So Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah and Happy New Year!  Have a great week!



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