With twin daughters that are seniors in high school this year, we’ve spent a lot of time visiting colleges. Our most recent trip took us to the University of Tulsa, which has a beautiful campus a couple miles east of downtown. Our travels have also provided me with an opportunity to see how walking, biking, and transit look in other locales.
We arrived at the Tulsa airport late on a Saturday night. According to Google Maps, we could have taken two buses to get to our AirBnB apartment, but that would have taken an hour. So we hopped in a taxi and heard a Who’s Who list of famous people from Tulsa during our 15 minute ride. The apartment we stayed in was about three blocks from campus, which I had assumed would not only put us close to TU, but also near the cafes and restaurants where the students hang out.
Thus began our education about the growth patterns, zoning, and transportation expectations in Tulsa, Oklahoma. It was clear from the moment we began walking to the only nearby cafe that this was a city built for cars.
We live in a college town and we’ve visited several college towns. One constant that we’ve seen in all of them is an eclectic mix of old and new buildings housing a variety of small, local businesses including several restaurants, bars, and cafes packed tightly together in commercial strips around the periphery of the colleges. So that’s what we were expecting to find around the University of Tulsa. Instead, we found a series of fast food chain restaurants, with lots of parking in between, along an icon of the automobile culture, Route 66.
While the university campus was walkable and bikeable, the rest of our experience in Tulsa felt pretty pedestrian-unfriendly. The biggest problem was the distances we traversed. We had planned to get downtown by bus, only to discover that in this city of approximately 400,000 people there is no Sunday bus service. We could have used a taxi or some form of ride-sharing, but to save a little money, and to see more of the city, we decided to walk. Our approximately seven mile round trip took us from campus to Cherry Street, and from there up to the Brady Arts District. We returned by way of 6th Street.
Traveling with my 17-year old daughter was particularly enlightening. Though she’s visited other cities, she’s grown up steeped in Old Town, Fort Collins. Her immediate observations in Tulsa focused on the lack of people we crossed paths with as we wandered around, the extensive vacant parking lots we passed by (These seemed to be particularly shocking to her.), and the lack of parks and green space. My initial observations, on the other hand, centered more around ADA compliance issues, pedestrian safety, and the growth of a city that clearly has/had some pretty strict zoning regulations (if not now, then at least for a considerable time over the last few decades).
One of the first things that caught my attention was the number of utility poles and street signs encroaching upon the sidewalk. In some cases… quite a few, actually… these objects didn’t just encroach, but were located right smack dab in the middle of the sidewalk, requiring pedestrians to be alert for obstacles as they walk and requiring anyone using a wheel chair to leave the sidewalk. Ironically, many intersections did have tactile pavement (truncated domes) where the sidewalk met the street, which told me that the city recognizes there are ADA compliance issues and is beginning to address them. But it’s easier to slap down a premade bumpy product and some fresh cement than it is to move electrical or water lines that are in the center of the walking path.
We walked through several blocks of downtown without seeing more than a few (mostly homeless) people. It wasn’t until we reached the theater that there was suddenly a burst of activity on the sidewalk. It’s been a long time since I’ve been in a city where the downtown is dead on a Sunday afternoon. (Detroit is the only other city I can think of that’s like this. I don’t know if it’s still this way, but it was back in the early 90s when I lived there.) Clearly downtown had been zoned for commercial use, leaving very little in the way of residential buildings or amenities. There’s a clear sense that downtown is for working, the periphery is for living, and a car is needed to get from one to the other.
As we haeded back toward the apartment where we were staying, I was pleased to see a few bicyclists out on the road.
Tulsa is a city full of potential. I saw signs that the community is starting to grab hold of that potential and build exciting things such as compact commercial districts within residential areas (on Cherry Street and on 6th Street in the Pearl District), a maker space near TU, and over and over again we heard from people that the Brady Arts District is a fun part of town and a great place to hang out, especially during the First Friday Art Crawl.
We spent two days in Tulsa and clearly I only saw a sliver of all there is to see there. If my daughter ends up attending TU, then I’m sure I’ll have many more opportunities to explore and reflect upon the fabric and form of the city.