Climate Connections: Neighborways reduce car dependence
In 2023, then-candidate for Mayor Andrea Davis and two of the City’s senior transportation planners committed to supporting a groundbreaking, citizen-led pilot project aimed at revolutionizing safety and mobility in Missoula.
A grassroots coalition of Missoula residents, working together through Common Good Missoula, designed a creative solution to the challenges of navigating Missoula (especially during the winter) by foot, bicycle, or wheelchair.
Building on the City’s existing network of neighborhood greenways, the pilot project is a 2.5-mile corridor, that will provide safe east-west connectivity across the city, exclusively designated for pedestrians, cyclists, and wheelchair users. We call it a Neighborway.
Neighborways were conceived of as a response to unsafe streets but they’re also a local climate solution. By providing a safe alternative to driving for everyone, Neighborways have real potential to reduce our community’s transportation emissions.
It reminds me of a cartoon by Joel Pett, which appeared in USA Today in December 2009. Joel depicts a “Climate Summit” where one attendee, presented with all of the potential upsides of a society that has quit fossil fuels, asks: “What if it’s a big hoax and we create a better world for nothing?”
As we explore what our response should be to climate change, we should remember that there are opportunities to improve our communities in ways that go beyond reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
So, what are some other co-benefits that come with reducing emissions from transportation, the sector that contributes most to U.S. greenhouse gas emissions? How Americans get to work, to the grocery store, to visit friends and family; these have the greatest impact on our country’s emissions because most of us, almost all of the time, drive ourselves there.
It seems hard to blame drivers because U.S. cities, including Missoula, have been designed for cars, not for people. Decades of poor urban planning decisions have led to consequences that can be seen in our loud and dangerous streets, in traffic injury and fatality statistics, and in our air quality. But it’s easy to forget that, for many in our community, driving is simply not an option.
Neighborways offer an improvement to existing facilities for those who must walk, bike, or use a wheelchair. Nationwide, the number of pedestrians struck and killed by vehicles is higher now than anytime in the past 40 years. In Missoula alone, there were roughly two crashes involving cyclists or pedestrians every week between 2013 and 2018. And most of us know someone that has slipped and fallen on ice, sometimes with serious injury, while crossing the street or using a sidewalk that a neighbor hasn’t gotten around to clearing yet.
A better world is possible! A Neighborway is a safe, cost-effective option for Missoulians to travel without a car. A portion of the publicly owned street would be reclaimed and striped, with intermittent physical barriers and unobtrusive lighting, designated for foot, bicycle, and wheelchair traffic only. Using the City’s existing capacity for keeping facilities like the Milwaukee Trail clear of ice and snow, the Neighborway would be plowed and swept throughout the year, providing connectivity for everyone in every season.
Many sidewalks across Missoula are discontinuous, in poor repair, and without curb cuts. They challenge users with strollers, in wheelchairs, and who have visual impairment. A Neighborway is better (and much cheaper to build) than a sidewalk: it’s a model for carbon-free mobility and community place-making that could not only reduce residents’ dependence on fossil fuels but also make us safer, healthier, and more connected.
The proposed Neighborway route would span Central Avenue, a part of the Franklin-to-Fort neighborhood that has neither sidewalks nor streetlights, and connect to Kent Avenue at its east end, allowing residents to safely get to the post office, Trempers, Rail Link Park, or Rosauers, without a car.
By making our city safer for pedestrians, pedal-cyclists, and wheelchair users, we’re doing more than just reducing climate-warming greenhouse gas emissions. We also know that local businesses benefit when they’re accessible to pedestrians, transit users, and cyclists, who spend more in total, over repeated trips to local businesses, than drivers. And a recent study that compiled 13 years of traffic data shows that street-level protected corridors, like Neighborways, are also safer for drivers.
We envision the Neighborways as sites for neighbors to connect through pop-up markets, block parties, and community art projects. As we talk to neighbors about this project, we’re always listening for opportunities to improve our design and ensure it equitably addresses the needs of residents who might be under-represented at City or Neighborhood Council meetings.
Excited to learn more? On February 8, at the Roxy Theater, Missoula in Motion is hosting a screening of “The Streets Project,” a film that explores both the problems of and potential solutions to our dependence on cars, with a panel discussion to follow. Come talk to us about your concerns for your neighborhood! The goal of this grassroots effort is to inspire our neighbors to think creatively about repurposing our infrastructure. Together, we can make our neighborhoods more connected, safer, and less dependent on cars.
Arthur Endsley is a member of Common Good Missoula’s Neighborways Campaign Team. As a Research Scientist at the University of Montana, he studies the impacts of climate change and climatic variability on terrestrial ecosystems.
Climate Smart Missoula brings this Climate Connections column to you two Fridays of every month. Learn more about our work, support our efforts, and sign up for our e-newsletter at missoulaclimate.org.