I recently visited a friend on Fairbanks Street, in an area I haven’t regarded too highly in the past. I discovered some of its hidden virtues that make it one of Fairbanks’s pockets of pedestrian-friendliness.
This is something I think about often: What will we do when gasoline becomes so horrendously expensive that it’s no longer practical to own a car? (In truth, I think our society has long passed that point, but we have so much psychologically invested in personal mobility that we’re accustomed not to demanding the lost personal time or community life.)
It causes me to think often, when I’m in different places, about what it would be like to live there without a car. Yes, the houses are lovely, but do the neighbors ever talk? Where can your kids go to play independently or to mingle in adult life? If you have guests coming in fifteen minutes and you’ve just discovered you’re clean out of toilet paper, what can you do?
The neighborhood around Fairbanks Street — that is, the area just across Geist from West Valley and Hutch — is not bad as far as getting by without a car. Not ideal, but it really has some virtues. It is especially good for those who work at UAF, since, from Geist, campus is a bit uphill but essentially just across the street. Whether you consider being car-free a goal or an unfortunate circumstance, living near work eliminates half the struggle already.
It is also has an identifiable neighborhood center, with places that the locals can visit and run into each other: namely, the stretch of businesses along Geist that includes places to meet up like Alaska Coffee Roasting Company, a national pizza chain, and a national hamburger chain. A number of them serve a borough-wide customer base and not the neighborhood especially — but I see no reason why a local-serving grocery store couldn’t be there, too, and perhaps a more out-of-the-way coffee shop for the neighbors.
The southern end of the neighborhood would be right across the street from a Fred Meyer, if only it weren’t stopped short by the Chena River. (This highlights the difference between proximity and access — with the addition of a few pedestrian bridges over Deadman Slough and the Chena, that store could effectively become much nearer to those who live there.) That said, if you walk to Loftus, which leads to a pedestrian/bike path where the Mitchell crosses the Chena, you can quickly enough reach Airport Way near Fred Meyer. I’m told by a friend near the south end of Fairbanks that it’s about a half-hour’s walk one way; I think this means under 10 minutes on bicycle. This is a lot closer than most Fairbanksans live from their grocery stores. And I think the alternative is longer: take Geist to University, and University to Airport. (Though you can cut through some to get to University.)
Also, it’s got the pedestrian’s lifeline to the city: two bus lines that go along Geist, with several stops between Loftus and University. The Blue and Red lines run a circular path in opposite directions and can take people to the university, the fairgrounds, Creamer’s Field, the Steese/Johansen box-store retail monstrosity, both Fairbanks Fred Meyer and Safeway stores, Alaskaland, our local 16-screen überplex, Denny’s, a host of medical offices, and, of course, downtown. Those who care to walk south and cross the Mitchell bridge toward Airport can catch the Yellow line to take them to the Airport or downtown by way of Alaskaland.
For my taste, this neighborhood is missing a lot. There are so many dead ends that getting from one spot to another would frustrate me. Moreover, dead ends just channel traffic into a series of ever-busier collector streets (rather than distribute it equally), which makes those collectors unsafe and unwelcoming places for pedestrians. It would benefit from more local-serving retail — perhaps a bit out of the way and closer to the center of the neighborhood.
Where are the other “pedestrian pockets” in Fairbanks? Have you got one near you? Maybe better to start by asking: What should our criteria be? What makes a neighborhood a good place for walkers to live?