Look to Hattiesburg | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Look to Hattiesburg

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Amber Helsel

I almost hit someone with my car the other day. But it wasn't because I or another driver was being stupid.

It was a pedestrian. He was walking on the side of North State Street, and another car was in the lane beside me, so I couldn't move over. Luckily, I saw the pedestrian and had enough time to slow down and go around him, but it could've easily been a lot different.

I'll admit that instead of walking on the road, he probably should've been walking in the grass. But those are the two choices: You walk on the road or walk in grass, and we all know you could get hurt doing either.

I live about a quarter of a mile from my local grocery store, so occasionally, I'll walk to it if I only need to get a couple of items and just don't feel like going through the effort of getting in my car and driving.

But most of Rankin County doesn't have sidewalks, so just like the pedestrian in Jackson, I have to make a choice: Do I walk on grass, dirt and gravel, where cars still get too close for comfort, or do I walk on the road and risk my life?

My mom tells me not to walk to the grocery store. And I'll agree with her that it can be dangerous, and I have to be careful not to go when there's heavy traffic. Sometimes, it's just easier, though, and sometimes, I just want to get some exercise in.

Our office is in downtown Jackson, which means we have several coffee shops and businesses that are about a five- to 15-minute walk away. Except for the occasional aggressive driver who doesn't yield at a crosswalk, I don't worry about getting hit as a pedestrian as much. Why? Because downtown Jackson has sidewalks. It's walkable. I can get to the bus station if I ever need to. I can go get a snack at Downtown Snack Shop if I'm in the mood. I can get coffee at Cups Espresso Cafe. I can walk to Wasabi and get some sushi for lunch. However, not all areas of Jackson are pedestrian-friendly.

Downtown Hattiesburg is a stark contrast to Jackson. I took a day off of work once and, on a whim, went to Hattiesburg. I've decided that I want to explore more of my home state, so that city was the first stop. The area is one of the smallest downtowns I've ever seen—it really only encompasses a few blocks. But it's walkable. There are some tall buildings and cool little shops that I could get to by foot without any worry that walking might put me in danger.

I didn't know this until about a month ago, but once upon a time, a trolley line was one of the best ways to get around Jackson.

Frank A. Brooks Jr.'s article "Travelling by Trolley in Mississippi: Jackson" on the website Preservation in Mississippi (one of my new favorite websites) says the first tracks appeared in Jackson in 1871 with mule-drawn cars. The lines traveled streets such as State, Fortification and West. By 1916, Jackson had 22 cars that spanned over 16 miles of track. But by 1924, it shrank to 20 cars and 13.5 miles of track, and in 1935, the city exchanged trolley lines for buses.

With construction on many areas in the city, many of the trolley tracks have disappeared, though you can still see them in a few locations. And of course, there's The Fondren Express, which runs routes in the Fondren neighborhood.

We do have JATRAN, but the buses often run late or don't come at all, which inconveniences people who depend on public transportation to get around. Head over to jfp.ms/uneasyriders to read a recent cover story to see what I mean.

So we have a bus system that is often unreliable, and we don't have enough sidewalks. Are there any bright sides?

I like to think so. The Museum to Market Trail, which will run through downtown, Belhaven and Lakeland Drive, is expected to be completed by late 2017. Not only does it provide a walking trail, but it could also give the city an economic boost because it runs through the heart of downtown, near where the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum and Mississippi History Museum will be.

And who knows? Maybe it will also become an easier way for people to get around or at least offer them a chance to get to the museums and the Mississippi Farmers Market. Meanwhile, JATRAN is looking into options such as buying used buses through the Federal Transit Authority.

Only time will tell what happens, but at least transit authorities are seeing that something needs to change.

In a TED Talk from 2013, urbanist Jeff Speck said that when he was growing up in the 1970s, a typical American would spend about 1/10th of their income on transportation. With the number of roads in the U.S. having doubled since then, we now spend about a 1/5th of our income on transportation, which amounts to slightly more than we spent on housing.

Speck used Portland, Ore., as an example of a city that has tried to minimize its traffic flow It instituted a "skinny streets" program, encouraging people to drive less, and invested in biking and walking. Portland citizens now drive about 20 percent less than the rest of the country, and they spend more money on recreation and home investment, which both go back into the community a lot of times, than the rest of America. Between the last two censuses before 2013, Portland also saw 50 percent more college-educated millennials move to the city—five times more than anywhere else.

I could go on about his TED Talk, but watching Speck showed me one thing for certain: If we can make Jackson more walkable, we'd save money, we'd be healthier, and rather than just slowing brain drain, it might make our city a place that more young people actively want to move to.

Jackson is far from perfect, but it's at least a city that knows things needs to change—and for the most part, it seems to want to. I wish I knew what the future holds for Jackson. I hope it's bright. I believe it's bright, if the city can overcome all of its obstacles. But I also don't think it's only up to city officials to make that happen. It's also up to us—the community. We all have a part in bringing Jackson into the future. And I think to do that, we also have to look toward cities such as Portland and Hattiesburg and make strides toward the future like they did.

Assistant Editor Amber Helsel is a foodie-in-training and an artist, and her favorite pastime is people-watching. Her patronus charm is a cat. Email her story ideas at amber@jacksonfreepress.com.

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