Historians generally agree that it was a German, Karl Benz, who invented the gasoline-powered automobile way back in 1885 with sales starting three years later.
Oklahoma City, founded in 1889, certainly was not designed from the start around the automobile. And for the first three decades, it's fair to say the early development of Oklahoma City was guided by a streetcar system that operated from 1904 to 1947.
But in the decades since, Oklahoma City has been a community designed around the automobile.
A small revolution is about to take place, however, in the heart of the city and this downtown experiment might just change the rules for decades to follow.
Consider first that after more than two decades of starts and stops by streetcar advocates, a rail-based transit system is in the works as part of MAPS 3 that will link the Central Business District, Bricktown, Automobile Alley, Deep Deuce, and MidTown. With $129 million in funding, questions about operational costs and potential future expansion remain to be answered.
But have no doubt, a streetcar system is now in the cards for downtown, and talks continue with surrounding communities about creating rail-based links throughout the metro. It's a start; one that advocates hope will spur more investment in future years.
Likewise, downtown also is set to get its start at “green parking” — a system that will allow owners of electric vehicles to plug in along a curb. Two recharging stations are set to be built later this year as part of Project 180.
One is tentatively set to be built between City Hall and the Oklahoma City Museum of Art, while a second is to be built by the Civic Center Music Hall.
Yet another renovation is taking place in terms of accommodating bicycle traffic. Bicycle lanes already can be seen along completed Project 180 reconstructions of Sheridan and Walker avenues. An effort by Urban Neighbors to add bicycle racks along several spots downtown a few years ago also is being augmented by the addition of even more racks as part of Project 180.
Those racks just might get more use as “Spokies,” a new bike-share program, is set to be inaugurated next month. The operation, being run by Downtown Oklahoma City Inc., will allow members to use bikes arrayed at six stations throughout downtown free for a half-hour and $2 per half-hour after that. Yearly memberships would be $75, monthly passes $20 and one-day access $5.
Spokies stations will be opened near the Oklahoma City National Memorial, at 1100 Classen Drive adjacent to the Plaza Court Building in MidTown, at NE 2 and Walnut in Deep Deuce, on the sidewalk next to the southeast loading docks of Cox Convention Center (across from Myriad Gardens and Chesapeake Energy Arena), and at the entrance to Chickasaw Bricktown Ballpark. Interestingly enough, an application before the Downtown Design Review Committee indicates city planners have decided two sets of bike racks will be placed at Ronald J. Norick Downtown Library at Park and Harvey avenues while no Spokies stations are planned for Automobile Alley, where there are dozens of apartments, restaurants and shops.
Even with such efforts, I doubt most downtown residents yet envision a time when they can totally give up on car ownership. A local produce market, Native Roots, will open later this year in Deep Deuce, but Homeland at NW 18 and Classen will remain the closest thing to a full-scale grocery. But with a slight expansion of the streetcar system, and for adventurous bicyclists, the era of life in downtown Oklahoma City — without Mr. Benz' creation — soon may be within reach.