I just got back from a trip to Orlando, Florida and can I say it was a good time? Yes, the part I spent with my family was an excellent time. The part I spent exploring as a city planner/ traveler, no not at all.
I was in town because of the HIMSS 17 Conference that was just held at the Orange County Convention Center, but I was not there to be an attendee to the convention. I was there because a business trip to Orlando for my brother-in-law turned into a small family getaway or bleisure trip that a few of us tagged along. My brother-in-law and sister have three little kids and I have three little kids with my wife and we made it a fun week away from the grind. My brother-in-law works for Cylance, a cyber-security company (www.cylance.com).
#Bleisure is a rising trend among business travelers. Basically, bleisure is when business travelers combine a business trip with some leisure activities by tacking on a few days to the trip. More and more businesses and business travelers see the benefits of this activity as companies offer benefits to their workers for traveling for business. It’s the sort of thing local businesses love and want more of… and so a new travel genre is building up steam in our days.
Anyway, while we were there we did our pilgrimage to Disney World’s Magic Kingdom for the kids and spent the whole day Sunday touring the park. I plan on writing a little bit about that later. But for now, I can say it was really nice (as you would expect for Disney) even if we were dead tired by the end of the night. I can also say that Disney World is an impressive place to visit as a city planner because Disney is a veritable sandbox: a place where things happen because Disney wants it to happen… and public input drives economic development. Well, like I said, I’ll get into Disney in a little bit.
For now, I want to talk about the City of Orlando. Orlando is a city in central Florida and is home to numerous theme parks (Disney and Universal to name two multi-park worlds). Indeed, the theme parks are its claim to fame. Much like the casinos are Las Vegas’ claim to fame, Orlando has its theme parks. Inside the theme parks (and particularly inside Disney World, which in my opinion is like the Vatican in Rome) I think visitors generally get a good impression of Orlando. In Disney World or any of the other theme parks there, Orlando looks like a happening happy place. But even visitors to the theme parks know one thing that is bad about Orlando: I-4 traffic congestion. It seems I-4 is perpetually congested with traffic. Rush hour traffic. Then Disney Traffic. Then other theme park traffic. Then Rush hour traffic again. And so on.
But did you know that when I-4 is backed-up, literally every major roadway in Orlando is also backed-up? It’s true. From what I can tell having driven the system for the past week, I-4 is so strategic to Orlando that when it is at a standstill, the entire region is also practically at a standstill. Nothing moves. I should know, because I was stuck on I-4 for 4 hours during non-peak non-rush hour hours because of a major accident at the Champion’s Gate exit (Omni Orlando Resort). I tried to find or take alternate routes and there were none. I got off on SR 429 and found more traffic on all the major roads off 429, everyone scurrying about trying to figure out how to go west toward Tampa and move beyond the Champion’s Gate exit. It took me 1 hour just to find a route that took me back to Champion’s Gate! (where I got onto I-4 behind the accident on the westbound ramp). It was a very strange experience.
But to better understand this, you have to know that really Orlando has only one major Interstate, I-4, moving through the city. All other roads that look like highways or expressways in the region are basically glorified county roads, state roads and US Routes. While the capacity for expressways is present in Orlando, this arrangement creates a serious circulation problem for the occasional visitor who is not as learned about the local network like a native Orlando denizen.
It seems to me that in many towns and cities, county and state roads often double up as the arterials for local communities, where lesser or more local roads plug-in for greater regional access. In Orlando, because they are basically expressways the local or lesser roads have few if any points to connect for regional access… leaving local communities missing not only their arterials but also the rest of the hierarchy of roads one would reasonably expect in a city road network (e.g. major, minor collectors etc.). This condition has resulted in a serious case of development podification across the metropolitan region– where developments are effectively little pods plopped in place with a single connection to a road and no cross-access. They do not communicate with one another to form a transportation grid.
The grid in the metro-Orlando area is non-existent or at the least broken. As a result, when something happens on I-4 and the state roads and county roads back-up because they can’t release traffic, you basically get stuck in whatever pod of Orlando you happen to be in. When I was stuck on I-4 and got off, I couldn’t get back home even if I wanted to using side roads. There are no alternative routes to take to avoid the traffic. Everywhere you turn there is traffic fleeing traffic because all traffic is constantly fed to centralized roads that all lead to or intersect with state routes or country roads that are backed up because they can’t get by I-4 themselves.
So yea, it’s a serious cluster in Orlando. And it was the one thing that left a terrible after-taste for my first extended stay in Orlando. It colored my whole experience with the city (as I assume it does for many such visitors). In my frustration I often fumed with the idea that I would never come back to Orlando again (bad)… and if I did, I definitely would not be renting a car. I would just go to the resorts and ditch the metro-experience altogether… on account of the crazy traffic situation. It’s not that there’s too many cars… it’s the fact that the roads are not built right. If there was ever a city that needed trains, it’s Orlando… but you can’t expect that any time soon because property is so hot in Orlando that I doubt anyone would settle with the State for transportation improvements when they could get more out of a sale to a development company looking to build a resort in its own little pod. And so the problem for Orlando blossoms exponentially.