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Hey, We Need A Plan!

New approaches to zoning, development, and road design will get transit rolling

January 27, 2006 | By Andy Guy
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

MLUI/Carol Blundy

Pedestrian-friendly urban redevelopment spurs both the regional economy and public transit use.

Citizens who live and work in the Grand Valley metro area clearly want more transportation choices that save time, money, and stress. The solution is to build energetic urban centers where walking, biking, or taking the bus is at least as convenient as driving. But regional growth remains largely organized around just one form of transportation: the automobile. That has a profound affect on an array of core community values, including air quality, energy consumption, housing availability, job opportunity, and family time and budgets.

“The most powerful lever to change a region is the transportation system,” said Robert Grow, a visionary leader who helped Salt Lake City residents begin building modern transit. Mr. Grow delivered the keynote address at the Citizens’ Transit Summit, where he added: “If you want to look at the way regions develop, you’ll come to understand that the transportation system generally defines the land uses that go around it, the way a region will grow over the next 25 to 50 years, and, ultimately, the way people live.”

Michigan is an excellent example. The combination of the state’s highway subsidies and poor support of public transit promotes runaway sprawl, frustrating traffic jams,
and rising public and private costs. Such a roads-dominated transportation policy also wastes, rather than saves, tax dollars because it erodes communities, degrades the environment, and stalls the economy by disconnecting job seekers, particularly those with disabilities or without personal transportation, from potential employers.

The State’s Problem Is Our Problem
Michigan’s roads-only approach directly threatens the standard of living in the Grand Valley region. Ironically, that is particularly true for those who depend on cars. Over the coming decades, if nothing changes, drivers will see their quality of life decline as they sit in their cars, stuck in traffic wasting their precious personal time, warned a 1998 report by the Grand Valley Metro Council.

That is one reason why the City of Grand Rapids Planning Commission recently adopted a master plan that promotes more compact, transit-oriented development in neighborhoods and business districts. But developers continue to struggle with public policies that make it harder, not easier, to design and construct projects that stimulate transit and pedestrian activity.

Worse, there’s a lack of coordination between the state’s growth strategy and what our region is striving for. An example of this is the state’s latest outward-bound investment in our area, which will drain existing commercial and residential centers: the new South Beltline highway. That brand-new concrete has begun to pull development away from our central cities and negatively affect businesses located on 28th Street. Such shortsighted planning and investment interfere with what many of the region’s citizens and leaders are trying to accomplish. 

The Grand Valley metro area needs a new development approach that better coordinates transportation and land use planning. Our communities must offer alternatives to driving such as walking, bicycling, and riding buses and trains by designing more compact neighborhoods that weave together homes, shops, workplaces, and recreation facilities and offer multiple means of reaching them that are friendly to people of all ages, incomes, and physical abilities. Here are five ways to get started: 

Link Transportation and Land Use
Careful land use planning is essential for making public transportation work. That is because mixed-use, compact, walkable development makes transit more efficient and effective. Yet land use planning and spending at the local, regional, state, and federal level remain largely disconnected from transportation planning and investment decisions. Low-density land uses that segregate schools, neighborhoods, and businesses into isolated sections of the community are now the rule in our region. Until civic leaders better coordinate land use and transportation decisions, it will be difficult to develop a truly comprehensive, fast, attractive regional transportation system.

Act Like Neighbors
Dozens of individual local governments are responsible for transportation and land use planning and investment in the Grand Valley metro area. But little formal public process exists to foster collaborative planning, cooperation on appropriate development, and responsible use of capital.

Cities, townships, villages, and counties must work together more closely. The region’s economy, ecology, and culture depend on it. Preserving local autonomy is important but, ironically, government leaders can best defend the character of their communities by embracing regional planning, coordinating decision-making across political boundaries, and planning together for a modern, multi-modal transportation system. Any other approach facilitates more sprawl and erases the things that make each community unique.

Design Superior Streets
Roadways throughout the region generally are designed for a single purpose: speeding the passage of cars and trucks. Too often officials choose new or wider streets and highways at the expense of public transit and other alternatives that respect community character. But many transportation planners now realize that traffic expands to fill available road space and that fewer transportation alternatives lead to more traffic congestion.

The backbones of balanced transportation systems are road corridors that enable people, goods, and services to travel safely and efficiently in a variety of ways, including by car, truck, bike, bus or train, and foot. Local officials must embrace innovative street designs that incorporate all of these alternatives from the very beginning of the planning process. Projects must also meet or exceed Americans with Disabilities Act requirements. That will ensure roads become thriving transportation corridors that meet everybody’s needs.

Construct Transit-Friendly Buildings 
Many communities across the region are now interested in the walkable development patterns that make public transit more efficient and easier to use. But they must first replace current, outdated planning and zoning policies with new guidelines that at least allow, if not favor, building mixed-use, compact projects organized around existing or proposed transit lines. The guidelines should place parking behind buildings, locate front entrances next to bus or rail stops, and reduce building setbacks. Such guidelines encourage walking, biking, bussing, and other alternatives to the automobile by making non-drivers feel welcome, safe, and comfortable as they move around the community.

Target Jobs along Transit Routes
As communities rework their master plans and zoning ordinances, they can significantly strengthen public transit and the local economy by targeting future economic development along existing or proposed transit routes. Too often, developers build major job centers, such as office parks, outside current transit service areas or well away from existing routes. The buildings tend to sprawl across their sites and often lack sidewalks, which makes providing transit service more difficult and expensive. Coordinating new job centers with transit routes strengthens transit service and makes the economy more efficient as more people discover easier ways to get to work.

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