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People and Pavement:

New Institute report on transportation design that respects communities

February 5, 2004 | By Kelly Thayer
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

MLUI/Pat Owen

Holland, Michigan’s downtown reflects key elements of context-sensitive design. It is walkable, people-friendly, and has narrow streets that help to calm traffic.

A new approach to protecting communities that meshes road design, transit systems, and bicycle and pedestrian paths with downtowns, neighborhoods, and the natural environment is quickly gaining acceptance in Michigan and around the nation, according to a special report published this week by the Michigan Land Use Institute.
The new approach, known in technical circles as “context-sensitive design” or “context-sensitive solutions,” replaces the conventional, one-size-fits-all approach to transportation projects with a citizen-led planning process that is much more sensitive to a community’s sense of place.

Last summer, the bipartisan Michigan Land Use Leadership Council formally recommended that state and local road agencies and communities adopt the new design process. The Michigan House of Representatives, responding in November 2003 to that recommendation, passed a bill that defined and endorsed innovation in developing transportation projects; it now awaits Senate action. And in December Michigan’s Democratic Governor Jennifer M. Granholm issued an executive directive greatly increasing Michigan’s commitment to context-sensitive solutions.

Transportation Projects Must Fit Setting
According to the Institute’s new report, People and Pavement: Transportation Design that Respects Communities, the high-level attention to context-sensitive design reflects both the increasing public resistance to new road construction and growing civic wisdom about the need to reduce costs and improve the conception and quality of new highways and other transportation systems.

Sometimes roads are like rivers, says the report. Increase the flow too much and they drastically reshape their surroundings. Pump up the traffic on a road through a small town, for example, and all sorts of new gas stations, billboards, and fast food outlets spring up. Soon the road widens and sprawl, like a mudslide, buries the town’s character.

 “Context-sensitive design is an approach that places preservation of historic, scenic, natural environment, and other community values on an equal basis with mobility, safety, and economics,” says Mary E. Peters, director of the Federal Highway Administration. “We should seek to institutionalize the principles of CSD with the same commitment that drove the implementation of the Interstate Highway System.”

A beautifully landscaped boulevard, for instance, can serve as a community’s signature gateway. A bustling bus or train stop can spur urban revitalization and generate good business for nearby shops. Sidewalks and bicycle routes can raise property values and promote healthier lifestyles and more sociable communities.

“Folks, crafting a 21st-century transportation system entails much more than concrete, asphalt, bricks, and mortar,” Gov. Granholm told a statewide transportation summit in December. “It’s vastly more complex than building highways and mass transit systems. It’s about building and connecting communities. It’s about creating livelihoods, economic stability, and reaching out beyond our borders and comfort zones.”

Governor, Transportation Chief Lead New Discussion
Until very recently, any discussion of the links between highway construction and community stability was almost taboo at the Michigan Department of Transportation. The department did not want the added responsibility of considering these effects or the potential cost of coping with them.

That, however, is changing now that Gov. Granholm appointed Gloria J. Jeff director of the Michigan Department of Transportation. Ms. Jeff, a planner and engineer, is the first woman and African American to direct the state transportation department. Raised in Detroit, Ms. Jeff served as deputy administrator of the Federal Highway Administration under President Bill Clinton, where among other notable achievements she became one the nation’s foremost proponents of context-sensitive design. In 1998 Ms. Jeff helped to plan and then delivered the opening keynote address at a national conference in Maryland that confirmed that context-sensitive design was a significant trend in transportation planning and identified needed steps for its implementation.

"There needs to be a greater sensitivity to transportation's role in responding to the nature of a community. MDOT has been responsive to CSD aspects since 2000," said Ms. Jeff in an interview with the Great Lakes Bulletin News Service. "Moreover, we are responding to the governor's executive directive and are now planning stakeholder outreach for late April or early May."

Gov. Granholm and Ms. Jeff believe that well-designed roads, bus and train lines, bicycle routes, and sidewalks should complement, not corrode, a community. In other words, say the governor and her chief of transportation, flexible design is about much more than landscaping or beautification. It’s about respecting and enhancing downtowns, neighborhoods, and the natural environment. It allows slower speeds, tighter curves, narrower lanes, and smaller shoulders in order to preserve the surroundings. It can eliminate a “through lane” to add on-street parking spaces, a bicycle lane, wide sidewalks, or a left-turn lane. It enhances rather than compromises safety while increasing mobility.

Congress Got It Going
This new age in transportation design began on a large scale in the 1990s, when Congress passed landmark laws that encouraged landscape protection around new roads and other projects. The Federal Highway Administration and states such as Maine, Minnesota, and Utah began experimenting with flexible design. Some states even passed their own laws embracing the new, citizen-led design process.

Michigan did not join the movement, however, even though it badly needed a context-sensitive design policy for its transportation projects, including 10,000 miles of state and federal highways and 110,000 miles of local roads. Thus, communities clamored for traffic solutions and mobility options but rejected MDOT’s ready-made recipes.

In Detroit, for instance, the state’s proposed I-94 repair project has swelled into a $1 billion mega-widening plan that would knock down 52 homes and businesses, while a proposed new border crossing to Canada could level part of Mexicantown, one of the city’s few rebounding communities. The proposals are sparking intense local controversy.

In Grand Haven, the state proposed a 27-mile bypass right through Michigan’s most fertile farmland, including the region’s blueberry patch. In Traverse City and Petoskey, MDOT and local residents squared off for years over state highway bypass proposals that were certain to carve up active farms and the countryside.

Citizens won those last two contests, but at great cost. In Petoskey, for example, the battle lasted nearly a generation and cost taxpayers millions of dollars. Such squandering of time and money confirms that, when it’s time to build, rebuild, or widen a state or local road, fresh thinking and flexibility must be the order of the day. Otherwise, taxpayers will continue to waste billions of dollars a year in time, fuel, delayed projects, missed redevelopment opportunities, degraded communities, lost open space, and crashes.

Public Support Is Here
There are good reasons to be hopeful. For example, the Michigan Transportation and Land Use Coalition, an alliance of 40 progressive groups organized by the Michigan Land Use Institute and the Michigan Environmental Council in 1999, continues advocating for context-sensitive design. MDOT already has gained some early traction on flexible design by conducting staff training programs and hosting last December’s transportation summit conference. Besides the governor’s remarks, the summit included discussions about context-sensitive design and applying the approach in a limited fashion in a few communities.

People and Pavement argues that with other states already synchronizing roads, bicycling and walking routes, and public transit corridors with their sense of community and land use plans, it’s time for Michigan to pick up the pace and again become the transportation design leader it was almost a century ago. After all, Michigan can proudly claim many transportation “firsts,” including the nation’s first mile of concrete highway, in 1909; the nation’s first painted center line, in 1911; and the nation’s first three-color traffic signal, in 1919.

To get there, the report asserts, Michigan’s transportation and land use planners must put the public in the driver’s seat, provide citizens with tools to fix their own problems, and go along for an educational ride. They must treasure other people’s hometowns and open spaces as they do their own. Once planners come to understand a community’s character and values by listening to its residents, they will be able to help fashion transportation projects that truly gel with the local setting.

People and Pavement makes six recommendations to help Michigan achieve a truly proactive, context-sensitive design policy:

  1. Define context-sensitive design and fully commit to it.
  2. Develop a citizen-led transportation planning process. Michigan’s citizens and transportation officials must work closely together to determine each community’s values, transportation and land use problems, and context-sensitive solutions.
  3. Amend state laws inhibiting context-sensitive design. Michigan’s primary transportation law — Public Act 51 — requires that new highways be at least four lanes wide and able to accommodate 20-year traffic projections. While the law does allow MDOT and a city or village to agree to fewer lanes, that’s no sure thing when the state holds most of the money and prefers wide highways.
  4. Adopt design guidelines that respect local land use.
    Like some other states, Michigan should expand its transportation design choices beyond the “Green Book,” the national manual on transportation facilities. For instance, lowering acceptable design speeds so that roads can bend to suit the landscape is crucial. The state should employ a wide range of citizen and interest group involvement to develop and adopt a new set of transportation project design criteria that puts it in step with 21st-century transportation and land use planning.
  5. Consider all alternatives to meet transportation needs. To achieve the best transportation solutions possible, Michigan also needs to be flexible about the types of transportation projects it implements. Too often, the default solution is to choose new or wider highways and ignore public transit and other alternatives that would be less harmful to the community and environment. The tool for changing this approach and achieving true flexibility already exists: The Michigan Environmental Protection Act (MEPA). MDOT should embrace MEPA’s commitment to alternatives that minimize pollution, impairment, or destruction of the natural world.
  6. Launch demonstration projects. Because seeing is often believing, Michigan should pursue demonstration projects that illustrate flexible design’s best principles: Broad public participation, excellent performance, enhanced safety, and superb aesthetic appeal. Dispersing the projects geographically would introduce all areas of the state to the benefits of flexible design. Projects could be chosen for their distinct profiles and locales: Big city, small town, and countryside, with public transit, bicycle lanes, and pedestrian spaces.

Kelly Thayer is a journalist and transportation policy expert. He directs the Michigan Land Use Institute’s Northwest Michigan Transportation and Land Use Project.  Reach him at kelly@mlui.org

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