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Granholm Promotes People-Friendly Road Design

Governor's “context-sensitive” approach could resolve old highway battles

March 21, 2004 | By Kelly Thayer
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Millard Berry
  When the state widened Michigan Avenue to hasten traffic through East Dearborn, the change backfired, increasing accident rates, driving away pedestrians, and hurting local businesses.

Here’s a short story with a long-lasting lesson: The Michigan Department of Transportation tried for 15 years to convince Petoskey area residents they needed a four-lane, divided highway bypass around their town. When the small, northern city on Lake Michigan resisted, the state moved its plan out of the city and into the townships. But farmers and others living among the rolling hills also fought passionately against the idea and, in 2002, saved their homes, farms, and way of life by finally convincing MDOT to give up.

The battle did some damage, though: It harmed the working relationship between local governments and state officials, left some roads still congested, and wasted $4 million in useless state planning costs. The story still isn’t over, but its latest chapter starts with a good opening line: In 2003 area governments launched a regionally controlled, state-funded study of their transportation and land use options.

The lesson? State transportation planning has sometimes been stuck in reverse, wearing down communities by stubbornly defending preconceived ideas. It took Petoskey’s citizens almost a generation to convince the state to let them drive the process themselves by identifying their own traffic and growth problems and authoring their own preferred solutions.

But a new report by the Michigan Land Use Institute indicates that struggles like the one Petoskey endured could become a thing of the past. MDOT may soon begin inviting citizen participation in transportation project design as a routine part of its decision-making process.

The Rise of Context-Sensitive Design
The Institute report, People and Pavement: Transportation Design That Respects Communities, says that Michigan Governor Jennifer M. Granholm and MDOT Director Gloria Jeff have embraced a new, federally inspired approach to constructing roads and other transportation options that’s gaining popularity across the country: Context-sensitive design. If properly implemented, according to People and Pavement, the approach would have a positive and profound effect on Michigan’s communities and how citizens travel from place to place.

Context-sensitive design, the report explains, replaces long-standing, one-size-fits-all designs that produce wide, flat, arrow-straight, high-speed, runway-like roads with something entirely different. CSD, as its proponents refer to it, actively involves citizens in virtually every stage of decision-making about widening roads, building new ones, and adding new components to the transportation mix, including bus and rail routes, sidewalks, and bike paths.

People and Pavement finds that CSD preserves and enhances downtowns, neighborhoods, and natural environments and makes it easier and more pleasant for people to get around by a variety of methods, including walking, bicycling, public transportation, and cars. The report recommends that to speed the implementation of CSD the state must carefully define the concept, develop a citizen-led process to support it, and change existing laws that interfere with it. 

Change: Difficult, Necessary, and “Cool”
As Governor Granholm and Ms. Jeff work to install context-sensitive design at MDOT, they will likely encounter significant resistance from some of the engineers who have spent their careers designing and building Michigan’s huge highway system. Old-school training encourages these professionals to treat federal design guidelines as dictates, even when they’re usually presented as a range of options. Given their backgrounds, engineers often work better with math and materials than with the people and their opinions that are at the core of CSD. Moreover, the national backlash against too much pavement has likely scared the daylights out of many engineers.

But CSD proponents insist that, given the massive demographic shift occurring in Michigan, everyday citizens must make sure their future transportation needs are met. The state’s elderly population will grow from 1.1 million, or 12 percent of the population, in 2000 to 1.7 million, or 17 percent, by 2020. Another approximately 500,000 residents have disabilities, and their ranks are also growing rapidly. In addition, about 10 percent of Michigan households lack a motor vehicle and about 30 percent have just one car.

Fortunately, the governor has a finger on the pulse of this social transformation. As part of her “Cool Cities” initiative, the Granholm administration in late 2003 convened a “Creating Cool” conference that linked urban redevelopment to culture, community, and commerce. The governor’s labor and economic development director, David Hollister, used the standing-room-only affair to announce a new state initiative to develop “walkable” communities.

The idea’s brilliance is in its simplicity: Let’s have places where you can walk, talk, shop, dine, wander, and so on, without clogging up the roads. Our nation’s truly cool cities also have great bus and light rail options, provide bicycle lanes and broad sidewalks, and generally promote getting out of the car. Michigan’s best examples are Ann Arbor and Grand Rapids, where most of these elements are in ample supply and urban passenger rail service is under consideration.

Time for a cool change
For Michigan to shake off the rust and take up its own “cool” mantle, it simply must loosen up its stiff transportation policy. Here are a few of the many great opportunities to apply context-sensitive design, along with some hard-fought battles that have already helped pave the way:

  • Alpena: In the mid-1990s, then-Governor John Engler promised to build 100 miles of new, four-lane freeway between Alpena and the Thumb and essentially abandon the existing, two-lane U.S. 23. Many residents revolted because northeast Michigan’s economy is so tied to open lands along Lake Huron. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimated the project would have caused the largest wetlands loss in the state’s history. Finally, in 2001, the Federal Highway Administration canceled the idea and recommended upgrading the existing highway where needed.
  • Acme Township: M-72, which connects I-75 to the Grand Traverse region, divides the rural community just east of Traverse City. MDOT wants to widen it to four and five lanes, contrary to Acme’s master plan, which calls for developing a downtown with less traffic and more transportation choices. Three local governments and a regional transportation and land use planning body passed resolutions challenging the state to be flexible and study a boulevard design that, complete with amenities for bicyclists and pedestrians, would be an attractive gateway into Traverse City. But, currently, MDOT is only considering a scaled-down boulevard concept that covers just short stretches of the route.
  • Traverse City: In 1987, the Grand Traverse County Road Commission proposed a four-lane county road and bridge through the Boardman River valley, nature’s pipeline for 30 percent of the fresh water that flows into Grand Traverse Bay. In addition, in 1996, the state proposed a $300 million, 30-mile bypass using the same river crossing. Withering criticism by residents intent on protecting their primary recreational lands sunk the highway bypass in 2001.
    But county commissioners continue to push their road and bridge idea hard, even though the project would plow through the center of a fabulous, newly expanded riverside park. Anglers, paddlers, hikers, Smart Growth advocates, and former Michigan First Lady Helen Milliken united to sue the county to stop the project. Even Traverse City’s city commission opposes it. In late 2003, four state and federal environmental agencies formally objected to the ruinous project; one agency is insisting that, until the commission formally considers a citizen-fashioned “Smart Roads” alternative, the project can go no further.
  • Grand Haven: MDOT has proposed building a 27-mile, billion-dollar bypass around this west Michigan coastal community and straight through the region’s blueberry patch and the state’s most productive agricultural land. Some local governments agreed, but farmers, environmentalists, and three townships formed a coalition that hotly opposes the idea. The groups are advancing a road modernization plan for U.S. 31 and a close-in bypass that uses existing county roads. As part of her fix-it-first road program, Gov. Granholm in 2003 deferred the project indefinitely.
  • East Dearborn: In the mid-1970s MDOT eliminated on-street parking along Michigan Avenue (U.S. 12) in downtown East Dearborn to help move cars more efficiently. Speeds along this major highway increased and customers vanished from the stores along the route. No wonder: Cars knocked rocks and other road debris into display windows; accidents sent vehicles careening into local storefronts; salt splashing from speeding vehicles killed trees and stained sidewalks.
    In the mid-1990s, local businesses, property owners, and community groups pleaded for a six-month, trial restoration of on-street parking. MDOT’s director publicly predicted a “potential for gridlock and a 30-percent increase in crashes.” Instead, the temporary restoration of on-street parking, which reduced the busy avenue from six lanes to four, decreased accidents by 30 percent without worsening congestion. Today, traffic speeds have slowed, pedestrians are safer, and storeowners are happier.
  • Ferndale: The gray, hulking, badly decaying, three-story intersection at Woodward Avenue and Eight Mile Road, along the Detroit-Ferndale border, is one of the ugliest structures in the metropolitan area. Grime and street crime give it an even more foreboding look. When built 50 years ago, it represented state-of-the-art traffic engineering. Today, nearby expressways have siphoned away much of the traffic that originally justified all of that concrete and steel, but MDOT wants to spend millions of dollars to rebuild the entire interchange.
    Ferndale’s leaders have a better idea: Scrap the bridge and create an inviting gateway between the suburb and Detroit that is a traditional intersection free of billboards; full of new commercial activity; friendly to cars, bicycles, and pedestrians; and host to a regional transit hub. MDOT will decide by July 2004 whether to rebuild or remove the bridge. “Michigan and its MDOT have the opportunity to use this as an example to begin to shift state transportation policies in favor of Smart Growth, context-sensitive design, and mass transit,” said Ferndale City Manager Tom Barwin.
  • Oak Park: Three decades ago the Detroit suburb’s neighborhoods faced potentially fatal vivisection by a proposed eight-lane expressway, I-696. Twenty years of contentious negotiations produced two unusually broad, richly landscaped pedestrian overpasses that represent one of Michigan’s most visible examples of flexible highway design: Elevated parks, complete with lighted pedestrian and bicycle paths, seamlessly unite the neighborhoods on both sides of the expressway. But it took a highly organized, sustained push by a cohesive Orthodox Jewish community, which wanted to remain whole by facilitating pedestrian movement across the freeway to and from shopping facilities, schools, houses of worship, and a community center.
  • Detroit: The state is studying the badly needed repair and redesign of seven miles of I-94 in the city, between I-96 and Conner. The project calls for widening the six-lane road to seven or eight lanes in each direction, including service drives. While MDOT has used some context-sensitive tools to narrow some lanes, advocates still rue the $1 billion price tag, the overall scale of the project, and the elimination of public transit options. The proposal would level 34 homes, 15 businesses, three nonprofit facilities, and displace about 130 residents.
  • Southwest Detroit: Detroit’s southwest side is gaining population even as the rest of the city continues to lose people. The community is bouncing back from the longtime dominance of heavy industry and transportation facilities, including the truck-laden Ambassador Bridge and a truck-to-train transfer yard. But, even as Mexicantown’s Vernor Avenue blooms with neat brick shops and restaurants catering to local clientele, MDOT is considering a huge expansion of both the bridge and the yard, which would knock down dozens of homes and businesses and erase the charm that’s been pushing its way back through all of the concrete.

Kelly Thayer directs the Michigan Land Use Institute land use and transportation project in the Grand Traverse region. Reach him at kelly@mlui.org.

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