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New Route to Transportation Design

Michigan prepares to harmonize highway, transit plans with community character

April 7, 2004 | By Kelly Thayer
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service


Many Ferndale residents want this unsightly bridge at Eight Mile Road and Woodward replaced with an attractive intersection that would be a more welcoming city gateway.

LANSING — Responding to a recent executive directive by Governor Jennifer M. Granholm, the Michigan Department of Transportation will invite public officials and private groups to Lansing this summer to help it define and develop a new way to protect communities and the environment from ill-conceived transportation projects.

The new process, called “context-sensitive design,” reflects an emerging national trend that the Federal Highway Administration has fostered since 1997 and hopes will take root in all 50 states by 2007. Broadly speaking, CSD or flexible design, as its proponents also refer to it, strives to preserve and enhance a sense of place when building or expanding road, transit, bicycle, and pedestrian projects. The intent is to include large amounts of community participation and comment in a project’s selection and design. The CSD process diverges so markedly from the typical highway department approach that it can render results that are radically different from initial concepts, or even cancellation of entire projects.

A full embrace of flexible design by MDOT would mark a complete U-turn from its previous, longstanding method, which at one point during the administration of former Republican Governor John Engler saw the transportation department seeking legislative exemption from all local land use laws. Governor Granholm’s sharply different approach to designing highway and other transportation projects first surfaced early in her administration, when she appointed Gloria Jeff, who worked on CSD while at the federal highway agency, as MDOT director. The governor's executive directive installing the CSD process, which she issued last December, reflected recommendations made by her bipartisan, sprawl-fighting Michigan Land Use Leadership Council.

And, to the delight of many citizens around the state who work on transportation issues, the text of the governor’s order revealed that she appreciates the complex interaction that occurs among transportation systems, cities and towns, and the environment: “Michigan’s transportation system connects our communities and citizens, alters the shape of the communities, affects our ecosystems, and impacts the quality of life.”

Fewer Battles?
Margaret Barondess, MDOT’s manager of environmental affairs and a member of the agency’s context-sensitive design team, said her department will launch the public effort concerning CSD in June by convening a broad array of groups who will listen to national experts on the topic, learn how MDOT plans to engage the public, and contribute their ideas for reforming the department’s planning and design practices. Ms. Barondess said that the agency is aware that it might end up yielding some control over the exact shape, size, and type of its transportation projects, but that the power sharing will be worth it if communities are more satisfied with the results.

"This is not a product, it's a process,” she said. “It's not about a pretty bridge, it's about whether that bridge is what the community wants. Does it carry multiple transportation modes? Is it the right scale?”

Ms. Barondess said that the state agency also plans a related website, public surveys and interviews, and a compilation of national best practices related to context-sensitive design. The state-led process is meant to continue formally through at least 2005 and is intended to permanently change how the department interacts with people and their places.

If pursued aggressively and effectively, MDOT’s stated commitment to context-sensitive design could portend the end of divisive highway battles that for decades have pitted citizens against their state government. From Alpena, Petoskey, and Traverse City to Grand Haven, Jackson, and Detroit, citizens have battled, often successfully, to block the construction of wide, 1950s-style highways through open space and active farmland.

State Decision, Local Impact
One local official who is closely watching the emergence of CSD at the state level is Tom Barwin, city manager of metropolitan Detroit’s first-ring suburb of Ferndale. He is hopeful that MDOT will cancel rebuilding the decrepit, hulking, triple-decker Woodward Avenue bridge over Eight Mile Road there. Citing crime and grime in the bridge’s shadows, many Ferndale citizens support tearing it down and replacing it with a traditional intersection that allows for redevelopment and a much more attractive gateway to the community. MDOT’s decision is due by summer.

But, independent of that project’s outcome, Mr. Barwin said he hopes that MDOT’s new flexible design efforts can spur better relationships with Michigan’s cities and villages.

“The outcome of this process and how it becomes institutionalized will have a lot to do with the future viability of our state and our economy, the key to which seems to boil down to quality of place,” he said. “If people learn and study and compare options and similar projects together — supplemented with real, documented information, and access to a broad range of expertise — I’m betting that nine out of 10 times we will see good decisions being made by MDOT.”

From Follower to Leader
Indeed, the state transportation department has the opportunity to lead the way in the Midwest, where strides toward flexibility with transportation planning have really just begun. Illinois passed a law in 2003 that embraces the concept but does not completely reform the way it engages communities and citizens. Minnesota is furthest along, having joined the CSD evolution in 1998 as one of the Federal Highway Administration’s five pilot states on context-sensitive design.

Shannon Fisk, a staff attorney and transportation analyst at the Environmental Law and Policy Center in Chicago, said that context-sensitive design boils down to striking a better balance between concrete and community than Michigan has achieved to date.

“By adopting a strong CSD policy, Michigan can become a leader for reform and free itself of the outdated, one-size-fits-all approach to transportation planning that we have seen all too often throughout the Midwest,” Mr. Fisk said. "Context-sensitive design can help ensure that the cookie-cutter four-lane highway approach to transportation planning is replaced with a process that ensures that transportation projects fit within their surroundings, are sensitive to the interests of the local community, and do not unnecessarily impact important environmental, historic, and scenic values.”
Minnesota’s experience so far may indicate what Michigan can hope to gain by reforming its own transportation department. A snow belt state with a large rural population that puts a high premium on the protection of open space and natural resources, Minnesota’s heritage and culture parallel Michigan’s own roots and conditions. According to the Minnesota Department of Transportation, its experiment with flexible design practices is already resulting in quicker project completion, lower costs, and greater public and agency satisfaction.

“The advantage of CSD is building relationships and alliances and trust with stakeholders,” said Scott Bradley, the Minnesota transportation department’s leader on context-sensitive design and chair of CSD policy for the National Research Council’s Transportation Research Board. “The process should help identify and solve conflict that otherwise could cause costly time delays and outright failures.”

Mr. Bradley said that too often transportation design engineers have become “overly conservative or paralyzed and fail to be designers” by treating federal design guidelines as strictures, for fear of compromising safety or acquiring liability. He said safety can never be ignored but neither can a particular community’s needs and desires.

Give a Little, Get a Lot
Experts say that meaningful CSD reform in Michigan likely will have to include:

  • A deep commitment to citizen involvement and ideas.
  • The amendment of state transportation laws that might inhibit flexibility and creativity.
  • New design guidelines allowing slower speeds, tighter curves, on-street parking, broad sidewalks, and other flexible design elements.
  • Full consideration of options to widening roads, including alternatives for bicycling, walking, and riding public transit.
  • Pilot projects that prove to communities and lawmakers that context-sensitive design can add value, maintain safety and performance, and save time and money.

“This is not the flavor of the month. This is state DOTs changing the way they do business,” said Steve Davies, vice president of the Project for Public Spaces in New York City, which has a contract with the Federal Highway Administration to develop an Internet-based national resource center on context-sensitive design. 

“If it’s working right, it’s really a collaborative decision-making process,” he said. “It’s not just about public participation and the same old decisions. The DOT has to relinquish a little bit of its power.”

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

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