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Sensitivity Training

Transportation officials, citizens polishing new people-and-pavement policies

December 10, 2004 | By Kelly Thayer
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service


Officials improved traffic flow on this Traverse City road by eliminating vehicle lanes and adding bike paths and boulevard islands.

LANSING — After a year of public dialogue, the state Transportation Department is preparing to complete a broad new design policy meant to better conform with the desires of local communities. The policy for “context-sensitive design” would establish new approaches for a state agency traditionally known for its rigidity in deciding just how and where to build highways, bus and train facilities, bicycle routes, and sidewalks.

The design policy, which the Michigan Department of Transportation and about 50 participants will debate and polish at an all day workshop in Lansing on Dec. 14, could lay the groundwork for real change in the way the powerful state agency engages the public in assessing and solving transportation problems. The key to the new method is meshing design and decision-making with each community’s unique sense of place and natural environment.

The state initiative for the new process, which the agency officially refers to as “context-sensitive solutions” and which is also known simply as “flexible design,” is part of a growing national movement. Like those in other states, Michigan's initiative is meant to break through the impasse that often forms between transportation agencies and a public that is increasingly wary of road and other construction projects that damage their communities.

In Michigan, known as the Auto State because of its car manufacturing heritage and its congested, one-person-one-car commuting pattern, the effort could be a watershed moment or a washout. Participants say success will turn on how earnestly MDOT embraces the guidance of the stakeholders it has assembled, how deeply the department transforms its ethos and inner workings, and how proactively it forms new partnerships with communities across Michigan that have grown weary of a top-down, my-way-is-the-highway relationship.

Slow Motion Culture Shock
“With this effort, MDOT’s trying to change their culture, and it’s going to take years,” said Jim Lagowski, a board member of the aesthetic policy group Scenic Michigan and an active participant in MDOT’s context-sensitive design discussions last summer and fall. “You’ve got to start with the leadership and really mean it and sustain it over time. Right now, MDOT takes an engineering approach and not always a people approach, but they’re slowly realizing you can’t just show up and say, ‘Here’s what’s coming to your community’ anymore.”

Mr. Lagowski’s group worked closely in 2000 with the department to craft an aesthetics policy that calls for protecting and enhancing the landscape along Michigan’s highways. MDOT now appears to be folding that policy into its context-sensitive design effort, which has Mr. Lagowski a bit worried. He fears that Scenic Michigan’s work could get watered down. But he says he’s hopeful that the aesthetics language could serve as the foundation for the new initiative. On a basic level, he says, it’s a matter of trust. Essentially, he asks: Is the transportation agency, with some 3,000 employees stretching across every county, really listening?

Mark Van Port Fleet, an engineer who is heading MDOT’s process to formulate and enact a context-sensitive design policy, said the agency is all ears. He acknowledged that participants, who divided last summer into six work groups with focuses ranging from environmental quality to historic preservation to public involvement, expressed some surprise when the departments’ draft of the new design policy turned out to be just one page long.

“Many of the things presented by the stakeholders are in the implementation plan, rather than the policy statement,” said Mr. Van Port Fleet, adding that participants will have ample chance to improve both documents when they convene next week. The department has not yet released a version of the implementation plan.

Traditional Community Values
The one-page draft of the design policy speaks of “reflecting community values” by both the choice (for example, a road vs. a transit solution) and design of transportation projects. It encourages “early and continuous dialog with stakeholders on the purpose and need of proposed projects during planning and development.” On paper, it reflects the department’s growing desire to move beyond the traditional panacea of straighter, wider, faster roads — an approach that has leveled some Michigan neighborhoods and business districts in the name of statewide mobility. In short, the stated policy seeks to establish an elusive equity among the wants of travelers, the needs of people who cannot or do not want to drive, and the rights of communities and natural places to remain unique and unfettered.

Martha MacFarlane-Faes, an official at Michigan’s State Historic Preservation Office, said the history of transportation policy across America teaches a basic lesson about what’s at stake if Michigan does not choose a new course.

“Transportation policies that have little regard for basic quality of life issues have consistently proven detrimental to communities,” said Ms. MacFarlane-Faes, also an active member of the MDOT policy reform effort. “For example, the intrusion of truck routes into historic downtowns after World War II resulted in the degeneration of these areas. Four lanes of truck traffic on a community’s main street is not only unpleasant and damaging to adjacent buildings, it terrifies residents, who end up shopping at strip malls where they feel it is easier and safer to maneuver.”

Ms. MacFarlane-Faes points out that before the auto era traditional community design brought downtowns and neighborhoods close together, making walking and bicycling safe and convenient. But the rise of the automobile demanded more and more space and literally cast aside people who were not on four wheels. Today, things have begun to come full circle, she said, pointing to Governor Jennifer M. Granholm’s Cool Cities initiative, which seeks to enhance the singular character and economic competitiveness of select Michigan communities, in part, by strengthening basic things as sidewalks, bicycle routes, and historic structures.

The Grassroots, The Governor, The G-men
The synchronicity of Cool Cities and the emerging transportation design policy is not happenstance. In August of last year Governor Granholm’s bipartisan, sprawl-busting Michigan Land Use Leadership Council recommended creating a state context-sensitive design program, after residents from Marquette to Detroit testified to their desire for state transportation policy that protects communities while helping their commute. In response, the governor launched MDOT’s context-sensitive design policy effort with a directive last December — the same month that the state hosted its first “Creating Cool” conference to harness the ideas and talents of interested community leaders. When the new transportation design policy is complete, it’s a sure bet it will be added to the Cool Cities “toolbox,” which is a compilation of key state programs and financial resources essential to building vibrant communities.

But there is also a larger, national force that’s pushing the new, community-friendly design process. Much of its original impetus comes from the Federal Highway Administration, which launched pilot programs in five states in 1998 and hopes to extend the effort to all 50 states by 2007.

At a transportation planning conference held in September on Mackinac Island, ironically a place that to this day functions without cars, an official from the Michigan office of the FHWA presented a slide show on flexible design that spoke of the public's “dissatisfaction” regarding transportation projects and pavement’s sometimes “adverse impacts on the cultural, human, and natural environment.” The federal agency desires to “ institutionalize the principles of context-sensitive solutions with the same commitment that drove the implementation of the interstate highway system,” according to the presentation, by Abdelmoez Abdalla, Environmental Program Manager for the FHWA’s Michigan Division.

Planned Outcomes, Possible Hurdles
Making a flexible transportation design program flourish in Michigan will require hammering out some fairly technical matters, too. For instance, current state law requires all new state highways to be wide enough to handle traffic growth predicted for the next 20 years and to be at least four lanes wide. That virtually eliminates any more two-lane highways in northern Lower Michigan and the Upper Peninsula, where narrower roads dominate. And the increasingly popular and proven concept of a “road diet,” where a four-lane road with moderate traffic slims down to three lanes to free up space for on-street parking or bicycle lanes, seems out of the question without legal reform.

In addition, while the federal government recognizes a range of road design standards that allow narrower lanes, tighter curves, and slower speeds to better accommodate community needs or environmental features, MDOT tends to choose the upper limit of those ranges, apparently to try to stave off potential lawsuits from crash victims. Some designers say the tendency has the opposite effect by encouraging drivers to drive faster, not slower.

“MDOT always requires the upper values of design ranges, such as for lane width, number of lanes, turning radius, etc. These upper design values always result in greater design speeds,” said Keith Tianen, a community and transportation-planning consultant based at Beckett & Raeder in Ann Arbor who works statewide. “Eliminating the possibility for lower road design values in a developed setting — such as a downtown main street with pedestrian traffic — actually results in greater liability.”

Kelly Thayer, a journalist and transportation analyst at the Michigan Land Use Institute, is using his writing and planning skills to help make Michigan a model of Smart Growth. Reach him at kelly@mlui.org.

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