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Regional Study Could Boost Safe Travel

Long commutes, heavy traffic make northern roads treacherous

August 8, 2007 | By Glenn Puit
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Glenn Puit/MLUI
  Penny Morris holds a photo of her daughter, Adrian, who was killed in a crash on South Airport Road in 2004.

TRAVERSE CITY—Penny Morris still can’t believe that her 17-year-old daughter, Adrian, is gone.

Adrian was one of two teens killed by a speeding motorist on South Airport Rd. at Grand Traverse Crossing three years ago, leaving Mrs. Morris to cope with never-ending thoughts of what her daughter might have accomplished if she’d only survived the crash.

"She was the most incredible girl," Mrs. Morris said. "She was an artist. She was a musician. She was a dancer. She had all this talent; she was going to conquer the world."

But instead, Adrian Morris and her 16-year-old friend, Christan Dewitt, lost their lives to a repeat traffic offender at a busy intersection that lacks a traffic signal. The accident occurred on a roadway that is notorious for its high volume of accidents and for a design that endangers pedestrians and bicyclists.

Now Mrs. Morris and others—from government leaders to those who must use South Airport Rd. and other congested thoroughfares every day—hope that an intensive, citizen-driven study of the region’s traffic problems will not just reduce congestion but also make it safer for everyone to get around. The $1.3 million project, financed by federal transportation dollars and known as the Grand Traverse Area Land Use and Transportation Study (LUTS), gets underway in just a few weeks.

LUTS participants could find transportation solutions not just for Grand Traverse County, but also for Leelanau, Benzie, Kalkaska, and Antrim counties, home to thousands of the workers who commute to Traverse City every weekday and effectively double the town’s population—and its traffic problems. LUTS supporters say the study offers residents a once-in-a-generation opportunity to design a regional transportation system that copes with the area’s growing population and, at the same time, makes getting around in traffic far safer. They add that people in the region have every right to expect transportation that is not only convenient, but safe.

Some Close Calls
Those in the region who dare to commute by foot or bicycle say they often face frightening encounters with cars, particularly on the many roadways that don’t even have sidewalks, much less bike paths.

Traverse City resident Susan Lewis rides her bike to work every day, down Garfield Avenue into the city. Part of the ride takes her through parking lots and across grassy hills because there is no place to ride her bike without getting in the way of motorized traffic.

"It’s very dangerous," Mrs. Lewis said. "Very, very dangerous—it’s not very safe at all. I have to be very cautious. There are no bike paths on Garfield and it’s pretty much an obstacle course."

Bicyclist John Filley confirmed that he encounters the same dangers while riding his bike through Traverse City.

"I don’t really feel the safest crossing the street," Mr. Filley said. "I hit the button for the crosswalk, it started blinking, and as I started to go, people turn in front of you anyway."

People who depend on foot power are not the only ones feeling the heat. Many of the region’s business owners are also bothered by the area’s increasing traffic volume and poor roadway design. Mary Rose Robinson, who owns the Merle Norman beauty salon, on South Airport Rd., said that while she appreciates being on a busy thoroughfare, her business is located right where four lanes turn to two, just before a traffic light.

Mrs. Robinson said that, because there is no warning that the road narrows, her customers often find themselves trapped in her parking lot by gridlocked traffic. This, she worries, prompts some to charge impatiently into the seemingly endless stream of cars; she said that she tries to protect their safety by giving them tips about the safest way to drive their cars in and out of her lot.

"There have been some close calls," she said.

You Can Look It Up
Grand Traverse County Road Commissioner Mary Gillis, who recently moved here from metropolitan Detroit, is convinced that the rate of traffic fatalities in Grand Traverse and the surrounding region is higher than it is downstate.

"A lot more prevalent," Mrs. Gillis said of the fatality rate. "There are a lot more rural roads (here) that aren’t as well-lighted. That contributes. (There are also) more weather issues."

Statistics from the State of Michigan support Ms. Gillis. For example, from 2001 to 2005, four of the five counties that will be part of the LUTS study, as a whole, consistently had a higher per capita death rate from speed-related traffic accidents than heavily populated southeastern Michigan. During the five-year period, Kalkaska, Grand Traverse, Antrim, and Leelanau Counties all ranked higher in per capita speed-related traffic fatalities than more populous Wayne and Oakland counties.

The overall number of traffic accidents and traffic fatalities in the five counties covered by LUTS has fluctuated wildly during the last decade. In Antrim, Benzie, and Leelanau Counties there has been a gradual, albeit slight decrease in the overall number of accidents in recent years. In Benzie County, for example, 2005 and 2006 saw the lowest number of total car crashes in a decade.

But the numbers are erratic; Grand Traverse County, for example, recently saw a big spike in the number of traffic fatalities. In 2005, there were six traffic fatalities there; in 2006 there were 13—a 117 percent increase.

Mrs. Gillis pointed out that many of the region’s drivers face very long commutes because they live in rural areas, where housing is more affordable. This, she said, means they face a greater danger than in-town motorists for the simple reason that they have to drive longer to get almost anywhere—including to work, school, shopping, and socializing.

"As you increase the number of miles traveled, the odds are greater for an accident to occur some place," Gillis said. "And, if you increase the number of drivers, it definitely affects the possibility of something happening."

Researchers from the University of Virginia have confirmed Mrs. Gillis’ suspicions. They found that the longer an individual’s commute, the more likely that person is to die in a traffic accident. In fact, the study debunked the idea that it is safer to live and drive in a rural area than in a metropolitan area; there are actually more traffic fatalities, per capita, among those who live in less populated areas.

Another study by University of Minnesota researchers found that rural residents are 3.5 times as likely to die in a car crash as an urban resident. Despite the fact that only 17 percent of Americans live in rural areas, 58 percent of all fatal crashes and 60 percent of all traffic fatalities were reported in rural regions between 1993 and 2004.

In Michigan, the problem of driving too much is particularly acute, and its effects go beyond boosting the accident rate. A study by the Michigan Department of Community Health found that, because of the state’s sprawling land use patterns:

  1. Michigan is one of the fastest-sprawling states in the United States. While state population grew less than 5 percent over a five-year period, the amount of urbanized land in Michigan increased by 29 percent.
  2. In the last decade, the number of miles driven annually in Michigan grew four times faster than the state’s population. The state’s motorists drive nearly 100 billion miles annually.
  3. 89 percent of trips in Michigan are by automobile. In the last 20 years, foot travel dropped 42 percent for adults; for children, walking and biking to school dropped 40 percent.
  4. One out of every four trips by Michiganders is a mile or less, but 75 percent of the time, they are made with an automobile.

All of this translates not only into more accidents, but also into poor health. These statistics, some health experts point out, help explain why Michigan has such a severe obesity problem—one of the nation’s worst: All of that time in the car is eliminating a great deal of exercise, particularly walking.

Hoping for Some Good
The question now is whether residents of the five counties will use LUTS to help change that—by changing both how the region plans its growth and what it will do to improve mobility. Commissioner Gillis, for one, said she is optimistic that LUTS will give her office a solid blueprint of what kind of transportation the region’s residents want.

The commissioner predicts that participants will come up with a plan that is based on what people who live here really desire.

"I think we are going to find people up here want to have a responsive transportation system that is going to be friendly to the environment," Ms. Gillis said. "People move up her and live up here because of that. People want to be able to move thru traffic and not sit in traffic jams like they do elsewhere."

Mrs. Gillis said she expects LUTS to examine improving traffic efficiency, traffic flow, and public transportation. "At some point you reach a level where you can’t build enough roads to handle the traffic that’s out there," she said.

Mrs. Morris too, is hopeful about LUTS. She thinks that, over the long term, it could make her area a safer place to live. She said improved roadway safety through the better planning that LUTS offers, along with stiffer laws for repeat traffic offenders, would insure a better community for all.

"One of the things I want to see come out of this tragedy is (that) someone else’s child be (kept) safe," Mrs. Morris said. "Something good has to come out of all this.

"If Adrian knew that someone else was safe because of what happened to her, I think that thought would maker her happy," Mrs. Morris said.

Glenn Puit is the Michigan Land Use Institute policy specialist for Emmet County. Reach him at glenn@mlui.org. For more on how LUTS came to be and how the process will work, click here.

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