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Looking for Ways to Beat Traffic, and the Clock

Traverse citizens’ visioning could save commuters, families precious time

August 17, 2007 |
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

  Though many Grand Traverse-area residents moved there for a more relaxed lifestyle, they spend almost an hour a day commuting, much like the rest of the country.

TRAVERSE CITY—With its scenic landscape, strong schools, and seemingly more relaxed pace, northwest Lower Michigan has long attracted people anxious to embrace a life out of the full-tilt American mainstream.

But now many of the 166,509 residents of the five northern Michigan counties surrounding this city are facing a new reality: Enjoyment of the region’s calming beauty is becoming an elusive treasure. Population growth, traffic, soaring energy prices, and rising living costs are forcing people here to make choices in housing, transportation, and lifestyle that they never expected to face when they migrated north.

Six years ago, Carl and Emily Taphouse faced those choices. Carl, an independent contractor; Emily, who works with Aurora Energy; and their two children were living south of Suttons Bay, in Leelanau County. They were just far enough away from their daughters’ school, his job and hers, the grocery store, church, and every other destination to feel estranged from their lives. In fact, their lives were like those of thousands of other residents in the region—rushed, stressed, and trapped in traffic.

Fortunately for the Taphouses, they could afford to make the decision they preferred: They moved to a two-story house on Eighth St. in downtown Traverse City, and they couldn’t be happier. Besides saving lots of money on transportation—they sold one of their cars and drive the other one less—they are also saving precious quality time with each other and with their friends. Carl and Emily bike or walk to work now; they chauffer their children much less; most of their friends are just a quick walk or bike ride away.

"We have more time than we would’ve had we stayed where we were," said Mr. Taphouse. "We save an hour or two a day just in the drive time."

In other words, the Taphouses are enjoying living in a place that still has homes, schools, jobs, churches, parks, and shopping close to each other. But what about the many other people who would like some time back, too, but can’t find the right-sized, right-priced home located close enough to work, groceries, schools, and fun?

A Chance to Make It Right
This fall, residents of the five-county Grand Traverse region have a chance to give themselves and their neighbors and opportunity to live like the Taphouses do. That is when the long-delayed, citizen-based, regional land use and transportation planning project known as the Grand Traverse Area Land Use and Transportation Study gets underway.

Known as LUTS to the local leaders who worked for more than two years to launch it, the study will invite area residents to collaborate, by the hundreds if not thousands, with nationally renowned community design experts on a new vision for the five-county area’s future and make sure local governments act on it.

The communitywide project, which still needs a catchy name, will be led by Fregonese Associates, a firm widely admired for its computer-graphics-powered, consensus-building, quality-of-life-boosting magic.

The unusually broad group of Traverse-area government, business, and community leaders who pushed for LUTS say they hope that the residents that get involved produce recommendations that profoundly change not only how the region grows, but also how much people enjoy living here. LUTS could, they say, simultaneously protect the area’s natural beauty, air, and water quality; save families a good deal of time and transportation costs; and boost the local economy.

For example, according to those who observed Mr. Fregonese’s firm working in other parts of the country, study participants might push for new rural growth patterns that compel builders to construct homes closer to town centers, bringing people and the things they need closer together and easier to get to. The participants could also help the growing number of people who want to live closer to their jobs by allowing for more housing near employment centers.

The upcoming public visioning sessions stem from the decision three years ago to kill a proposed $55 million highway and bridge through the Boardman River valley and look for better ways to handle soaring traffic congestion. The sessions’ results could save more than time: They could save taxpayer dollars by stepping up downtown development and slowing down suburban sprawl.

Doing that Suburban Thing
None of this will be easy. Although the Grand Traverse region offers inviting waters, quiet forests, and stunning vistas, many people have difficulty finding time to truly enjoy them. That is because, the statistics say, most people here live their lives as if they are in suburbs.

Residents in the five-county region spend almost an hour in their cars every day commuting—a number that is almost identical to that for the rest of the country, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The population of Traverse City more than doubles, to 29,798, on workdays. About 80 percent of the region’s commuters drive to work by themselves.

The reasons for all of that isolated commuting are easy to spot. Public transit in the region is very limited, though that is slowly improving. Then there is the obsolete, 20th-century pattern of development, ratified by zoning codes, that completely separates homes from businesses from recreation from schools. Worse, little thought is given to where jobs are located. For example, in the 1970s and ‘80s, Garfield Township, which is just outside of Traverse City, paid almost no attention to how the industrial parks it permitted related to each other or to the township’s neighborhoods.

Michiganders are famously in love with their cars but that romance may be fraying. Transportation is now the largest expense in a typical northwest Michigan household, according to economic studies—a trend that matches the national numbers.

But time is becoming a much bigger issue, too. Many Americans want to spend less time in their cars, according to public opinion surveys. In 2001, in a typical study, the Pew Research Center found a 10 percent decrease in the number of people who said that they enjoyed driving since 1991.

The toll includes more than just frazzled commuters’ nerves. National studies report that since 1970 the number of families who eat a meal together has declined by one-third and that they are also finding it hard to make time just to talk. The average married American couple holding two full-time jobs finds only enough time to talk to each other for 12 minutes each day.

Time Matters
The time crunch also harms the larger community. Neighbors see less of, and speak less to, each other. The time crunch also reduces their involvement in community activities, and people can end up caring much less about the place where they live simply because they are not really part of it.

The rising cost of living and commuting also worsens the time crunch. More people are working more hours or living further away from jobs and community centers in order to afford their lifestyles but those solutions are rapidly losing their effectiveness in the face of soaring gas prices and sparse public transit service.

Emily Bingham, a member of the editorial staff at Traverse Magazine, tried to break that cycle when she recently decided to move to Traverse City from Bellaire, Mich.

After living in Bellaire for awhile, Ms. Bingham realized that she was spending much too much time and money on her 80-mile, two-hour, roundtrip commute. It was clear to her that she would rather spend time and money attending events, visiting friends, or even sleeping.

"The drive, it was taxing," Ms. Bingham explained.

So she decided to move into a Traverse City neighborhood in May

"I’m originally from Detroit and I never felt much of a sense of community there," she said. "I was excited to move into the community here. I was excited to be part of downtown, to meet people, to walk to the farmers’ market."

The Taphouses also understand the benefits of living downtown. Before moving to Traverse City their lives were hectic and complicated; there was little time to enjoy family moments. "It’s the time factor that plays the most important aspect in this change," Mr. Taphouse explained.

Leah Burcat, a student at Haverford College, worked on the Michigan Land Use Institute’s news desk this summer. Reach her at leah@mlui.org

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