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Communities at the Crossroads

Michigan needs transportation reform that respects people and their places

January 27, 2004 | By Kelly Thayer
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

  DOT Director Gloria Jeff
Sometimes roads are like rivers. Increase their flow too much and they can drastically reshape their surroundings. Pump up the traffic on a road through a small town, for example, and all sorts of new gas stations, billboards, and fast food outlets spring up; soon, the road widens and sprawl, like a mudslide, buries the town’s character, pride, and sense of place.

Then the landscape starts striking back. The driveways to the countless new strip malls chop up the roadside. Traffic congestion increases, accident rates soar, and drivers and pedestrians pay a heavy price in wasted time, frustration, injury, even death. Children, the elderly, and people with disabilities pay the highest price because they can no longer cross what’s become a raging, five-lane torrent of high-speed traffic tearing through their hometown’s heart.

Trading Taboos for Citizen Leadership
Until recently, any discussion of this glaring conflict among transportation, people, and local land use was taboo at the Michigan Department of Transportation. The department did not want the added responsibility of considering these impacts or the potential cost of coping with them.

But that is changing now that Governor Jennifer M. Granholm has appointed Gloria Jeff director of the Michigan Department of Transport-ation. The governor and Ms. Jeff believe that well-designed roads, bus and train lines, bicycle routes, and sidewalks should complement, not corrode, a community. A beautifully landscaped boulevard, for instance, can serve as a community’s signature gateway. A bustling bus or train stop can spur urban revitalization and generate good business for nearby shops. Sidewalks and bicycle routes can raise property values and promote healthier, more sociable communities.

  Michigan Governor Jennifer M. Granholm
Achieving a positive relationship between a transportation project and the surrounding community or environment, however, requires patience, dialogue, careful planning, and openness to new ideas.

This is why the state must allow local residents and communities to lead in designing new transportation projects.

Context-sensitive Design
There is a new method for empowering citizens to marry transportation projects and land use plans that is gaining acceptance around the nation. It is called “context-sensitive design” or “context-sensitive solutions.” The method replaces the longstanding, one-size-fits-all design approach. Instead of producing wide, flat, arrow-straight, high-speed, runway-like roads, the new, citizen-led process smoothly integrates transportation needs with the environment and the community’s land use plans.

In other words, flexible design is about much more than landscaping or beautification. It’s about respecting and enhancing downtowns, neighborhoods, and the natural environment. It allows slower speeds, tighter curves, narrower lanes, and smaller shoulders in order to preserve the surroundings. It can eliminate a “through lane” to add on-street parking spaces, a bicycle lane, wide sidewalks, or a left-turn lane. It enhances rather than compromises safety while increasing mobility.

“Context-sensitive design (CSD) is an approach that places preservation of historic, scenic, natural environment, and other community values on an equal basis with mobility, safety and economics,” says Mary E. Peters, director of the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA). “We should seek to institutionalize the principles of CSD with the same commitment that drove the implementation of the Interstate Highway System.”

This new age in transportation design began on a large scale in the 1990s, when Congress passed landmark laws that encouraged landscape protection around new roads and other projects. The FHWA and states such as Maine, Minnesota, and Utah began experimenting with flexible design. Some states even passed their own laws embracing the new, citizen-led design process.

Michigan Transportation Policy Needs a Makeover
  Holland, Michigan’s downtown reflects key elements of context-sensitive design: It is walkable, people-friendly, and has narrow streets that help to calm traffic.
Michigan did not join the movement, however, even though it badly needs a context-sensitive design policy for its transportation projects, including its 10,000 miles of state and federal highways and 110,000 miles of local roads. Thus, communities continue to clamor for traffic solutions and mobility options but reject MDOT’s ready-made recipes.

In Detroit, for instance, the state’s proposed I-94 repair project has swelled into a $1 billion mega-widening plan that would knock down 52 homes and businesses, while a proposed new border crossing to Canada could level part of Mexicantown, one of the city’s few rebounding communities.

In Grand Haven, the state proposes a 27-mile bypass right through Michigan’s most fertile farmland, including the region’s blueberry patch. In Traverse City and Petoskey, MDOT and local residents squared off for years over state highway bypass proposals that were certain to carve up active farms and the countryside.

Citizens won those last two contests, but at great cost. In Petoskey, for example, the battle lasted nearly a generation and cost taxpayers millions of dollars. Such squandering of time and money confirms that, when it’s time to build, rebuild, or widen a state or local road, fresh thinking and flexibility must be the order of the day. Otherwise, taxpayers will continue to waste billions of dollars a year in time, fuel, delayed projects, missed redevelopment opportunities, degraded communities, lost open space, and crashes.

Michigan’s Road to Flexibility
“A collaborative, interdisciplinary approach that involves all stakeholders to develop a transportation facility that fits its physical setting and preserves scenic, aesthetic, historic, and environmental resources, while maintaining safety and mobility. CSD is an approach that considers the total context within which a transportation improvement project will exist.”
— Federal Highway Administration
“Design excellence: Simultaneously advancing the objectives of safety, mobility, enhancement of the natural environment, and preservation of community values.” — Federal Highway Administration
“‘Context-sensitive’ highway design...considers an area’s built and natural landscape; takes into account the environmental, scenic, aesthetic, historic, community, and preservation impacts of a road project; and provides access for other modes of transportation such as bicycles, pedestrians, and mass transit.” — Scenic America Web site
There are good reasons to be hopeful. For example, the Michigan Transport-ation and Land Use Coalition, a collection of 40 progressive groups organized by the Michigan Land Use Institute and the Michigan Environmental Council in 1999, continues advocating for context-sensitive design. MDOT is now paying some attention to flexible design by conducting staff training programs and applying the approach in limited fashion in some communities. Governor Granholm’s bipartisan Michigan Land Use Leadership Council formally recommended in August 2003 that state and local road agencies adopt the new design and public input process. The Michigan House of Representatives in November 2003 passed a bill that defined and endorsed innovation in developing transportation projects and that now awaits Senate action. And in December Gov. Granholm issued an executive order greatly increasing Michigan’s commitment to context-sensitive solutions.

With other states already synchronizing their roads, bicycling and walking routes, and public transit corridors with their sense of community and land use plans, it’s time for Michigan to become again the transportation design leader it was almost a century ago. After all, Michigan can proudly claim many transportation “firsts,” including the nation’s first mile of concrete highway, in 1909; the nation’s first painted center line, in 1911; and the nation’s first three-color traffic signal, in 1919.

Fully implementing context-sensitive design in Michigan will produce and sustain great places and green spaces. The approximately 500 civic, business, industry, and government leaders attending MDOT’s December 2003 convention, Transportation Summit: Michigan Partnerships, voted to put it this way: “Regions won’t achieve economic prosperity, environmental and cultural integrity, and social equity until we find regional solutions that integrate transportation, land use planning, and expenditures.”

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