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Accelerating Flexible Design in Michigan

Key steps include commitment, citizen-led process, new laws, and transportation design palette

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

What makes the difference between states that renew their communities with context-sensitive transportation design and those that don’t? Commitment! Without it, the process devolves into landscaping schemes that merely paper over poorly conceived projects.

Michigan and many other states still hide behind federal design guidelines and produce the fastest, widest, and flattest plans. The federal “bible” of road design has a fairly obtuse name — the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials’ A Policy on Geometric Design of Highways and Streets — and, historically, a green cover. So, it’s universally called the “Green Book.”  While widely used as an excuse for one-size-fits-all roads, the manual actually provides inherent flexibility by offering a range of recommended widths, sizes, and scales. And, if that’s not enough, in 1997 the Federal Highway Administration published its own guide called Flexibility in Highway Design.

For Michigan and its cities and counties to fully embrace flexible design requires risk-taking — not with safety, cost, or performance, but with a project outcome that may be entirely different from the transportation agency’s original preference. A proposed highway-widening project might instead become a “road-diet” project that reduces the number of lanes by converting some of them into, say, left-turn or bus-only lanes and space for bicycling, parking, and pedestrians. This transforms a plan to accommodate more cars and nothing else into one that accommodates everybody’s needs. In flexible design parlance, that’s a commitment to excellence.

To get there, Michigan’s transportation and land use planners must put the public in the driver’s seat, provide citizens with tools to fix their own problems, and go along for an educational ride. They must treasure other people’s hometowns and open spaces as they do their own. Once planners come to understand a community’s character and values by listening to its residents, they will be able to help fashion transportation projects that truly mesh with the local setting.

Michigan must take these critical steps to achieve truly proactive, context-sensitive design policy:

Since 1999, the Michigan Land Use Institute and the Michigan Environmental Council’s statewide transportation coalition has focused on flexible design. Here are two of the Michigan Transportation & Land Use Coalition’s goals related to flexible design and transportation choices:

• Integrate Statewide Transportation and Land Use: Direct the state to create a comprehensive transportation and land use plan for Michigan before developing the next MDOT road and bridge construction plan. Numerous state agencies should play a part, including the state departments of transportation, natural resources, environmental quality, agriculture, and education and the state family independence agency.

Preserve Railroad Corridors: Prohibit planning and public funding of roads on railroad rights-of-way. Railroad corridors should be preserved for recreation and public transit use. Retain all state-owned rail corridors. Promote public purchase of abandoned, privately owned rail corridors.

1. Define context-sensitive design and fully commit to it
“Folks, crafting a 21st-century transportation system entails much more than concrete, asphalt, bricks, and mortar,” Governor Jennifer M. Granholm said in a December 2003 address to the Michigan Department of Transportation’s statewide Transportation Summit: Michigan Partnerships. “It’s vastly more complex than building highways and mass transit systems. It’s about building and connecting communities. It’s about creating livelihoods, economic stability, and reaching out beyond our borders and comfort zones.” That’s a good anecdotal definition of flexible design. Then in December 2003 the governor backed up her words when she issued an executive order requiring a greatly stepped-up state and local commitment to context-sensitive design. Proof will be in the implementation.

2. Develop a citizen-led transportation planning process
Michigan’s citizens and transportation officials must work closely together to determine each community’s values, transportation and land use problems, and context-sensitive solutions. Rather than presenting pre-packaged ideas, the state must put everything on the table: The purpose of the project, its location and ownership, its components, and its scale. To be successful this process would:
• Regularly use a so-called “charrette” format, which is an intense, interactive public planning process that occurs over several consecutive days. Well-done charrettes solicit comments from residents, provide them with tools, and put them in charge.
• Avoid overwhelming residents and local officials with technical issues by providing communities with a free “public advocate” for each project. The qualified professional (usually a traffic engineer) would aid and represent the local community, uphold local land use plans, and negotiate with transportation department professionals throughout the process. By doing this, MDOT would put everyone on an equal footing, not in opposite corners, and would convey an enormous sense of trust in local people.

3. Amend state laws inhibiting context-sensitive design
Michigan’s primary transportation law — Public Act 51 — requires that new highways be at least four lanes wide and designed to accommodate 20-year traffic projections. While the law does allow MDOT and a city or village to agree to fewer lanes, that’s no sure thing when the state holds most of the money and prefers wide highways. Likewise, 20-year projections are too prescriptive and speculative. Some leading transportation planners contend that traffic expands to fill the available road space and that a lack of alternatives causes most congestion. These required minimums for number of lanes and years of accommodation must be reduced or removed to allow full flexibility to flourish. Otherwise, MDOT and residents won’t have the room to reach creative new conclusions. In addition, Michigan must frequently revisit and revise its transportation funding formula so that funds can follow a community’s agreed-upon needs regardless of who — local, state, or federal — owns the road or other transportation facility. The state also should pass a moratorium on new billboards to clean up the generic appearance they foster.

4. Adopt design guidelines that respect local land use
Like some other states, Michigan should expand its transportation design choices beyond the Green Book. For instance, lowering acceptable design speeds so that roads can bend to suit the landscape is crucial. The state should employ a wide range of citizen and interest group involvement to develop and adopt a new set of transportation project design criteria that puts it in step with 21st-century transportation and land use planning. The Institute of Transportation Engineers’ and the Congress for New Urbanism’s forthcoming context-sensitive development guidelines, expected by the end of 2004, could prove a useful template. In developing project alternatives, Michigan should also determine whether or not each proposal is consistent with local comprehensive land use plans. If it is not consistent, MDOT should seek advice from the locality to determine how to make it so.

Michigan DOT
Michigan Executive Order on flexible design
Michigan Land Use Leadership Council
Michigan Traffic Crash Statistics
Michigan Transportation Facts & Figures
Bicycle and pedestrian design
California DOT
Federal Highway Administration
Project for Public Spaces
Scenic America
University of Kentucky
Washington State DOT

5. Consider all alternatives to meet transportation needs
To achieve the best transportation solutions possible, Michigan also needs to be flexible about the types of transportation projects it implements. Too often, the default solution is to choose new or wider highways and ignore public transit and other alternatives that would be less harmful to the community and environment. The tool for changing this approach and achieving true flexibility already exists: The Michigan Environmental Protection Act (MEPA). Under MEPA, whenever an agency proposes a project that would “pollute, impair, or destroy” the environment, the agency must demonstrate that there is no feasible and prudent alternative. This approach should be adopted into Michigan transportation law, so that any time an agency proposes a transportation project that would significantly impact the environmental, scenic, historic, or community resources of an area, that agency must objectively consider feasible and prudent alternatives and be able to justify their rejection which would, ideally, occur only rarely.

6. Launch demonstration projects
Because seeing is often believing, Michigan should pursue demonstration projects that illustrate flexible design’s best principles: Broad public participation, excellent performance, enhanced safety, and superb aesthetic appeal. Dispersing the projects geographically would introduce all areas of the state to the benefits of flexible design. Projects could be chosen for their distinct profiles and locales: Big city, small town, and countryside, with public transit, bicycle lanes, and pedestrian spaces.

Reported and written by Michigan Land Use Institute Transportation Project Manager Kelly Thayer, with research and writing assistance provided by interns Amy Brooks and Jack Van Dyke, urban planning graduate students at the University of Michigan — Ann Arbor. Additional legal and policy research conducted by Shannon Fisk, staff attorney at the Environmental Law & Policy Center in Chicago. Financial support generously provided by the Frey Foundation and the Joyce Foundation.

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