Monday, July 19, 2010

In Defense of Calvin College

A couple of weeks ago I went to the bar with a friend and met up with his sister and a co-worker of his.  During the course of conversation it was brought up that I would be attending graduate school for urban planning, something my friend's sister though was pretty cool as did his co-worker.

Having a few drinks, the co-worker decided to rant to me a little about dumb street design and poor planning from the last few decades, which I heartily joined in on.  He wondered how I got into the whole urban planning thing, especially for someone from Calvin College, so I told him about being a geography major and taking an introductory course in planning while at Calvin.

This happened to be when the conversation shifted a little.  Having apparently attended Calvin for a while, the co-worker was surprised Calvin offered a planning course, and made the quick conclusion that it was probably one of the few good classes the college offers (he took philosophy classes).

His distaste for Calvin continued to be shown by talking about how Calvin abandoned it's campus in the city for the suburban real estate it currently occupies.  In some ways I agree with those sentiments, but we shouldn't direct the heat solely upon the school.

Calvin had grown beyond what the old campus could sustain and badly needed to undergo some kind of expansion.  Given that fact, they expanded to a location where the land was available.  We shouldn't fault them on jumping at such an opportunity, especially since suburbanization was the name of the game when these events took place.  It was not the school, but rather an entrenched societal ideal that came more into play.  Also worth mentioning is the fact that the former campus "in the city" was almost outside of the city.

To look back with disgust, I think, is inappropriate.  Instead, we should look at what is happening in the present and for the future.  Progress is happening.

Calvin has increased its presence in the downtown area with the creation of the (106) South Division Art Gallery.  The school has also begun to subsidize bus rides on the Rapid making them cheaper for students.  Unfortunately, there are many complaints to these.  The main one I see is that Calvin is not doing enough and should be doing more, such as fully subsidizing the Rapid so it is free and not just cheap.  I'm in the camp that says Calvin should do more too, but we can't just complain.  I think it really boils down to the administration and policy makers moving slowly and cautiously, which in many ways is quite admirable.  A lot of thought has to go into such decisions.

I also don't think we should compare Calvin to Grand Valley.  A lot of the arguments for making the Rapid free center on the fact that GVSU does it for their students.  Many differences should be noted.  First, GVSU is much larger than Calvin, although this is probably not that important in the grand scheme.  Next, there is actually a legitimate reason to offer free service to GVSU students: they have a campus downtown and often take classes there and out in Allendale and need a way to get between campuses easily.  Calvin doesn't have that issue.  Most students either live on campus or nearby, so there is no necessary reason to give free rides.  The closet comparison to Calvin would be Aquinas.  Aquinas only has one campus, albeit closer into town, and they offer a discounted rate of 40 cents.  This is comparable to Calvin's 50 cent fares.

Other reasons abound for Calvin (and Aquinas) to hop on board with free fares, and I would love to see that happen.  I think it is most important to realize that people at Calvin actually care about these kind of issues and some progress is evident.  It is also important to continue to pursue various avenues and push for quicker implementation of positive policies.

Finally, we should be grateful for what Calvin is as a respectable educational institution that is actually moving (however slowly) into greater harmony with the city.  At least we're not Davenport, who just recently abandoned their downtown campus for one out in the sticks by M-6.

Rant out. Good night.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

"More Complete" Streets

A short blurb in today’s Grand Rapids Press informed me that federal transportation spending on bicycling and walking doubled from $600 million to $1.2 billion between 2008 and 2009.  To say the least, I’m a fan.

This and some other recent conversation and reading have led to this post.  In it I’ll wander around some topics that are interesting to my future-urban-planner nerd-ism.  Enjoy!

As oil continues to spill into the Gulf of Mexico, we should recognize even clearer than ever that we need to move beyond petroleum (As even BP tells us).  Now, I understand that bicycling and walking cannot replace all the uses of an automobile, but we should embrace alternatives to our car culture that relies on a finite resource.

Alternative methods to powering cars aside (any major changes are probably a ways out yet); by funding bicycling and walking projects we can work more immediately on the situation at hand.

This is by no means just about energy.  In fact, it might be least about energy.  By investing in “complete streets” that embrace cyclists and pedestrians we can make our cities more hospitable for those who elect to use those methods of getting around.  In some areas, walking or cycling is just plain insane.  28th street is a good example of such a place.  5 lanes wide with a 40+ mph speed limit and sidewalks few and far between it is a nightmare to maneuver around without an automobile of some kind.

The good news is that funding for pedestrians is becoming more apparent even along 28th.  By simple observation one can notice that for the last few months MDOT has been cutting in and paving a sidewalk between Division and Kalamazoo Avenue.  The project is accompanied by a road resurfacing.  There is also similar construction along Chicago Drive.  While I will remain skeptical of its possibilities to bring in new pedestrians to such a desolate landscape, it definitely creates a more hospitable and safe environment.  This is something I think Wyoming and Kentwood need in order to retain, and more importantly attract, businesses along that section of road.

Complete streets are also making headlines across Michigan with new legislation that was recently passed by the state House 84-22.  It was referred to the state Senate Transportation Committee.  If made into law, the bill would require all cities, villages, and townships in the state to include bicycle and pedestrian routes whenever road construction takes place.  Some exceptions do exist.

This is an exciting promotion of non-automobile travel.  Some cities are even ahead of the curve too, and this is apparent here in West Michigan as well.  Grand Rapids repaved a wretched section of Lake Drive this past spring and as a result the sidewalk was repaved and on-street bicycle lanes added. 

Even Grandville is hopping on the bandwagon with a project it first started back in 2004.  The city plans to use a complete streets type formula to improve its traditional downtown district at the intersection of Chicago Drive and Wilson.  Right now, two through lanes travel in each direction, the sidewalk is just plain concrete, and there are overhead utilities.  The center two lanes pretty much only get used for left turns and simply cause back-ups.  The plan would create a left turn lane and have a single through lane in each direction, relocate utility lines, and use remaining space to create on-street parking.

One question that I have overheard from my grandpa and his neighbors is “How do they plan to fit that all in the current right-of-way?”  The answer: you don’t.  There are 44 feet to work with currently.  Two 11 foot through lanes and a 10 foot turn lane use up 32 feet.  The remaining 12 feet is too little to accommodate parking on both sides of the road because you need 16 feet to do so.  The solution is to cut two feet into the sidewalk on each side.  People who pose this question do so because they are skeptical about narrowing the sidewalk, especially since the plan is to enhance the pedestrian experience.  The narrowing of the sidewalk is, in my opinion, absolutely fine.  There really wouldn’t be much loss of walking space anyway because the current utility poles push pedestrians away from the road’s edge.  On top of that, the sidewalk is quite wide along that section of Chicago Drive and parked cars also manage to create a safety barrier that “protects” pedestrians.  At the very least it makes them feel safer.

The only issue I might take up with the project is the omission of bicycle lanes, but with the restrictions that are being dealt with, I’ll take the street parking over a bicycle lane.

Overall, I am impressed with the direction that the country and especially West Michigan is headed.  I love the complete streets ideal.  I am interested to see these changes as they occur and what the economic and other results happen to be.  I also hope to see other things happen as well: more public transit opportunities, alternative fuel sources, and new energy policy.  For the time being I’ll continue to hypocritically drive my car and work to increase my bicycle usage.