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.


  1. In you Chicago drive example, do you gain any space by rerouting the utility lines, or is that purely for safety and aesthetics? Also, is there currently a grass strip between the curb and the sidewalk, or does the sidewalk go all the way to the curb already?

  2. Moving the utilities I assume is primarily for aesthetics and safety like you say, but I might argue that it also manages to free up the space for cutting in the on-street parking because the utility poles take up roughly the first couple feet of concrete anyway. I'm not exactly sure the city's reasoning, but I sort of came to some of my own conclusions about it. Also, there is no grass strip, which is why it is currently so bad for pedestrians. There are maybe 8 to 10 feet of concrete that go straight to the curb and moving traffic.

  3. Is it good enough to add sidewalks and bike lanes on roads? In the 28th street example I don't see those sidewalks getting any use because they are set directly adjacent to the road which is several hundred feet away from the storefronts. In my opinion, it is a waste of time to add bike lanes or sidewalks in areas that are hyper-sprawled. Rather, zoning should be reworked and streets should be completely revamped so that buildings and storefronts are closer to both the street and each other.

    Also, there needs to be a severe reduction in parking lots. I agree with your assessment of the on-street parking creating a safer and more pleasant street. Box stores often have 3x more parking square feet than retail square feet. Perhaps, if parking were more difficult to come by, people would be encouraged to walk or ride. Plus, by removing humongous parking lots, buildings could theoretically be closer to the street (assuming this applies to future development not to current structures)

    All I am saying is who cares if 28th street has sidewalks, they will hardly be used. Why not focus on streets that have the potential of becoming true 'complete streets' rather than attempting to transform lost-cause streets. I just don't see the change required to completely transform 28th street ever happening.

  4. Wyoming and Kentwood essentially only have "lost-cause streets" because outside of 28th there is 44th or South Division, which are equally as bad. Maybe, over time, 28th could transform itself by eliminating parking lots and moving up, but it also suffers from the high speed limit and state highway status.

    If I had my way (and a lot of money) it would all get leveled and we could start over.

    Zoning does need to be dramatically altered and further out development needs to stop. We have to stop building out in places like Gaines Township and Hudsonville and then come back in to the center and build out again with infill, more density, and thought. There has to be an outer limit containing where go. That would be ideal.

    Unfortunately, to each his own and all the townships and cities want to promote their own nearsighted economic interests.

    So, for the time being, I'll at least applaud making 28th street slightly safer for those few who do use it.