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Walkability Expert Dan Burden Talks About Michigan’s Future
By Dan Burden
Michigan’s economic fate has been, and will continue to be, heavily tied to transportation. As in the past, when transportation shifted from canals to trains and trolleys to cars, our transportation form is about to shift significantly again. Around the nation, communities recognize this and have been preparing by focusing their transportation dollars on people-first projects. These projects aim at addressing the needs of pedestrians, bicyclists, automobiles, transit, and freight to create Living Streets.
Living Streets are designed to provide safe access for all users. This means that the road works for drivers, transit users, pedestrians, bicyclists, and freight, and that it is accessible to seniors, children, people with disabilities—everyone. This is fundamental because our roads play a significant role in defining the character of the place. They enable mobility or they hamper it. They encourage community building by bringing people together or they are deadly. A Living Street is a successful street—one that maximizes exchange between people.
A focus on building Living Streets means that officials, planners, and engineers work with the community to design a road that works for the community—one that functions and reinforces the sense of place. This means that the road moves traffic efficiently, effectively, and at safe speeds so that all users are encouraged. Through a context-sensitive design, the corridor is improved, sparking renewed local and regional interest, public and private investment, and leading to a healthier local economy. To make this happen, diverse sectors of the community must be involved because we are ultimately talking about placemaking. Placemaking describes how environments are welcoming because they are interesting and aimed at involving people in experiences. A Living Street does this. A Complete Street is engineered and designed to encourage multiple modes of transportation; a Living Street engages the public and helps shape the area’s identity. It is what we aspire to create when we design a Complete Street.
Roadway projects mean big bucks. It makes sense to ensure that this investment in infrastructure has far reaching benefits. By designing and building Living Streets, leaders and officials work with the community—each providing input, addressing issues, and solving problems through an open discussion process. Residents are brought into placemaking as they provide input and then feedback on plans. The result is a more active population, a clearer mission and vision, and an end product that not only meets the community’s needs, but one that is a source of pride as well.
A properly designed street provides drivers with the cues they need to behave appropriately. Living Streets are designed to move traffic at lower speeds, but more efficiently to relieve congestion and to reduce the rate and severity of traffic accidents—when they do occur. Because of this, pedestrians and bicyclists feel safer sharing the roads. Congestion continues to lessen because now multiple modes of transportation are being utilized. The end result is that people add some quality time to their day and maybe some activity, too. They have more of a chance of running into a neighbor, starting up a conversation, and buying locally, while going for a walk or bike ride.
This proves true across the generations as well. Young adults are choosing new settlement patterns—and heading back to cities. Seinfeld and Friends were popular sitcoms of the '90s and both revolved around urban lifestyles. Add to this the greater flexibility we have today in how we work—from home, from the road, at an office, airport, or school—and any place can become a productive center, given the proper focus on access and amenities. Seniors, too, have found that they are increasingly isolated in sprawling suburbs. Once they lose the ability or desire to drive, they lose their independence. Getting to doctor’s appointments or to the grocery store or to visit a friend is challenging. Suddenly, they are wholly dependent on others. Walkable communities provide seniors with the opportunity to remain mobile and independent longer—hugely important factors for maintaining physical and mental health.
For nearly thirty years, there has been one constant in Americans’ driving practices: it has increased by 2.5 percent miles driven per year, every year. Then, eight years ago, the number of miles driven daily leveled. Today, our daily miles driven are coming down. With people over the age of 65 comprising 20 percent of our population, the numbers will continue to drop. Those communities that will be successful must focus on walkability as the cornerstone of their transportation policy.
If Michigan’s communities take a leadership role and tap into their abundance of great places—lakes, rivers, woods and other natural features, and an equal abundance of great villages, towns, cities, colleges, and universities—to attract new residents and new jobs through a local and regional approach, they will propel their economies forward at all levels. This coordinated effort requires that municipalities re-adopt the oldest form of transportation as their platform: walking. This is not a new idea, but to do it today seems revolutionary. Yet, there is one true test of this. Ask yourself to imagine the place you want to raise your family...the amenities available in your community...describe your ideal day. Most of us find a sense of belonging that comes from interacting with others as central to our response. Sitting alone in a car in a traffic jam is never part of it.
Interestingly enough, until the late 1930s, the world’s cities were based around the human foot—walking was the fundamental transportation mode. As we begin to assess the social and monetary costs associated with sprawl, we see that using walking to define our scale creates the most sustainable and competitive form of city building. It provides the greatest freedoms, cost competitiveness, and ease of movement. By focusing on walking, we find that the other levels of transportation (trolley, train, bus, tram, light rail) function better by taking people further from the city center through an overall plan that remains true to the human scale. This leads to transit-oriented development—again combating sprawl.
The good news for Michigan is that its pattern of land settlement—which resulted in great Midwestern cities like Minneapolis, Detroit, Chicago, Buffalo, Columbus and Cleveland—left perfect block forms, great street connectivity, network, and pattern. These cities have the bones to attract industry and people, to energize a community around a Main Street, and begin to support local businesses, artists, and organizations. Walkable communities are better positioned to grow and attract people and jobs with healthy local economies and an even healthier population. By shifting transportation choices into the hands of every person, we begin to take stock of our resources—a park, a community center or a grocery store—and its proximity to where we are. We begin to look locally. When our focus is shifted to this level, we often begin to act locally, too. This encourages others. We begin to find that much of what we need—from recreational opportunities to daily purchases—can be met in a fifteen-minute walk and we explore more and more—finding places that we might have driven past a hundred times before. Placemaking is about creating opportunities for discovery.
When you really look at it, a shift from auto dependency to walkability is a step, literally, toward personal autonomy and social equity. Every man, woman, and child is given the choice of how to access resources, and activity is built into the day’s routine. Richard Florida, economic and social theorist, writes in Atlantic Monthly, “place still matters in the modern economy—and the competitive advantage of the world’s most successful city-regions seems to be growing, not shrinking.” In his book, Rise of the Creative Class, Florida reports that the future economy of any state or city will become increasingly dependent on the city’s ability to become a place. And high on this is walkability; quite the reverse is car dependency.
In order to attract people and jobs, we need to understand the benefits of talent clustering. Noble Laureate Robert Lucas declared that the spillovers in knowledge that result from talent clustering are the main cause of economic growth. Well-educated professionals and creative workers who live together and interact in dense ecosystems, directly generate ideas and turn them into products and services faster than talented people in other places can. This is true of creative cultures in general, who seek to grow where the “masters” cluster. Detroit proved this in its earliest years, where many competitive engineers and inventors clustered together to learn from one another. The city became the accelerant of new ideas that built transportation.
It is time for Michigan to focus its resources—including transportation, public health, and urban development dollars—in combined efforts that emphasize active community environments, Main Street and infill development, and projects that allow the built environment to positively impact public health. Michigan already has so much in place to further talent clustering—especially its world class universities—but to create a uniformly high standard of living, Michigan must require projects and plans with walkability as a central component.
Dan Burden is an internationally recognized authority on livable and sustainable communities, healthy streets, traffic calming, and bicycle and pedestrian programs. Dan is co-founder and executive director of the non-profit Walkable and Livable Communities Institute www.walklive.org. Dan has visited 2,700 communities and helped to reinvent portions of more than 100 Michigan communities.