Lane Change: How Complete Streets is invigorating city life

Lane Change: How Complete Streets is invigorating city life

Ride at your own risk. That was the gist of the message Michigan’s roadways seemingly imparted to non-motorists brave enough to attempt to traverse its roadways prior to the passage of Michigan’s Complete Streets legislation in 2010.

City of Ferndale Councilwoman Melanie Piana is an ardent advocate of Complete Streets. Photo courtesy M. Piana

“Without dedicated lanes, it’s really easy for bikers and pedestrians to get squeezed off roadways by large and imposing automobiles,” says Ferndale City Council’s Melanie Piana.

In many urban centers across Michigan, roads were once reserved only for motorists. However, motorists are not the only ones who use the roads. This creates multiple problems. Bicyclists and pedestrians are less inclined to use the roads, preferring instead to either avoid urban areas altogether or reduce their active lifestyle. To encourage urban residents to remain active in the hearts of their cities, the State of Michigan passed Complete Streets legislation five years ago.

Since the City of Ferndale enacted its Complete Streets plan, the municipality of about 20,000 located just north of Detroit, saw improvements in two of its major thoroughfares … much to the delight of many citizens. Consisting of smoothly paved sidewalks, curbside ramps, clearly marked bike lanes, easily located transit stops, and accessible pedestrian crossings, Complete Streets varies according to neighborhood. The ordinance and design take into account various demographics of a diverse community.

“Complete Streets creates roads for all modes of transportation,” says Michael Maisner, vice president of Active Communities at the Michigan Fitness Foundation, a legislation proponent. “It takes into account the safe and efficient movement of motorists, transit riders, bicyclists, and pedestrians of all ages and abilities.”

The city prescribed a “road diet” to Livernois Avenue, slimming it down, like inches from a bulging waistline, from five car lanes to two. Livernois was also updated with a sectioned-off route for bicyclists and green-painted “conflict points” to denote caution areas where bikes and cars might risk colliding. The city has also trimmed West Nine Mile Road, reducing it from four lanes to three.

Complete Streets encourages a unique, all-inclusive view of street planning that’s had great success since its implementation. The road diet phase of the ordinance cost the city money, but it was well-spent, says the Ferndale City Council’s Piana.

“This investment showcased what better streets and sidewalks can do to improve the business environment and improve quality of life for everyone,” she adds.

“If you build it, people and investment will come,” Piana says, expanding on the popular line from the Kevin Costner movie, Field of Dreams.

The city’s decision to create Complete Streets hasn’t gone unnoticed or unappreciated. Meredith Begin, a member of the League of Michigan Bicyclists, chose to settle in Ferndale because of the city’s infrastructure improvements.

“Ferndale was my number one choice for purchasing a house because of the Complete Streets ordinance, and because I knew that it was pretty bikeable and walkable already, and the city was investing in making it more bike- and pedestrian-friendly,” she says.

But Ferndale’s experience of the past five years suggests Complete Streets improves cities in more ways than one, according to J.J. Tighe, president and CEO of the Michigan Fitness Foundation.

J.J. Tighe
J.J. Tighe,  President & CEO, Michigan Fitness Foundation

“Trails increase the value of properties that are within 1,000 feet of a trail by an average of 3 percent, up to $9,000.” he says.

“It’s truly transformative. Once-empty downtowns are now teeming with pedestrians and bikers who are helping support increased business traffic.”

While “ride at your own risk” was the gist of an unspoken warning to non-motorists brave enough to traverse roadways before Complete Streets, residents like Piana reflect on the dangerous appearance of streets where the ordinance hasn’t been implemented.

“Woodward Avenue is a death trap for a person riding a bike,” she says, echoing the frustration of many bicyclists on busier urban streets. “It feels large, imposing and overwhelming for people walking or riding a bike.”

Photo by Tim Galloway

Downtown Ann Arbor, home to the University of Michigan, has similarly benefited from Complete Streets legislation. The city reaped major rewards for its investment, including a “Gold Level” ranking by the national Walk Friendly Communities program. In January 2014, Ann Arbor created a Safe Streets and Sidewalks Taskforce charged with identifying pedestrian problem areas downtown. After receiving feedback from the committee, officials instituted citywide changes, creating clearly marked bike lanes and building better-connected sidewalks.

Complete Streets are being praised as effective in promoting active lifestyles, but the movement is still in its infancy.

Adds bicyclist Begin, “I think there are a lot of creative ways to make streets complete that Michigan hasn’t really seen yet.”

Lead Photo: Tim Galloway


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