There's a sidewalk here, but the snow and ice cover renders it impassible for some and dangerous to all.

The sidewalk doesn’t end here, but any reasonable expectation of safe travel does.

With many of Michigan’s communities recovering from our coldest or snowiest Februaries on record, the Water Hill neighborhood in Ann Arbor is making headlines from The Atlantic’s CityLab to the Christian Science Monitor with “SnowBuddy.” From their webpage:

SnowBuddy is a unique nonprofit sidewalk snow removal service run like a public radio station.  It provides its service for free to an entire area and is supported by donations.

Instead of dividing walkways into segments assigned to property owners, SnowBuddy sees the sidewalk as a continuous right-of-way, a transportation corridor most appropriately maintained in its entirety, using municipal-quality equipment, as a service to the community.

SnowBuddy's tractor can clear the sidewalk in front of a residential lot in approximately 10 seconds.  Photo courtesy Paul Tinkerhess.

SnowBuddy’s tractor can clear the sidewalk in front of a residential lot in approximately 10 seconds. Photo courtesy Paul Tinkerhess.

After last year’s heavy snows, neighbors raised over $20,000 to put a down payment on a sidewalk tractor with brush and plow attachments, buy fuel, ice melt, and insurance, and train a team of volunteer drivers. After each  snow, SnowBuddy clears 12 miles of sidewalk throughout the neighborhood, as well as clearing the major walking routes to downtown Ann Arbor.  (Another team of volunteers, the “windrow patrol,” hand-shovels the sidewalk curb ramps at intersections where they’ve been buried by the city’s snow plows.)

The project is a testament to Water Hill’s neighborly sense of place (see also their annual music festival, held on dozens of front porches each May), but it also poses a serious question: if we want walking and biking to be real transportation choices in our communities, can we reasonably leave sidewalk snow removal to individual property owners?

Dozens of Michigan communities have formally adopted Complete Streets ordinances or policies, recognizing that thriving downtowns and attractive urban neighborhoods require infrastructure that serves residents’ varied transportation needs, from car, bus, and delivery truck to bicycle and pedestrian.  As SnowBuddy’s organizers point out, though, few of these Complete Streets policies extend beyond the construction of the infrastructure to its maintenance.  Transportation only works as a network: a 40-foot long stretch of ice where a single property owner has failed to clear their sidewalk makes a pedestrian’s commute dangerous, no matter how diligent the rest of the neighbors on the block.

Why is it that most communities consider street plowing among the most fundamental of public services, but leave sidewalks snow removal in the hands of individual property owners?  If we continue to have winters like this year’s and last, we may need better answers to that question as we strive to build attractive, quality places.

Visiting family in Grand Rapids’ Heritage Hill neighborhood over the holidays is always a great opportunity to dive into another city’s urban form.  (Or at least that’s the excuse I give to get out of the house and away from family for a while!)  The

Great neighborhoods dedicate only the bare minimum amount of space to parking.

Great neighborhoods dedicate only the bare minimum amount of space to parking.

area, just east of downtown and south of the Medical Mile, is one of Michigan’s great urban neighborhoods, and it achieves that status despite (or because of) breaking several “everybody knows” rules of neighborhood planning.

Most communities’ planning & zoning documents assume an ideal neighborhood to be one that is dominated by owner-occupied single-family homes, with adequate yards for those families’ children to play in and driveways and garages for their cars to park in–any other neighborhood pattern is treated as somewhat less desirable, whether for reasons of “stability”, property values, maintenance standards, nuisance, or similar.  Many people certainly do want to live in that type of neighborhood, but because our zoning has enforced this as the “good” neighborhood pattern for 70 years now, most of our cities have an oversupply of it, while lacking options for residents who want something else.

The "terrace" pattern in Heritage Hill and Midtown fits half a dozen additional houses into the center of a block, or into places where irregular terrain or other factors break the street grid.

The “terrace” pattern in Heritage Hill and Midtown fits half a dozen additional houses into the center of a block, or into places where irregular terrain or other factors break the street grid.

Heritage Hill, and the adjacent East Hills and Midtown neighborhoods, showcase a different pattern: while most of the properties in this area look like “a house,” these neighborhoods have some of the highest residential densities in the city, and both homeowners and single-family homes are a minority.

This contrast comes from a few factors:

  • Homes are placed on relatively small lots–many less than 1/10 acre.
  • Most have very small “yard” areas, with front porches often within a few feet of the sidewalk, and the building occupying most of its lot.
  • While there are larger apartment buildings scattered through the neighborhood, the majority of dwelling units are in duplexes or  3- or 4-plexes. Some of these are visibly constructed as “flats”, but most are houses.
  • The historic streets are narrow, and off-street parking is limited, dedicating less of the neighborhood’s total acreage to asphalt.

Far from being less desirable as a result, data from GVSU’s Community Research Institute show these neighborhoods having above average shares of young, educated households and above average incomes; property values are strong and rising, and active renovation projects are visible on every block–just the type of talent attraction and local investment outcomes we hope to see from successful strategic placemaking efforts.

Martha's Vineyard, "a corner store with a global wine selection", anchors a neighborhood convenience cluster--pizza, bakery, and coffee--in Midtown.

Martha’s Vineyard, “a corner store with a global wine selection”, anchors a neighborhood convenience cluster–pizza, bakery, and coffee–in Midtown.

The neighborhoods also feature small business districts tucked within them, some only a few buildings large and located on “small residential streets” that wouldn’t meet most standards for commercial development. These are both cause and effect of the neighborhoods’ success: having the ability to grab a quick coffee or a few grocery items for dinner within a short walk of home is a plus for prospective residents–and the high density of those residents provides the critical mass of customers that supports those businesses.

Obviously, the historic housing stock of these neighborhoods is hard to replicate (the photos here are far from the most “grand” examples in the area) though a lot of the ingredients for success can be adopted by other neighborhoods, especially where there is a historic street grid and housing to start with:

Neighborhood organizations use plaque programs both to recognize individual property owners' contributions and build a shared sense of place identity.

Neighborhood organizations use plaque programs both to recognize individual property owners’ contributions and to build a shared sense of place identity.

  • The small lot, duplex to 4-plex pattern that contributes most of the residential density here can be used to add new choices to many neighborhoods, filling the “missing middle” between single-family homes and larger apartment complexes. A form-based code can help ensure these options, either as conversions or new construction, fit in with the existing building stock.
  • Look beyond zoning when considering the appropriate way to manage a neighborhood–here, the historic district designations and controls have clearly been the most significant regulatory contributor to success, rather than zoning.
  • Adopt a Complete Streets approach that allows residents to walk, bike, or take transit to many destinations reduces the need to plan around parking–in these Grand Rapids neighborhoods, about 2/3 of households have only 1 car, or none whatsoever.

Even more than these specific actions, having an engaged neighborhood is critical–the “place governance” here arose in the late 1960s, when residents organized to prevent the widespread demolition of their neighborhood for redevelopment, as well as to reach out and recruit new residents in spite of mortgage redlining, and the place the neighborhood is today reflects the interests and tactics of residents then.  Fortunately, not all organizing for place needs to arise from crisis.

Here comes BRT!  Silver Line's stations include "blue light" emergency phone kiosks, fare machines, and digital signs showing when the next vehicle arrives.

Here comes BRT! Silver Line’s stations include “blue light” emergency phone kiosks, fare machines, and digital signs showing when the next vehicle arrives.

The Rapid cut the ribbon on their Silver Line, Michigan’s first BRT system, a few weeks ago, connecting Grand Rapids, Wyoming, and Kentwood along 9.6 miles of Division Avenue.  BRT, or bus rapid transit, tries to provide the benefits of a light rail system, like travel speed, reliability, and ease of use, but with tires and pavement instead of the upfront costs of laying rail; the metro Detroit RTA, Lansing’s CATA system, and the Ann Arbor Area Transit Authority (AAATA) are all exploring BRT for their high-demand routes. Similar to a rail system, these benefits of BRT should support higher ridership, leading to residents and businesses wanting to be near the stations and driving real estate development in these areas.

Last week, I had the opportunity to catch a ride on the Silver Line and get an initial idea of how well it delivers on the promise. Since I had to be downtown both before and after my research ride, I just rode out from the central station for a while before getting off and crossing the street to come back, but the impressions of riders who were actually using the BRT to go somewhere were overwhelmingly positive.

Typical bus routes are slower than car travel, because they not only experience the same traffic and red lights, but also have to stop every few blocks for passengers.  The Silver Line attempts to cut down all of these delays:

My impromptu focus group had only good things to say about the Silver Line.

My impromptu focus group had only good things to say about the Silver Line.

  • Dedicated lanes marked “BRT ONLY” for about 2/3 of the route mean that the BRT isn’t competing with traffic—in some cases we zipped by lines of cars, while the parts of the route we shared with traffic were notably slower
  • Signal priority means that the traffic signals try to give the BRT a green whenever possible, shortening the time it spends stopped for red lights.
  • The stations are bigger structures, and average about a half mile apart (closer together downtown), instead of bus stop signs every 3-4 blocks, reducing the number of stops.
  • Pre-boarding fare payment has riders buying a ticket before they get on the vehicle, so nobody’s fumbling for change at the door and holding up the bus.

The riders I talked to said it was working, even though many cars hadn’t yet learned they were supposed to stay out of the BRT lanes, and even though the fare machines at the stations had some learning curve: the BRT ran faster, came more frequently, and was altogether a more pleasant experience than riding the “regular” bus.  As a result, the BRT had most seats full on both my ride out and back, at 3:30 on a Wednesday afternoon. Obviously, Month 1 is very early for trying to measure either ridership or economic development impacts, but I also talked to a developer looking at a few sites along the route for mixed-use, residential + retail projects.

BRT-only lanes help keep the Silver Line from getting stuck in traffic, providing a faster and smoother ride.

BRT-only lanes help keep the Silver Line from getting stuck in traffic, providing a faster and smoother ride.

Grand Rapids has set the bar for the other Michigan regions considering BRT, and
there is also room to improve:

  • For now at least, the Silver Line departs every 10 minutes during peak hours, but only every 20 minutes mid-day, which falls short of “so often you don’t need a schedule”—the best case for calling a transit line truly “convenient” (and a goal the BRT can grow towards).
  • The vehicles have somewhat larger front and rear doors for faster boarding, but otherwise seem nearly the same as typical buses. By comparison, Cleveland’s HealthLine BRT has extra-long buses with no stairs to reach the rear seats, and lets riders bring bicycles on board (avoiding delays from loading them on the front racks).
  • The areas where the BRT shares a lane with cars are noticeably slower than the dedicated lanes, limiting the speed benefit.

Coincidentally, the Detroit RTA board approved the “locally preferred alternative” (LPA) for a Woodward BRT system while I was riding the Silver Line. The LPA provides the broad strokes of a transit system, allowing the RTA to dive into the details of engineering and service design. With calls for Woodward to be the first “Gold Standard” BRT system in the United States, the RTA can learn from Grand Rapids’ very good system as they work towards a final design.

Four lanes of fast traffic coming around the curve on Portage make the Washington Square area an unappealing place to walk or bike.

Four lanes of fast traffic coming around the curve on Portage make the Washington Square area an unappealing place to walk or bike.

I spent the past few days in Kalamazoo, taking a hard look at Portage Street with Brad and Rebekah from LSL Planning (our consultants), the city’s community development and engineering staff, and about 50 community members. The city has plans in place to rebuild the street beginning in 2017, making this an ideal time to ask, “How should this street work when we’re done with it?”

For a few months, we’ve been looking at how to support biking, walking, and other options for getting to Kalamazoo Valley Community College’s new healthy living campus.  The campus will be just south of downtown Kalamazoo, nestled in among Bronson Medical Center, Western Michigan University’s new medical school, and the county’s mental health services, which will also be moving to the area.

Portage Street kept coming up as a concern in our conversations with representatives of these various institutions.  Portage is effectively the front door for many of these destinations, a major entry to downtown, and the heart of the Edison Neighborhood—or, at least, it should be. Currently, the street is focused on moving traffic through as quickly as possible, and the neighborhood and traditional business district along it have suffered as a result.

Community members  designed their ideal Portage Street as part of the conversation.

Community members designed their ideal Portage Street as part of the conversation.

Across a 24 hour whirlwind of open houses, presentations, walking tours, drawing, and
data crunching, we found nearly unanimous support for the idea of converting the street from four lanes to three, which would reduce crashes by getting left turns out of the flow of traffic, help keep drivers to the speed limit, smooth some of the curves in the street to handle truck traffic, and free up space for other users of the street.  Most of the conversation focused on how that extra space should be used—bike lanes to support safe access through the neighborhood?  On-street parking for businesses? Wider sidewalks for pedestrians, streetscaping, and sidewalk seating for restaurants? Center medians?

We came out of the workshop with some solid concepts, but also a major caveat: current traffic levels on the street are near the limits of what can be handled in three lanes. As KVCC and their partners in the emerging health and wellness district move towards construction, they’ll need to consider how they’re getting staff, students, and visitors in and out—if everybody shows up by car, the resulting traffic will likely overwhelm a three-lane version of Portage Street.

Kelly Clarke discusses the Kalamazoo County Land Bank properties along Portage, and how the street affects their business attraction efforts.

Kelly Clarke discusses the Kalamazoo County Land Bank properties along Portage, and how the street affects their business attraction efforts.

This is a great example of how placemaking is more complex than simply, “if you do this, then that will happen,” and must involve the active participation of community stakeholders: turning Portage Street into a multimodal corridor will both support new business and housing development on the doorstep of the new KVCC campus and also enable people to get around the area by walking, biking, and transit—modes fitting the health mission of the campus—but if the college were not at the table as an enthusiastic participant in this process, their development would itself inhibit the city from making a change to the street.

Fortunately, KVCC is not only at the table, but hosting it, and our next step will be to take them both the draft concepts from this workshop for further discussion, as well as some recommendations about how they can support a broad range of options for people coming to and from the new campus.