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.

This week, the LOCUS coalition of real estate professionals released “Foot Traffic Ahead: Ranking Walkable Urbanism in America’s Largest Metros” at their Leadership Summit in Washington, DC. The report continues to track the sea change of residential market demand and economic activity away from “drive ‘til you qualify” single-use development to “walkable urban places” (“WalkUPs”).

The NoMa neighborhood of Washington DC shows off with wide sidewalks that include shady seating and landscaping for stormwater management, a broad selection of restaurants and food trucks, a new Metro stop--and lots and lots of people.

The NoMa neighborhood of Washington DC shows off with wide sidewalks that include shady seating and landscaping for stormwater management, a broad selection of restaurants and food trucks, a new Metro stop–and lots and lots of people.

It may come as no surprise that metro Detroit ranks in the lower third of metros for its current offerings of these economic hubs—but the report also looks at development trends, placing Detroit at 8th out of 30 in its prospects for future development.  (Just after Seattle and San Francisco, for those keeping score.)

“While Detroit experienced the most substantial and well-publicized economic decline over the past decade, its future for growth in walkable urban development seems promising . Recently, it experienced some of the fastest-growing GDP and job growth among metros, much of it in revived WalkUPs, particularly in downtown and Midtown”

In addition to the high-profile developments in Detroit’s Downtown and Midtown areas, the report names several smaller “town centers” among the metro’s current WalkUPs: West Dearborn, downtown Ypsilanti, and Main Street Ann Arbor; and the downtowns of Ferndale, Royal Oak, and Birmingham are all tagged as regional examples. It’s no accident that these regional centers are located along the planned Ann Arbor-Detroit Commuter Rail and Woodward Rapid Transit corridors, and the report should reinforce the importance of those transit lines in linking together the metro region.

Why do these places matter? The research team at George Washington University that produced the report notes that WalkUPs on average make up only 1% of metro land area—but account for nearly half of all development activity since 2007, demonstrating the relative resilience of these places in economic downturns, and their importance in economic recovery. WalkUPs command a 44% premium in office rents (excluding New York), and are correlated with higher average educational attainment and higher per capita income and GDP than the surrounding metros.

The authors remind that correlation is not causation, and that while WalkUPs may attract these businesses and residents, it may also be that when these businesses and residents concentrate in certain areas, they demand the creation of multimodal transportation options and mixed-use business districts.  In either case, though, the evidence is clear: these are places that are in high demand and short supply–cities and states should ensure that they have the infrastructure, financing options, and development regulations in place to expand these people-friendly areas.

The LOCUS / GWU analysis only looked at the nation’s 30 largest metro areas, but places like downtown Grand Rapids, Lansing, Jackson, and Kalamazoo most likely meet the criteria as well: an area-wide WalkScore over 70, and “regional significance” as defined by having at least 1.4 million square feet of office space or 340,000 square feet of retail space.

Strava's heat map of bike/walk activity in Midland shows the popularity of that city's recreational trails--but surprisingly little bike/walk access to the major employment center.

Strava’s heat map of bike/walk activity in Midland shows the popularity of that city’s recreational trails–but surprisingly little bike/walk access to the major employment center.

Fitness tracking app Strava recently began offering its data—millions of walking, jogging, and cycling trips around the world—to cities and transportation agencies. For a price, of course: this is a revenue stream for the app developers…so what’s in it for the public agencies? As Gizmodo explains, bike/walk traffic data is traditionally much harder for agencies to collect than traffic data, but, with apps like this, “we’re all walking sensors now:”

Strava’s first customer, Oregon’s Department of Transportation, paid $20,000 for data from nearly 20,000 cyclists in hopes that it might help them figure out how to handle the steadily increasing bike traffic in cities like Portland. “Right now, there’s no data. We don’t know where people ride bikes,” Jennifer Dill, a professor and urban planner at Portland State University, told The Wall Street Journal. “Just knowing where the cyclists are is a start.”

This type of data can support placemaking efforts, especially as we look to support walkability and offer residents a range of transportation options: knowing where people choose to walk, jog, and bike—and where they don’t—helps us diagnose our community’s streets and target improvements.

Know your data’s limits—and leverage them

This can’t be done without some caution, though. As many commenters on the Gizmodo piece point out, the Strava dataset includes two biases that we need to consider in our planning.

The first issue is a self-selection bias: since the data is collected by smartphone users using the app, it only measures the habits of people whose income, age, and comfort with technology lead them to seek out and use smartphone apps to track their travel. Also, as the app is targeted at “fitness” users, it will likely be skewed to those trips, and include a smaller sample of people who are walking or biking to work, school, shopping districts, or other destinations. Even those app users who are tracking their bicycling commute are likely to be biking by choice—rather than being forced to because they lack access to an automobile. The app data will be less useful in identifying the travel patterns and needs of low-income residents and others who walk and bike out of necessity.

The second concern is a confirmation bias: because of that skew in who the users are and why they are traveling, they are more likely to have the luxury of choosing routes that already work well for biking and walking. This data will point to heavy activity on the scenic rail trails and state park trail loops, while overlooking the people who brave dangerous freeway interchanges on foot to get to work, or the road that could deliver recreational cyclists into downtown, if only it had a bike lane.

Strava's walking heat map shows the already high-quality rail trail near EMU's campus, while completely overlooking the more hostile, but still heavily used, Huron Street / I-94 interchange.

Strava’s walking heat map shows the already high-quality rail trail near EMU’s campus, while completely overlooking the more hostile, but still heavily used, Huron Street / I-94 interchange.

Because of these, planners should therefore be double-checking the Strava data against conditions on the ground. While the data might point to highly-traveled routes that need some improvements, in many cases, the outcome should actually be to improve the biking and walking experience on routes that Strava users are NOT recording.

If on-site observations or neighborhood engagement show that certain streets are critical walking and biking routes for day-to-day essential travel, but the travelers using fitness apps are avoiding those routes, then planners should be asking why: what’s wrong with those routes that causes travelers with choices to avoid the, and how can they be made better for those travelers with no choice? Not only will this use of the data serve a broader segment of additional residents, it will also help extend the attraction of a community’s downtown districts and other major nodes by bridging current barriers.

Share and share alike: supporting virtuous cycles

In many cases, privately developed apps rely on the availability of public data to function, either directly or implicitly. Transit app Ototo, for example, wants to tell transit planners what people are searching for, so they know where people want to go, but it can only serve metro areas where the transit agencies have published open data sets. By providing ready access to public datasets, local communities (and state agencies) can support the private development of apps, which can then feed data back to the communities on how people are using the apps—and, by extension, how people are interacting with the places around them.

Several efforts try to help public bodies shorten this cycle even further: organizations like Code For America, or events like the National Day of Civic Hacking (coming up May 31-June 1!) bring motivated software developers together to design, prototype, and build new applications for public data. In order to have the greatest benefit for communities, though, these efforts need access to both data and the public sector staffers who know the subject matter.

As mobile apps continue to grow in popularity and capabilities, cities should continue to look for ways to leverage the data generated—and to support the process with data of their own. Even though the field of mobile apps is only a few years old, cities and states that have engaged effectively are already benefiting.