BA meeing roomBA tour on streetSlums 2

During the first week of September, I had the privilege of attending an international conference in Buenos Aires that focused on streets as public spaces and how they can drive urban prosperity. This is the second of a series of three conferences called The Future of Places, funded by Ax:son Johnson Foundation and partners UN Habitat  and Project for Public Spaces. Following the conclusion of the third conference in New York City in 2015, a blue print will be presented which will offer proposals for what it will take to meet the demands of our growing cities around the world and how the challenges of future cities can be met. In 1970,  only 37% of the population were living in urban areas, but if global trends continue, cities will be home to 60% of the world’s population by 2030. With up to 80% of a city made up of streets, the focus of this conference was centered on designing streets to serve more than just moving vehicles or pedestrians from one location to another. It was about reimagining them as public places, making them attractive and safe for all types of users, and as places to hold events.

Over fifty nations were represented among the 300 or so participants, who were planners, architects, academics, consultants, and social entrepreneurs, all converging to discuss public space and placemaking from their own unique perspectives. What was so compelling for me, was that despite the diversity of nations represented from all continents, there was one thing that we all had in common: we could all agree that placemaking is really all about how we live.  It is a process that puts the human experience before all else.  As one presenter stated, “All cultures share the same reactions to public spaces. We touch, feel, and smell the place.” 

The three and a half day conference was an eye opener, to say the least.  It incorporated several tours of placemaking, from examples of improved pedestrian and bike lanes to creating public spaces in the overcrowded districts that housed the very poor. We listened to speakers who told stories of just needing basic infrastructure, which for them would mean a better quality of life living on the streets, to those whose were making transformative changes in their communities through placemaking.

The challenge for all is connecting good decision-making to good policy. What I walked away from was a profound sense of camaraderie with people from around the world and a deep sense of pride for what we are doing in Michigan.It was a real affirmation that we have a lot to learn from each other. Clearly, our challenges and victories were very different from each other, but from the poorest streets in Mumbai to some of the wealthier neighborhoods in the developed world, we all had something to learn from each other to take back home.

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.

group shotThroughout the summer, kids showed up to the Berston Field House in Flint around 4:00 on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. The recreation center is known for its boxing and basketball programs, but these students came for a somewhat less popular sport – bicycling.

picking-out-bikes-blog-inlineThe Berston Bicycle Club Project started in 2012, when founder Angela Stamps moved back to Flint after spending years in Los Angeles. She started riding in California out of necessity – her car had gotten repossessed so she needed a low-cost way to get around. Her boyfriend bought her a bicycle and her life was never the same after that.

“A bike can change everything,” Angela said. “The community thinks they have scarce resources, but what do they have? A used bicycle fleet.”

The Berston Bicycle Club is a nine-week class for Flint youth ages 10-18. Students ride for at least an hour-and-a-half two to three times a week and if they complete the program (ride a minimum of twice per week), they take home a free bike, helmet, bag, and safety gear.

The main goal of the program is to give kids a mode of transportation and teach them about bike safety, but students learn a ton more than that: they get healthy, meet new friends, learn about their city, and gain valuable independence.

cute-kid-blog-inlineEncouraging youth to bike can lead to changes throughout the community. Angela said since the program began, there seems to be more people biking throughout Flint and a wider acceptance for narrowing roads and adding bike lanes. Although she doesn’t think the bike club has facilitated the change alone, seeing more bicyclists on the street encourages others to do the same.

Bicycling can have a positive effect on a community’s health and well-being. In Boston, for example, leaders went so far as to prescribe low-income patients free bike-share membership to help tackle obesity, heart disease, and other illnesses. Research also shows that walking and biking improves mood, attitudes, diet, and happiness – something everyone has room to improve on.

And, possibly most importantly, biking gives everyone equal opportunities. Public spaces shouldn’t be designed for cars, they should be designed for people. Building trails, protected bike paths, and designing streets for all users is a great way to prioritize democracy and equality.

getting-ready-blog-inline“Some kids spend their entire summer indoors playing video games, sitting on the computer, and watching TV,” Angela said. “They need to get out of the house and see new places in their city. Biking gives them a mode of transportation and the independence to explore, go to school, and get to work without having to depend on anybody.”

Fostering independence, healthy lifestyles, and stronger communities is exactly what the Berston Bicycle Club is about. Read the complete case study here and learn how to replicate a similar project in your own community.


Last week the National League of Cities hosted their 2014 State League Staff Workshop in Portland, OR. Here, staff from state leagues around the country gathered to network, learn, and discuss emerging issues in the field.

Presenting on how leagues can support distressed communities with Rhode Island League Associate Director, Peder Schaefer

Presenting at the NLC Staff Workshop with Rhode Island League Associate Director, Peder Schaefer, on how municipal leagues can support distressed communities.

In a workshop co-led by Peder Schaefer of the Rhode Island League of Cities and Towns, I had the opportunity to present MML’s work on supporting distressed communities. MML’s role promoting placemaking by highlighting case studies, enhancing crowdfunding, and developing a place-based policy platform are unique to leagues across the country. Workshop attendees were eager to hear about Detroit and the creative ways MML is supporting the state’s communities.

Portland, OR

Portland's Saturday Market on the riverfront

Portland’s Saturday Market on the riverfront

Hosting the NLC’s conference in Portland was a wonderful illustration of effective placemaking. The city has incredibly effective and low-cost public transportation, miles and miles of bike lanes, small and walkable city blocks, and neighborhoods full of life and character. Yes, the city’s slogan “Keep Portland Weird” was true to its name, but even the strangest people were kind, helpful, and excited to talk about their city.

Downtown Portland was full of activity with public plazas, food carts, multimodal transportation, and people doing things people do: talking, laughing, eating, soaking up the sun, shopping, and simply looking at other people.

Pedestrians are the priority in Portland's streets. Downtown intersections are marked with brick to notify drivers to slow down.

Pedestrians are the priority in Portland’s streets: Downtown intersections are marked with brick to notify drivers to slow down.

After the conference, I stayed an extra night in the Alberta District in north-east Portland. The people I stayed with had an extra bike for guests, so I was really able to get around like a Portlander! There were amazing local shops, a ton of places to eat, and parks full of activity.

I was floored at how friendly people were and how eager they were to help a tourist. People started real conversations while waiting in line, said hello on the street, and customer service staff took pride in their roles (and with a minimum wage of $9.10/hour and rising, there was plenty of reason to be genuine).

The city is scattered with food carts and there are block-long segments of permanent food vendors in cart-like structures.

The city is scattered with food carts and there are block-long segments of permanent food vendors in cart-like structures.

While wandering around the city, the Knight Foundation’s Soul of the Community report kept popping into my head. The study found that aesthetics, openness and social offerings are what people loved most about where they live. Portland looks great, people felt open to diversity, and there were countless opportunities to connect with others on the street, at an event, or standing line at the food truck: Portland makes a great case study.

Although we have aspects of Portland’s magic in some Michigan communities, many have a long way to go. Not every city should be exactly like Portland, but our role at MML is to help communities expand on their own unique assets and become the best cities they can be.