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.

bike-sharingCycling used to be part of my personal transportation plan. On warm, sunny days, I loved riding my bike leisurely around my neighborhood near downtown Plymouth. Sometimes I had a destination in mind – usually the Dairy King on Main Street – and other days I just enjoyed feeling the breeze in my hair and admiring my neighbors’ beautiful flower gardens. Then along came my husband, who acted like he was training for a 100k ride through the mountains every time he hopped on his bike. I couldn’t keep up, so I gave up.

But the recent surge in bike-sharing programs in places like Chicago, New York, Washington, D.C. – and now Michigan – has piqued my interest. Like the legions of urban cycling enthusiasts, I appreciate the benefits to my health and the environment. But I’m also a fan of easily popping into stores where parking spaces are at a premium.

When I was in Chicago last summer, their new Divvy bike-share system was all the rage. Residents and tourists of all ages were renting one of the 3,000 distinctive-looking blue bikes and riding to offices, restaurants and beaches, happily avoiding traffic congestion and $25/day parking fees. The popular program, funded by federal grants and city funds, hopes to expand into suburban Oak Park and Evanston.

Bike-sharing is now catching on in Michigan. Communities are recognizing the benefits of less traffic congestion, more economic activity, cleaner air and better health that can be realized by adding a bike-sharing program to their transportation plans.

biking-in-Ann-ArborSoon, for just a few dollars, I’ll be able to jump on a bike housed at a kiosk near my Ann Arbor office, pedal to a cool restaurant for lunch, and work off the calories on my way back to work. No muss, no fuss, and no expensive gasoline sending toxic fumes into the atmosphere. Thanks to a $1.4 million budget and a partnership between the City of Ann Arbor, the University of Michigan and the Clean Energy Coalition, the ArborBike program is expected to launch this summer with 14 kiosks around downtown, the central U-M campus and North Campus.

Other Michigan cities have found creative ways to launch bike-sharing programs in their communities. Detroit hasn’t yet put a formal program into motion, but last summer, Rock Ventures, a major company with several Detroit locations, started a bike-sharing program for its employees. With nine racks and 60 bikes, they logged 6.500 rentals from July through November.

capital-community-bike-share2With limited funding, Lansing became home to Michigan’s first municipally-sponsored bike-sharing system. Capital Community Bike Share, which launched in October, saved money by using A2B Bike Share’s technology, buying cheaper bikes and focusing on four locations near Michigan Avenue. Eric Shertzing, the project’s director, sees the program as a template that could benefit other communities. He also envisions replacing his fleet with Michigan-made bikes.

In Traverse City, discussions are underway for a formal bike-sharing program. But in the meantime, Carter’s Compost operates a simple system with three bikes they loan out free for two days each. Their mission: “We are dedicated to building community by using the power of the bicycle to make composting super easy for our TC neighbors.”

Dan Burden, a notable long-time friend of the Michigan Municipal League and co-founder of the Walkable and Livable Communities Institute, has caught the attention of Burden - Birmingham 2the powers-that-be in Washington, D.C. Tuesday, he was honored with a 2014 White House Champion of Change award for his tireless efforts to make pedestrians and bicyclists an important part of the transportation equation. It is a recognition well deserved.

Dan’s dedication is unyielding. His travels take him to communities all over the country for more than 300 days a year. Many of those days have been spent here in Michigan, leading walking audits designed to uncover neighborhood opportunities and find solutions. He brings people together from all sectors, engages them in conversation, and inspires them to reimagine the future of their community.

Burden - BirminghamAlong with several of my League colleagues, I have had the privilege of accompanying Dan on many of his walking audits. Every community has its own unique assets and challenges, so I learn something new each and every time. With his bright road construction safety vest and measuring tape in hand, he leads a group of stakeholders and local officials up and down sidewalks, through parking lots and alleys, and across busy streets, offering up all the possibilities. With his years of experience and knowledge—and contagious enthusiasm—even the naysayers start to believe. Step by step, Dan is truly making our communities more livable and walkable.

Congratulations, Dan!  We appreciate all the great work you have done and continue to do in Michigan. Thank you for being one of Michigan’s greatest cheerleaders.

Commuters board an afternoon bus in Ann Arbor.

Commuters board an afternoon bus in Ann Arbor.

Curb Your Car in Ann Arbor

May is the Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority’s annual Curb Your Car Month and residents are encouraged to walk, bike or take the bus instead of drive throughout the city.

Marketing for the AAATA's Commuter Challenge.

Marketing for the AAATA’s Commuter Challenge.

As part of the initiative, local businesses compete in the Commuter Challenge by logging employees’ alternative commutes to work. Competing against similar-sized organizations, participants have the chance to win prizes like gift cards and free lunches. More than 2,000 commuters participated in 2013’s challenge and already more than 700 commuters have registered this year.

Soon, it will be easier for even more employees to get to work by public transit. At the May 6 local election, 71% of voters in Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti, and Ypsilanti Township passed a 0.7-mill tax increase to expand transit services, which will put more buses on the road, expand hours, redevelop and add routes, and broaden a digital ride service.

A National Trend

The broadening support for public transportation is not unique to Ann Arbor. Communities across the country are seeing residents push for better transportation options.

The Rockefeller Foundation recently surveyed millennials, and  found that 86% said it was important for their city to offer low-cost public transportation options. Millennials aren’t just saying what they want, they’re acting on it: Young people are purchasing fewer cars, driving fewer miles and moving to cities that offer effective public transportation options.

Ann Arbor residents recently voted to expand bus routes and service hours.

Ann Arbor residents recently voted to expand bus routes and service hours.

But millennials aren’t the only ones interested in driving less; baby boomers are leaving their suburban homes and relocating to areas with better walkability, public transportation and cultural experiences.

Cities acting on these findings are learning that effective transportation not only attracts and retains residents, transit-oriented development can boost economic activity and new development.

For example, Cleveland’s bus-rapid transit (BRT) system, HealthLine, has generated $114 for each dollar spent on the project. Frequent public transit users save more than $9,000 a year – meaning they have more money to go out to eat, buy goods and support local businesses. Although transit-oriented development is challenging to plan and implement, it certainly pays off.

Take Action

A national bill could make it easier for communities to do development around high-capacity transit lines. Under the act, eligible government and public-private partnerships would have access to low-cost loans or loan guarantees to support economic development near transit.

Do your part to support the bill and transit-oriented development by contacting your Senators. (No really, just click the link and do it now – it takes 5 seconds.)

Drivers and riders share the road in Ann Arbor.

Drivers and riders share the road in Ann Arbor.

Even with this spring’s cold, wet weather, Ann Arbor residents are committed to curbing their car and using alternative means for getting to work. With any luck, these “alternative” means of walking, biking, and taking the bus will no longer be “alternative,” but the norm. Our cities and regions should use Ann Arbor’s success as momentum for planning more effective and widespread public transportation throughout the state.

Useful Articles or Reports Mentioned in this Blog

Want more talking points? Visit our Placemaking Transit page for additional research and statistics or contact me directly with questions.

Sarah Craft is an Information & Policy Research Program Coordinator at the Michigan Municipal League. She can be reached at 734-669-6328 or