So if you want to make your community more bike-friendly or more walkable, where do you start? Here are some basic thoughts.
Who's in charge?
It’s important to figure out who are the decision makers that can help make your vision happen. One common mistake is to assume MDOT controls all the roads, when in fact it controls very few. Also, except for Wayne, the county roads are controlled by county road commissions that are separate from county government.
Learn the playbooks
Engineers don't have free rein when it comes to designing roads, sidewalks, and signage. They need to follow guidelines. If you know those guidelines, you can speak their language and ask for the proper facilities – and make sure they're designing things properly.
Bicycle advocates should really consider buying a copy of the AASHTO Guide for the Development of Bicycle Facilities. Reading and understanding this guide from cover to cover will make you an expert on creating safe bike friendly streets.
Push easy-to-grasp concepts
Chances are you're passionate about biking and walking, but those you're trying to convince aren't. It's often best to use simple-to-understand phrases and ideas to help them get what you want.
Here are some useful terms to use that help frame your vision in a positive manner:
• Complete Streets – Building streets for all users, including bicyclists, pedestrians, and transit.
• Safe Routes to School – Making it safer and easier for kids to walk and bike to school
• Road Diets – Reducing a road from 4 lanes to 3 with bike lanes. It's safer for all road users.
• Livable Communities – This term is getting much traction within the Obama Administration, especially with the Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood. The concept is simple: Our investments in transportation should strengthen the surrounding communities. All too often, transportation has put a priority on vehicle mobility rather than the livability of a community and its environment. There's momentum to change that.
Start early and be persistent
Public works projects take time. Plan to stick with your campaign through the ups and downs. Progress usually comes in large, irregular jumps rather than a steady flow.
And remember that even when things seem stuck in the mud, conditions can change with staff retiring or new people getting elected or even stimulus funding coming from Washington, D.C.
Be balanced, well-prepared, and likeable
The result is you'll have more people on your side, which is critical for effective grassroots advocacy. It's also more likely you'll be included in future decision making.
No, there really isn't a single roadmap for successfully advocating change. Your best bet is to be well-prepared and figure out the more effective plan of action as you move forward. Bring friends and stick with it.
As Margaret Mead once said, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."
So where are we headed in terms of improving non-motorized transportation options in Metro Detroit?
Just as bikeability and walkability varies across our region, so too does the direction communities are taking. But at the risk of over-generalizing, we can fit most everyone into four different camps.
Camp 1: No plan and no direction
Unfortunately, too many Metro Detroit communities fall into this group, for one reason or another. It's either going to take grassroots advocacy or elected leadership to see the need for a more livable community and start moving in that direction.
One way to do that is develop a non-motorized transportation master plan – and commit to implementing it. These plans are typically designed by professionals with input from the public.
Of course in these times, finding the money for such a planning effort will be an issue. However, keep in mind that a minimum of 1% of each city, village, and county's state road funds must be spent on non-motorized facilities – and non-motorized plans are an eligible expense.
Camp 2: Bicycles are for recreation only
Unfortunately, this too is the attitude of many. They might be willing to put a pathway through a park or on an abandoned railroad track, but they aren't thinking about their residents riding to nearby parks or to work or to the nearest transit stop.
To them, bicycle trips begin by loading them onto the car.
As in Camp 1, the burden to change lies with the residents, local leaders, and as we recently learned, the price at the gas pump. Four to five dollars a gallon certainly seemed to be a tipping point where Americans started considering other, less costly transportation modes.
Camp 3: We don't need no stinkin' guidelinesCamp 3 communities, while well intentioned, have chosen to follow only some of the national guidelines for safe and convenient bicycle facilities (as defined by the American Association for Station Highway and Transportation Officials or AASHTO.)
The most common indicator of a Camp 3 community is the "safety path". Interestingly enough, the term safety path is a local invention, perhaps because AASHTO calls them side paths and says that in most cases they should not be built for cyclists. Why? Because, like sidewalks, studies have found they are far less safe than other facilities such as bike lanes.
So why are they being built? In many cases, it's due to the county road agencies that have put a premium on the mobility of motorized vehicles. Many won't allow on-road bicycle facilities, though that's starting to change in Wayne and Macomb counties. Non-motorized advocates need continue pushing the issue. To use a car reference, safety shouldn't sit in the back seat. It should be steering.
Camp 4: We get it!
Ann Arbor, Ferndale, Detroit, Troy, and others are doing things right. They understand the value of active transportation, have a plan to foster its growth, and are making the necessary investments. They are the local role models for the region.
And the good news is Royal Oak and Novi should soon join this list as they develop non-motorized plans of their own.
It's all good, but it's still important that cyclists and pedestrians in these communities show their grassroots support and keep pushing these efforts forward. No matter how positive or productive the results may be, there will always be those in the crowd who see things differently.
Not surprisingly, opposition to efforts like these were around over 100 years ago in Detroit. Famous Detroit bicyclist Horatio "Goods Roads" Earle led the fight for paved roads, became Michigan's first State Highway Commissioner and founded MDOT.
Earle wrote about those that opposed his early efforts and those words seem relevant today. He said that there are people "who are naturally against anything and everything that is new, on the principle that, 'What was good enough for our grandparents is good enough for us,' without stopping to investigate the benefits to be derived."
Earle won the battle for good roads, and if we are smart and stick with it, so will we, by gum.
So if you're still with me on the "why", let's look at just where we stand today. But before doing that, we need to define some terms.
Just what is walkability? It's a measure of just how safe and convenient it is to access goods and services on foot within a community. That also includes accessing schools and parks.
Walkability means more than just having a sidewalk in front of your home. There's an old Steven Wright joke that everything's within walking distance if you have the time. But having good walkability means you can step out your front door after dinner, walk to a neighborhood pub to watch the Tigers and get there before the 9th inning.
This basic definition for walkability is used by WalkScore.com, which if you haven't visited yet, you should. Its web site allows you to enter an address and get a rough estimate of that location's walkability. It even has a map showing the relative walkability for the entire city of Detroit.
As for bikeability, the definition is similar except that it also includes having adequate bike parking.
Given these definitions, just how bikeable and walkable is Metro Detroit? That's difficult to answer because the region is far from homogeneous. The more vibrant neighborhoods in Detroit, along with many of the suburban downtowns, are very walkable.
Generally speaking, the further one moves away from these areas, the less walkable they become – and it's by design (or perhaps a lack of design!) Newer communities are typically built around automobile use. Adding sidewalks won't make them more any walkable if it's a three-mile hike to the nearest school, ice cream shop, or corner store.
That said, one advantage to biking is that in a given period of time, cyclists can travel roughly three times the distance that a pedestrian can. That three-mile trip might take a reasonable 15 minutes by bike. One result is that more of Metro Detroit is bikeable, or at least has the potential to be.
Some features that make communities bikeable include normal street grid patterns and streets that are comfortable to ride, either due to low traffic volumes or facilities like bike lanes or bike boulevards.
Street grids make communities bikeable because they typically provide many road options for cyclists and the car use is dispersed across the grid. Communities that have more cul-de-sacs and non-thru streets concentrate traffic on the main arterials (e.g. mile roads) which are in most cases not comfortable for most cyclists to ride. These communities could become more bikeable by investing in bike lanes or wide paved shoulders on their main roads. In Metro Detroit, the city of Troy is at the forefront and looking at options to do just that.
Unbeknownst to many, the city of Detroit is perhaps the most bikeable city in Southeast Michigan, if not the U.S., due to its very low traffic volumes and well-formed street grids, as writers for The New York Times and Time magazine have pointed out. In addition, the city is beginning implementation of a non-motorized transportation master plan which calls for 400 miles of bike lanes. Studies show that facilities such as bike lanes increase cyclist safety and encourage more people to ride.
Hopefully that provides a general idea of where we're at in terms of walking and biking in Metro Detroit. The next question: Where are we headed?
Non-motorized transportation is a descriptive, albeit not-too-sexy term that includes walking, bicycling, kayaking, running, and more. Perhaps the newer term "active transportation" is better.
Either choice, this is the cornerstone to my job and my passion. Perhaps few feel more strongly that Metro Detroit must do a better job embracing and accommodating non-motorized transportation.
The Federal Highway Administration has noted that bicyclists and pedestrians are an "indicator species" for livable communities. "People want to live and work in places where they can safely and conveniently walk and/or bicycle and not always have to deal with worsening traffic congestion, road rage and the fight for a parking space."
Other communities around the U.S. like Chicago, New York, and Portland have not only recognized this need, but have made significant investments for improving bikeability and walkability. In order to be competitive, Metro Detroit must provide these types of livable communities that can attract and retain businesses and people.
To accept the old excuse that "we’re just a car town" is to resign from competing.
In addition, studies show that livable communities that encourage more biking and walking (and transit!) are healthier and have lower obesity rates. One recent study determined that "those who biked to work were fitter, leaner, less likely to be obese, and had better triglyceride levels, blood pressure, and insulin levels than those who didn't active commute to work." Not bad.
Livable communities also benefit children. In one generation, the percentage of children walking or biking to school has decreased from 50% to 15%. Certainly, this is one factor behind the tripling of childhood obesity.
And, just as active transportation can reduce the waistline, it can also reduce the bottom line. Car ownership and use costs the average U.S. household more than $8,000 annually. A bike? $300 a year.
Speaking of cars, some certainly love to wave the green flag. (We're looking at you, Prius!) The truth is that compared with bicycling and walking, their flag is a very light shade of green. Local-buying cyclists and pedestrians get their fuel from Michigan farmers – and that's the gold standard for green.
On the topic of fuel, there has been an increased recognition that America's dependence on foreign oil is a national security issue. With 40% of our trips being less than 2 miles, it certainly seems that active transportation could help reduce that dependence.
One final word is that few expect non-motorized transportation to be the exclusive choice for Metro Detroiters. Not having transportation choices is not a solution. But unfortunately for many would-be cyclists and pedestrians, their communities weren't built to provide any choice but the car.
We can change that. We must change that.