KATS: Will plan stay on the shelf or lead to future bike and pedestrian routes on the ground?

The Kalamazoo Area Transportation Study's KATS Moves Plan was completed in September and revealed in November. A year-long series of public meetings worked to identify the best routes for bicycle and pedestrians through Kalamazoo County and parts of Van Buren, from long greenway corridors and bike lanes to bike boulevards through neighborhoods. 

The plan promises to increase total bicycle facility miles from 250 to 525.

Bike routes should connect to 90 percent of Kalamazoo Transit stops compared to 33 percent now.

Problem areas for safety were identified, with improvements proposed, in detail.

Maps show future non-motorized paths stretching to Mattawan, Vicksburg, Augusta; around Gull Lake and north towards Grand Rapids.

There have been many grand plans for non-motorized transportation facilities that have either gone nowhere or sat on the shelf for decades before being implemented. An example would be a plan for a bike route through downtown Kalamazoo, first put on paper in 1998. It opened 19 years later with a mayoral ribbon-cutting in November. 

Marc Irwin, Kalamazoo bike commuter, was invited to join KATS citizens' advisory committee a couple of years ago. Going into the planning stages, "your immediate thoughts are, is this another long-term notion that you'll never see come to fruition? That'll end up as a sketchy idea on a government shelf somewhere?" he says.

"But what they've produced is a pretty comprehensive document, and a pretty comprehensive plan that is workable and accessible for all the jurisdictions involved. It's really quite impressive," he says, laughing, "pretty overwhelming when you look at it in detail." 

The details cover the 42 pages of the final draft.

"When you look at the entire thing, you think, oh my god, they're going to redo all the streets in the city. That's not the case. This is a long-term plan, a blueprint that cities are going to be able to refer to whenever they're resurfacing or improving any particular area," Irwin says. "It's going to be parceled out in pieces as different jurisdictions work on their areas." 

Also making this a serious plan is the fact that KATS is able to approve federal grants, he points out. "It has that teeth to it."

First, the low-hanging fruit

"I think the plan did a great job of identifying the low hanging fruit," Steve Stepek, KATS senior planner, says. "Those relatively easy to implement, less costly elements to get people access to transit. I'm hopeful some of those elements will be easy to implement in the short term."

Irwin's recommendations at the meetings were "more bike lanes, more road diets. Bike boulevards, in particular, are something we don't have in this town, and we should have them in a number of different areas." 

Lanes and road diets are quicker and cheaper to implement than protected lanes and pathways, and can be put in place during roadwork such as resurfacing. Bike boulevards, which route bikes through quiet neighborhoods on low-traffic roads, require a smaller investment.

But there are more-pricey items in the plan, demanded by public input. There was "overwhelming support for protected bike lanes in the first public survey," Stepek says. 

Safety was a large public concern, with 90 percent saying they were "very comfortable" on protected lanes, "more than even off-road trails, which was surprising," Stepek says.

Irwin says the plan should lead to "more safety on the roads for both motorists and cyclists. You give people safer places to ride, and more people will ride." 

Stepek points out that "infrastructure takes time and money. Especially when we're talking protected facilities, that the public survey showed overwhelming support for."

KATS looked at public demand, safety, transit connections, population densities, cost and other variables to determine the priority of projects. 

In the plan, on-street connections between Kalamazoo neighborhoods, downtown, and Western Michigan University, along with parts of Paw Paw and Galesburg, were labeled high priority. Greenways and paths connecting Kalamazoo, Portage and Vicksburg, Kalamazoo to the western edge of Oshtemo Township, Richland to Ross Township, and Galesburg to Augusta were also high-priority.

"I think the plan will allow local units of government to coordinate the development of their non-motorized networks to provide greater access to the transit system available in the Kalamazoo area, while providing a means for prioritizing the limited resources those agencies have," Stepek says.

The plan outlines short-term projects of one to six years, mid-term ones of seven to 15, and long-term ones of 16 to 25 years.

It sounds like something the next generation will be able to bike/walk on, but Irwin thinks we'll see major results in the next decade. 

"It might be surprising how quickly it'll go, with this type of plan in place," he says. "No longer will it be a matter of each little road improvement or each bike lane put in place will need to be the result of endless discussions and conversations because those discussions and conversations have been made." 

Mark Wedel has been a freelance journalist in the southwest Michigan area since 1992. He's been an avid pedaler of bikes since 2011. See more at http://www.markswedel.com
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