Blog: Scott Clein

Scott Clein is an Associate with civil engineering firm Giffels-Webster Engineers where he manages the firms’ Detroit office. A graduate of both U-M and WSU, Scott has spent much of the last 14 years working to improve the region’s physical environment. He'll be writing about the redevelopment of Metro Detroit.

Post No. 2

We're facing an obesity epidemic in this country, and a perfect case study is found right here in Detroit. I'm not talking about the average person, or even my fingers as I try and write this on my Palm Treo, but rather our region’s roadway network. This network was originally designed and constructed in the early to middle part of the last century, when Detroit had 2 million residents and none of the freeways were even on the drafting board. Given the well documented change in the region's population, I’m lead to the following conclusion: our roads are fat, and a serious diet is in order. 

I didn't come up with the term roadway diet, but whoever did is a genius. In short, the idea is based on the belief that many of our roadways have more travel lanes than needed to support the reduced traffic volumes they currently serve.  In a roadway diet these redundant lanes are eliminated and the space used for on-street parking, dedicated bike lanes, and wider pedestrian facilities. 

Now, perhaps more than ever, we're at a point where this approach is needed.  As we struggle as a region to nurture companies that will diversify our economy we need to do everything we can to attract and maintain our talent base. We’ve all no doubt heard the statistics and read the articles that point to the increasing appeal of urban, walkable communities. Building and maintaining a comprehensive non-motorized system would appear to be one way we can give our talented workers what they want. Because many dense urban areas have limited public space available to expand pedestrian and other non-motorized facilitates, a reduction in roadway width is the only alternative. 

This will take some major effort however, as many traffic engineers are stuck in old-school thinking. The old-school way of thought, for those of you not tuned in to the inner workings of transportation planning, can be summed up as follows:   more is better. The more vehicles we can get through a road segment, the better off we are. And a larger number of travel lanes mean more vehicles per hour.  "If we eliminated a lane or two," they might say, "we would reduce the roadway’s inherent capacity, which might be needed again some day."  

This thinking might sound sane, even downright rational, at first glance. Indeed the theory makes good sense when applied to I-75 and I-94, where gridlock translates directly into road rage and lost GDP. It’s when you apply this thinking to Woodward Avenue or Michigan Avenue in the heart of the City that it starts to crumble. With the freeways in place the use of these roads has changed, as the main use now is to provide access to much of Detroit’s neighborhood retail. 

Aside from the admittedly subjective appeal of expanded pedestrian spaces, there are also numerous tangible benefits of pursuing a roadway diet: 

  • Narrower roads are significantly less expensive to construct and repair.
  • Bicycles would have a safe, dedicated lane in each direction leading to safer travel for all.
  • Traffic would likely travel at slower speeds, also leading to safer travel.
  • Narrower roadways allow pedestrians (especially seniors) to actually cross the street without that inner fear generated by the flashing orange hand. 
  • On-street parking would likely be expanded to areas where it is otherwise not allowed due to the constraints of space.
  • Sidewalks could be significantly widened, providing opportunities for trees, benches, or outdoor dining.

To their credit, the City of Detroit recently adopted a comprehensive Urban Non-motorized Transportation Master Plan, and has started to seriously think about how all forms of transportation interact. This follows the lead of some enlightened transportation planners at the Michigan Department of Transportation, who are working to ensure that non-motorized transportation is considered during the initial scoping of every MDOT project.   

We’ve even seen some high profile greenways under construction in the City lately, though most of these involve off road trails and bike paths. The real litmus test will come in the next few years as the Corktown and Mexicantown neighborhoods embark on an ambitious joint effort to incorporate bike lanes along nearly 15 miles of existing roadway.   

This is certainly not the magic pill that will solve all of our problems and place Detroit at the forefront of the new, global economy. Then again, no one thing will do that. The only way to move toward that goal is to work a little bit at a time on a number of worthy ventures. (Remember the phrase 'Think globally, act locally?")  Enhancing our open spaces by making them more pedestrian and bicycle friendly is one local step in our march to improving our standard of living.  If we don’t take that step soon and put our infrastructure on a diet, we risk falling further behind. Remember, swimsuit season is right around the corner…