Sharing Woodward Avenue

Drive down Woodward Avenue and it's pretty likely you're utilizing the dominant form of transportation for that thoroughfare. At least for now.

The long-time car-dominant corridor makes its intentions known when you first hit McNichols Avenue heading north. The combination of small buildings and a big boulevard subconsciously speeds up traffic on the avenue at the expense of everything else. The thinking behind that paradigm is changing as local leaders work to turn Woodward into a transit-inclusive corridor.

That means making the thoroughfare friendly to all forms of transportation, like pedestrians, bicyclists, trains and automobiles. It also means building density and economic opportunity along Michigan's Main Street. The belief is that by making Woodward less car-dominant it can grow into one of Metro Detroit's primary economic engines.

"The time has come," says Heather Carmona, executive director of the Woodward Avenue Action Association, a non-profit that advocates for the avenue. "The irony is decades ago Woodward was a transportation-inclusive corridor, but it lost that with the rise of the automotive industry. However, it's coming back full circle."

Pedestrians, trains, bikes and automobiles

The unfortunate conventional wisdom of the last couple of generations is that Woodward only has enough room for automotive traffic; in other words, cars, trucks and buses. (Although it's not hard to find a motorist who believes life would be better for everyone on the boulevard without the buses.)

"They're worried more about the capacity of Woodward," says Chris Frey, board president of Transportation Riders United, a local mass transit advocacy non-profit. "They should have worried about mobility."

The truth is there is enough room on Woodward for everyone, especially on its upper reaches, north of McNichols where the boulevard begins. Room for cars, buses, trains, bikes, pedestrians and probably even a few jogging strollers. Incorporating space for them is much easier than people think. The M-1 is eight lanes of traffic, two lanes of parking and a wide boulevard of green space dividing the two.

"It gives everybody options," says Frey, who also lives in a high-rise in Midtown Detroit that overlooks Woodward. "It doesn't favor one type of person over another or one type of transportation over another. It makes everyone use the resource more efficiently."

Frey, who uses the bus or his bike for a vast majority of his traveling, makes the point that people are generally chained to their cars in Metro Detroit, even along its densest corridor. However, adding options like light rail down the boulevard median (as it had originally) and bike lanes along the roadside allows people to travel without worrying about where to park or the congestion of rush-hour traffic. Not to mention, more transportation options mean more trips and more vibrancy with fewer cars.

Todd Scott is the Detroit Greenways Coordinator for the Michigan Trails and Greenways Alliance, an advocacy group for alternative transit pathways like trails and bike lanes. The Royal Oak resident takes pride in reminding people that bicyclists are entitled to the same respect and rights as motorists. But what would you expect to hear from a bicycle commuter?

"There is a sense of entitlement, that these cars are entitled to the road," Scott says. "Bicycles were on Woodward before cars were invented. It's not like we're the new kids on the block."

Scott isn't the only person emphasizing that idea. U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood recently announced the "end of favoring motorized transportation at the expense of non-motorized." That's a game-changing policy shift when it comes to federal transportation funding.

Adding bike lanes/racks and light rail, along with more pedestrian amenities (crosswalks, bump outs, bigger sidewalks), will calm motorized traffic. That makes the boulevard's more vibrant blocks, like downtown Ferndale (9 Mile Road and Woodward), accessible to those who want to frequent their businesses. More people means profitable businesses, density, demand, infill development and more of the good things for which urbanists yearn.

"I would like to see it as a dense, vibrant corridor that supports all forms of transportation," Frey says. "Cars will still be part of the mix, but not the dominant part of the mix."

Metro Detroit's economic engine

Woodward isn't just about transportation in the 21st Century. It's about economics, too. Michigan's Main Street promises to serve as one of the state's most powerful economic engines if local leaders play their land-use-planning cards right.

"Woodward was functionally replaced by the Lodge Freeways and I-75 decades ago," Frey says.

Yes, Woodward still hosts a number of commuters during rush hour, but motorists flood onto the avenue when one of the major freeways clogs up. They don't herd onto the freeway when Woodward gets congested.

That doesn't make Woodward obsolete. Actually, it gives it an opportunity to recreate itself as something much more important - the home to intense economic activity, like a Metro Airport or a research university. Six of Metro Detroit's most vibrant downtowns are located along Woodward, not to mention three of its major sports stadiums, one of Michigan's top three research universities, and a host of other major corporations and institutions.

"Woodward is the spine," says Mike Whitty, a business professor at the University of Detroit Mercy. "It's the connector to Pontiac and the Detroit River. It's a potential point for unity and density. If you had comprehensive transit you could repopulate the Woodward corridor."

He adds that that type of development is much more inline with the urban investment patterns of the 21st Century. As more future development dollars are directed toward Metro Detroit's urban core, such as the Woodward corridor, less is spent turning cornfields into strip malls and moving Oakland County to Livingston County.

"Sprawl does as much damage (to the region) as severe poverty and crime," Whitty says.

It's amazing what dense economic development can do to shrink a major corridor. The seven lanes of traffic on lower Woodward are much easier to cross than the eight lanes of upper Woodward (median and all) because of the tall buildings that flank the streets of downtown Detroit. Buildings that are as tall (or taller) as the width of the road create an urban canyon that shrinks the street in the eyes of the people on it, making it more pedestrian friendly.

The opposite is true on upper Woodward, where the buildings are small (a story or two at most on average) and the road is wider. That makes crossing Woodward on foot (or wheels) harder than it has to be, even in pedestrian-friendly places like downtown Ferndale and Birmingham.

The Woodward Avenue Action Association is fixing the situation, awarding tens of thousands of dollars in grant money to create crosswalks, sidewalk bump-outs, and new lighting. The idea is that making these places more urban and active-transit friendly makes them better places to do business, which creates a multiplier effect of economic investment centered around transit-oriented development.

"It's so critical for land use and sustaining tax base," Carmona says. "You need to look at long-term impacts of uses instead of building big-box development that might be obsolete in 10 years."

Jon Zemke is the news editor for Metromode and Concentrate. His wife thinks he's an angel. His previous article was The Making Of An Angel.

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