In the late '90s, Justin Lyons says "you could essentially fire a bowling ball down the middle of Nine Mile."
"It was vacant and empty and there wasn't much going on," says Lyons, the city of Ferndale's planning manager.
Anyone who's been to Ferndale in the past decade or so knows that's changed dramatically. Nine Mile has become a bustling commercial corridor that rivals Woodward in Ferndale, packed with shops, bars, restaurants, pedestrians, bikes, and cars. Lyons says that transformation is in part attributable to Ferndale's implementation of "road diets," which have reduced traffic lanes on Nine Mile in favor of street parking and bike lanes.
Ferndale was on the cutting edge of a trend that's had similarly positive effects for multiple Metro Detroit communities in recent years, and residents have begun to take notice. While the concept of reducing car lanes once drew more ire, that's changed just in the last five to 10 years, according to Brad Strader, principal at landscape architecture, urban design, and planning firm MKSK Studios.
"I think every year there's slightly more acceptance of the approach, as people have seen examples in metro Detroit instead of examples from other regions," Strader says. "I think studies have shown that most of the road diets that have been implemented have worked pretty well or even exceeded expectations."
They've also drawn the approval of business owners like Dan Riley, who owns 567 Livernois Ave. in Ferndale. The building once housed Riley's Axle Brewing Co., which has been purchased by Eastern Market Brewing Co. with reopening and rebranding set for sometime in 2020. It's also located in the midst of Ferndale's most recent road diet.
Riley says the construction process for the road diet was "extremely frustrating," mostly due to delays that were out of the city's hands. But he remains a "firm supporter" of road diets, noting that "any progressive development ... is always going to have challenges in the short term." He anticipates that the road diet will help draw additional businesses to vacant mixed-use spaces on Livernois, and describes the completed road diet as one of the factors that made his business and building an attractive prospect for Eastern Market Brewing Co.
"The fact that the work was already done and that it's beautiful and that there's a huge amount of bike culture that supports our business, those are really positives," Riley says.
Here's a rundown of where road diets have already been established in Metro Detroit – and where they're set to be implemented soon:
Ferndale: The city first put West Nine Mile on a diet in 1999, and has reduced parts of it from four to three lanes as recently as 2013. East Nine Mile got a road diet in 2015, with four car lanes being reduced to three plus a bike lane and other pedestrian amenities. Livernois' car lanes also went from four to three last year, and a protected bike lane was added. Hilton Road saw a narrowing project in 2016 as well.
Lyons says road diets are just one facet of Ferndale's broader "complete streets" approach, which emphasizes roads optimized for all users, not just cars.
"Safety has probably been an overarching theme throughout all our improvements," he says. "But the added benefits are economic development, sustainable infrastructure, and just overall making it an inviting place."
Road diet on Livernois in Ferndale.
Hazel Park: This summer Hazel Park reduced John R from five lanes to three and added bike lanes between Eight Mile and I-75. The project is part of a larger $3.4 million street improvement plan, which city officials hope will continue spurring the economic growth started by popular establishments like Mabel Gray and Latido at Joebar.
Road diet on John R in Hazel Park.
Oak Park: Expanding Ferndale's West Nine Mile road diet further to the west, Oak Park this summer narrowed the road from five car lanes to three and added bike lanes and street parking. The project is funded by a $1.8 million grant from the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) and the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG). Oak Park plans to continue expanding the road diet to its western border.
The project was carried out in partnership with the city of Ferndale and stretches a few blocks into the neighboring city to meet Ferndale's existing road diet at Pinecrest.
"We're pretty fortunate to be located on the Woodward corridor and have neighbors like Hazel Park and Oak Park and Pleasant Ridge and the city of Detroit all looking at their streets differently," Lyons says. "It's helped build out that pedestrian and bicycling network between the cities."
Birmingham: The city reduced a 1.3-mile stretch of West Maple Road from four lanes to three lanes in 2016. Bike lanes were included in a temporary version of the road diet that was implemented in 2015, but not included in the permanent version due to public opposition. Since the public has gotten used to the change, Strader says he thinks "most people would declare that it's been pretty successful."
"It hasn't created the congestion that some people worried would happen," he says.
Royal Oak: In 2016 the city briefly piloted a road diet on Main Street but chose not to implement it permanently. However, in 2018 it reduced sections of Main Street and Washington Street from four car lanes to three and added bike lanes.
Road diet on Royal Oak's Main Street.
Berkley: Similar to Birmingham's trial road diet back in 2015, earlier this year Berkley temporarily reduced car lanes from four to two and added bike lanes on Coolidge Highway between 11 Mile and 12 Mile. The $200,000 pilot project will run through 2021 when the city council will review public feedback and decide whether to make the changes permanent.
Farmington: In 2016 the city chose to reduce Grand River Avenue from four car lanes to three and add a bike lane. The work was done at no cost to the city, as part of a reconstruction project MDOT already had planned for the road.
Pleasant Ridge: Road diets don't necessarily have to entail reducing car lanes or adding bike lanes. Strader points to Pleasant Ridge, which recently restriped Ridge Road to narrow its lanes from 13 feet to 10 feet wide. The measure was designed to combat speeding on the 25 mph road, which drivers often use to cut around Woodward. Average speeds on the road have dropped from 32 mph to 29 mph as a result – seemingly a small amount, but still enough to make a difference for the community.
"It's amazing how it gets people to think, and while they're thinking, they're slowing down at the same time," says Pleasant Ridge Mayor Kurt Metzger.
Road diet on Ridge Road in Pleasant Ridge.
Metzger and Lyons both express hope that a road diet may be in the cards for the biggest road in both their communities, Woodward Avenue, but MDOT's jurisdiction over Woodward makes that complicated. Metzger says he "would love" to find ways to simplify the intersection of Woodward, I-696, and Main Street to make it safer and easier for drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians to navigate, saying the area has been a "continuous disaster" for years.
"Just by eliminating people's options, it makes it a lot better," he says.