Flint imagines road diets, community-friendly transportation

The last time the City of Flint adopted a master plan, John F. Kennedy was president of the United States and Elvis Presley was promoted to sergeant in the U.S. Army.

It was not for lack of trying. Several efforts were made to establish a city plan in the 1970s and 1980s, but none were formally adopted. Going without a city master plan for so long resulted in uneven development and wasted resources, according to Megan Hunter, Flint's chief planning officer.

"We poured a lot of resources into projects over the years that may not have made strategic sense because they were based on short-term thinking," she says. "We improved roads with one or two houses on them, because no one was looking at the data."

Hunter says prior attempts to establish a city master plan weren’t successful because city planning staff did not make the effort to truly engage the public and give the citizens a voice in shaping the future of their city.

This time, she says, is different.

In 2011, the city launched Imagine Flint, a $2.9 million planning effort enabled by a $1.6 million Sustainable Community Challenges Grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. That grant was matched with $700,000 in cash from several foundations including Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, Ruth Mott Foundation, and Community Foundation of Greater Flint, and approximately $600,000 in services from several partners including Crim Fitness Foundation,  Flint Metropolitan Transit Authority, Genesee County Land Bank, Flint & Genesee Chamber of Commerce, Center for Community Progress and the Flint Area Reinvestment Office.

The effort resulted in a draft 174-page document outlining future goals and strategies for land use, transportation and mobility, housing and neighborhoods, environmental features, infrastructure and facilities, economic development and education, public safety and welfare.

Public engagement has been a key aspect of the project since day one, says Hunter.

"This has been a little like making sausage; the content has been driven mainly by community feedback," says Hunter. "We have had extensive community engagement; we’ve had over 250 interactions and have reached over 5,000 people. We actually had the community write the goals and strategies directly."

Jennifer Skutt, a planner with the Flint MTA, says Imagine Flint set a new standard for the community planning process.

"We intend to embark on our own planning process and will incorporate many of the processes the city has used," says Skutt. "Throughout the planning process the city regularly asked for feedback from the MTA and we complied. Much of the transit-related material discussed in the draft plan was suggested by the MTA and will be further discussed and researched during the MTA's own planning process."

Road diets are central to the plan. A road diet uses a variety of methods to reduce road width, slow traffic speeds, re-establish community linkages, and generally improve accommodations for pedestrians and bicycles.

"Road diets are recognized around the country for improving safety," says Alicia Kitsuse, Flint area program officer with the C.S. Mott Foundation. "They grow the desirability of alternative modes of transportation, such as bicycling and walking, increase mobility and access for residents and visitors and offer more environmentally-friendly use of limited street space."

Flint’s roads were built in and for another era, according to Hunter.

"The roads were built to get people out of Flint as quickly as possible," says Hunter. "Today, I-475 is probably no longer necessary, but at the time it was built to get people in and out of the automotive plants. We know it divided neighborhoods, so now we are looking at ways to reconnect those neighborhoods. One of our plans is to use trails and tunnels below I-475 to reconnect the community, which is far less expensive than decommissioning a freeway."

Theresa Roach works with the Crim Fitness Foundation. The foundation coordinates Safe and Active Genesee for Everyone, a coalition of nonprofits dedicated to improving the health of county residents. Roach served on Imagine Flint’s transportation advisory committee.

"We have a lot of wide roads that don’t get a lot of traffic anymore," says Roach. "We looked at where people actually walk and identified whether there are adequate facilities to accommodate them."

Hunter notes while the plan identifies candidate areas for road diets, it is not yet a list of approved projects slated for implementation. Community support will be sought before any projects move forward.

"We always make sure there is community buy-in before moving forward," says Hunter. "The nice thing about road diets is they are fairly inexpensive to implement because you don’t change the actual curb configuration."

Several road diets have already been implemented in Flint, and a current project to extend an existing road diet on Saginaw Street downtown to the city’s southern boundary has been designed and funded, and community buy-in is currently being sought.

"If the community supports it, that project will happen rather quickly," says Hunter.

Not everyone has embraced the road diets, says Roach, especially drivers during rush hour.

"I’ve almost been hit by a car several times downtown," says Roach. "I try to point out to drivers that once they park their cars, they too become pedestrians and want to be safe when crossing the street."

The City of Flint is currently under emergency financial management and has very limited funds to implement the plan, so grants, partnerships, no-cost options and low-hanging fruit will be critical to moving forward.

Hunter is especially excited about the prospect for aligning Flint’s plan with the MTA’s plan, which opens the way for MTA to help fund future projects.

"MTA appreciated the opportunity to participate in the planning process and will continue to collaborate with the city as the authority moves forward on our next strategic planning process," says Skutt. "We will have the opportunity to bring the two plans together for a better community."

The city will also continue to identify partnership opportunities with anchor institutions, colleges and universities, who are interested in pedestrian and cycling amenities for students and employees.

"Some of the greatest opportunities will come in partnering with the business community," says Skutt. "The renovation of downtown Flint provides enormous potential for additional transportation as more medical facilities and colleges move into our community. The need for specialized transportation services will continue to grow."

Another strategy, says Hunter, may be to shift limited resources from depopulated parts of the city to focus on improvements in the densely populated areas where people need them most.

No-cost solutions are also part of the equation.

"Even without funding, our planning commission is enforcing our Complete Streets resolution," says Hunter. The resolution identifies key principles to support the development of roadways for all users. Recently, the planning commission enforced the resolution by requiring a new McDonald's to build a sidewalk.

"Right now, it’s a sidewalk to nowhere, but long term, as redevelopment happens, we will be able to better connect our community for pedestrian circulation," says Hunter.

Nina Ignaczak is a freelance writer and project manager with Issue Media Group.
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