Mid Michigan needs to invest in walkability to survive and thrive

Baby boomers continue to retire with each passing day and employers are looking to millennials to fill the workforce gap. Contrary to the old norm, these young professionals look for a destination before committing to an employment opportunity. And with fewer young professionals than boomers, cities are competing with one another to draw from a shrinking pool of candidates.

The winning formula? Developing walkable cities.

Unfortunately for Mid Michigan--and contrary to the Upper Peninsula--the region's largest cities are suffering from the auto-oriented decisions made by generations past. Walkscore.com, an organization promoting walkable neighborhoods as an economic, health, and environmental solution, offers a concerning outlook on Mid Michigan's walkability.

Saginaw and Midland are described as "car-dependent." Only Mt. Pleasant and Bay City, both rated "somewhat walkable," are given any praise.

Greg Branch, Saginaw's mayor, is all too familiar with his city's sour ranking, but paints an optimistic future.

 "Our Old Saginaw City Association has really worked hard on addressing walkability issues, including getting a Main Street accreditation," he explains, discussing the National Trust for Historic Preservation's 10 criteria for promoting a local Main Street.

"I'm on a personal crusade to disassociate federal street funding from the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials Green Book, because I think it's ridiculously anti-pedestrian," he says.

Walkability advocates like Branch frequently find themselves at odds with transportation agencies, which greatly favor road and highway development. In 2007 alone, the public sector spent $146 billion to build, operate, and maintain highways in the United States. The state of Michigan itself only spends less than 10 percent of the state transportation budget on public transportation despite growing demand.

This line of criticism is something the Michigan Department of Transportation is well aware of. That's why an 18-member council was appointed in 2010 to establish a policy on "complete streets," referring to a roadway that provides appropriate access to all legal users, including motorists, bicyclists, and pedestrians. A policy was approved in July of 2012.

"We are currently implementing the facilitation of requested pedestrian improvements through our context-sensitive solutions approach that solicits community and stakeholder feedback on upcoming projects," explains Anita Richard from MDOT's communications office. The results of earlier feedback have led to programs that support improving walkability for students K-8, encourage sharing the road, and increasing connectivity between communities.

Matthew Liesch, assistant professor at Central Michigan University's Department of Geography, agrees with the practice of soliciting input from a community's residents. Only they have a true understanding of where their city needs improvements in walkability beyond what Walk Score can tell us.

"A community's walk score is a generally good proxy of the distance a person is to the amenities and destinations within a given community," explains Liesch. "But the walk score doesn't include many other criteria, such as the connectivity and physical condition of sidewalks and drivers' adherence to pedestrians having the right-of-way."

Liesch offers personal examples of crossing Mission Street in Mt. Pleasant and Euclid Avenue in Bay City, saying both streets are "uncomfortable" for pedestrians.

He continues, "Many CMU students live in Union Township. Sidewalks tend to stop at Mt. Pleasant's border with Union Township." Naturally, this leads to either an unsafe environment for pedestrians or encourages them to drive.

Bay City, too, has taken a first-hand experience approach to improving walkability, starting in its downtown. After receiving a grant from the Michigan Association of Planning, the city conducted a one-day workshop focused on how the downtown area connects with surrounding developments.

"Several stakeholders (residents and citizens groups) participated in the exercise of walking routes downtown and evaluating how they connect," explains Terry Moultane, community development planner and historic preservation officer with the city. The information was shared with key groups to make improvements, like repairing sidewalks to include curb cuts at intersections for the disabled.

Going beyond sidewalks, Bay City is also looking at accessibility to bike and public transportation infrastructure. Strong cycling and public transportation networks have shown to improve walkability for cities across the world. With that in mind, a non-motorized transportation plan was launched in 2010 to establish and prioritize routes for a network of alternative transportation, including those that best accommodate cyclists.

"During the workshops we conducted, there was an identified need for bike racks in the downtown area," says Moultane. "Also, with any major street improvements we look to see if bike lanes can be incorporated in the travel lanes."

Back in Saginaw, Mayor Branch says he supports using alternative modes of transportation to compliment walkability, and approves of the Saginaw Transit Authority's efforts to increase their service area. He also wants to look at the economics of all facets that contribute to walkability.

"Walkability requires a slightly higher density and a smaller number of surface parking lots," says Branch. "You don't get the former without more economic activity and a greater diversity of income. The economic apartheid that is a byproduct of suburban sprawl makes it more and more difficult for the urban core to make its property economically viable."

If Mid Michigan hopes to draw the next batch of young professionals and the businesses that come with them, they would serve themselves best by reinvesting in the urban cores of Saginaw, Midland, Mt. Pleasant and Bay City. Cars aren't going anywhere, but it's clear people increasingly want options in transportation, especially when it comes to using their own two feet. The cities that thrive over the next 50 years will be the ones that responded to this demand.

Mayor Branch sums it up best.

"We need to plan for people, not for cars."

Joe Baur is a freelance writer and filmmaker based in Cleveland. He's also the Sections Editor of hiVelocity. You can contact him at joebaur.com.
Signup for Email Alerts