Few would be surprised to find out New York City, San Francisco and Boston rank highly as walkable cities. The three round out WalkScore.com
's favorite large cities, which measures a resident's ability to live life without a car. Michigan's large cities don't fare quite as well.
Detroit scores a "somewhat walkable" 50. Grand Rapids does slightly better at 54--hardly worth bragging rights.
Much of Michigan's poor walkability ranking can be attributed to poor urban planning that perpetuates suburban sprawl. Sprawl has become such a problem that suburban Warren is the state's third largest "city." They scored a 49, for the record.
But there remains a diamond in the rough. Resting on the banks of the Grand Traverse Bay of northwest Michigan, Traverse City
has received an astonishing "Walker's Paradise" score of 98. Though WalkScore's rankings are hardly perfect (the website itself admits its limitations), residents and visitors to the Cherry Capital know it's a well-deserved ranking. So how did they do it?
Long-time walkability advocate and Traverse City resident, Gary Howe, was initially surprised to hear of the city's extraordinary ranking, but admits the city has set a stalwart example when you start downtown. "They got it right in the 1990s when the city focused on a downtown that would be mixed-use and walkable," explains Howe, referring to an era when many American cities were slow to embrace smart, sustainable downtown development to combat sprawl.
Still, Howe points out some of the weaknesses in WalkScore's system--design considerations. For example, Howe takes issue with the website's "very walkable" score for what he considers to be the "worst section of 8th Street," a four-lane speed-zone that sits just a half mile from downtown. "That is one of the most difficult streets to cross on foot and not a pleasurable experience to walk along for any amount of time." Enjoyment is an immeasurably important factor WalkScore's algorithm is currently unable to consider.
Despite Howe's qualms with corners of the city, he believes most stakeholders are moving in the right direction. "Traverse City has done well focusing on downtown first," Howe explains. "We are now getting to the point where we need to connect the other regions of the city to that success."
For instance, Missy Luick, planning and engineering assistant at the city of Traverse City, says the city's planning commission recently established an active transportation committee to address sustainable, multimodal transportation solutions that connect people to where they need to go. This includes walking, bicycling and taking public transportation.
"The Active Transportation Committee's outcome will be the creation of a Bicycle and Pedestrian Plan that includes plans to strategically invest in infrastructure in response to community and user needs," says Luick.
She also notes the city is currently promoting policies that encourage walkability, including prioritizing infrastructure spending on sidewalks.
"Right now the current city policy states that 10 percent of our infrastructure budget be spent on sidewalk infrastructure with a priority to repair existing sidewalks before adding to the network," Luick explains. "The Bicycle and Pedestrian Plan will have policy recommendations to strengthen current city policies and consider higher priorities toward non-motorized transportation options."
This will be done with the help of the local transit agency, Bay Area Transportation Authority
, and by working with local trail and bicycle advocacy organizations, such as TART Trails
, to coordinate bicycle and pedestrian related projects.
Howe, who is involved with the Active Transportation Plan, says he trusts the result will lead to "a more balanced approach to transportation investment with a goal of increasing choices and protecting and building strong neighborhoods and business corridors." With advocates and local government on the same page, it's easy for an outsider to see how Traverse City has been so successful.
But Traverse City isn't the only success story happening in northwest Michigan. Suttons Bay
scores a respectable 71, meaning most errands can be accomplished on foot. Zoning administrator for the village, Wally Delamater, says they've been successful by acknowledging those who either do not own or want to own a car, a factor many American cities continue to ignore.
"When transportation facilities overwhelmingly support private car usage, people who do not own a car, children and seniors who cannot drive, and people who simply prefer to walk or bike face a disadvantage," Delamater explains. "Furthermore, as fuel costs rise, car dependency places a higher financial burden on individuals and families who have no other transportation choice."
Clearly the rest of the United States needs to look to northwest Michigan on how to build walkable cities. To begin, both Delamater and Howe agree that a Complete Streets
policy is a must.
Complete Streets are streets that are designed to accommodate all ages regardless of their transportation choice--on foot, bike, transit or car. Howe himself saw the benefits of such a policy by working on the Complete Streets Coalition through a regional planning program in the Grand Traverse area. And he gives a nod toward Traverse City for creating policies that support alternative modes of transportation, particularly pedestrians.
"Traverse City has taken some incremental measures to improve accessibility for people on foot," Howe explains. "The city has a complete streets resolution, and it has a city ordinance requiring people in cars to stop for people at marked crosswalks on local streets."
Others looking to Traverse City as an example should note to, as Howe puts it, "start where the people are"--downtown. "If the downtown isn't a destination, walkability is going to be a really difficult thing."
Regardless of where a city is at on the walkability spectrum, Howe says improvements are needed across the country.
"Designing a community that is a more pleasurable place to walk not only is an equity issue and public health issue, but it is also the basis of a healthy economy," he explains. "Walkable developments have a bigger economic punch for public investment than non-walkable developments."
Howe ends his thoughts on a hypothetical every city needs to consider. "I don't think the question is 'Can we afford sidewalks?" instead, it's 'Can we afford not to do sidewalks?'"
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.