How walkable are Upper Peninsula cities?

There's a growing trend in American cities to move toward building walkable cities as young professionals continue to shun automobiles in favor of spending their money on mobile phones, tablets and bikes. But it's not just metros with populations in the hundreds of thousands or even millions that are concerned about promoting walkability. It's Escanaba, Marquette, Houghton and Menominee--cities that actually are ahead of the curve in many regards. scores cities across the world on how easy it is to live a "car-lite" lifestyle. Their algorithm considers how close amenities like restaurants and bars, coffee, groceries, outdoor places, schools, and car and bike shares--are to any given location. Many of the Upper Peninsula's largest cities scored well, while others could still use a little work.
  • Marquette, 55 (somewhat walkable)
  • Houghton, 80 (very walkable)
  • Iron Mountain, 80 (very walkable)
  • Sault Ste. Marie, 67 (somewhat walkable)
  • Escanaba, 62 (somewhat walkable)
  • Menominee, 75 (very walkable)
For context, the average "walk score" of Michigan's 65 largest cities is a paltry 46.

Scott MacInnes, city manager of Houghton, is proud of his community's work in rethinking how we build cities in the United States. Ahead of the national trend, MacInnes says improving walkability in Houghton started in the '90s when a grassroots community organization began advocating for a tunnel underneath a highway to allow kids to get across.

"It was a success story, and got more people excited about walkability and biking," says MacInnes. "Now we have so many people biking and walking in the winter that we're spending more money on our sidewalk quality."

Houghton was awarded bronze level bike status with the League of American Bicyclists in 2010.

Escanaba, meanwhile, is hoping to increase funding on sidewalk improvements in order to boost their walk score. To do this, Escanaba's city engineer and director of public works, Bill Farrell, says they're partnering with several local and state agencies to address walkability.

"To date, the city of Escanaba has worked with the 'Safe Routes to School' program at several different schools within the city," he explains. "We have partnered with the local health department to obtain funding for sidewalk construction and maintenance, and we have partnered with the State of Michigan and the Delta County Road Commission to construct a section of non-motorized pathway."

This kind of cohesive strategic development is precisely what Joe Borgstrom, director of downtown and community services with MSHDA, likes to see.

Borgstrom explains MIplace is a public-private partnership comprised of several state agencies, including MSHDA, and developers interested in improving Michigan's communities "to be a place that retains and attracts talent."

It's clear Borgstrom and MIplace understand that an increasing demographic of professionals want alternative modes of transportation, namely their own two feet. But the trend goes beyond simply not wanting the expense of an automobile (though that's certainly at the forefront of the issue). It's about making walking an enjoyable experience.

"There are a lot of elements that go into making great places," says Borgstrom, about the idea of placemaking. "Walkability, historic preservation, green infrastructure, arts and culture, appropriate architectural form, thriving small and independent businesses, increasing density, and mixed-use development all play a role."

As examples, Borgstrom points to Calumet and Iron Mountain as cities that have been participating in the Michigan Main Street program for ten and seven years respectively--a program created to develop districts that attract both residents and businesses.

"Other communities, like Marquette, are promoting a great trails system and upper-floor living downtown," Borgstrom adds.

Meanwhile, Lloyd Matthews at the Central Upper Peninsula Planning and Development Regional Commission sees room for improvement across the U.P.

"First, let me say no city in the U.P. can be defined as totally walkable," he says, pointing to his own suburb of Wells where there are no sidewalks. "Many people walk, but the nearest grocery store is about two miles away."

One of the 11 points he lists in how to build a walkable neighborhood include addressing the distance of necessities, like the grocery store, and ensuring sidewalks are connected.

"If the destination is not within perceived comfortable walking distance, people will use a car," says Matthews.

All agree the first step is connecting the necessities with sidewalks, preferably lined with attractive amenities, like trees, street lighting and benches. Nobody likes walking along ugly, dark streets. It leads to perceived crime, or worse, actual crime, keeping potential pedestrians trapped in their cars.

Next, the community needs to be connected to other forms of transportation, such as buses, trains and bike routes. MacInnes says a group of students at Michigan Tech are working on just that with help from an unlikely source.

They "received some grant money from Ford Motor Company on how you link bike and walking routes to public transportation," MacInnes explains. "They're looking at enhancing the public transportation system along with walkability." Early results from their work led to ordering bike racks for the buses.

Beyond attracting new residents and businesses by developing vibrant communities, walkability is about fighting staggering obesity rates.

"There's a strong correlation over the past 20 years between number of trips taken on foot and our obesity rates," says Borgstrom, describing the health and wellness benefits of walkable communities.

The bottom line is that the benefits of investing in walkable development touch on the growth and health of communities in several important ways: physical health, attraction of workforce, environmental impact, economic infrastructure, and maybe most of all, sustainability, in comparison to auto-oriented development.

Borgstrom sums it up best. "It's a much higher return on investment for both the public and private sector to reinvest in these kind of dense, walkable, mixed-use downtowns."

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