Lansing: Walkable, bikeable, desirable

Posted on April 12, 2012

My writing on placemaking and walkable communities appeared on the Sunday opinion page of the Lansing State Journal on November 21, 2010. Part of a series on building better quality of life in Lansing, I was invited to write this piece based on my role as a co-chair of the Lansing Economic Area Partnership’s Placemaking Committee.

Here’s the full text:

For most of human history, streets served as public spaces. They were places where economic exchanges were fostered, where children played, and where adults got to know their neighbors. They were places to remember.

Unfortunately, that’s changed dramatically in communities across the U.S. over the past 70 years, as planning policies favored cars over people. Our pursuit to create efficiency for the automobile left us with a host of problems: an obesity crisis; uncertain energy supplies; global climate change; loss of our natural environment; ever-increasing social inequity; and declining community engagement. Along the way, streets became a way to get somewhere, not places to go or remember.

Greater Lansing is no stranger to these issues. But the good news is that a movement is underfoot in our region to reverse these trends in our neighborhoods and communities. Leaders across Greater Lansing have come to recognize that planning transportation for community outcomes, rather than merely moving cars, can catalyze better quality of life, and economic and social revitalization.

How are we tackling this? Three key ways: public policy, infrastructure, and citizen engagement.

First, regional leaders are adopting public policies to create and promote walkable communities. Over the last two years, several Greater Lansing communities have acted to adopt “complete streets” policies that balance the safety and needs of all users of the roadway, and make planning for walkable, bikeable streets a part of business as usual, rather than the exception to the rule.

In fact, last year (August 2009), the city of Lansing became the first municipality in the state of Michigan to adopt a complete streets policy. The city of East Lansing is in the final stages of work to adopt an ordinance, and just last week, Lansing Township won a grant from the Michigan Department of Community Health that will propel a policy there by 2012.

Lansing’s citizen-led effort to move toward complete streets was the model for a package of state legislation signed into law this August that requires the Michigan Department of Transportation to adopt their own complete streets policy.

With state and local complete streets policies in place, the Greater Lansing region will, project by project over the coming decade, realize the vision of a complete network of walkable, bikeable street infrastructure – and in turn, create lively, healthy neighborhoods that are places to remember again.

Second, regional leaders are also tackling the issue of infrastructure and connectivity. Last week in Meridian Township, the finishing touches were made to Phase II of the Interurban Trail. This 1.8 mile trail runs west from Marsh Road near Haslett’s town center to Park Lake Road, where it connects to existing on-road bike lanes on Burcham Road in East Lansing.

And earlier this summer, East Lansing officials celebrated the completion of the Saginaw Pedestrian Pathways project that added 1.44 miles of sidewalk to a stretch of Saginaw, ensuring children, MSU students and residents have safe, convenient pedestrian access to the Saginaw corridor.

It’s projects like the Interurban and the Saginaw Pathways Project that are helping connect this region’s key assets, giving those traveling by foot or by bike the option to safely reach their destinations.

Future projects include further extensions to the Lansing River Trail and implementation of the new non-motorized master plans in both Lansing and East Lansing – plans that dictate where certain walk- and bike-friendly improvements are feasible and safe.

We’ll also need to tackle new policy initiatives, like ordinances to require bicycle parking in new developments, and policies that require new developments to connect to sidewalks adjacent to their property.

Third and finally, citizens are rolling up their sleeves and partnering with area organizations and government officials to get things done. In East Lansing, a group of parents at Marble Elementary School has spearheaded walking audits and other activities to ensure and promote Safe Routes to School. And within the last year, the Mid-Michigan Active Transportation Coalition has formed to promote walkable, bikeable communities across the region.

The evidence shows these efforts are working. This summer, Lansing earned a Bronze level Bicycle Friendly Community Award from the League of American Bicyclists, putting our efforts on par with places like Ann Arbor, Pittsburgh, and even warm weather cities like Santa Monica, Calif. (We’re shooting for the Silver level by 2013.) And data released in September by the U.S. Census indicates that the number of people that use a bicycle to commute to and from work nearly tripled between 2006 and 2008.

There’s still more work to be done, and more data to evaluate. The bottom line is that continued success of these efforts will benefit people in communities across Greater Lansing. By focusing on creating walk- and bike-friendly places, we can create jobs, attract talent, enliven neighborhoods, create local business opportunities and connect communities – both vulnerable and thriving – to vital amenities and resources.