Making the case for Detroit pedestrian investments

We spent time with city staff taking photos in Detroit neighborhoods that demonstrate the need for greater investment in better walking infrastructure.

From non-existent sidewalks to impassable ones, we didn’t document anything that was uncommon to Detroiters. In fact, during our journey we were stopped by neighbors asking that we visit their area in hopes of getting their sidewalks improved.

We thought it might be best to simply share our photos. Clearly, these need to be improved if Detroit is to become serious about building 20-minute neighborhoods.

Do you have any poor walking conditions in the city of Detroit that you wish to highlight?

At a glance: Michigan Road Funding bills

1280px-Michigan_state_capitolThe Detroit Free Press has a story today on the package of Michigan road funding bills headed to the governor.

While state road funding is one of many used in Detroit, it’s typically not the primary source for trail and bike lane projects. Those projects rely more often on federal grants and philanthropy. Still, this funding is important and does affect our work.

The good news is that unlike legislation introduced in earlier sessions, these do not affect the road funding formulas much. Prior changes included registration and fuel tax increases while effectively shifting funding from cities to the counties. Detroit was set up to lose millions. Other bills bypassed the formula altogether which shortchanged public transit funding and the 1% for non-motorized requirement. Those changes aren’t happening with these bills.

However, one change does give Detroit the flexibility to shift up to 20% of its state road funding to DDOT.

These bills also transfer substantial general fund money to the transportation funding. It’s a major shift from motor vehicle user fees (e.g. vehicle registration and fuel taxes) to general funds that everyone pays through state income and sales taxes. While these transfers have been done in recent years — especially at the federal level — they haven’t been done to this extent in Michigan.

Having more general funding for roads only reinforces the justification for Complete Streets. We’re all paying for the roads so they should be designed for all of us.

Updates on Belle Isle’s streets and sidewalks

20150416_113940Last Friday the DNR called a meeting to address the concerns we’d outlined in a previous post about the construction and conditions on Belle Isle related to the Grand Prix. The meeting also included MDOT representatives, State Representative Stephanie Chang, and Michele Hodges from both the Belle Isle Conservancy and Belle Isle Advisory Committee.

This meeting was mostly about information gathering. The DNR is hiring a planner soon and will host public listening sessions this summer to discuss these issues further with a much wider audience. We’ll let everyone know when those listening sessions are scheduled.

Three MDOT issues seemed to rise to the top.

  • MDOT took a small portion of the $4 million road funding for project management. The remainder went to the Grand Prix, who designed and built the Belle Isle roads. There were no public meetings and MDOT thought that listening to the DNR was sufficient stakeholder input. We don’t believe this follows their Context Sensitive Solutions or Complete Streets policies.
  • On portions of the new road, they will paint a pedestrian lane. This is not a sidewalk, but a pedestrian lane next to the curb and in the street. A bike lane will be next to this walking lane. An on-street walking lane does not follow AASHTO guidelines even though that was a design requirement. Also per AASHTO, “sidewalks, provided on both sides of a street, are the preferred pedestrian facility.” We learned that the initial Grand Prix design removed more sidewalks, so perhaps this was a compromise. We are waiting to see the road design cross sections from MDOT. However we do know these designs were not reviewed by MDOT’s bike and pedestrian coordinator.
  • On some new sections of road, no sidewalks were installed despite the MDOT Complete Streets policy. MDOT ‘s explanation was that they typically assume local governments will add them,  or in this case, the DNR. While local governments can be asked to contribute to adding sidewalks, MDOT cannot assume others will keep them compliant with their own Complete Streets policy.

One frustrating point that others made was that the sidewalk was in poor condition and that this somehow justified it being removed. However there was no evidence of its poor condition in Google Streetview. We passed around photos showing that. Besides, under this logic, the road was in poor condition. Why wasn’t it removed? That logic has no place under a Complete Streets policy.

Grand Prix impact on other park users

The other major concern discussed was the impact of this year’s Grand Prix event set up on other park users. The DNR inherited this event permit from the city of Detroit and we were told there are some gray areas within in. Seemingly unbeknownst to those at the meeting, the Grand Prix had a different interpretation of the permit requirements and set up earlier than expected.

The DNR will discuss this with the Grand Prix to make improvements for 2016. They plan to update the permit when it expires after next year’s event.

As a means for overseeing all this activity, Michele Hodges will add this entire topic as a standing agenda item to the Belle Isle Advisory Committee meetings.

We look forward to addressing all these issues and keeping Belle Isle as a great place to bike and walk.

Complete Streets? MDOT removes sidewalks at Belle Isle

MDOT has undertaken $4 million in road “improvements” at Belle Isle State Park where they not only failed to build sidewalks that were missing — they removed existing sidewalks.

When we first learned that substantial taxpayer dollars were allocated to Belle Isle roads, we wrote MDOT and the DNR asking that “All of the park roads, including the MacArthur Bridge, should be designed using Complete Streets principles. The major park roads should have wide sidewalks.” We also asked for other non-motorized improvements.

We were clearly ignored.

Now we can expect to see more pedestrians having to walk in the roadway, and more specifically in the bike lane, forcing cyclists to swerve into the vehicle lanes.

Not smart. This certainly does not follow MDOT’s Complete Street Policy.

The political reality is the Detroit Grand Prix got the $4 million from the state legislature with the intention of improving Belle Isle roads for racing. But these are state trunklines — and in a state park no less — and that same legislative body also passed the Complete Streets laws.

Making matter worse, for at least a month now MDOT has allowed the Belle Isle bike lanes and sidewalks to be blocked and inaccessible. We expect this to last at least two more months until after the Grand Prix finishes.

Neither MDOT nor the DNR are being proper stewards of a state park when public access is compromised for a quarter of the year.

While some may point to the benefits the Grand Prix brings to the island, they must be weighed against the $4 million benefit it got from the Michigan taxpayers.

In the end there must be a balance. This is a state park first and foremost for the people.

UPDATE, April 19, 2015: Through Michele Hodges of the Belle Isle Conservancy, the DNR has stated that the removed sidewalks were in poor condition. That is not true, so we’ve added three more photos showing the very good sidewalk condition prior to their removal. (The replaced road surface looks very good as well.)

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New Detroit Hockey Arena Development

Bike improvement opportunities around Detroit hockey arena district

The blue lines represent potential bike route improvements

Detroit City Council will vote on a couple critical rezoning requests this morning for the newly planned hockey arena district (aka Catalyst Development.) One concern raised by Council as well as the Detroit Greenways Coalition is how this development will affect the new bike lanes being built on Cass Avenue this year.

Olympia Development, the organization planning the new arena, was asked by Council member (and Coalition board member) Scott Benson to meet with us to coordinate efforts. We did that.

One shared goal is connectivity. For the Coalition, that’s from a walking and biking perspective. The district area is not very walkable today, not due to the sidewalk conditions so much as the land use. Vacant fields don’t make for good walkability and the new district development will undoubtedly change that. It was great that they were already familiar with Complete Streets.

For biking, our first concern is preserving the Cass Avenue bike lanes being constructed this summer from the RiverWalk to W. Grand Boulevard. Here are our official comments from a letter we wrote to Olympia Development and shared with City Council and others:

A major bicycling connector is Cass Avenue. The bike lanes to be installed this year are a critical north-south route from the Detroit River to New Center. MDOT and the FTA have identified and invested in this route as an alternative to bicycling on Woodward due to the safety issues related to M1 Rail. . We are also actively working to extend them to the Detroit Zoo.

Closing or taking vehicle travel lanes on Cass during events has little affect on bicyclists so long as the bike lanes remain open and safe. We believe the ingress/egress concerns at the parking garages can be addressed through good design and traffic control personnel. Colored pavement can highlight any potential vehicle/bike conflict areas. Designs should make the motorist feel they are crossing a bike lane rather than make a bicyclist feel they are crossing a driveway. This can encourage proper right-of-way yielding.

When Cass Avenue is redesigned, we propose changing the buffered bike lanes to protected bike lanes. This is a low-cost upgrade that studies show increase bicycle ridership.

We also discussed adding protected bike lanes on Grand River Avenue from Downtown to W. Grand Boulevard. This would also involve improving the unsafe and inadequate intersections at Trumbull/MLK and at Temple.

With regards to the arena itself, we did note our appreciation for their planned bike parking at each of the main entrances. The location and number of racks looks great.

It’s still early to say what the final outcome will be, but Olympia Development wants to maintain a regular dialog with us. We’re looking forward to that and ensuring that Detroit is a better place for walking, biking — and playing hockey.

Historic note: James Norris had been a member of the Montreal Amateur Athletic Association whose logo was a winged bicycle wheel owing to its cycling heritage. (They also played hockey and won the first ever Stanley Cup.) When Norris established the Detroit Red Wings, he borrowed the logo design and changed the bike wheel to a car wheel.

Detroit Needs Complete and Safer Streets Now

Worst US Cities for Pedestrian FatalitiesLast month the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration released their 2013 Traffic Safety Facts for Pedestrians report.

The statistics are grim. Every two hours a pedestrian is killed in the U.S. Fourteen percent of all road fatalities are pedestrians and that continues to trend upwards.

Among U.S. cities above 500,000 people, Detroit has the highest pedestrian fatality rate. It’s not even close. With 6.1 fatalities per 100,000 people, Detroit is well above second-place Jacksonville at 3.92.

Sadly enough, Detroit fatality rate has risen every year since 2010 when it was “only” 3.2 fatalities per 100,000.

This is a major public safety issue that everyone has a role in solving.

  • Last year Detroit City Council updated and modernized its traffic ordinances – a good first step. We expect them to take up a Complete Streets ordinance this year that makes the city consider all modes of transportation when reconstructing roadst.
  • To its credit, the Department of Public Works has been building Complete Streets projects in high-crash areas. As the statistics show, more work needs to be done. Even adding more bike lanes and road diets can help reduce speeding and make it easier for pedestrians to cross Detroit’s often wide streets.
  • Improvements in public lighting should also help reduce pedestrian crashes. Since 2010, over 80% of Detroit’s pedestrian fatalities have occurred at night and nearly half of those were in unlit areas.
  • We urge Mayor Mike Duggan to join the other 177 cities that have already signed on to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Mayors’ Challenge. This is a nationwide effort to create more seamless, convenient and safe biking and walking communities. The city with the worst pedestrian fatality rate needs to be at this table.
  • Residents and businesses should commit to clearing snow and ice from their sidewalks. During the summer, sidewalks should be cleared of debris and vegetation trimmed for good sight lines. Pedestrians are more likely to use sidewalks when they feel safe on them.
  • impact-of-speed-on-pedestrians1And lastly, all motorists need to use extra caution around pedestrians and bicyclists. Everyone needs to drive the speed limit. A “harmless” five MPH over is not harmless. At 20 MPH, a pedestrian has a 5% chance of being killed. It’s 45% at 30 MPH and 85% at 40 MPH. Unlike the Metro Detroit suburbs, most city streets have low posted speed limits. We’d like to see more people following them. Speed does kill.

Detroit has the basic underlying structure for a very walkable city. We just need to make sure it’s safe for everyone in every neighborhood. It’s about quality of life, social equity, and public health – and it needs to be everyone’s priority.

We submitted the above commentary nearly a couple weeks ago to one of Detroit’s major papers. That paper never returned our emails or voice mail, so we decided to publish it ourselves. That paper did publish their own commentary on the “full-blown public safety emergency” of potholes and bridges — neither of which can match the 312 pedestrians and 26 bicyclists killed on Detroit roads during the past decade. 

Active Living Detroit Mini-Grants for 2015

2014_flyer_pictureGrant funding usually takes a lot of effort to get and it comes with significant requirements. That makes it unattainable for many worthy grassroots community projects.

Recognizing this, the Healthy Environments Partnership (HEP) created a mini-grant program to support Active Living projects. Seeing the program’s success, the Detroit Food and Fitness Collaborative’s Active Living committee (which the Coalition co-chairs) began contributing funding, too.

This program has continued to support successful grassroot projects throughout Detroit, so it’s exciting that another year of mini-grants are available.

The Active Living Detroit Mini-Grant Program awards mini-grants of up to $1000 to Detroiters developing sustainable projects and activities aimed at promoting physical activity and environments that support active living.

Priority is given to projects that:

1) Engage community residents, particularly youth;
2) Support complete streets concepts and implementation; and
3) Incorporate Detroit Greenways.

Any neighborhood groups or organization located in the city of Detroit are eligible to apply. This includes, but is not limited to, block clubs, art groups, service organizations, parks and recreational organizations, churches, professional associations, school-based groups, and individuals. Limit to one application per organization.

The grant application and flyer (in English and Spanish) are available on HEP’s web site. Examples of other previously successful grants are also listed.

For further information, contact Cindy Gamboa, HEP Community Outreach Coordinator at (313) 593-0924 or cegamboa@umich.edu.

Top 5 Detroit bike and trail projects for 2015

Let’s start by saying it’s not easy picking only five — and that speaks well about all that is happening to make the city of Detroit a better place for biking and trails. But here we go in no specific order…

Link Detroit

Link Detroit project for Tiger-IIIThis multi-faceted $20 million non-motorized project will be completed by the summer. Yes, it was supposed to be completed by last November but construction was delayed with unexpected utility issues and a polar vortex.

What does this project involve?

  • Extending the Dequindre Cut from Gratiot to Mack Avenue with a additional connecting trail into Eastern Market along the north side of Wilkins.
  • Adding bike lanes from the end of the Cut to Hamtramck, mostly along St. Aubin. These are done.
  • Replacing three bridges over the Dequindre Cut. If you’ve ridden the pothole-ridden Wilkins bridge before then you know this is good news for bicyclists.
  • Improving Russell Street. This mostly focuses on pedestrian improvements, but it also include some very nice bike parking stations.
  • Adding bike lanes and a Midtown Loop path connection from Eastern Market to Midtown.

We thought it would be invaluable to count how many people are using this new section of the Dequindre Cut, so we got the DEGC (who’s managing the project) to add 3 automated bike and pedestrian counters.  These will count 24/7 and the data will be part of the Coalition’s much larger city wide effort to count usage and document trends.

Inner Circle Greenway

Inner Circle GreenwayDetroit city staff refer to this as the “mother of all non-motorized projects.” If you’ve not heard about it before, the Inner Circle Greenway is a 26-mile pathway that encircles the city of Detroit while passing through Hamtramck, Highland Park, and a little bit of Dearborn. It makes use of existing trails such as the Southwest Detroit Greenlink, RiverWalk, and Dequindre Cut, so roughly half of the pathway is complete. For all these reasons and more, it is a very high-priority project for our Coalition.

The largest gap is an 8.3 mile segment of abandoned railroad property. If all goes as planned, we expect Detroit will purchase the property this year using $4.5 million in grant funding the Coalition helped secure. We will be making another announcement soon about additional grant funding for planning. We will also work with the city on a substantial federal grant to build out the Greenway while also trying to get funding for more community engagement.

Lastly, we are finalizing some nice new maps of the trail. We’ll have those by the bike show in March.

Conner Creek Greenway

This Greenway begins at Maheras Gentry Park on the Detroit River and heads north roughly following Conner Avenue. It’s a mix of bike lanes, shared roadway, and off-road paths — and it’s nearly complete. This year it will get extended from Conner along E. Outer Drive to Van Dyke, crossing Eight Mile, and ending at Stephens Road (9.5 mile.) While this seems like a modest project for the top five, one should consider how many organizations were involved in making this happen: Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan, Detroit Eastside Community Collaborative, Nortown CDC, Eight Mile Boulevard Association, the Detroit Greenways Coalition, City of Warren, City of Detroit, SEMCOG, Wayne County and two MDOT TSCs.

It also is significant since it crosses Eight Mile and is part of the Showcase Trail between Belle Isle and Wisconsin. Look for plenty of green bike lanes in Warren’s section.

Separated bike lanes in Chicago via NACTO

Separated bike lanes in Chicago via NACTO

E. Jefferson Bike Lanes

A very short segment of E. Jefferson will get bike lanes this year from Alter Road to Lakewood. Why is this a big deal? They’ll be the first separated (aka protected) bike lanes in Southeast Michigan. This is precedent setting and could serve as a model for all of Detroit’s major spoke roads.

East Jefferson Inc. is also working with other members of the GREEN Task Force and the city of Detroit to extend those bike lanes to the Belle Isle entrance at E. Grand Boulevard.

Cass Avenue Bike Lanes and Midtown Loop

Bike counting kiosk example from Montreal

Bike counting kiosk example from Montreal

M1-Rail is creating a major cycling safety hazard on Woodward by locating streetcar rails near the curbs where bicyclists ride. As a result, the FTA and MDOT agreed to make Cass Avenue a more attractive cycling option. This summer Cass will be getting bike lanes (some buffered) from W. Grand Boulevard to Lafayette. A mixture of bike lanes, sharrows, and off-road paths will connect Cass to the RiverWalk via Lafayette, Washington Boulevard, E. Jefferson, and Bates.

But that’s not all. Public bike repair stations and air pumps will be installed along with automated counters including two kiosks that display bike counts in real-time. Those counts will also be automatically uploaded and available on the web as well.

This project also completes the final leg of the Midtown Loop along Cass Avenue between Canfield and Kirby.

Honorable Project Mentions

  • The Detroit Riverfront Conservancy should complete two new sections of the RiverWalk in 2015: Chene Park East and Chene Park West. A third project will begin later this year that connects the current dead end near Riverplace to Chene Park East.
  • The Downtown Detroit Partnership is becoming our non-motorized champion in the downtown area. They are currently developing a plan for sorely needed biking connections. They’re looking to take the best of what New York City, Chicago, Portland have done and bring it here, which couldn’t happen soon enough.
  • We really need to mention the amazing work of the Detroit Public Lighting Authority. Their ongoing installation of new LED street lights is making biking and walking much safer. Pardon the bad joke, but it’s like night and day.

Complete Streets ordinance

This is not really a project but a policy change that the Coalition, Detroit Food and Fitness Collaborative and others have been working on for years. We expect it to go before a City Council vote this year and we’d be surprised if it didn’t pass. For more information, check out Detroit Complete Streets page.

No, we didn’t mention the public bike sharing or the Uniroyal Site. We need to save some projects for future years!

Making Progress: Designing Detroit for All Users

Written by Myra M. Tetteh. Originally published on the Detroit Food and Fitness Collaborative web site.

Click the above image for a copy of our Detroit Complete Streets brochure

Click the above image for a copy of our Detroit Complete Streets brochure

In May of 2010 the Detroit Department of Health and Wellness Promotion received a complete streets grant from the State of Michigan with three components to complete within one year!  The tasks to 1) form a coalition; 2) educate the community on complete streets; and 3) pass a local ordinance, seemed relatively simplistic at the time.  We had no idea that it would take so much more energy, time, and priority shifting.

Unlike other communities in Michigan that received the same grant, we had many other pressing concerns in the community, namely lighting and blight.  Community residents rightfully educated us by stating: what is the use of a bike lane or new sidewalk if the streetlights are not working or I feel unsafe because of the abandoned building I have to pass.  Though the city still faces many challenges, we have made sure to be involved in advocacy efforts that are repairing our community – the work is progressing, the city is moving forward.

We have worked diligently since 2010 to get complete streets as part of the framework for the city moving forward.  Still, we are not where we would like to be, but we are at the table!  Many iterations of the ordinance have been developed over the years and it is our hope that we are finally close to the finish line of an ordinance that intentionally plans for the incorporation of complete streets in road projects.

In the meantime, we have not stopped our momentum to do the work making the city safer for pedestrians, bicyclists, and drivers regardless of physical ability or age.  To date, the city has 158 miles of bike lanes, 35 miles of complete streets infrastructure, and 17 miles of greenways.  Next year, these numbers will increase as plans are being funded to do more work.   In five years, we hope to see miles of bike lanes, complete streets infrastructure, and greenways more than double.

Our progress in Detroit is gaining national attention.  Recently, we were invited to the American Public Health Association Annual Meeting to present on how our work is improving the health and wellness of our residents.  Even Apple filmed a commercial showing the Slow Roll bicycle rides taking over the City of Detroit.

While our progress is impressive, the work of Detroit is in large part contingent on what happens at the Federal level.  Currently, we are operating under an eight month extension that keeps the status quo for funding, including non-motorized funding.  But time is running out, the Federal Transportation Bill is once again set to expire on May 31, 2015.  Then the funding will dry up.  Our elected officials have a propensity for last minute saves, the 2013 shutdown notwithstanding.  The current bill being discussed will only cover roads and not include non-motorized financing, including nixing Safe Routes to School.  This would be a big step backward for our work and progress.  As the new Congress takes office in 2015, we will see if our officials are committed to moving us forward toward safer throughways for pedestrians, bicyclists, and drivers regardless of physical ability or age.