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National expert says city’s walkability good, bad and needs redesign

posted Aug 20, 2012, 10:31 AM by Unknown user   [ updated Jan 11, 2013, 5:26 AM by Greenways Webmaster ]

Walkability expert aseeses Trenton, Michigan

From: The News Herald, "The Voice of Downriver" 

By: Staff Writer J. Patrick Pepper

TRENTON — Pedestrian-friendliness was the center of inquiry Thursday, when two of the city’s key commercial districts were audited for how accommodating they are to walkers.

The audits, which were essentially walking tours, focused on the areas around City Hall and Elizabeth Park and the heavily trafficked West Road corridor.

City officials and representative from regional and state transportation agencies were among those led by Dan Burden, a national expert on walkable communities.

With the Washington state-based Walkable and Livable Communities Institute as his launching pad, Burden has spent more than 25 years traveling the country evangelizing about the benefits of pedestrian-friendly design in public spaces.

“It is those towns that create the best places, that create the most livability, that create the most walkability that are going to attract the greatest number of new jobs,” Burden said. “That’s what we’ve learned all over the country.”

In Trenton, he saw a mix of good, bad and “brutal.”

Burden praised the downtown district for its eclectic mix of buildings, relatively short blocks and differences in the way the streets are laid out.

“It’s got really good, what we call, bones — the way the streets are laid out, reasonably short blocks, some really nice buildings all complementing one another,” he said.

As for what could stand some improvement, Burden said more greenery, lower speed limits and more things to define the streets, sidewalks and parking areas would go a long way toward making the space more inviting.

Along West Road, Burden said he saw something he’s never seen in the roughly 3,500 communities he’s worked in.

“What really struck my eye, and not in a pleasing way, is not only do you have the 48 feet of asphalt out in the middle (the street), but then you have another 30 feet on either side of you; so a total of 108 feet of just pure, brutal concrete and asphalt,” Burden said. “I’ve never seen that.”

The noise level, led by the sonorous hum of diesel engines and the clatter of caravans of gravel haulers also earned a failing grade. 

After taking stock of the two areas, Burden gave a presentation to city officials outlining some options. Some of them were big-picture ideas dealing with infrastructure, like putting roundabouts at West Road intersections or doing what he called “road diets,” a process of narrowing the streets.

In either instance, the bottom line is getting cars to move slower and increasing the distance and definition between roadway and sidewalks.

“The key in all of this is getting traffic to move slower,” Burden said.

More immediately pursuable options included putting in planting beds and benches along sidewalks. adding more trash receptacles and re-painting storefronts.

Mary Bohling of Michigan Sea Grant, which coordinates the Downriver Linked Greenways Initiative, said that while some of the ideas wouldn’t be possible in the near term, they present a framework for future infrastructure planning.

“Long term, as the roads get rebuilt, if (city officials) have the idea in mind, they can work with whoever is doing the work to have some of these things incorporated,” said Bohling, who helped coordinate the audit.

The audit was sponsored by the Michigan Department of Transportation and fits in with Gov. Rick Snyder’s agenda of increasing walkability in urban areas. The rationale is that a walkable community becomes a more desirable place to live because of greater opportunities for social interaction and physical fitness.

Spinoff effects can include aesthetic improvements and a better business environment, according to MDOT. Other communities that were audited are Paw Paw, Alpine Township, Wyoming, Meridian Township, Gaylord and Detroit. Results of the audit will be presented at the Southern Wayne County Regional Chamber Summit in November. The group plans to provide the results of this audit at a future Downriver Summit.

“It’s really kind of a coup for Trenton to be included in this program,” Joe Hoshaw, president of the Trenton Business Association, said in a press release. “But, by sharing those results at the Downriver Summit later this year, many of our neighboring communities also will have a chance to benefit from what we learn.”