Environment Picture

‘Complete Streets’: 21st century path to a vibrant future for Michigan’s cities

Lists of reasons to support policies making it easy to walk, bike and connect seamlessly with public transit read like a too-good-to-be-true advertising gimmick: save money, burn less gas, spew less pollution, revitalize core cities, get in better shape, curb obesity and make our streets safer.

And given a recent flurry of interest across the state, Michigan may be moving toward that future. Policymakers may finally be serious about shifting from a focus solely on moving cars to one of safe, accessible “complete streets” for our communities.

What does complete streets mean?

“Complete streets is about rebuilding our roadways to move people, not just cars,” said John Lindenmayer, associate director of the League of Michigan Bicyclists. “Complete streets means using tools like sidewalks, bike lanes, curb cuts for handicap accessibility, bus stops and shelters that are convenient and comfortable. Safety is a big issue—this makes trying to get from point A to point B a lot safer.”

The concept is gaining traction across the state, buoyed by a growing national movement. The National Complete Streets Coalition is leading a campaign for rebuilding transportation infrastructure to accommodate transit users, cyclists and pedestrians just as seriously as it accommodates motorists. More than 100 jurisdictions across the country, including 10 states, have adopted complete streets policies.

Local initiatives
In early July, Walk and Bike Lansing!, a project of the Mid-Michigan Environmental Action Council (an MEC member organization), collected 4,520 signatures in an effort to put a Complete Streets ordinance on the November ballot. It is the first citizen-led ballot initiative in Lansing since the mid-1980s.

In April, the first Grand Rapids Bike Summit attracted more than 200 attendees, including candidates for local elected office.

In Detroit, the Green Task Force assembled by former Mayor and now Councilman Ken Cockrel has convened a transportation subcommittee that is examining Complete Streets policies.

And in Flint, the Safe and Active Genesee for Everyone Coalition (SAGE) is also using active transportation advocacy as a lever to reshape and revitalize the urban core. In June, the Genesee Transportation Council added Complete Streets principles to the Genesee County Long Range Transportation Plan. SAGE hopes to see the adoption of an ordinance in the City of Flint later this fall.

State initiatives
The idea of complete streets is gaining momentum at the state level, too. In June, State Representative Jon Switalski (D-Warren) added substitute language to the House Transportation Appropriations Subcommittee bill stating, “The department (MDOT) and local road agencies that receive appropriations under this act shall adopt complete street policies.”

Although mostly symbolic, the passage marks the first effort by the Michigan Legislature to recognize complete streets.

National attention
U.S. Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and U.S. Representative Doris Matsui (D-California) introduced the Complete Streets Act of 2009 in March to make streets and intersections both more accessible and safer for walking and biking. The law would require that states and city planning agencies tie transportation investments to policies that “meet the needs of pedestrians, bicyclists, transit riders and vehicles, as well as the needs of people of all ages and abilities.”

In July 2009, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a version of a climate change bill that included a complete streets component. It requires state and local agencies to encourage alternative forms of transportation (walk, bike, transit) through land use and transportation policies.

In short, the House climate bill officially sets complete streets principles as planning goals for state and local transportation officials.

Going proactive
Complete Streets legislation has evolved into a top advocacy priority for the League of Michigan Bicyclists, which is using the effort to engage its membership in a new era of advocacy.

Lindenmayer said that the recent progress has helped to turn casual riders into advocates. “We are definitely getting more traction on these issues than we’ve previously seen in terms of statewide bicycle advocacy. We as an organization are focusing more time and resources on advocacy and really working to move from a membership of just bicyclists to one of cyclist-advocates.”

“Success helps. We’re used to hearing from members only when something bad happened. This is giving people a proactive way of getting involved.”

What is MEC doing?

MEC is working to help make Complete Streets a reality:
  • MEC serves on the Healthy Kids, Healthy Michigan workgroup that is studying how transportation policy can positively impact our state’s childhood obesity epidemic.
  • MEC is on the Walk and Bike Lansing Task Force, the workgroup behind the effort to get Complete Streets on the ballot in Lansing.
  • MEC and the League of Michigan Bicyclists are co-organizers of the Michigan Complete Streets Coalition, a coalition of individuals and organizations working to ensure roadways accommodate all users.
  • MEC Urban Policy Specialist Rory Neuner recently presented on Complete Streets policy at the Great Lakes Metros and the New Opportunity Summit in Buffalo, NY.

Complete Streets by the numbers

3 -- Number of hours of biking per week that can cut a person’s risk of heart disease and stroke in half

30 -- Percentage of carbon emissions attributed to transportation

39 -- Percent of trips that Americans make that are under two miles in length

90 -- Percent of those trips made by motor vehicle

101 -- Number of jurisdictions nationally that have adopted complete streets legislation

4,250 -- Number of signatures collected in Lansing to put a local complete streets ordinance on the November ballot

200 billion -- Number of vehicle miles traveled that might be cut if walking and biking for short trips were encouraged and promoted, estimates the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy
-Rory Neuner, Michigan Environmental Council
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