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We're all pedestrians but our streets beg to differ


The Next Idea

If we’re going to make sure that Detroit’s neighborhoods are part of the city’s comeback, we need an agenda that focuses on integrated mobility within the region. Improved transportation is not only crucial for raising the quality of life for everyone who lives in the area, it also affects the entire state’s economic competitiveness. 

What do we mean by mobility? Simply the ability for each of the four million people in the metropolitan area to get from point A to point B.

This is not just about road conditions, or public transit, or walking and cycling.  It’s about access to jobs, to parks and recreation, and to healthy food, health care and other services. It’s about creating more walkable urban places and competing for jobs and talent.

Some stark statistics show the clear need for improved mobility in the Detroit metro region:

  • Detroit’s jobs are more spread out than any other large metro area in the country, with 77 percent more than 10 miles outside of the Central Business District (43 percent is the national average).
  • Sixty-one percent of employed Detroiters workoutside of the city; 70 percent of Detroit jobs are held by people who live outside the city.
  • The metro area’s personal spending on transportation is among the highest in the country, with only Houston's higher, yet regional per-capita spending on transit is the lowest.
  • Twenty-six percent of Detroit households do not have access to a car. As much as 60 percent of Detroit drivers have been estimated to be driving without proper insurance, reflecting an inability to afford the high cost of auto insurance and a lack of any viable transportation alternative to owning a car.
  • Detroit has the highest rate of pedestrian fatalities from vehicle accidents for any large city in the U.S. at 6.1 per 100,000 residents in 2014. 

Our peer cities are investing in transportation improvements to attract millennials entering the workforce, to retain the businesses that employ them, and to serve their aging baby boomer populations. Clearly we have some catching up to do. If we don’t, we risk becoming a city that won’t be equipped to handle a robust 21st Century economy.

So what’s the Next Idea?

As the world-renown urban planner Gil Peñalosareminded us at the Detroit Future City “Ideas for Innovation” event just a few weeks ago, we are all pedestrians at some point in our daily journeys, walking to and from our cars, bikes and buses every day.

By focusing on making Detroit pedestrians safer, one street at a time, we can make observable changes and see some real progress ...

Walkable neighborhoods with public transit and bikeable routes to job centers are in increasingly high demand across the nation. They are also in short supply, which means that Detroit still has an opportunity to be a leader when it comes to urban mobility. For this to happen, however, it is important that we think strategically about where to invest right now.

One place to start is with designing safer streets for pedestrians. In particular, we see a need for safer streets in neighborhood commercial districts and along access routes to schools and public transit.

The area around the Jefferson Chalmers commercial district will soon be an example of what this could look like. Landscaped traffic islands were recently installed to slow vehicle traffic and create safer pedestrian zones. In a couple of months, once the city finishes repaving a seven-block stretch, the first protected bicycle lanes in the entire state will be installed. From there we plan to expand the bicycle infrastructure, making any adjustments necessary, moving west along Jefferson Avenue, through the Marina and Villages neighborhoods, and all the way to the entrance to Belle Isle.

Only a third of a mile long, the protected bike lane won’t change the quality of cycling in the area immediately; we need a whole network of safe routes for that. But as a working pilot project, it will provide a concrete example of what safer bicycle infrastructure looks like, and give residents the chance to experience navigating the area as drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians, and then to provide critical feedback.

Perhaps most importantly, this is something we can work on now, with relatively minimal resources, while we wait for our regional and state transit leaders to overcome years of inaction, work out plans, and do the heavy lifting to bring about a system of more interconnected buses, trains and streets the region sorely needs.

By focusing on making Detroit pedestrians safer, one street at a time, we can make observable changes and see some real progress, as well as ensure that when the big plans do come, the momentum and support is already in place. 

Joshua Elling is the executive director ofJefferson East Inc. in Detroit. 

Join the conversation in the comments section below, on Twitter or Facebook, or let us know your Next Idea here.