Stuff I’m Obsessing Over: Equal Access

Yesterday a man was walking down the street outside our apartment.  He was blind, and we ended up helping him find the store around the corner as he had gotten mixed up over where he was.

The corridor I live near is like many state roads in Michigan: car-oriented, the main way of getting most places, no sidewalks, lots of McDonalds and chains, connections to the highways.  MDOT is making a sincere effort to get sidewalks and crosswalks on these kinds of streets, as residential development has become denser adjacent to them.  As a person who lives a block away from this corridor, I live within 1/4 mile of many fastfood restaurants, a superstore, auto-repair shops, and even a secretary of state. You’d think I’d be able to walk to these places, and having been raised to be efficient with my resources, I would like to walk to them. But it’s just dangerous. 

I can’t imagine not having a car out here. Okay, fine. To live out here, you have to have a car. This is America, after all.  What about blind friend John?  The only affordable housing in Ann Arbor is outside of Ann Arbor, where things are not walkable.  What do the handicapped do?

What do the handicapped do? Or those who cannot afford a car?

Probably the first step to equal opportunity for all is …equal accessibility for all.  People being able to physically get to places without loads of difficulty might help them get where they want to go.

I don’t care how small of a minority of people fit into the ADA description. It could be one person. We still have to take care of that person. But it happens to be millions.

Don’t get me started on the lack of even beginnings of progress on mentally disabled access. How does this fit into access to sidewalks and transit? I can already think of implications for those with Aspergers and Autism of riding transit and walking busy streets.

We build this world for us. Not for cars. Not for what’s cheap and profitable at the time. Though building for people has proven to be profitable, though not cheap. Who could expect it to be?

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Comfort in the Big Box

My transportation class had an interesting discussion about the future of cars in America. I had claimed that Americans are still in love with their cars, and that Sarah Palin has a reality show on TLC, which is an indicator that America isn’t ready for change. At least half of it isn’t.  (Man, are we polarized. Quite a shame.)

My classmate Joel challenged that, saying “It’s not so much a love affair but more of a forced marriage.” I’d agree. I guess you could say that I want to grant annulments to everyone.  I know that the country is very concerned with liberty and freedom, but I plead with them to really look at traffic jams and wonder if that is what freedom means to us. People don’t often consciously make the choice to drive – it’s just a necessary thing, because everything is so spread out.

On another note, this came up in a poem of mine and I’m sure many have thought about it too. Why do we take comfort in finding Targets and Barnes and Nobles in unfamiliar cities?  Quite obvious.  It’s a familiar thing. Our country is so big. It’s no wonder corporations have taken over and we let them. It’s not a bad thing. It’s just that these big boxes are our common places. You feel a sense of normalcy walking into Target. It’s something everyone shares.  They respond to our demands.

I think we all want a home we know by heart.

Google Bike Maps

ow when you look up directions somewhere on Google Maps, you can choose public transit, walking, car, or bicycle directions. This is super nice because it opens up many options for where you can go and how you can get there. I’ve realized because of a bike trail going through an industrial area by my house, I can get to 44th street quite easily. Or I can take residential streets to get to church. I’d never thought of it. I always pictured myself on the busy main streets I drive on, getting honked at by the many cars who can’t share a road (either because it’s too narrow or because they’re not used to it.)

I will try to ride my bike places this spring using this new Google Bike layer, and I will report back to you on it. I already contacted Google, probably along with 38 other GR cyclists, about 28th street and how it’s not a good route for any bike to get anywhere. And my feedback is really vital because I’m not one of those bike snobs who wears the shorts and can handle any element…I don’t even have a road bike but a mountain bike. I do have a basket, however. And things like to bounce out of it.  I am also NOT a chic fashion cyclists like the ones they talk about on chic green websites, the hipster girls who ride old vintage falling-apart bikes everywhere in a dress and huge sunglasses because it looks cool.  I’m just kim. Bikin’ along my Kimscape.

Nothing beats this video introducing the new feature. I love the first part with all the bikes riding past Google headquarters and then this random pedal-powered machine with four guys on it trailing behind. I Laughed Out Loudly.

Here’s ANOTHER vehicle Google has invented: The streetview trike. This will likely get pictures of un-drivable pathways so that streetview can truly be comprehensive. There’d have to be thousands of them to get everything. But Google can do it. They’re creepy that way.

Transportation Options: Bus Rapid Transit in Grand Rapids?

ast year, Grand Rapids voted down the Silver Line. Thankfully, we are getting another chance to get Bus Rapid Transit in our city, something that would save households money (for all you Dave Ramsey worshippers) and revitalize Division Avenue.

We would get federal money for this project, not only for the bus but to revitalize the buildings surrounding it (already in the works!). The dense commercial area will create much more revenue. And this change would affect properties on Division all the way down to 60th Street.

Please Note: this is not a bus in the same sense as The Rapid is a bus system. This thing would go fast. It’d be more like a subway than a bus.

To continue only driving our cars to get around, building cities for cars, and pouring money into cars is a backwards way of thinking. If Michigan really wants to rebuild its economy, it has to move forward and forget its autocentric past.

Vote yes on Bus Rapid Transit. Grand Rapids deserves options for transportation. It’s nice to be able to walk places. It’s nice to read on the bus and not have to find a parking spot. It’s healthier. It’s cheaper. It looks better. It keeps you sane. It’s more efficient. It provides more equal opportunity. Even if you’re Republican. Even if you couldn’t or wouldn’t use it. Please vote yes.

Five Ideas to make Grand Rapids more Liveable

or Livelittleable.

I’m having a blogstorm kind of day. Some days, the urban planning blogworld overwhelms me and I ignore it, but today I patiently sifted through my Google Reader and found so many good ideas.

I wanted to apply them to my home city.  Grand Rapids has a sizeable downtown but probably 4 or 5 times more land dedicated to suburbs. Streets like East Beltline and 28th Street and Plainfield suffer incredible blight and traffic problems, mainly because they’re stuck in the 1950s. There are so many suburbs that walking anywhere for many residents is impossible. Division Street looks like hell in most places. Homelessness is rampant.

But back to the good ideas. Heere are five I’ve read about today that could work in Good Ole GR:

1. Google Maps should include Bike and Transit directions/estimations. And they are working on it. Chicago’s Transit Authority is set up so you can google directions that find the best combination of subway and bus transit to get to where you need to be. I used it all the time in Chicago. Grand Rapid’s bus system is used  and functional, but it’s not practical for quick trips. Aside from most buses having half hour between stops, it’s hard to know which routes to connect to get where we need to be. Google Transit has four cities from Michigan participating (Ann Arbor, Holland, Lansing, Detroit) but not Grand Rapids. Come on now!

As for bikes, there are plenty of trails in Grand Rapids, and one brochure that tells you where they all are. But what if you could use trails to get places? What if they were used for more than just recreation? The trail by my house on 28th and Eastern connects me to Division street in a much safer (and more pleasant) way than using 28th. If we had the trails on Google Maps, we could measure distance, map routes, and with our buses’ bike racks, fluidly use bike and transit instead of cars.

2. LEED-ND for new neighborhoods. LEED-ND is the newly approved system for neighborhoods, grading them on diversity, walkability, and green infrastructure. It’s like LEED for buildings and done by the same company. With Grand Rapids still expanding, this could be a good tool to create more neighborhoods where people actually want to live (real estate demand is proven to have moved from suburbs to walkable neighborhoods). So if new neighborhoods get to market themselves as LEED-ND Platinum instead of garages with rooms in the back, maybe we’ll get more residents and more money flowing around.

If you don’t believe me about walkable places, look at Woodland Mall. That place was failing once Rivertown was built. It was seriously suffering. But then the Bar Louie/Red Robin/Cheap Theatre/On the Border square popped up and the mall is doing great. So great, that Barnes and Noble wanted in on the action, reversing the trend of big box retailers moving farther and farther out into the boonies (like TARGET). Yeah, it’s still a mall surrounded by a sea of parking lot, but at least it’s showcasing the success of a good common area.

3. Bypassing Suburb Roads. Plans for an Oregon suburb to make it more connected really excited me, especially since the connections were not for cars.

The point of this is to cut down the distance one would have to walk or bike to get somewhere. The mess that is suburbs-on-a-map would not be less of a mess, however.

4. Better bike parking is an overlooked need when thinking about alternative transportation. I can easily bike to Meijer for most of my needs, but I don’t usually because there’s nowhere to put it. The Artprize-featured tree bike racks are not only made and designed locally, but they provide parking and shelter for bikes while not being an eyesore.

Talk about a community identifier. Bike parking is so easy and cheap. It takes one parking space for a car to park roughly ten bikes.

5. Using the River. At Green Grand Rapids, an idea charrette I attended in May, I loved the ideas of better farmer’s markets, bike lanes, and storm water management. I shot down the white-water rafting on the Grand River idea, though, because when it was lined up with other ideas, it didn’t seem as important. But as I walked up and down the Grand River during Artprize, I realized how beautiful parts of the riverside are. The park off of Monroe is nice, and there’s a waterfall by the pedestrian bridge. But there’s no reason for people to be by the river except for to walk. What if we did use it for canoeing or kayaking or white water rafting? Or energy?  Is it possible? I have no idea. But it could add to a list of things to do in GR, and generate more revenue.

The bottom line here is that we all know how badly this state is doing. But leaving isn’t the solution. Time for new dreams. What are your ideas?

Hmm Planners. You might want to PLAN something.

What was most interesting about the meetings we held for area planners a couple weeks ago was that none of them wanted to plan where the population might go. They only wanted to predict. I kept hearing “This is probably how it’s going to happen, not what I want to happen.” As if some indestructable force was making everyone comply to a few people’s desire to live on a 2 acre lot.

Weird. I thought planners were supposed to have visions? This is how our car culture came to be. Don’t think it’s what everyone wanted. They had to seriously destroy the railroad system and SERIOUSLY fund the highway building to get cars to be the number one priority of each American (whether they know it or not).  If Robert Moses had listened to everyone saying “Oh things will probably go on the same way, we can’t change that…” then we wouldn’t have highways cutting through neighborhoods and awful subdivisions. Oh dear!

Visions are dangerous, motives can be evil, and agendas sneaky, but without any of them, we will die as a nation. I truly believe that.  Michigan will sink into a black hole and all the other states will follow quickly. We need to create places again. How many times do I have to say it!

Honk if you agree!

Why Grand Rapids needs Bus Rapid Transit

It’s been embarrassingly long since I’ve posted. I’ve been doing some cool stuff with GVMC. For the past two weeks we have been going around to different townships and planning out how we’d want future populations to be allocated (10 acre lots? Suburbs? Towns?).

We’ve also been doing stuff with Brownfield money, and today after an interesting conversation, I’ve realized how important the Silver Line was.

The Silver Line was a proposed bus route that would run up and down Division, a main corridor of Grand Rapids. It’s also a crumbling corridor. Division has a rep of vacant buildings, XXX stores, and homelessness. It got voted down, and everyone I know was saying “they already have a bus, and no one new would use it.”

What didn’t get communicated, back in May, was that this bus-line was more than a bus-line. It was going to be fast–it’d have its own lane, control over traffic lights, go as fast as a subway. It’d essentially be a subway but in bus form. Commuters could take this bus rapid transit to work downtown, instead of driving themselves up and down US-131 every day (which, by experience, I KNOW gets really bad during rush hour).

Along with bringing hundreds of people downtown, where they don’t have to worry about parking, this line would make the surrounding properties tons more valuable. With office-job people commuting and looking out the window at stores, this ignored street would not be ignored anymore, by default.

The government has already given us money to rebuild and clean up contaminated and blighted sites along Division. The structure is already there–it is a walkable street with churches, clubs, restaurants, and infrastructure. All it needs is a new face.

Imagine Division Ave becoming like State Street (that great street) in Chicago. It would add a whole new dimension to Grand Rapids. It would connect towns south of Grand Rapids, too.

The main point is, you older people with families may want a big yard and no people around, but that kind of landscape alone sucks the economy dry. You’ve forgotten the young people, who want a place that’s a place (so many have left Michigan for Chicago, what does that tell you?), these young people who become young professionals who almost drive our economy. No wonder Michigan is doing so poorly, all the legislation supports penny-pinching families! Where’s any thought to any other age group? We need our places back.

But all of that rested on a BRT line, which all of you voted down. Tsk tsk tsk.

Woonerfs–Shared Streets

Firsly, the Grand Rapids Press had a big fat article on the front page on Wednesday about installing sidewalks on 28th Street. Is this not a direct response to my Letter to the Editor?  I’m going to say it is!!! YAY!

Also, I found this great webpage with tons of examples of “traffic calming” strategies, but most of them are actually encouraging towards bikes and pedestrians. From the Federal Highway Administration??! Fascinating!   My favorite new word is woonerf–a shared street found in Europe and Japan. Basically a street where people can walk and bike, and cars can mozy through, too, if need be.

Places that aren't places will lose money.

I possibly will be working two jobs and an internship soon. I already never post on this thing, but I am learning a lot more about urban and suburban issues at my internship. I’m sorry I can’t keep up! I’m focusing on learning more skills at this internship, not just writing everything down.

Sprawl costs have been my new research topic here at GVMC. The data I’ve found for how living in sprawling communities is more expensive per person isn’t the most convincing data, because” cost” can’t be defined very easily. It’s plausable to gather tax data and project it over an amount of years, but taxes change yearly.  Percentages of income obviously vary by income.  the 227 billion dollars Downs and Burchell claim the US spends on sprawl over 25 years isn’t much per year. But then again, that figure is ignoring private and residential costs.

Taking a look at this from overhead, the factor that sticks out the most is the automobile. Owning an automobile unquestionably costs thousands a year.  If you look at this page from the Housing and Transportation Affordability Index, you can see that in Detroit, it may be just as cheap or cheaper to live in a sprawling area, but if you add in transportation costs, it becomes immediately more expensive to live in unplanned territories.  This is largely because of cars. Even driving less will significantly decrease amount of fuel used and maintenance needed.

Let’s remember the price of place. How much is a place like this worth?

 TODLet’s face it: this may have cost a lot of money to build, but now it’s a tourist destination. It’s going to make a lot of money from now on. Just from being a cool place. Big box stores make money as franchises, but there is no tourist attraction to make money based on place. It’s all based on the products. Those big box stores are thus subject to the housing  demographic patterns, not vice versa. And what is guiding the residential demographic? The wind? Nothing? Places that aren’t places will lose money.

Housing, too, seems cheaper in the suburbs–which is happy for people who want to own a home and not rent. But actually, suburban areas are subsidized: even though suburbanites pay on average $350 less than apartment dwellers on municipal costs, they should be paying over $1000 more. Why does it always have to be single-family home vs. apartment? Can’t there be other options for dwelling ownership in better-planned areas?

So when we’re thinking about what needs to be done to certain places, why we’d want to be certain places, or how we should rank places, maybe we should take into consideration as many aspects as possible. Aesthetics, economics, environmental impact, social impact, and all the possibilities of that area.