September 26, 2020

Big Changes Are Needed, So Let's Start Small

Guest Opinion
By Gary Howe | July 25, 2020

If ever there was a time for reimagining our society, the time is now. The last six months have amply shown the need for addressing a cracked system. We need a massive investment in public health and healthcare, a commitment to justice in our justice system, and a government that — well, actually tries to govern. We can get there. We will get there. Right?

As we work to overcome those inequalities and leadership gaps locally, I'm quietly beaming over three pandemic responses in my hometown of Traverse City. The three changes are intended as temporary but deserve consideration to be made permanent. And although they pale in significance to the more significant troubles in the country, they improve our corner of it.

The changes I'm excited about are the State Street conversion to a two-way street, the introduction of four-way stops downtown, and parklets and street cafes on Front Street. It is fully understood that all three changes were merely a response to the decision to close two blocks of Front Street to foot traffic during the pandemic. However, they deserve the City's attention on their own merits. 

First, for too long, State Street has been subservient to Front Street. Its primary function has been to serve the parking needs of downtown. As a broad one-way, two-lane street, it also supports circulating automobiles — often for people circling the block to score a parking spot on the coveted main drag.

In recent years, new development is trying to expand how we see State Street. Those businesses would only benefit from a slower-paced, people-focused street. The Downtown Development Authority recently announced that the long-awaited civic square will be located at Union and State streets. This is welcome news, and the park deserves an unbroken street to match it, just as new homes and businesses do.

What are the benefits of two-way streets? Here are a few: 

●      Reduces speeds and, thus, vehicle noise.

●      Improves safety and comfort for all users.

●      Benefits businesses with increased foot traffic and visibility.

●      Reduces circling traffic, which can add up to 30 percent of downtown volume.

●      Reduces dangerous counterflow driving.

The four-way stops downtown also deserve consideration on their own merit. They are now necessary to facilitate the temporary change in traffic patterns without changing the signals at each intersection. You may have noticed how the flow of traffic has improved with the stop signs in place. No one is waiting for a red light to change to green as they sit there, the only car on the street.

For many years, cities added traffic signals at their intersections as a matter of pride. They are expensive, complicated, and controlling, so cities can show they are doing something to relieve motorists' anxieties. Recently, that preference has begun to change. Mainly this is due to concerns about street safety and a desire to create walkable destinations. It turns out that worrying about our anxieties when we drive isn't as profitable as prioritizing our comfort when on foot.

Stop signs create an immediate need for awareness and negotiation into street life. You must pay attention instead of getting lulled into complacency by signals. Due to this interaction between users, the research shows that four-way stop signs are actually much safer than signals. A change to 462 intersections in Philadelphia resulted in a 24 percent decline in intersection crashes. Severe injuries plummeted by even more — 63 percent.

When we drive, stop signs cause us to pause more, but these pauses are all quite brief. We don't have to sit and wait for a light to turn from red to green. It's a situation where more stops can mean a quicker traverse. And, stop signs eliminate the dangerous racing to catch the yellow before it turns red.

Lastly, let's embrace the use of public space to create comforting spaces for people instead of the storage of cars. In 2010, a group of radicals brought the international event of Park(ing) Day to Traverse City. The event reimagined what other uses a parking spot can serve. They paid the meter and created small parks for each space’s two-hour parking limit. Since then, cities worldwide have devoted hundreds of parking spaces to hosting parklets. Traverse City has even adopted platform cafes on the side streets downtown, but we could do so much more, and the time is ripe.

A parklet can come in many shapes and sizes, but it is basically a protected extension of the sidewalk. It provides public space and amenities. When many are present, they create a sort of side friction, to slow us down when we drive downtown. They also improve the walkability of a district by creating points of interest, places to rest and meet, and generally, improve the aesthetics of the street. All of this means improved business and a more enjoyable downtown. And places to step out of the way when it gets crowded.

We might not be able to solve the major issues facing our nation immediately. We have a lot to fix. However, as we've seen in the last four months, we can make significant changes to our downtowns almost overnight. Let's double-down on making them an ever-evolving place for people. The increased community built from better design might be the spark for even greater change.

Gary L Howe is a Traverse City resident, photographer, and the advocacy director of Norte.


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