ROYAL OAK — If you ask Dan Burden, our ancestors who planned America’s cities before World War II did it correctly.
“They had to shovel a lot more earth so you made (the streets) the right size,” said Burden, the co-founder and director of innovation and inspiration for Walkable and Livable Communities Institute.
In the years following the war, city planners adopted the philosophy of, when traffic gets bad, add another lane.
“And now we’re going back to what our great grandparents and our grandparents knew,” he said in an interview before a June 10 town hall meeting hosted by Woodward Avenue Action Association. “And we’re going to get it right.”
The action association since 2012 has been studying ways to make the 27 miles of Michigan Route 1 a street for not only cars, but for pedestrians, bicyclists and for transit. They expect to conclude the study in December.
“We don’t want this to become another academic study that sits on the shelf,” said Jason Fowler, a WAAA program manager.
They hope to make Woodward Avenue a “complete street.”
“A ‘complete street’ is really an overall term for building the street for all uses,” said Burden, who’s been working with WAAA since January.
The study is being conducted in conjunction with several town hall meetings in hopes of hearing from residents how they envision a better Woodward.
Tom Regan, a 51-year-old Royal Oak man who attended the June 10 town hall, called making Woodward Avenue a complete street “huge on every measure.”
Regan said it would have obvious health benefits, like lowering gas fumes in the air and allowing people to exercise along the route. He said bike lanes would help businesses.
“It’s a special benefit to people of lower and moderate income who can’t afford a car,” he said.
He said other Michigan cities, like Ann Arbor and Traverse City, have laid out the city correctly.
“I go to Traverse City just as a tourist, and you don’t have to have a car,” he said.
A new Woodward
The basis of Burden’s philosophy on planning is simple: design communities around people, not just cars.
He said when the country began to build streets for cars, it neglected pedestrians, public transit and even businesses.
“It wasn’t anything other than building more traffic,” Burden said. “And now, we have reached the limit, and we cannot add more lanes. We can’t make wider intersections.
“People are realizing we’ve got to stop building traffic and start building community.”
He said that Woodward Avenue is far larger than the amount of traffic requires; its spaces are too wide, and shrinking those down would make the avenue more efficient. Bike lanes and transit lanes, he said, can use up the excess space.
Burden envisions a greener, slower-paced Woodward Avenue that will make it easier for pedestrians to cross. He envisions the strip malls, which he says exacerbate the problem, to be converted into shops and their parking lots turned into pedestrian walkways. He sees residents driving less and walking or biking more.
“It needs to be considered the center spine for all the different neighborhoods it goes through,” he said.
With his organization, Burden has worked with 4,000 neighborhoods and communities across North America.
“We are reinventing towns and streets, from Fairbanks to Honolulu to Chicago to Naples, Fla., to Key West to anywhere,” Burden said, adding that metro Detroit is not far from being a great region.
“The bones for a great city are there,” he said. “You’ve got Woodward Avenue that can run trolleys again,” he said. “You got the width and the dimensions that can still work because they were done during the classical period of design.
“What we did to Woodward Avenue is sad, but what we can now do to bring back its full life and full vibrancy is outstanding.”
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