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Is Grand Rapids walkable?: Safety, data, and the physical space of pedestrians

Pedestrians walk past the mural under US 131 on Front St.

With rating systems like walkscore.com and articles about the city's walkability factor popping up every few months, it can be difficult to determine what factors actually make a city safe, and enjoyable, to be a pedestrian. Whatever the approach, Grand Rapids is catching on the the trend of celebrating the pedestrian, making the river city a safer place to traverse on foot.
For the past fifty years, this country's infrastructure has been built on cars. With vast highway systems and urban sprawl, American cities are spread out and spread thin, its roads favoring automobiles over pedestrians in virtually every corner. But with millennials and young families returning to urban living and favoring a smaller footprint in their daily lives, the trend of pedestrian living is blossoming.

Favoring fewer cars per family, or utilizing bicycles and their own feet, urban dwellers are changing the way they get around. With more feet hitting the pavement and interacting with automobiles, city planners, local officials and ordinary citizens themselves are re-evaluating what it means to be a walkable city. With rating systems like walkscore.com and articles about the city's walkability factor popping up every few months, it can be difficult to determine what factors actually make a city safe, and enjoyable, to be a pedestrian.

People wait to cross the street downtown at the intersection of Division and Fulton.

Here in Grand Rapids, professionals of varied disciplines are asking themselves questions that get to the heart of pedestrian living as downtown population increases in our mid-sized city. What makes a city walkable? How can pedestrians remain safe while crossing automobile traffic? Who takes top priority: automobiles or pedestrians? And, exactly how many seconds should pedestrians take to cross a busy intersection? Mining existing data and collecting new information, organizations like Downtown Grand Rapids, Inc. (DGRI), urban planning, engineering, and surveying firms like Williams & Works, and land surveyors like Nederveld aim to promote walkability, which they believe increases pedestrian safety and can kickstart the economy. Essentially, more feet on the street means more eyes on local business, which translates into local dollars spent and earned.

Whatever the approach, Grand Rapids is catching on the the trend of celebrating the pedestrian, making the river city a safer place to traverse on foot.

Perception of the physical space

At DGRI, walkability is top of mind. "A lot of [walkability] has to do with the physical environment," says Kris Larson, DGRI director. "Literally the continuity of the design of the street scape that you're walking on…it can be affected by the tree canopy or lack thereof." Larson has focused his pedestrian research on factors that attract walkers, like ample shade, wide sidewalks, and fun, retail spaces. "People love walking where there are little shops and cafes and active land uses that help to preoccupy your mind," he says.

Blocks that include a variety of these things, like Monroe Center between Monroe and Division (about 1/3 of a mile), experience high walking traffic. According to Larson, pedestrians will walk this distance "without thinking twice about it" because of the various distractions and comfortable walking space. Other areas, those without retail or restaurants and without the cooling affect of shade, aren't so attractive to pedestrians. "There's areas of downtown that they won't walk two blocks…it feels like you're walking through a desert," he says.

Tactile cast iron tiles help warn pedestrians of the roadway.

This perception of one's environment despite the actual physical distance is vitally important to walkers. Simply put: if pedestrians don't like the look and feel of a particular block, they won't walk there, no matter how short the distance. This perception of downtown is something that Larson explores on a daily basis, attempting to determine the things that people want to see, feel, and do when they're downtown. After conducting a walking study that literally classified every block of downtown, Larson and his team at DGRI determined that the experience of physical spaces can make or break a block.

"The design of the physical realm plays a big part in the walkability of the city," he says. Visual barriers like big, blank walls, or blocked sidewalks can lead pedestrians away from an area, while public art installations and water fountains can invite people in. One of the large, physical barriers that Grand Rapids struggles with, according to Larson, is highway US 131 that cuts the city in half north to south. According to Larson, overpasses are "some of the most significant barriers to walkability."

Instead of viewing the Grand River as a natural division between east and west, many Grand Rapidians view this overpass as a big, obtrusive dividing line. In an effort to invite pedestrians to cross under the highway to experience the booming revitalization of the west side, DGRI transformed the path under the overpass at various locations, including Bridge street, in which they widened the sidewalks, increased lighting, and added a color-changing light display.

Data collection

At Bridge street and five other location— Ottawa and Lyon, Monroe and Monroe Center, Division and Oaks, and Fulton and Ionia—DGRI also installed pedestrian counters in September 2016 that track the number of people that walk past at any particular moment. "It enables us to measure the impact of some of our physical investments and how it affects walkability," says Larson, who utilizes the data to compare everyday traffic with downtown events such as ArtPrize Eight, during which downtown experienced a 308% increase in pedestrians than on a normal day.

Crosswalk buttons improve safety at crosswalks around the city.

"Now we actually have real information by which to help to inform the way we're talking about these things," says Larson, who can even track things like a 68% increase of pedestrians on snow days. "We believe that we can be a great four-season city," he adds, hoping to utilize the data to increase walkability in the winter months, when downtown walking noticeably decreases. After only eight months of data collection, DGRI has signed on to double the amount of counters downtown, increasing from six to 12 in the next few months.

Safety

In addition to data collection, beautification, and enticing events that draw pedestrians out of their cars, safety is also of vital importance to walkability. "We want to humanize our streets across the board…and it's not about removing cars," says Mark Miller, architect at Nederveld. Working for years on increasing pedestrian safety by improving the relationship between people and automobiles in the city, Miller has focused on one neighborhood at a time.

Currently working on Roosevelt Park, Miller and the firm are making simple improvements to Grandville Ave., which runs north to south. "The problem with Gradville Ave. is that many residents live on the east side but many of the amenities are on the west side," he says. With heavy auto traffic intersecting with hundreds of pedestrians crossing a busy street to access schools and businesses, imminent danger to these pedestrians was clear. Working with the city, Miller worked to add an amendment to the city plan to account for improvements to Grandville Ave. between Franklin and Wealthy, which was approved one month ago.

Utilizing a walkability audit for the street, that discovered unsafe details like a maximum of six seconds to cross a busy intersection, Miller and colleague Lynee Wells, a principal and urban planner at Williams & Works zeroed in on safety as the main issue. Wells, in particular, was appalled at the short window pedestrians were afforded to get to safety. "I couldn't even do that while running," she says. All of these, she adds, are "little details that tell the pedestrian 'you're not welcome here."

Pedestrians regularly use the Blue Bridge to cross the river dividing downtown.

To increase safety on Grandville Ave., Miller and Wells suggested "bulb outs," essentially sections of the sidewalk that enter the street, allowing a bus to stop without pulling to the side, and temporarily slowing down traffic. "We were able to test it at a very low cost," says Miller, who built a temporary bulb-out with straw barrels and pedestrian signs. With the addition of the bulb-outs, "traffic was slowing down at that intersection."

Williams & Works has also added an additional bus shelter along that corridor, and plans to increase lighting as well. These increased safety measures, much like the marked pedestrian crossings in East Hills, work to casually disrupt drivers, making them more aware of those walking right alongside them. "I wish we had them in so many business districts," says Wells of the small, yellow pedestrian signs that can be seen new Brewery Vivant on Cherry St. and Wealthy near Donkey Taqueria. "I think that has really helped with connectivity for pedestrians," she adds.

The Future

As organizations like DGRI work to collect data and urban planners and architects complete projects and experiment to increase walkability, they learn more about what pedestrians want and need in the city. Though many of these professionals believe that Grand Rapids is on the right track, they think much needs to be done to accomplish the task of a seamless relationship between automobiles and pedestrians.

"We just have to think more holistically," says Wells, who points specifically to two items that she believes GR needs. The first is an ordinance that requires that sidewalks remain open while adjacent buildings undergo construction, much like they do in Chicago or New York. This is often accomplished with temporary enclosures that protect the people walking on the sidewalk from any falling debris. In larger cities, "it's very rare that you would ever be detoured as a pedestrian," says Wells.

Wells is also a proponent for longer crossing times, especially at intersections. Here in Grand Rapids, lights change quickly, which means traffic moves somewhat seamlessly through downtown. However, this also means that pedestrians are afforded less time to cross intersections on foot. "It's great…but it's not great for the pedestrian," says Wells, who suggests experimenting with other traffic-slowing methods like flashing lights. "Anything that can give the vehicle driver and the pedestrian more opportunity to make eye contact and to recognize each other with help all of us as a community respect one another together," she adds.

From DGRI, Grand Rapidians can expect upcoming projects like improvements to the pedestrian connection along river trail that crosses Michigan street near the downtown post office. "That segment is immensely dangerous," says Larson. "It's not even an intersection. It's not even a crossing." Planning to paint markings that identify the path and adding pedestrian flashers that notify drivers of crossing walkers, DGRI wants to make traffic, sometimes traveling at over 40 mph over the bridge, much safer.

In the middle of June, you will be sure to see pedestrians of all ages, shapes, sizes, and colors traversing downtown. Stopping to smell the flours, view a mural or public art installation, or stop in to their favorite store, pedestrians are increasing downtown vibrancy, and enticing visitors to come in and explore the river city. All the while, urban planners and engineers are working to keep them safe, so walkers don't have to consider whether the sidewalk is open, whether a particular space is wide enough for a double (or triple) stroller, or if cars will yield the right of way.

"I look at the fact that we are people and we inhabit places…and the best places are those that have people in them and people enjoying them," says Wells.

Here in GR and across the country, when pedestrian safety is paramount and the physical spaces of cities are intentional, the merging of walking and driving traffic can be seamless, with both parties enjoying the space. Let's see how GR can make it happen in the very near future.
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