Talking Michigan Transportation

An urban planner talks Complete Streets, collaboration and the future

December 10, 2021 Michigan Department of Transportation Season 3 Episode 84
Talking Michigan Transportation
An urban planner talks Complete Streets, collaboration and the future
Show Notes Transcript

On this week’s Talking Michigan Transportation, a conversation with Suzanne Schulz, the former director of planning for the City of Grand Rapids, who helped with some groundbreaking initiatives related to Complete Streets, accommodating multimodal users and breaking down barriers to access. She was also instrumental in helping to implement a statewide Complete Streets policy. She’s now urban planning practice leader at Progressive AE in Grand Rapids. 

Schulz talks about implementation of road diets and other Complete Streets initiatives since legislation was adopted in 2010. 

As more cities around the world incorporate protected bike lanes into their Complete Streets planning, is it something we can expect in Michigan? Studies show they enhance safety. 

She also talks about the imperative for community leaders to collaborate with business owners, residents, state departments of transportation officials, and others on planning for future transportation needs. 

Also discussed: inclusion of more passive storm water treatments into street design. Things like bioswales and rain gardens can significantly improve the quality of water making its way into storm water systems. Along those lines, Schulz recalls her work with the City of Grand Rapids establishing a Vital Streets framework that incorporated Complete Streets and green infrastructure. 


Jeff Cranson: Welcome to the Talking Michigan Transportation podcast. I'm Jeff Cranson.


Cranson: Today, I'll be talking with my friend Suzanne Schultz, the former director of planning for the City of Grand Rapids, who helped with some groundbreaking initiatives related to Complete Streets, accommodating multimodal users and breaking down barriers to access. She was also instrumental in helping to implement a statewide Complete Streets policy. And she's now an urban planning practice leader at Progressive AE in Grand Rapids. Thank you again, Suzanne, for taking time to be here. First, talk about your background, how you developed a passion for urban planning and transportation and policy development.

Suzanne Schulz: So, I have an urban and regional planning degree from Michigan State University. And right out of college, I started working for Mark Wyckoff, and anybody who's been around long enough knows Mark is also a font of knowledge regarding tons of things related to planning. And so, I got into data and talking about farmland preservation and land development. And then I worked for an environmental engineering firm doing environmental impact statement work, and that's how I got into transportation planning. It was work for MDOT and on the US-23 Standish to Tawas project that I really started to understand traffic modeling and the impact of transportation on systems. And then I went on, you know, I had another stint with a local planning company doing county master plans and zoning ordinances. And then I worked with the City of Grand Rapids for 20 years, and 14 of those as the planning director and managing director of design and development. And I led from the master plan that was done in 2000 to revising zoning ordinances to working on the vital streets plan and policies related to vital streets for the city. So, that intersection of what happens on private development and in private parcels with the public realm, with our streets and our street system and that interface is so interesting to me. And it is absolutely critical for true place making and really making sure both systems work well. And you've got to think about both in a more holistic way, so that's really kind of where my passion comes from.

Cranson: So, talk about that and what it was like to come to Grand Rapids, I mean, at an incredibly revolutionary transformational time in transportation, and, you know, this city that’s viewed as this conservative, flyover country by, you know, people on the east side of the state, and doing some incredibly progressive things and really collaborative things, bringing together competing interests sometimes to implement all that you were able to do with Complete Streets and the addition of bike lanes and conversions of four lanes to three and, you know, so many things like that. What was involved in all of that, and how did you do it?

Schulz: Yes, that's a heavy question, Jeff. I think the key is really everyone's values on valuing quality of life, on valuing great places and even economic development. What does it take to get transformation and change happen in a community? And I think each time we try to approach it from that perspective and created allies where we went. So, for example, Division Avenue used to be an M route, and eventually the City of Grand Rapids took over the street. We took it back from MDOT, you know, assumed jurisdiction. But during that time, we even worked with MDOT staff on converting a five-lane street into a three-lane street, which was pretty dramatic. Now, there was insufficient lane widths. They were like nine and a half feet wide. It was a tight corridor, but this this entire kind of very large street we were able to work with MDOT staff on rethinking what that looked like. And part of it was understanding use of the road, and even looking at snow patterns. When it snowed, where did the cars actually drive given these wonky lane widths and how it operated? And we really tried to kind of develop a solution that we thought would be best for the downtown, you know, in working on the Michigan Street Corridor Plan and bringing in the hospitals and MSU Medical School and Van Andel Research Institute and The Rapid and MDOT in discussions about what happens on a corridor where you've had almost two billion dollars worth of development. And how do we make sure that the transportation network is really meeting the needs of both today and tomorrow so that we can continue to grow and prosper and thrive within the region. And that led to changes in actual interchanges at Ottawa and Ionia, and the creation of a new connection to I-196 and the creation of a new street connection with a partnership with Grand Valley State University. So, really, you know, it's not just looking at that one intersection and thinking about what do we do here with this signal. It's thinking bigger than that. It's using planning and those partnerships to think about systems and how the entire street network works, and how it works for all modes of transportation.

Cranson: So, when you talk about competing users, and Division Avenue is a good example, you've got people who just want to get into town and get out of town. And really, that's all they care about is limiting their commute time. And you've got other people that are saying, “Look, my quality of life depends on having access on my bike or, you know, better pedestrian access, safer access.” Because, as you well know, one thing that we've seen rise in in recent years across the country, really, are pedestrian deaths in cities. So, how do you reconcile all of that when you've got, you know, people telling you that they've got really different ideas on what's best?

Schulz: Part of that is getting into facilities design, but it's also an education process with the community. We were really fortunate to be able to get a grant, and MDOT played a key role on that, on our Driving Change campaign. And the website is still up. People can go to GR Driving Change to see it. And we really try to educate drivers and cyclists on how to share the road, how to be safe on the road and really try to make sure that everyone understood the rules. So, there's lots of guidance that we provided in messaging throughout the community to increase that awareness. And I think that ongoing education piece is critical both in, you know, if I’m converting a four-lane street to a to a three-lane street on a road diet, why am I doing that? Because people feel like you're taking away something, you know, you're taking away capacity rather than actually improving the traffic flow or improving safety. So, data has to be behind that to have that conversation. And we got very good at trying to make sure that we had the data up front to be able to facilitate a conversation with both the community, but even politicians because they're the ones who would get the phone calls about a change to the street that, you know, it's something different that people don't understand or don't like. And, you know, in thinking about the other modes though too is that communication aspect. And, you know, everyone even when they get out of their car, they become a pedestrian, right? And, you know, you may not be a bicyclist, but there are people who choose to bike. And if they're biking that means there's more road for you to use as the car driver because there's one less car on the road because there's a bicyclist. So, trying to show that that inner relationship of modes has also been something that was a priority.

Cranson: So, I think that that leads this discussion about Complete Streets, which, again, you had a hand in implementing aggressively in Grand Rapids and in helping to draft the statewide policy. What does that mean to you when you hear that term now looking back, you know, more than 10 years since it was adopted, and how do you think Michigan is doing overall on implementation?

Schulz: I’m super proud of the work that the Complete Streets Advisory Committee did just a short while ago, a decade ago, and the work that has been going on in Grand Rapids around that as well and in other places throughout Michigan. I think there still is a disconnect between engineers and the public and having the public understand changes that engineers might want to make, but then also engineers and the expectations of different constituencies and what their expectations are. They might see something that happens in Oregon, or in Stockholm, or some far, you know, someplace else in the world and say, “Why can't we do that here?” And it's an entire systems change in conversation we need to have, everything from federal highway, down to the DOT, down to the county road commissions to local engineers, and how do we think about these systems and how they work together, and how are they interrelated with transportation and land use in different modes? We were just talking this morning about Uber. And if you had said to me 10 years ago, “When you get off the plane in Grand Rapids and you've got your luggage and you're trying to get home, you're going to get into a stranger's car. It is their own personal vehicle that they use on a daily basis. And you're going to just get in their car, so they can drive you home.” That would be the uber driver now, and most people would say you're crazy. And transportation is such a rapidly changing thing, and the needs of the system is greater than it ever has been before. To me, Complete Streets can be one of those true north, that north star thing, that can guide us in better decision making regarding our infrastructure so that we are thinking of everybody, so our systems can become more nimble and flexible as these technological changes come along. And as things change, we need to broadly think about systems in all those modes because it'll allow us to be more flexible and able to adapt in ways that we can't even predict today.

Cranson: I was kind of hoping to get into a gondola or tram in the sky to get from the airport to downtown, but this Uber will have to do for now.

Schulz: [Laughing] I would love a gondola.

Cranson: So, but we are seeing, you know, some pretty successful Complete Streets applied more progressively in New York City and Seattle and Chicago, and oftentimes, that includes, you know, separated bike lanes. I mean, you talked about Stockholm, and I always think of Copenhagen when it comes to being on the cutting edge of that. I’m of the mindset, as somebody who cycles and rides a lot, that we're never going to co-exist because that person, you know, with the car might be looking at their phone, and I don't have really anything to protect me on my bike. So, where do you see things going with, you know, barriers and actual buffered lanes for cyclists?

Schulz: I think you're absolutely right, Jeff. I mean, there's those different classes people talk about with cyclists. There are the road warriors, and then there's the cautious and curious. And the biggest majority of people are not the road warriors. They're people who might just want to take their kids and family out for a bike ride or go with friends to down to the ice cream shop. And we do need to do better on our safety for cyclists, and separated facilities really seems to be a lot more logical in that regard. You want to think you can share streets, and I think in some cases that's fine but in others, depending on the audiences that you're really trying to track, it's more necessary. So, an example would be 8th Street in Traverse City. Traverse City put a bike path up along the sidewalk. And you're also seeing that design happen more. Really, I think the key piece of that happened in Indianapolis with the Cultural Trail and thinking about how you put pedestrians and cyclists together. Now, that's not a perfect match either depending on the cyclist and the pedestrian because they're at different travel speeds, and you can also have collisions in that case. But it's slower moving and less fatal than it would be with a fast-moving vehicle, so—

Cranson: Kind of like a roundabout.

Schulz: Yeah, I mean, roundabouts, you know, it depends too. Everybody can have an opinion about different pieces of infrastructure, can't they? Because, you know, especially with electrical vehicles, they are so quiet today. And that's one of the complaints of people who are sight impaired with roundabouts is you can't hear them, so they don't know when to cross. So, you know, all of these things are changing so quickly. But, you know, how we think about the best way to make everyone safe I think is one of those keys, but the metrics that we use to determine safety also need some additional examination, I think. We've learned a lot in the past decade about levels of service and what are we looking at when we talk about level of service for any—now, it only used to be for cars—level of service for bicycles or pedestrians or persons with disabilities. What does that mean and how are we measuring these things is really something, I think, that has been on the leading edge, and it'll continue to be for a while yet, on what metrics are we really appropriately using into determining street design and safety.

Cranson: Stay with us. We'll have more on the other side of this important message.

Male Narrator: Did you know Newton's first law of motion states that a body in motion will continue moving at the same speed and same direction? While the second law states that an object acted upon by the force will undergo—

Female Narrator: Wait! I thought this was a snowplow safety message.

Male Narrator: It is, which is why this is relevant.

Female Narrator: Don't you think that's complicating things just a bit?

Male Narrator: Not at all. A snowplow weighs 17 times more than your average car.

Female Narrator: Right, and snowplows tend to travel at slower than posted speeds.

Male Narrator: So, the third law states that action and reaction are equal and opposite.

Female Narrator: I think it's easier just to remind motorists to give plows the room they need to do their jobs, follow at a safe distance, and don't drive into snow clouds, things like that.

Male Narrator: Well, if you're going to make it that simple, why don't you just say don't crowd the plow?

Female Narrator: Great idea. Stay safe this winter. Don't crowd the plow.

Male Narrator: That's it?

Female Narrator: Yeah, that's it.

Cranson: So, talk a little bit about collaboration and how you worked with, you know, MDOT officials in Grand Rapids, and I guess you continue to around the state, but especially as the city planner. I mean, it can really be, I know I probably sound a little bit like a homer here, but it can be a model for the rest of the state and what that collaboration can look like.

Schulz: Yeah, we've been so fortunate with Erick Kind and Art Green and the staff at Grand Region and at the TSC office there. I think where it comes from is really a willingness to bring information to the table and try to develop solutions. And it's not about winning, and it's not about who's right. It's about coming up with the best design, collaboratively, that we could, but also understanding each other's needs in the process. And, you know, as MDOT staff, understanding that you're trying to balance local demands with federal highway. But then understanding locals perspective on trying to balance the local politics and residents needs and demands and local traffic and all that, you know, the grassroots, the mobility needs that we have as a growing city. So, you have this kind of huge ball of stuff that you're trying to unwind to be able to come up with the best development solution. But I really can point to when we did ‘Fix on I-196,’ removed and replaced bridges and how those should go. I mentioned Medical Mile just a minute ago and the growing demand we had for that area. We were able to replace the bridge, and instead of five-foot sidewalks, we put in 12-foot sidewalks with the two travel lanes that went over the bridge. And the number of people that use that bridge for walking, going back and forth between the neighborhood and the medical centers and the in the colleges, is really impressive, and part of that has to do with getting the right infrastructure in the right place. And we always appreciated working with MDOT staff in Grand Rapids around those issues because it's a hard balance sometimes knowing all the statewide needs, but really being able to localize it to really what's the right thing for the place. It was something that we were able to arrive at and continue to work on with them.

Cranson: So, in your work at Progressive, do you see the opportunity or see a mindset moving toward more passive storm water treatments and incorporating those in Complete Streets like, you know, bioretention islands and rain gardens and things like that?

Schulz: So, I’m a huge fan of working in storm water, and that was a key component when we did Vital Streets in Grand Rapids. It was Complete Streets plus green infrastructure equals Vital Streets. So, the presence of street trees and storm water facilities, bioretention islands, bioswales, using those as a component of the street system. Also, providing that cooling, you know, if you have street trees, it can serve as a traffic calming measure, as a cooling mechanism so people can feel comfortable walking on hot, sunny days. It helps with storm water uptake, and I really get passionate about that. I’m glad you asked that question. I’m really trying to make sure that we're, again, thinking about that system. There's so much stuff that comes off our roads and being able to do pre-treatment before it goes into the full system is really important. It's something that we do take a look at and try to incorporate wherever we can.

Cranson: Well, you know, I got to give the former City Commissioner in Grand Rapids, Ruth Kelly, a lot of credit because she worked so hard on building that coalition on Plainfield Avenue north of downtown to put those islands in, and I think they've been a success. And I remember somebody asking at the time, “How big a difference can this really make?” And I’m like, “Well, you know, one bucket at a time, right?” You clean up the water that makes its way to the river eventually, and that's how you got to look at it.

Schulz: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, especially because we're a water state. The temperature and the sediment that comes off of those roads, that higher temperature can affect what lives in our water bodies, especially if you're near a trout stream. It's really important to be able to at least take that extra step before it goes into the system, and those definitely do that. And I think it was a really wonderful partnership when those bioretention islands were put in with the business district and the city and MDOT. We had a grant program. All those components came together, and it's a really good example of what locals can do in partnership with others. This was just supposed to be a road and mill and resurface project through a business district, and the neighborhood had a vision, which is always key. You got to have a vision to be able to convey really what you're hoping to achieve. They were able to do that, and the resources were able to come to be able to facilitate it.

Cranson: Yeah, it's really cool. I know that some of the kids at Grand Rapids City High right there in the corridor were interested in it and studied it for classes, and I think it could pay dividends for a long time. Is there anything else you want to talk about, Suzanne, while we're on these subjects? And, you know, this doesn't have to be the final conversation, that's for sure.

Schulz: Yeah, I don't know. I have so many thoughts. I’ll just throw this out there, I think we have to figure out how we go from looking more at what the vision is for our systems, vision for our road system is and what happens alongside it, from the economic health of the state and thinking about how do we grow places and get new investment in places that have already received investment and have redevelopment and be successful. And it's not just the land along the roads, but the contribution the roads can play in creating that place. As you know, Jeff, I’ve been working on a project on Plainfield Avenue, and the tax base went flat along the corridor. It's a first-tier suburb. The mall that they had opened 50 years ago and closed 20 years ago. And they really haven't seen a ton of new investment and trying to think through how do we get that aligned with the transportation infrastructure we have is really kind of a critical next step. And I think there's so many places throughout Michigan. We talk about downtowns, but there's also these suburban areas that really need a second look and another conversation about connectivity, about multimodal, about land development around them and how all those pieces fit together. I think there's a lot of really great opportunities to create change and to leverage the infrastructure we've already paid for rather than building new infrastructure by focusing development where it already exists. So, I hope we can have more conversations about that.

Cranson: Yeah, I think we should, and I appreciate you're always so optimistic about what can be done because there are so many challenges. When you talk about looking ahead and thinking, you know, I’m not talking about the transportation system we need now, I’m talking about what we need 25 years from now with technology and exponential changes, it's difficult to say.

Schulz: Yeah.

Cranson: And I know you're much more Citizen Jane than Robert Moses, but we have to remember that things were done when they were because people were basing it on the information they had at the time.

Schulz: Yeah.

Cranson: It can be very difficult.

Schulz: Yeah, absolutely. I think that's the interesting thing. I mean, I was just watching something that said, "Most of the jobs that your kids are going to have haven't been invented yet."

Cranson: Yeah, exactly. No, yeah.

Schulz: And so how do we think about that and what does this look like? There’s everything from grocery store deliveries expecting to be now in 15 minutes to—

Cranson: I heard about that too. Yeah.

Schulz: So, how do we create a world when we're dealing with bureaucracies and built environments that need to be more nimble and flexible? So, it's an interesting problem to solve.

Cranson: Yeah, it is. Well, thank you for taking time to share all this, and we will definitely talk again sometime.

Schulz: Great. My pleasure. Thanks a lot.

Cranson: Thank you again for listening to this week's edition of Talking Michigan Transportation. I want to thank my guest Suzanne Schultz once again. And tune in next week when I’ll be talking with Dr. Peter Savolainen, Michigan State University foundation professor of civil and environmental engineering, repeat guest to the podcast. And he'll be talking about his research and road user behavior and some recent research and data on the rise and crashes that we've seen since the pandemic. Stay tuned.