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Elizabeth Nelson's City Council Blog

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I write a City Council newsletter with my summary of agenda items coming before City Council. Sign up to receive it first via email, or read it here later on this blog.

Healthy Streets 2021

At the May 3, 2021 meeting, City Council considered a budget amendment ($353,973) to implement the “Healthy Streets” program in 2021. As proposed by the Transportation Commission and staff, this budget amendment would have funded:


Temporary redesign of South Main.

  • South Main Street from William Street to Stadium Boulevard - “notably different from last year”

  • A vehicular travel lane in both directions plus a center turn lane with protected bike lanes (intermittent delineators in the buffer between the bike lane and the vehicular travel lane).

Permanent redesign of Packard

  • Packard Street from Hill Street to State Street - “nearly identical to last year”

  • Packard Street from Eisenhower Parkway to the City limits - “notably different from last year”. The vehicular travel lanes would have been narrowed (10 feet) to accommodate bike lanes (5.5 feet) and the posted speed limit would be lowered.

Slow Streets

  • The “soft closure” of 34 streets with barricades and signage at the segment endpoints. (In 2020, this program included 26 streets. Eight streets - parallel to those original 26 - were added.)


The budget amendment for Healthy Streets 2021 was not approved. I was among those who voted against it.



BACKGROUND

I cosponsored Healthy Streets in 2020. This program reconfigured (or added signage) to a total of 43 streets, I drive my car very little during the summer months, so I experienced these road treatments from the perspective of a cyclist. I vividly remember conversations I had with residents, offering feedback. I wrote about it on my blog:

In September 2020, I wrote: “Cyclists have contacted me to complain that these reconfigurations have not achieved the intended goal, they are unhelpful, unpleasant, or dangerous.” In October 2020, I wrote about “very specific feedback from residents: safety hazards for the elderly and disabled attempting to board buses, reckless driving (in response to the lane closures), as well as the unintended consequences of traffic spilling onto quieter side streets.”


In October 2020, Council voted to suspend the program on three streets (Broadway, Packard, S. Main). Forty streets remained in the pilot program through November 2020.


In January 2021, I voted with a majority of Council to approve planning for Healthy Streets this year. Staff planned to survey the community to collect additional feedback from residents: identify what worked last year (and what didn’t work) in order to make improvements.



HEALTHY STREETS 2.0

I supported Healthy Streets in 2020 because at that time we were experiencing something unprecedented: we worried about the safety of any outdoor activity that might put us in proximity to others. The City was actively working to post signage in parks, directing families to stay away. In March 2020, I made a video to help educate residents about these recommendations:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ioKUidQaaD0


In retrospect, this video seems extreme and alarmist, but it’s exactly what health officials at the state and local level recommended one year ago. The need for play space - and general space for residents to walk and social distance throughout the whole of the city - was very real one year ago. We know a lot more now and circumstances are very different. Earlier this month the State of Michigan issued new recommendations: masks are generally not required outdoors unless a gathering has 100 or more people.

https://www.michigan.gov/coronavirus/0,9753,7-406-98163-558490--,00.html


Ultimately, I was disappointed in how little we did change between Healthy Streets 2020 and Healthy Streets 2021.


I encourage everyone to look at the results of a public survey, conducted by the City this spring. The feedback is organized alphabetically by street name, so you can easily read about each specific location.

https://a2gov.legistar.com/View.ashx?M=F&ID=9333378&GUID=AC800FF5-9A43-42DA-84C4-F7F32DC9D8C2


I did everything I could to promote participation in this survey and I expected the feedback to influence meaningful changes. I do not believe that it did. For example, last year’s “Slow Streets” program included 26 locations where residential side streets were “LOCAL TRAFFIC ONLY.” In response to complaints that some of those choices simply funneled additional traffic onto adjacent streets, eight more streets were added to the 2021 plan. It does not appear that anyone considered that some of these streets were unsuccessful and should be removed from the plan. Again, I encourage people to visit the survey to read the feedback offered by residents.


In the course of discussion, one of my colleagues (CM Ramlawi) asked that the program be broken down into separate decisions - temporary installations and permanent installations. Staff explained that the contract was a single unit and could not be broken down that way. There was no way for Council to approve only a portion of the Healthy Streets 2021 proposal.



COMMUNITY NEEDS

Without justification related to the pandemic, the concept of closing streets contradicts community values identified during previous decisions. E.g. During a discussion about whether or not a new development should include a connecting street (directing significant through traffic around a neighborhood pool), many residents asked Council to consider the safety of all the neighborhood children who walked there. A majority of council accepted that argument, but one of my colleagues argued in favor of “connectivity.” She specifically reasoned: We need to think about the equity of who gets connectivity and who doesn’t.


I asked staff for explanation about how streets were identified this year, compared to last year. The staff response:

The driving force in the identification of neighborhood slow streets was really if we heard from residents who live along that street and if we heard from about half a dozen or more, then that street was carried forward into the program.

I asked specifically about locations where the survey results were overwhelmingly negative, yet those locations remained in the plan for this year. Staff response:

Many of the comments in opposition to some of the neighborhood slow streets in particular are from those who actually don’t live on the street, so we took those under consideration but we really were looking at the voices of those who live on the corridor.

As proposed (under the process described by staff), Healthy Streets would have granted a very small number of residents a benefit in their own front yards, while ignoring evidence that it had real consequences and negative impact on other nearby residents.



DATA-DRIVEN DECISIONS

The process of weighing input - deciding whose input should matter more - happens all the time, of course. However, very rarely do we allow such a small number of people to enjoy a benefit without considering other data points. The Resident-Driven Traffic Calming program is a very good example of where we draw input from a very small circle of people (residents on a street) but we use data to support changes. Under the Resident Driven Traffic Calming program, a few residents can request traffic calming on their own street, but the City first studies conditions (measuring the amount and average speed of traffic) to determine whether changes are needed.


In this case, the City obviously cannot study the traffic conditions at all of the 34 proposed Slow Streets. However, we made the effort to collect data in the form of public survey. We have resident reports of what actually happened when these changes were implemented for several months last year.


I am very concerned about how little we chose to learn from the information we had in front of us, ignoring significant input from people who may have lived close (but not immediately adjacent) to specific locations.