Consultant calls street planning disjointed
City needs to establish an integrated multimodal network with performance metrics.
Nelson\Nygaard Consulting Associates, a San Francisco-based international firm specializing in developing transportation systems, presented its early findings from a recently completed Gap Analysis of Grand Rapids Vital Streets to the Grand Rapids City Commission during its Committee of the Whole meeting.
The firm was contracted by the city for nearly $610,000 earlier this fall for its professional services. It began work in September conducting a gap analysis assessment of existing approaches used in Grand Rapids to ensure the vital streets guidelines are relevant to city needs and usable for public stakeholders.
Karina Ricks, project manager and principal at Nelson\Nygaard, who presented the findings Nov. 17 to the Committee of the Whole, indicated it is an “incredibly exciting opportunity” to work with Grand Rapids, and the firm has been working closely with the Vital Streets Oversight Commission for nearly two months.
“Grand Rapids is really a leader throughout Michigan, throughout the Midwest, and I think begins to set the table for many of your peer cities large and small across the U.S. and North America,” said Ricks. “Great street design really needs to tell the story of your city and what is important to your community, and what you value here and want to maintain and emphasize.”
The purpose of the assessment is to identify policies and practices forming “a strong foundation for the planning, delivery and operations,” while also highlighting areas where additional guidance is necessary, according to the report.
There are a number of plans contributing to the foundation of the program, including the 2015 GR Forward plan, the 2013 Sustainable Streets Task Force Report, the 2011 Green Rapids Plan, and the city’s 2002 Master Plan.
While the plans encompass pedestrian, curbside uses, transit, bicycle, vehicular and freight movement, the report indicates the plans “appear to have been developed in isolation from one another,” and the city lacks a transportation plan establishing “an integrated multimodal network” with performance metrics.
“You have many different plans for transit and for bicycles and for vehicle travel and trucks. The problem is, when you lay these different plans on top of each other, you call on the same corridor to serve all of them, and that is very difficult to do in a quality and comfortable way,” said Ricks.
“We need to take some of the planning you have done, disaggregate it, look at the full … network, how can we sort out some of these conflicting areas and how can we serve the different users.”
While Grand Rapids has embraced the importance of pedestrian safety and connectivity, the report indicates the street design is outdated and the improvements are not well integrated with transit stops and access. In terms of the transit network, the assessment highlighted how the preferred lane widths and design considerations often conflict with approaches for traffic calming or lower speed traffic corridors, and the system lacks sufficient capital and operating funds to implement enhanced transit.
While recognizing the city’s strong cycling culture and an increase in accommodating for bicyclists, the report also noted the present system is disjointed and lacks a coordinated and comprehensive plan for a defined network.
Another concern highlighted in the gap analysis report was having efficient freight movement, which is “vital to the local and regional economy” since West Michigan is a “commercial and manufacturing center.”
Some of the challenges include: a general lack of interagency understanding of lane widths and operational needs of trucks and their integration with other street users; no cohesive structure for placement of loading zones; and the conversion of several abandoned rail corridors for non-motorized travel could inhibit future use for freight or passenger mobility.
“Streets are the places where we come together as a community and we interact with one another, and streets need to support that community,” said Ricks. “We hope to reduce conflict, have greater predictability, more transparency in the way street decisions are made and an increased coordination both between city agencies as well as the many stakeholders of this city.”
During the gap analysis and best practice review, Ricks said a number of communities in North America and Europe were looked at in comparison to Grand Rapids to learn from their street designs and identify consistencies, such as a clear vision and values statement.
“This needs to reflect your community. It cannot be lifted and adopted from some other place. It needs to be Grand Rapids’ values — what Grand Rapids want to promote and what is the essence of your community,” said Ricks.
“They provide guidelines for how to do street design that is appropriate to the land-use context, appropriate to the character of the different locations in your city, and they provide a clear process as to who is involved where, so you don’t need to engage in re-work or having critical information too late in the process.”
The Vital Streets Oversight Commission articulated a “very clear vision” and helped to identify critical values for the city’s street design, which consist of developing an attractive, multimodal and safe network of city streets serving all individuals in the city, according to Ricks.
“They are a tremendous set of leaders,” said Ricks. “Combining vital streets with parking, transportation demand management and a deep consideration for social equity is something brand new, and it is really exciting for us. We are touting Grand Rapids as the place to model.”
The Vital Streets Oversight Commission has nearly 20 members representing the three city wards and organizations, such as The Rapid, Urban League, Disability Advocates, Neighborhood Business Alliance, Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce, Sustainable Streets Taskforce, Grand Rapids Public Schools, Downtown Grand Rapids Inc. and the Grand Valley Metropolitan Council.
The next step is to work on the framework of the street design plan and address the challenges identified with the various transportation modes. Upon identifying a complete network serving “all needs and all people and all abilities and preferences,” the next step would be specific design plans, with an anticipated timeline for spring 2016.