City's continued redevelopment starts at the grassroots level

September 19, 2014
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The Greater Grand Rapids area is undergoing an almost unprecedented redevelopment, albeit one that is less visible than new buildings and renovations.

This particular investment is in infrastructure and focused on quality of life. Most of that change comes from the grassroots level but with ready partnerships from city and county governments and agencies. Parks, transit and road repairs as well as the current plan for Grand River restoration are leading initiatives, but so, too, is the city and regional investment in bike paths.

In regard to bike and pedestrian accessibility and safety, however, Grand Rapids and the Downtown Development Authority have additional issues to consider.

First, in regard to accessibility: While Grand Rapids is deemed a “walkable” city, it is less so to handicapped individuals. From head-jarring brick-paved pathways to building accessibility, only the mightiest of the disabled can enjoy that “walkability” and ease of access. The latter may be a potential project best given to the Building Owners and Managers Association for problem solving. Disability Advocates of Kent County has a full range of discussion points.

Second, in regard to bike safety: The city has undoubtedly paved a path for bike enthusiasts, but the area is one of the least safe for bike riders. In April, the Michigan Department of Transportation Grand Region was found to have the highest number of fatal bike crashes in Michigan — 50 percent higher than the state average, according to the MDOT studies.

Last week the city hosted internationally involved Guillermo Penalosa, executive director of the Canadian nonprofit organization 8-80 Cities. Penalosa has worked in more than 150 cities on all continents. He shared his insights to create vibrant — healthy — communities.

Penalosa focuses on two areas:  sustainable mobility, which includes walking, bicycling and public transit; and public spaces, including parks and streets. He told his audience every trip begins with a walk, and walking should be a city’s first priority. As is true in many parts of the central city, cracked or unplowed sidewalks are the first barrier — for both the disabled and the able.

He also identified what may be a key to Grand Rapids’ mournful bike death statistics. Bike lanes are not enough. They require barrier protection — physical separations from motorists and traffic. Options include curbs, planters or cement posts — any of which achieve the intended effect of safety.

Penalosa told his audience that evidence collected over many years has shown when walkers and bicyclists are prioritized over drivers, the result is an increase in walkers and bikers — no matter the weather or how many cars are on the road. Environmental, social and health-related improvements are all consequences of designing cities for people instead of cars.

The cost of so many lives is far too great to ignore the opportunity for improvement.

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