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Building a Walkable/Bikeable City

Posted on: Mon, Apr 20, 2015

Building a Walkable/Bikeable City
by Jennifer Boezwinkle, AIA

In honor of National “Bike to Work Week,” the Grand Rapids Chapter of the American Institute of Architects is supporting the week of May 11-15 “Active Commute” week. The goal of Active Commute Week is to encourage people to find alternate forms of transportation to and from work -– walking, biking, or forms of mass transit –- that are healthier and more environmentally friendly. The hope is that one week of changed behavior will spur longer lasting behavioral changes in people.

It takes more than just a bike or a good pair of sneakers to support non-traditional transportation.  Architects, municipalities, developers, and builders can do much more to promote and support alternate forms of transportation. The first step is to realize that there is no one solution. The best cities provide a network of transportation opportunities that provide residents with a variety of options for getting around, and Grand Rapids is continuing to invest in its network. There are a number of key infrastructure systems that support healthier, more sustainable ways of moving in and around our city:

Accessible Paving

The quality of our roads, sidewalks, trails, and bike lanes all contribute to a more walkable, bikeable community. Grand Rapids’ recent investments in bike lanes has garnered national recognition from the League of American Bicyclists, who named the city a top "Bicycle-Friendly Community" in 2009. Companies like Rockford Construction and Catalyst Partners, located on the West Side, encourage their employees to bike in and around the city for meetings and as part of a culture of wellness. The two have even started a summer biking program, making use of the West Side bike lanes, as part of a wellness and awareness initiative.

Snow Melt Systems

Increasingly, Midwest cities and towns are investing in snow melt systems as a way of improving walkability year round. Several years ago, the City of Grand Rapids invested in snow melt for Monroe Center, improving safety and accessibility for thousands of residents each day. The Grand Rapids Art Museum installed the system with their new building back in 2007.  Joyce Lee, co-chair of the AIA Michigan Green Health Summit and trustee at the Museum, observes that “This far-sighted investment has helped GRAM to be very welcoming in the winter.”

Photo courtesy of GMB A+E
GMB Architecture + Engineering designed systems for the cities of Grand Haven, Holland, and numerous others.  Dan Tyrer, AIA Grand Rapids President-elect and Senior Design Architect at GMB, is seeing the trend extend beyond municipalities to private companies and education institutions. “We’ve designed snowmelt systems for Gentex Corporation, Caledonia Community Schools, and Calvin College,” said Tyrer. “While the upfront costs are greater, from a maintenance standpoint, there are long-term savings to be found.”
Last year Rockford Construction installed a snowmelt system at its West Side office. Rockford’s Chief Innovation Officer Pete Michell oversaw the project. “Even though the system extends only around our building, we saw the value in bringing the technology to our team members, our visitors, and the neighborhood at large.”

Multi-Modal Transportation

Many active commuters utilize multiple means of transportation to reach their destination. A strong mass transit network can support biking and walking to minimize the impact of distance and time. In August of 2104, Grand Rapids launched the Silver Line, Michigan’s first BRT, or “bus rapid transit” system. New riders from the south have joined city residents, increasing ridership.  Buses are bike-friendly -- every one is equipped with a bike rack, so riders can extend their active commutes beyond the boundaries of the bus route.

Safety

For years, our cars have provided a perceived sense of safety as we travel through our cities -- we feel safer when we’re locked inside two tons of metal.  Efforts are underway to improve our feelings about downtown, and Downtown Grand Rapids, Inc., is leading the charge. In June, the DDA committed $125,000 to underpass and streetscape improvements on the West Side. Better lighting and amenities targeted at walkers and bikers will improve feelings of safety as they travel throughout the city.

No two commutes are the same. During Active Commute Week, it will be interesting to see, not just how many people find new and healthier ways to move around our city, but to witness how many different forms of transportation they use.  In doing so, we will determine how the investments we make in creating a strong network of accessibility support our residents and a more sustainable city.