What are the chances the Woodward Avenue Complete Streets ever becomes reality?

A rendering of the proposed complete streets concept near Palmer Park in Detroit. Backers hope this section, from McNichols to I-696, can serve as a pilot project.
A rendering of the proposed complete streets concept near Palmer Park in Detroit. Backers hope that this section from McNichols Road to 8 Mile can serve as a pilot project to win support for the larger plan.

The new Woodward Avenue Complete Streets plan might be the most exciting and ambitious idea to introduce urbanity and improve quality of life in Detroit and its suburbs in years.

Whether it will ever see the light of day, however, is always the question around these parts.

The plan is the brainchild of the Woodward Avenue Action Association, whose board has approved it, the Detroit Free Press reports, and will now turn to how to fund it and sell it to each community that shares the 27-mile road.

At its core, the plan would remake Detroit’s unofficial main street from a state highway into a “complete street that provides safe and efficient means of travel for all users; creates excellent quality of place that benefits local residents; builds value for property; and inspires visitors to return.” It would put Woodward on a “road diet” by reducing the number of lanes in most areas, devote center lanes to bus rapid transit, install slip roads for slower traffic and parking, and incorporate protected bike lanes and sidewalks. The Freep:

All along the Woodward corridor, the plan envisions changes tied to a future that is less auto-centric and more concerned with general mobility, but one that also emphasizes consistent layout of street plantings, storm water management and branding of Woodward.

Not just any road

As a road, Woodward varies widely over its 27 miles, from the traffic-calmed urban canyon it carves through downtown Detroit to the 8-lane M-1 speedway through Bloomfield Hills, where it has stretches with neither commercial businesses nor sidewalks.

Historically, much of Detroit’s wealth was clustered along Woodward, and the road was also home of the first paved mile in the United States, between McNichols and Seven Mile, completed in 1909. In 2002, Woodward became the nation’s first urban route to be named one of America’s 99 National Byways.

Today, the road is the site of construction for the M-1 Rail project in the city center. North of Grand Boulevard, commercial development generally thins out, but it boasts points of interest including the former Ford Model T plant and Palmer Park before it reaches 8 Mile and the suburbs.

There, Woodward generally is a commercial strip, with less-dense suburban-style development the further north you travel. In Pontiac, the road splits to make a loop around downtown Pontiac in what surely must be one of the worst of the many bad “urban renewal” projects to afflict the region. (I’m pleased to see that city working on a plan to correct that, but I’ll leave it at that for now.)

As the site of the annual Woodward Dream Cruise, the road has also attained near-mythic status among car aficionados, who turn parts of the road into a summer-long muscle car show. People have even championed the M-1 road marker for bumper stickers and T-shirts and the like.

Which could be exactly the problem.

A threat to car culture?

A 1958 Chevrolet Impala during the 2012 Dream Cruise.
A 1958 Chevrolet Impala during the 2012 Dream Cruise.

This plan will undoubtedly spark some backlash from the region’s strongly pro-automobile culture warriors. Dream Cruisers likely won’t take kindly to being told their slow-moving traffic jam will soon have fewer lanes to clog. Many car-dependent residents won’t like the idea of putting their favorite north-south connector on a road diet. Hell, as someone who’s spent many a commute stuck in stop-and-go traffic along Woodward during a snowstorm or following a Tigers game, I have a few concerns of my own. And of course, there will be people who will look at this and say, we don’t want to become New York City. We like our setbacks, our pointless out-lot lawns, ample parking and the unencumbered open road.

Already, there are indications that tony Bloomfield Hills may step up to play the role of spoiler, per the Freep (emphasis mine):

Bloomfield Hills is not a member organization, and City Commissioner Sarah McClure, a former mayor who sat in on the association’s steering committee as it was developing the Woodward Avenue Complete Streets plan, indicated that her community could be resistant. She said it is premature to comment on the plan because officials there have not seen the final version yet, but she stressed that it would violate the community’s 2009 master plan, which was reaffirmed last year.

If it means “cutting down hundreds of trees, retaining walls, our master plan would not have anything like that,” McClure said, adding residents there also would be against the extension of sidewalks along Woodward.

Blech! Sidewalks = socialism = tyranny. So just as the city has opted out of regional bus service, it may follow suit with a plan that could bring benefits to public health, local businesses and overall quality of life.

Buy-in is key

A rendering of the Complete Streets concept near Nine Mile and Woodward in Ferndale.
A rendering of the Complete Streets concept near Nine Mile and Woodward in Ferndale. | Renderings via the Woodward Avenue Action Association

In fairness, there is no price tag, though it’s likely to be large. Nor is there any identified source of funding. The Michigan Department of Transportation told the Freep it is “generally supportive if the communities are supportive,” and that “The costs would need to be shared somehow, but our contribution would come whenever we redo Woodward, which at the moment is not in the near future.”

I asked my friend Todd Scott, the executive director of the Detroit Greenways Coalition and probably the area’s leading expert on non-motorized transportation, what he makes of the plan’s chances. Here’s what he said:

Woodward is the first road I advocated for better biking and that was around 1997 or thereabouts. It’s been a long battle! This is the third non-motorized bike plan for Woodward, so maybe it’s the one. I think it’s a good one.

MDOT has been involved in this plan from the beginning and they are generally supportive. It’s really going to come down to funding and motor traffic impacts. Some key strategies that I see are implementing the low-hanging fruit first to gain community support (e.g. McNichols to Eight Mile), make most of these changes when MDOT does a full Woodward reconstruction, and coordinate the work with (bus rapid transit) assuming that it happens.

It’s just so very critical having nearly all the communities along the route having a shared vision. That’s not something that was there before and it really pushes MDOT towards implementing it.

Also, MDOT is not monolithic. There are supporters and detractors already. It’s important that the leadership is generally on board.

At the risk of over-dramatizing things, the complete streets plan may, in the end, be a battle to determine what we are as a metropolis: an intractable, sprawling tribute to the automobile that built Detroit, or a city and region that is finally ready to adapt to the modern era and change? In other words, your everyday battle over Detroit’s soul, is all.

Complete streets adds to what I increasingly sense is a massive, pent-up desire for more urban design and amenities for Detroit and its surrounding metropolis. After all this time, are we finally seeing that come to reality?

Impala photo via Joe deSousa

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