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Talking Headways Podcast: Undoing Autocentric Design in a Michigan City

A Michigan city tries to undo the mistakes of the past. It's hard.

This week, we chat with Melanie Piana, the mayor of Ferndale, Mich, about her city’s Woodward Avenue road diet, its bike plans, and how parking is part of too many urban issues.

If you want to read rather than hear, check out the full unedited transcript here. Or you can read the edited transcript below the audio player:

Jeff Wood: Well let’s talk about the Woodward in the room. I wanna talk about Woodward Avenue. It’s a state highway, bisects your city and I imagine it has big impacts on how Ferndale and other cities along the way and as well as Detroit do things because it’s such a kind of a main artery for the region.

Melanie Piana: Yeah, Woodward is the spine of the region. It is 26 miles from downtown Detroit to downtown Pontiac. I believe it spans 13 communities. Ferndale is at sort of like the apex of it at Eight Mile in Woodward, which is the north border of the City of Detroit. And as you said, it is eight lanes of highway that bisects not only downtown Ferndale, but downtown Birmingham and really poor decisions made decades ago about the City of Pontiac. They created a loop around downtown Pontiac on Woodward that bypassed the downtown.

And fortunately, the City of Pontiac will be removing the loop in 2025 and putting back together more of a connected street grid that supports connecting people into their downtown from all of their streets and not this just big grand loop around.

Jeff Wood: So, Woodward bisects the city and it’s eight lanes wide?

Melanie Piana: It is eight lanes wide. That is the typical MDOT state highway. We are also bisected by Eight Mile, which is also eight lanes. So that is the south border of Ferndale at the Detroit North end. So, we have 16 lanes of highway that really define our community. Woodward cutting through the heart of our downtown and then Eight Mile defining our southern border. And it’s intensive to have 16 lanes of highway in your community, but the number one barrier and safety concern with our residents and business owners is crossing Woodward at our heart of our downtown at Nine Mile and Woodward.

Woodward was the first paved road in the United States, not in Ferndale but two miles up in Detroit at Seven Mile. So, we really are here talking about innovation and pavement. And where we are now in the City of Ferndale is helping to evolve it to modernize Woodward to better serve the residents. It has a long history, but the design of Woodward is no longer providing the types of needs that the community and residents want, particularly crossing Nine and Woodward. The pedestrian traffic lights are too short.

I call it the Woodward run. There’s five to eight seconds at the end of the countdown where you can literally see most people pick up their gait and or run to finish crossing Nine and Woodward and one traffic light. We also have only five major crossings, so the crosswalks are half mile spaced apart. And when you’re in a walkable community, that is really not enough crosswalks, but that is gonna be for future planning under reconstruction. Right now, we have orange barrels on Woodward because we created a project called Woodward Moves and it has aligned with MDOTs repaving schedule.

We started in 2018. It took four years to get the safety improvements added on to the repaving schedule with the support of an MDOT grant as well as a transportation alternatives program grant through SEMCOG which is the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments. So, working with my stellar urban planning staff and my city manager and the city manager with support of the city council in Pleasant Ridge, two cities went in to apply for these grants to put safety improvements on Woodward. What we’re getting is better crosswalks, better bus bump outs. We are getting a lane reduction, retaking one of the curb lanes and putting in protected bike lanes with parking.

So, there’s going to be curb, bike lane, delineators, and then parking and then a travel lane on each side. So, and it’s gonna be a two-way cycle track because the eight lanes are one way, four lanes north and four lanes south. So we are going to be also having our first bike traffic light at Nine and Woodward as well.

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