Michigan lawmakers recently approved a package of “complete streets” laws that requires the state and local governments to plan for the safety and convenience of bike and foot traffic when building roads.
Michigan joins Illinois, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania and Minnesota as the only Great Lakes states with statewide complete streets laws.
It’s a growing trend that speaks to a change in American preferences, according to Hans Voss, executive director of the Michigan Land Use Institute. And it could be a key to economic revitalization.
“I think it’s a question of priorities and values, and I think America’s shifting,” Voss said. “It’s particularly younger, new-economy workers that everyone’s trying to recruit into their towns who want walkable, bikeable communities.”
The new law is good news to urban planners and sustainability experts who advocate for smart growth, a planning strategy for curbing urban sprawl and diverting focus from automobile traffic.
One of them is Amelie Davis. She’s a landscape ecologist who recently led a study out of Purdue University estimating that the parking lots of four Great Lakes states cover 500 square miles. That’s around the size of many Michigan counties.
Michigan is especially pavement-prone, according to the study. The state dedicates a higher percentage of its city space to parking lots than Indiana, Illinois and Wisconsin, despite having fewer people old enough to drive.
This is a study of parking lots, not the sidewalks or bike lanes that complete streets plan mandates. But an abundance of parking lots is a sign of an unwalkable city, according to Davis, who grew up in France but went to college in Indiana.
One big difference she saw after that move was the Great Lakes region’s dependence on driving.
“I would park somewhere and try to walk to the nearby mini mall that I had to go to, and there’s no sidewalk,” Davis said. “It was a completely boring walk. And it was always the fault of the parking lot.”