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Expert: Real opportunities for transportation choices in TCPrint

Thriving Communities | June 7, 2013 | By Howard Lovy

"We treat our cars so much better than we treat our citizens," said Jeffrey Tumlin at MLUI's June 4 "Getting Transportation to Work" commuter summit. 

In 2007, when Susan Vigland first went to work at Hagerty Insurance in Traverse City, she made a promise to herself that she would never drive her car to work again. Not in the heat of summer, not in the snow and ice of winter.

"So I put studded tires on my bike in the wintertime and commute year-round," Vigland says. Six years later, she has kept that promise to herself.

Vigland is the training and wellness manager for the 500-plus-employee company, which sells insurance for classic cars. "Smart commuting" is part of the culture at Hagerty. That's why the company is a big supporter of the TART trails and other efforts to get people out of their cars and onto bikes and their feet.

"Choosing to have our business located downtown, it obviously makes a lot of sense," Vigland says. "We employ a lot of people so we understand the transportation and parking issues and the more people that can either bike, walk or carpool, the less impact we have as a company on parking and transportation downtown. Really a more positive impact."

But the further you get from downtown, the more difficult it is for cyclists and walkers. Bike lanes become fewer. Sidewalks begin and end at seemingly random times. It can be downright hazardous for those not in cars.

This is exactly what Jeffrey Tumlin noticed when he visited Traverse City recently for a commuter summit hosted by the Michigan Land Use Institute.

"We would never allow our highways to begin and end at random," Tumlin said in an interview before his keynote speech. "We treat our cars so much better than we treat our citizens."

Tumlin, a principal at Nelson/Nygaard Consulting who has developed master plans for cities including San Francisco, Seattle, Vancouver, Denver and Abu Dhabi, said rural highways often face the worst of all possible situations. Dotted with commercial strip malls and curb cuts, the street does not work as a route to accommodate long-distance travel, nor are they very efficient for local economic development.

"It disappoints me that the state departments of transportation aren't more sophisticated," he said. "While transportation investments can be very powerful stimulants to the economy and change land value and drive the way the private sector responds and builds new communities, there are more-strategic ways of investing in transportation that encourage more choices, reduce costs for families and achieve far greater private and public good per dollar of transportation dollar invested."

While it is true that most people do not work in the communities in which they live, the question is to what degree should government subsidize that lifestyle.

Tumlin said building up rural highways encourages people to leave "walkable cities" and gives people no option but to continue driving from one parking lot to another, creating hazardous conditions on roads that were built to accommodate rural traffic.

Roadway widening is really good for big construction firms, but doesn't create many jobs, he added. "If you want to create jobs, build sidewalks. Sidewalks are very labor-intensive and actually require a fair amount of skill." Installing landscaping, and putting utility wires underground also require a greater number of skilled workers.

Much of the solution, however, does not come from government. It comes from private businesses like Hagerty Insurance, which is encouraging workers to commute to work. Or from Grand Traverse Resort & Casino, which provides bus passes to their employees at a discounted rate. They are working with the Bay Area Transportation Authority (BATA), which in recent years has improved its bus routes to accommodate more commuters.

"Obviously, Traverse City, the community needs to get behind BATA and support it, meaning ride it, but I feel like those regional lines are being used more by people working in town," Vigland said. "As that grows, that will help."

Hans Voss, MLUI executive director, said that transit agencies around the region are more coordinated than ever. They have to be if the region wants to continue attracting Millennials to the region. Younger people, he pointed out, first choose a region in which they want to live, then look for a job. And, increasingly, they are opting not to have a car.

"A diverse transportation system that provides options for people is an absolutely crucial, fundamental economic priority for our community here in Traverse City and in this region," Voss said.

Tumlin said he sees the beginnings of real possibilities. At least, he said, the region hasn't done anything major to ruin its chances of becoming a better, walkable community. Traverse City, he said, should be commended for preserving "one of the great small towns of America."

Howard Lovy is a freelance journalist in Traverse City.