Walking, Biking Take the Spotlight as Communities Focus on Nonmotorized Plans
By Beth Milligan | Nov. 28, 2023
A community where residents can walk, run, ride, or roll to get wherever they need to go safely and conveniently – and not just have to rely on cars. That’s the goal of a nonmotorized transportation plan, and more and more communities across northern Michigan are seeking to adopt one to improve their walking and cycling infrastructure. In addition to the City of Traverse City working on a Mobility Action Plan and Peninsula Township applying for state funding to create its own plan, Blair Township will host an open house today (Tuesday) to gather public input on creating a new nonmotorized vision for the township’s future.
The open house will take place at Blair Township Hall from 4pm to 6:30pm, with a short presentation planned for 5:30pm. Attendees will be able to review display boards to help them “envision possible nonmotorized corridors” and identify “important destinations and nodes while ensuring connectivity with adjacent communities,” according to project consultant Wade Trim. The consultant team and township staff will gather public input today that will help shape the new Blair Township Nonmotorized Vision Plan, which will be incorporated into the township’s five-year community recreation plan for 2024-2028.
According to Wade Trim, the plan will “guide the development of sidewalks and bike paths across the township. This vision will help to drive investment to connect destinations and transportation nodes together while making nonmotorized transportation safer, easier, and more enjoyable.” The firm notes that researchers have found that people living near nonmotorized pathways “walk more and drive less and their properties are worth more. They have also found that these people are healthier and happier.”
Nonmotorized planning has been a “goal for many communities and organizations” since the turn of the century, according to Wade Trim, but “without concrete visions, implementation has been slow over the succeeding years.” Like the buildout of Blair Township’s road network, it will take significant time to build out a nonmotorized network – potentially 20 or more years. While “limited investment has occurred thus far,” Wade Trim says, that can change with the creation of a formal nonmotorized plan. In addition to keeping walking and cycling options “center stage,” such a plan can also encourage regional investment in trails extending beyond Blair Township’s borders – external connections that are as “important as the internal ones,” according to Wade Trim.
Part of the renewed emphasis on nonmotorized transportation plans is due to technology that’s allowing more people to explore trails and for further distances, notably e-bikes. Electric assisted or powered bicycles are “transforming transportation” and allowing people to go further and faster than under standard pedal power, according to the consultants. “Having a safe network expands opportunities for this non-polluting form of transportation,” the firm adds. Over one-third of Michigan residents lack access to a passenger car, making a community’s reliance on motorized transportation a barrier to “their ability to complete daily tasks in a safe and efficient manner,” according to Wade Trim. “Nonmotorized pathways are available to all, regardless of age, ability, or car accessibility.”
Blair Township Supervisor Nicole Blonshine says the township doesn’t have much in the way of nonmotorized infrastructure now, except for a paved walking path in the middle of the township park. As a rural township heavily defined by highways – including US-31 and M-37, not traditionally the most pedestrian or cyclist-friendly corridors in town – Blair faces some challenges in building out its trail connections. But it also has a golden opportunity, Blonshine notes. Traverse City Area Public Schools (TCAPS) agreed in 2021 to transfer 130 acres of land behind Blair Elementary School to Blair Township, in part to develop and expand a nonmotorized trail system.
“What I’m envisioning is hiking, walking, and biking paths on that property we acquired,” says Blonshine. “That’s really what we’re focusing on. The vision is off the highway in a safe area.” Blonshine notes that in a 2018 township survey to which over 200 residents responded, nearly 82 percent strongly agreed the township should be “actively looking at developing biking and walking paths to connect various sites and destinations,” says Blonshine. “So that’s what we’re doing.”
Other local communities are seeing the same priorities among residents. In a recent post, citizen group Protect the Peninsula noted that a 2019 citizen survey for Peninsula Township’s master plan “revealed that 80 percent of residents agreed that there is a need for a nonmotorized transportation plan. Support came from residents wanting more recreational opportunities in the township and those frustrated with traffic issues caused by the mixed use of motorized and nonmotorized vehicles on roadways.”
In its post, Protect the Peninsula commended community leaders for recently submitting a grant application to the Michigan Department of Agriculture & Rural Development for planning support to develop a nonmotorized transportation plan. “The application has received positive support from over a dozen community organizations, including Protect the Peninsula, and leaders within and adjacent to the township because of its vital importance for safety and health on Old Mission Peninsula,” the group wrote.
Traverse City Planning Director Shawn Winter says city staff recently met with Peninsula Township officials to discuss collaborative nonmotorized opportunities between the township and city. The city has had similar discussions with Garfield Township, East Bay Township, and other neighboring municipalities. In addition to those regional partnerships – which are particularly important for townships, as they don’t have jurisdiction over their roads the way cities do – Traverse City is developing its own Mobility Action Plan.
After months of collecting input in both online and public forums, a draft version of the plan is now online and is set to go soon to the planning commission for review, followed by the city commission. That extensive review process will include public hearings and opportunities for more resident and commission input before a final version is adopted by city leaders. The draft plan includes a map of existing infrastructure – including sidewalks, trails, and crossings – as well as a proposed map of potential improvements (pictured).
“We’re hoping this plan gives a framework for building out a mobility network, coordinated with available funding, the priorities of city commissioners, and other capital improvement projects,” says Winter. For instance, if the city is going to reconstruct a street, it can potentially include as part of that project any nonmotorized improvements proposed for that corridor in the Mobility Action Plan.
The city can also proactively pursue implementing projects in the plan, rather than just waiting until certain areas are reconstructed. Particularly if commissioners prioritize mobility improvements within the city’s budget, staff can pursue more projects, Winter says. “We’ll be following the city commission’s lead and looking for low-hanging fruit where we can make improvements,” he says. “In some cases, those might be small changes – but those can also collectively add up to improve the overall network.”Comment