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Wednesday, May 26,2010

Inch by inch

A push to measure the condition of all 600 miles of Lansing’s sidewalks with the goal of improvements

by Jane Alexander

 

Standing on a Lansing street corner, Lisa Benck hands Jessica Yorko one end of a length of string. The two crouch down and measure the length of sidewalk corners where they decline into ramps into the street. They smile warmly at curious passersby, as they take their measurements, cross the street, and crouch back down again on the opposing corner.

“I can’t believe how much of a difference there is between two ramps at the same intersection,” Benck says.


Benck and Yorko learned lots of surprising information from measuring sidewalks, such as how varied the lighting can be within a few city blocks and that the name for the raised bumps at the ends of sidewalks is dome.


Organizers hope these were just some of the things everyone learned during an event held Saturday for the Lansing Walkability Audit. The group Walk and Bike Lansing, with help from American Association of Retired Persons and the city of Lansing, is conducting an audit of the city’s 600 miles of sidewalk in an effort to make the city more pedestrian and bicycle friendly. The group plans to send volunteers out over the next three months to document the conditions of sidewalks in the entire city. They will then send the data to collaborators at Wayne State University to be compiled into a report called the Lansing Non-Motorized Transportation Plan.


“This information is very important,” said audit coordinator Payal Ravani, “because the sidewalks have been installed from the 1920s until now and they’ve never completely been inventoried. The city will go out and make improvements if they get a lot of complaints or something, but they don’t actually know, for example, if someone is not able to access certain areas — they don’t necessarily tell the city about it. These problems could go on for years and years and they would never know about it. So this is part of a bigger effort to make Lansing more livable.”


The project is a response to the complete streets ordinance passed last year by Lansing City Council, which requires the city to form a plan for its non-motorized transportation (i.e. sidewalks, bike lanes, etc.) and update it every five years. To get the ordinance passed, volunteers, led by Yorko, now the Fourth Ward Councilwoman, obtained close to 5,000 signatures from registered Lansing voters. Ravani said Walk and Bike Lansing is modeling the Walkability Audit after that strategy, in that it eventually will become self-propelled by the volunteers.


“What we’re hoping will develop is team leaders in certain areas,” she said. “So if they want to get their neighbors involved, they can host things at their house, like, ‘Oh, let’s hang out for an hour and eat some snacks and then go out and audit some sidewalks.’ So it’s going to be more volunteer-driven than it is by us.”


West Lansing resident Larry Fields said he definitely plans to do multiple surveys and tell his friends.


“Oh yeah! Because I think it’s going to work really good if they keep it up like this,” Fields said. “They need to keep it up, to get all of these sidewalks fixed. We want to see the city looking good.”


For the purposes of the audit, the city was divided into 102 areas. Volunteers will be given rulers (string was only used on Saturday until the ordered rulers arrive), self-addressed envelopes and surveys designating a specific city block of sidewalk (on both sides of the street) and corresponding intersections. The surveys inquire about things like wheelchair access, sidewalk sloping and the time allotted to cross at a crossing signal.


The purpose of last Saturday’s event was to
test out the surveys with community volunteers. Organizers wanted
feedback on the entire process, from the clarity of the questions to
the quality of the explanation to volunteers.


Volunteer Veronica Jackson joined the audit to find out more about what she could do to clear debris from bike lanes and improve damaged sidewalks.


“Since
I’m a runner, I basically run in the roads, but sidewalks are necessary
if you need to get out of the street. And I’m a cyclist as well and
bike lanes are an issue,” she said.


Saturday’s
volunteers were sent letters about the audit either from AARP or from
having signed the complete streets petition. Many represented special
interest groups, like runners
or accessibility advocates.The group hopes to have all of the surveys
in by the end of September to send the data to Wayne State. Then, the
city will be sent a copy.


And so one block, one ruler and one volunteer at a time, all 600 miles of city sidewalks will be evaluated.


“We
get a lot of people who call or answer the letter and say, ‘I’m in a
wheelchair,’ ‘I’m in a walker,’ ‘my neighborhood is on the edge of the
city and it gets no attention,’ and so they want
to get involved in this,” Ravani said. “This will shift the city’s
attention now to where there are problems and where people are having
problems getting around. It’s part of a bigger shift.”

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