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Walkability expert to assess downtown

November 03, 2010 - For those who walk and ride bicycles, M-24 is a man-eating beast that must be battled just to get from Point A to Point B in downtown Oxford.

Many local officials, business owners and citizens have tried to tame the beast, but all have failed.

But now the beast must face Dan Burden, who's coming to town Wednesday, Nov. 10 to offer ideas on how to calm and de-claw M-24 (also known as Washington St.).

"Exactly what would be done is really a matter of getting people to come and realize what their opportunities are, then work together to upgrade the street to a place that's more pedestrian-friendly and liveable, yet still manages the traffic it needs to move," he said.

Burden, who's the executive director of the Walkable and Livable Communities Institute, is the nation's most recognized authority on walkability, bicycle and pedestrian programs and issues related to street design and traffic flow.

He's worked with 2,700 cities and towns in the United States and around the world, helping make them more pedestrian-friendly by improving their walkability. He's worked in more than 300 communities in Michigan including Lapeer, Brighton, Howell and Traverse City.

For those not familiar with the term, walkability is "the measure of the overall walking and living conditions in an area, defined as 'the extent to which the built environment is friendly to the presence of people walking, living, shopping, visiting, enjoying or spending time in an area.'"

How important is walkability to a community?

"It's paramount," Burden said. "More and more people are wanting to settle in communities that are walkable, that are livable and sociable . . . It's a very important direction we're heading in (in) our country to reclaim towns for walking, active living, active transportation, aging in place."

The Downtown Development Authority is very interested in making its shopping district more pedestrian-friendly as a means to make local businesses more prosperous.

Burden agrees that's a good strategy.

"It really does make a difference," he said. "Once we get the streets to behave correctly and the motorists are responding, we have seen rises in retail sales anywhere from 10 (percent) clear on up to 30 percent. It's a significant change."

In order for traditional downtowns to compete with strip malls, the community must "be a very friendly place, where speeds are properly maintained" and motor vehicles are "acting in a civil fashion," so people can shop and "carry on conversations," Burden noted.

When Burden visits Oxford, he plans to spend the first part of his day conducting a walkability audit of the downtown area, in which he will assess the current conditions pedestrians face and what opportunities exist to improve things.

He will present his findings, make recommendations and engage in discussion during an open forum scheduled to take place from 6 to 7:30 p.m. Nov. 10 at the new school administration building (10 N. Washington St.). Everyone is welcome to attend.

With regard to M-24, Burden said "the good news" is it's "a very key street and has some width to it that can be worked with" to help calm traffic and make it more pedestrian-friendly.

"If a downtown is to become a destination, not just a conduit for travel, it's typically (developed) around that main street," he said. "In this case, Oxford is no exception. It's going to be a very important part of the analysis."

Burden noted that U.S. Department of Transportation and Federal Highway Administration are finally realizing that "we've now got to build villages and not just build traffic."

"We can't keep growing our traffic. It doesn't pay for itself," he said. "Now, we're in a pickle. We've invested so much in roadway stock, that we can't even maintain what we have."

The idea behind building and growing villages is to have places "where people can go shorter distances to get more of the things they need."

Places like downtown Oxford fit that strategy because if people have more going on in their community, they don't have to leave it via motorized vehicles, according to Burden.

They can just walk or bicycle there.

"That's really the principle behind walking audits," he said.

CJ Carnacchio is editor for The Oxford Leader. He lives in the Village of Oxford with his wife Connie and daughter Larissa. When he's not busy working on the newspaper, he enjoys cigars/pipes, Martinis/Scotch, hunting and fishing.
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