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Walkability audit reveals downtown noisy, lacks crossings, needs trees

While walking across the Polly Ann Trail bridge over M-24, Lawrence Tech Associate Professor Joongsub Kim and LTU students, Neil Page and Ellen Rotter, discuss how to better connect the trail with downtown Oxford. Giving them some background are Oxford DDA board members Don Sherman and Anna Taylor. Photo by C.J. Carnacchio. (click for larger version)
September 28, 2011 - Downtown Oxford got audited last week, but don't worry, the shopping district isn't in hot water with the Internal Revenue Service.

This audit focused on the ability of pedestrians to navigate the downtown area and what can be done to improve the situation for non-motorized visitors.

A group consisting of Downtown Development Authority (DDA) officials, business owners, interested citizens and paid consultants put on their most comfortable shoes and hit the streets to participate in what's called a "walkability audit."

"It's a basically an assessment of the current conditions within the downtown area to determine how it can accommodate people who are either walking, using some type of assistive device or otherwise trying to access the downtown area without a motor vehicle," explained Rod Arroyo, vice president of the Lathrup Village-based Birchler Arroyo Associates, Inc. "It's a snapshot of what's working and what needs work within the downtown area today."

Most of those who participated in the audit walked. But some rode in wheelchairs, pushed strollers or drove the type of electric scooters typically used by senior citizens or others who have difficulty walking. The idea was to view the downtown through their eyes.

The walkability audit was part of the $52,500 expenditure the DDA authorized back in July to develop a streetscape plan that employs the principles of the Complete Streets concept, which basically involves redesigning the downtown area to make it more pedestrian-friendly and calm the thousands of vehicles traveling along M-24 (Washington St.) every day.

The streetscape plan is being developed by Birchler Arroyo Associates and Grissim Metz Andriese Associates, of Northville.

Overall, Arroyo's impression of the downtown was a favorable one.

"I think it has a lot of positive elements that are necessary to have a successful, pedestrian-oriented downtown," he said. "Essentially, there are a few challenges that have to be addressed to take it to the next level."

Noise Levels

One of the biggest challenges discussed was the noise generated by M-24 traffic, particularly large trucks such as gravel haulers.

"We have been told by business owners and by other stakeholders that (noise) is one of the key issues that is impacting the ability of the downtown to really attract pedestrians, particularly on Washington Street," Arroyo explained.

Using a device to measure the noise of M-24 traffic, Arroyo determined that typical traffic generated about 70-72 decibels without any trucks. When a truck passed by, the noise level shot up to 100 decibels.

Arroyo explained that every time the decibel level increases by 10, the perception is the sound has doubled.

"So, when you go from 70 decibels to 80 decibels, that's perceived as being twice as loud," he said. "When you go from 70 decibels to 90 decibels, that's four times as loud. (It's perceived as) eight times as loud to go from 70 decibels to 100 decibels."

Based on what he observed during the audit, Arroyo said the noise levels are "higher than you would typically find within a downtown area and that is primarily due to the heavy volume of truck traffic."

All this noise is having a significant effect.

"That is having an impact on how people use the downtown, how they use Washington St. and why we don't see certain elements like outdoor dining, people sitting on benches and more people walking and parking along Washington St.," Arroyo explained. "It's influencing the way that particular downtown functions and it's moving a lot of those activities that are customarily down on the town's main street to behind the buildings, so that people can get some relief from the noise."

Arroyo noted that the "excessively high" truck noise is part of what's preventing drivers from taking full advantage of the on-street parking along M-24.

"I think what you're finding is that people aren't using the on-street parking spaces like they normally would because it's not a very comfortable environment to get out of your car when there may be large trucks passing by on a rather frequent basis," he said.

On-street parking is normally something that's considered "critical" to a downtown area, according to Arroyo.

"Not only does it provide a buffer between pedestrians and moving traffic, it provides for convenient parking," he said.

Lack of M-24 Crossings

Another major issue facing the downtown is the lack of safe crossings for pedestrians to get from one side of M-24 to the other.

"If someone's walking along Washington St. and then they want to cross over and come down the other side, there needs to be a reasonable way to get across," Arroyo said. "Right now, under the existing signalization system that's in place downtown, it is challenging for people to cross Washington St. and to cross Burdick (St.) because of the fact that signalization is limited to really only two locations within the downtown core."

The signals Arroyo's referring to are located at the Washington/Burdick and Washington/Broadway intersections.

"They're almost 1,000 feet apart," he said. "From this point (Broadway/M-24), you're looking at a 4˝-minute walk to get to the next signalized crossing. Typically, it should be more like 2 minutes."

"The desirable spacing in a traditional downtown setting would be a crossing roughly every 300 to 400 feet," Arroyo explained. "It's obviously not a hard and fast standard, but it's a guideline."

He said the most desirable location for another crossing is at the intersection of Stanton/Washington/Dennison streets.

"Physically, it's a logical location and it also provides for reasonable spacing between Burdick and between Stanton," Arroyo said.

Placing a fully-functional traffic signal at this intersection isn't the only option to creating a crosswalk that pedestrians could feel safe using.

"One of the things I know that has been discussed is the potential to add a landscaped median down the center of Washington St. which would provide a pedestrian refuge, so that you don't have to cross the entire distance at one time," he said.

Another option is to install a signal that's activated only when pedestrians wish to cross. "During normal vehicular traffic, you wouldn't have traffic stopping on a regular basis," Arroyo said. "It would only stop when pedestrians actually signal for a crossing."

Downtown needs more trees

The audit also revealed a need for more trees along M-24.

"There obviously are some street trees downtown, but because of the conditions we observed, they appear in many cases not to be growing to larger canopy trees," Arroyo said. "You want to have canopies that are large enough to provide some shade to pedestrians and also soften the hardness of the brick and the pavement."

Arroyo explained trees have "a calming effect on passing traffic.

"When the trees are closer to the moving traffic, it could potentially cause traffic to want to go slower, which is certainly something that's desirable with that downtown area," he said.

As part of the streetscape design, Arroyo suggested selecting a species of tree that could provide pedestrians with shade and protection from the elements, yet also withstand the impact of being in a downtown setting and growing next to a busy roadway.

Making storefronts more interesting

Making downtown Oxford more pedestrian-friendly isn't all about creating a new streetscape. Arroyo said business owners can help by making their storefronts more interesting and attractive.

"One of the things that you want to see in a downtown area is a reason to keep walking," he explained. "You want to have a constant level of activity in the storefronts, so that as someone is walking downtown, they're constantly engaged. That might mean an attractive window display. It may mean walking by a restaurant and seeing diners inside. It may be walking by an office and seeing people actively engaged in their work."

When asked for his assessment of downtown's current mix of storefronts, Arroyo replied, "I think there's some really good examples of window displays and there's some others that could probably use some sprucing up and maybe some assistance."

He indicated that perhaps the business owners could help each other improve their storefronts and window displays.

"When you have examples of people in your community that are doing an excellent job, they could end up potentially volunteering their time to put on a seminar for other merchants and try to share information," Arroyo said.

The results of the walkability audit will be presented to the public during an open house scheduled for Wednesday, Nov. 16 from 4-7 p.m. Location to be determined.

"We'll have a variety of techniques we'll be using to engage the public and try to get them to weigh in on their feelings about the downtown area and what they'd like to see within the streetscape," Arroyo noted.

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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