Crossing at Woodward Leads to Talks About Timing, Technology, and Priorities
(Melanie Piana, Ferndale Mayor and Urbanist, orig. LinkedIn, Jan. 25, 2021)
Ferndale, MI – The city of Ferndale contends with Woodward Avenue, an eight-lane MDOT highway bisecting its downtown. The main intersection at 9 Mile and Woodward is a well-traveled crossing for people walking, biking and driving, and taking the bus. For over twenty years, Ferndale residents and visitors crossed the intersection in one traffic light turnover with a short scramble at the end to make it in time.
My nickname for the last 5-second scramble is called the “Woodward jog” when people start running (for those that can) to safely complete the crossing before the light signal turns green. Also in these 20 years, Ferndale has advocated for an additional 5 to 10 seconds be added onto the pedestrian light with no success.
Sometime in March of 2020, the crosswalk light timing randomly decreased from 62 seconds to 55. Residents’ complaints rumbled online. City staff inquired with MDOT and received an answer that timing was changed to support a connected vehicle study project along Woodward.
In the summer, I started making inquiries with city staff and higher up elected officials. The goal was to return crosswalk timing back to 60+ seconds. The pandemic response held everyone’s attention, including mine.
And then, sometime in August, the crosswalk timing was reduced again down to 22 seconds per the city’s estimation. The city has not received notice of what the accurate timing truly is. Pedestrians now had to complete their journey through two traffic light signals, now with a wait in the median. MDOT owns and manages the traffic signals and pedestrian crosswalk lights. Unfortunately, communications from the traffic engineers inside MDOT about these changes didn’t make their way to city staff or officials before the changes occurred.
MDOT plans for Woodward as the detour route for I-75 highway construction and emergencies. Conventional wisdom by myself and our city officials was that crosswalk lights were perhaps changed to accommodate ongoing highway construction detours.
In early October, I wrote a letter to the MDOT Director inquiring why the light timing had changed without the involvement of city administration. A year prior, the new MDOT Director graciously visited Ferndale to learn about the outcomes from the Woodward Bicylcing and Walking Safety Audit, conducted in partnership with the City of Pleasant Ridge. MDOT does support Context Sensitive Solutions and works with communities on local desires. We made it known that the city prioritizes people in street design and sought to partner with MDOT on future Woodward plans.
The MDOT response back stated “In August 2020, new traffic signal controllers were installed at signalized intersections along the Woodward corridor to accommodate connected vehicle technology. As part of that project, the timings were brought into the current standard for what is referred to as “extended pedestrian clearance” which needs to be a minimum of 3.0 seconds (represented with a “Don’t Walk” for the pedestrians). The extended pedestrian clearance ensures an extra 3.0 seconds for a pedestrian that may have misjudged how much time it would take them to cross”.
The crosswalk lights were changed to accommodate new autonomous vehicle technology. Updated pedestrian safety standards were applied. In my opinion, these standards prioritized the car over the pedestrian by forcing people crossing the intersection to wait through two light cycles.
With this new information, it became clear that traffic engineers made decisions without fully understanding the implications for residents. How do we get these seconds backs?
Frustrated on a rare October run, I tagged MDOT on my Twitter post:
Then, later in October, the story began to shift. On a walking tour of Ferndale’s Dot project (mixed-use parking deck) with Ferndale’s Accessibility and Inclusion Advisory Commissioner Alan Hejl, I mentioned the challenge that city staff and I were having advocating for the return of 62 seconds at the intersection.
Alan is a disability rights advocate and a GM autonomous vehicle connectivity engineer. He reviewed the MDOT response letter I received and reviewed the safety standards that MDOT applied. Then he forwarded this response letter within his network to the right MDOT engineering people asking for assistance to find a resolution to this issue. Alan cited the inclusive and equitable challenges for those with disabilities as the main reason to return to 60+ seconds.
Sometime in November, the crosswalk traffic signals were changed back to 55 seconds.
My Key Takeaways
I exhausted all my connections and approaches trying to influence change. I greased the wheels, but Alan is the one who elevated this community concern leveraging his professional network connections to MDOT. He is responsible for getting this request over the finish line.
This experience is a reminder for officials that community problem solving and advocacy is a team approach. Residents can make a big difference in small ways. Officials need to listen and be open to others to contribute. I’m thankful Alan applied his expertise, knowledge, and professional connections to positively impact where he lives.
Integration & Communication
Autonomous vehicle technology and street design integration are in their early stages. Metro Detroit is the epicenter of AV technology and cities are exploring ways how best to plan for and integrate these new technologies into their street systems. The new traffic signal controllers installed with AV technology at 9 and Woodward is just the beginning.
Both AV car technology integration and human safety are forefronts in these conversations. However, the expediency of car travel prioritized over people, especially in walkable cities like Ferndale, remains the status quo. It’s time to reverse order.
When people are planned for first over cars, cities become more vibrant and thriving places.
Ferndale has the vision to improve our cities’ section of Woodward Avenue through a street redesign. The benefits will provide positive outcomes for our small businesses when the sidewalks are safer. Through better street design the city will elevate our climate resiliency goals through new green stormwater infrastructure that reduces stormwater runoff. A street that works for all users will improve safety for people walking, biking, and driving with safer ways to traverse the corridor.
Residents’ voices like Alan’s can make a big difference.
I asked Alan to share his side of the story. Read his perspective here.
Melanie Piana is a strategic leader and urbanist with over 15 years in the nonprofit, public, and private sectors with experience building community in Detroit neighborhoods and in over 30 Michigan cities. Her expertise includes placemaking, transportation, mobility, public policy, local government, and operations.
Melanie was elected to her first term as Mayor in the City of Ferndale in 2019 and served as a councilperson for ten years from 2009 to 2019. She is a past president of the Michigan Municipal League and is an American Institute of Architects Detroit Honorary Affiliate. Find her on LinkedIn.
Bike Lanes, Bump-Outs, Crosswalks and More as Ferndale Considers Mobility Plan (Dec. 16, 2020)
8 Mile-Woodward Improvement Committee to Select Design Group (Dec. 6, 2020)
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