Taming Woodward: Reenvisioning a thoroughfare
By Stacy Gittleman
When a Detroit News photo archive essay in 2018 chronicled the history of Woodward Avenue, there is a telling photo from 1911. It depicts a woman clad in a woolen suit, heels and hat, a concentrated expression on her face as she waits for a break in traffic to cross the street.
It had just been two years since Henry Ford brought the first Model-T into production in October 1908, the first production Model T Ford at the company’s Piquette Avenue plant in Detroit. Between 1908 and 1927, Ford would build some 15 million Model T cars, and they needed good roads to drive on.
Back then, the vehicles on Woodward were a mix of those Model-Ts, light rail trolleys, and still some horse-drawn carriages.
Woodward Avenue was first called the Saginaw Trail by Native Americans but was then renamed for Augustus Woodward, who designed the street along with Gratiot, Michigan Avenue, Grand River and Jefferson. By 1909, Woodward Avenue was the world’s first road to have a section paved. It would be completely paved by 1916, and in 1919, it became home to the world’s first three-color traffic stop light.
And even back then, Woodward Avenue was treacherous to cross by foot.
For better or worse, Woodward Avenue – the storied 27-mile main drag of our metro area that was named in 2002 an American Heritage Byway and which links Detroit to Pontiac, is the road that made Detroit the Motor City. According to Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) data taken from the mid-20-teens, shows that on average, between 20,000 and 65,000 vehicles travel on it daily in certain sections, with the most congested areas – between I-696 and 14 Mile – travel on it daily. With its wide lanes – sometimes five in each direction – a scarcity of traffic lights or crosswalks and speed limits in some areas as fast as 50 mph, Woodward Avenue is built for speed.
But that speed can be dangerous and even deadly. In recent years, two deaths in two years along the stretch of Woodward Avenue in Birmingham, mainly due to a lack of access to crosswalks, have prompted local officials to weigh in with their concerns to the state, which controls every aspect of the corridor.
For decades, municipalities from Pontiac to Detroit lamented both the state control and speed. Although Woodward is known as “America’s Main Street,” it is difficult to create a strollable Main Street environment along Woodward when traffic behaves more like it would on an interstate highway. Officials contend that Woodward Avenue bisects their towns and cuts one half off from the other. Whether it’s called a “road diet” or a “lane reduction,” municipal officials are calling for fewer lanes for high-speed automobiles and a lane or two devoted to slower traffic and bicycles.
According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, there is a slow but growing national quest to slim down our country’s roads, reduce danger and collision spots and make roads more equitable for pedestrians and bikers. As part of the federal $800 million Safe Streets for All initiative, places like New York City are retrofitting busy byways in lower Manhattan to allow for bike paths across the city’s many bridges. In Phoenix, the heat is on at city council meetings for a proposed $4.8 million project to replace one car lane with a bike lane in Scottsdale.
Back here in the metro area which was created for the automobile, municipal officials maintain that M-1 needs better marked crosswalks and more of them. The needs of pedestrians should be prioritized, they assert, and they should be able to make it across the eight-lane thoroughfare without having to get stuck on a narrow, unsheltered median.
One of those pedestrian deaths is personal to Bloomfield Township Supervisor Dani Walsh. In 2019, her friend was crossing Woodward after grocery shopping at Trader Joe’s in Royal Oak, and was fatally struck while crossing the street outside of a crosswalk.
Walsh said a lack of availability of crosswalks plus an increased culture of testing out high-performance cars along Woodward make for a noisy and deadly combination.
“If you’ve ever seen one of the Fast and Furious movies, it’s something like that,” Walsh said. “In the warmer months there are the cruisers who like to drive slowly up and down Woodward and show off their cars. Then you have people with high-performance cars and for them, it’s all about the danger and the high-speed racing. It’s also so noisy that you can’t even enjoy your backyard on a nice summer evening even if you live a few blocks off Woodward. That’s when our law enforcement goes into overtime. Weather depending, drag race season can start as early as February and go all the way through November.”
Walsh said drag races typically start on Woodward and continue north to Square Lake Road and South Boulevard. In one incident at this location, a car speeding at 104 mph careened into another car, spitting it in half on impact.
“Bloomfield Township is working with all (police) chiefs in Oakland County, as well as the Michigan State Police to fight this as a group,” said Walsh. “We want to know how legislation can be changed at the state level to stop drag racing. And personally, as a biker, I would not want to bike anywhere near Woodward Avenue. It’s just not safe.”
According to Bloomfield Township Chief of Police James Gallagher, in 2022 his force put in 216 overtime hours along Woodward Avenue. Bloomfield Township records show that between March 1, 2022 – October 1, 2023, law enforcement officers along the Woodward corridor in Bloomfield Township alone issued 81 citations: 18 for speeding; 38 for accidents; 15 issued were for driving with a suspended license; four were for driving under the influence; and two for careless driving. Gallagher said most of the 176 tickets given during this time were between 8 p.m. and midnight. Law enforcement officers during this time also issued 187 hazardous and non-hazardous violations and issued 207 verbal warnings. Between February 1, 2023, through May 10, 2023, law enforcement officers recorded 12 hazardous driving violations, 31 citations, and a total of 118 verbal warnings along Woodward Avenue.
According to 2016 traffic volume data from various state and regional agencies, the estimated average daily volume of traffic in Bloomfield Township on Woodward is 34,500 vehicles traveling at a speed limit posted at 50 mph – but cars often go much faster.
Gallagher said the challenges in Bloomfield Township with Woodward lie in the fact that on its stretch of the road, with few traffic lights, it can be ideal to pick up speed and drive noisy cars. Gallagher said that in the warmer months, cruisers and drag racers congregate in the parking lots of the few scattered shopping centers along Woodward and Square Lake.
“These are high-performance vehicles built for speed,” said Gallagher. “But if you want to show off the power of your car, the minute the weather starts getting warm, you’ve got car owners ready to race and car enthusiasts taking bets and gambling on who will win. Then there are distraction cars that will distract people from Woodward to South Boulevard in Pontiac and then drag race and shut down roads. At times we’ve caught people with radios to inform the other racers that the police are coming. It makes for very unsafe driving for everyone.”
In America, attitudes toward cars, how we get around, and what we want out of our streets and neighborhoods are changing. There is developing more of a call for regional and local public transportation. There is a call to get out of our cars and live in “20-minute neighborhoods” – where most of life’s necessities and destinations – can be found within a 20-minute walk or bike ride. It might be convenient for motorists who want to get from Huntington Woods to Birmingham to jump on Woodward, but residents who live in between want the traffic slowed down, wider sidewalks for gathering and outside restaurant dining, and better accessibility.
Birmingham’s yet-to-be-adopted 2040 master plan states: “Woodward divides Birmingham physically and mentally. It is an extremely fast, high-volume roadway described as a ‘superhighway’ in the city’s 1929 plan. While it provides regional connections that support downtown activities, Woodward separates (Birmingham’s) neighborhoods. Particularly for older adults and children, Woodward can be an impenetrable barrier to mobility. Not only is the road unsafe to walk or bike along, but there are also too few crossings, and existing crossings are uncomfortable for pedestrians and cyclists.”
The plan also notes that from the north, the wide downhill curve between Bloomfield Hills and Birmingham allows vehicles to travel at highway speeds and there needs to be put in place a visual cue to the motorists that they are entering a more dense, downtown environment.
Bloomfield Hills City Manager David Hendrickson said unlike neighboring towns like Birmingham which feature many businesses and attractions right along Woodward, their stretch of M-1 is mainly lined with trees, including the parklike setting of the Cranbrook Educational Community, and has few frontage destinations, allowing for faster-moving traffic.
“While other communities along Woodward would benefit from traffic calming features and allowing for more pedestrian and bicycle access, this is not the case in Bloomfield Hills.
On our stretch of Woodward, we have maintained a parkway-like setting. There are no traffic lights. We have maintained the tree canopy and have planted a wide grassy median and our ordinances work against developing residences or businesses along this area. So, with the way traffic flows through our part of Woodward, it would be dangerous to include a bicycle lane or invite pedestrians to try to cross here.”
Collecting that high-speed traffic coming from the north on Woodward, Birmingham Assistant City Manager Jana Ecker said there is a real need for cars to slow down. Two pedestrian deaths in two years (2020-2022) prompted Birmingham officials to contact Governor Gretchen Whitmer demanding changes, which include a possible pedestrian countdown signal on the southbound side of Woodward, between Forest and Brown, and a signal on the northbound side to stop traffic if pedestrians press a button.
Before Ecker held her current position, she had 20 years of experience in Birmingham serving as planning director, working to try to find ways to make Woodward Avenue more pedestrian friendly. According to state and regional data from 2013, an average of 29,400 vehicles travel through Birmingham daily and the speed limit is set at 45 mph, though cars exceed this limit regularly.
“The state law will not allow us to lower the speed limit,” Ecker said. “And if we did a speed study and found that 80 percent of the traffic is moving at 55 mph, then we would be required to raise the speed limit. So the way that the state laws are written it’s very difficult to get any change made.”
Ecker pointed to Ferndale’s 35 mph as an ideal speed, yet Ferndale’s downtown sits right on Woodward, compared to Birmingham’s downtown which angles off to veins such as Old Woodward and Maple roads.
But still, there is a different feel to the neighborhoods on the east side of the roadway that Ecker would like to change to increase foot traffic and draw more people to the businesses which reside there.
“As our city developed, we wanted to create a stronger connection to both sides of it. We don’t want people to have to drive from one side of Woodward to the other because they don’t feel safe crossing the street.
“There’s not enough time for pedestrians to cross the entire street because it’s such a wide stretch,” explained Ecker. “Imagine, for example, trying to cross at Woodward and Maple and if you don’t time it just right, you get stuck on the median with nothing around you to protect you. Imagine doing that with a small child or for the elderly. Woodward was never meant to move pedestrians. It was designed to move metal cars – as many and as fast as possible. I’ve been (working for the city of Birmingham) for 21 years, and that’s how long I’ve been fighting for some change on Woodward. It’s a very, very slow uphill battle. Two people had to die before we have seen any movement in progress.
“As it is now, the part of Woodward that runs through Birmingham is 200 feet wide – which includes four lanes in each direction plus sections with turning lanes,” explained Ecker. “We propose to reduce vehicle traffic to three lanes in each direction and use the fourth lane for some bicycle infrastructure. By doing this, we aim to slow down traffic a little bit. We will also enhance all the crossings to improve pedestrian access and to enhance all the crossings and make it safer for people to cross pedestrians, bikes, etc. and build in some bicycle infrastructure, and improve the pedestrian environment along Woodward so that we can better separate high-speed vehicles from pedestrians.”
To attempt to bring about change with MDOT’s speed requirements, Ecker said municipalities along the corridor – from Bloomfield Township through Ferndale – have formed the Woodard Municipal Coalition, which aims to find a way to tame the roadway to make it more equitable and multi-modal friendly, meaning that some lanes of the roadway should be dedicated to bicycles, pedestrians, or provide wider sidewalks and clearly marked curbs and pedestrian crossings that can be easily used by pedestrians of all ages and abilities. But all changes must go through the state level – and change at that level is slow going.
“Local governments continually try to make improvements (to Woodward) but we’re constantly fighting the battle with the state who ultimately owns it and has authority over it,” said Ecker. “We can’t even give out an excessive noise ticket coming from cars outfitted with excessively loud exhaust pipes, which residents living along Woodward complain about.”
Ecker puts accountability firmly on MDOT.
“If Woodward Avenue is supposed to be an American Heritage Motorway and cuts through many communities as our Main Street, it should not have cars driving through our downtowns at interstate highway speeds, and this is Birmingham’s main emphasis for change.”
Matthew Galbraith, transportation planner, metro region of MDOT, explained that speeds vary throughout the Woodward corridor and are typically reflective of the context of adjacent land uses.
“For instance, speed limits in Ferndale is 35 mph, 45 mph through Royal Oak and Birmingham, 50 mph through Bloomfield Hills, and 35 to 40 mph in Pontiac,” explained Galbraith. “State law dictates that MDOT and the Michigan State Police (MSP) jointly set speed limits that are based on the 85th percentile speed, which is the speed at or below which 85 percent of drivers are currently driving a given section of road.”
Galbraith said the agency partners with the communities along the Woodward corridor regularly to accommodate development changes and address safety issues.
“When local governments develop longer-term local master plans or transportation plans, MDOT typically works with them to inform their plans in its capacity as the state government asset owner and operator of the roadway,” Galbraith said. “MDOT is currently working on a request for proposals to conduct a corridor study of its own, and one of the main objectives of this study is to engage with the municipalities along the corridor to better understand local issues and needs. This plan will ultimately inform future construction projects along the corridor and support such a cohesive vision.”
Galbraith said the Woodward Avenue Corridor Plan intends to create a blueprint or comprehensive vision that will provide a strategic approach for future MDOT investments along the corridor. This plan will analyze and address operational, traffic, and safety concerns for all road users along the entire corridor, in addition to assessing pavement condition needs and the potential for future projects.
During the heyday of muscle car culture in the 1950s and 1960s, the stretch of M-1 through towns like Royal Oak, Pleasant Ridge and Ferndale was dotted with businesses like Royal Oak’s Totem Pole or Suzy Q’s drive-in or Ted’s Coffee Shop in Bloomfield Hills that catered to the cruising car culture.
From Ferndale to Pontiac, a nod to nostalgia is still around today. Grown from a grassroots movement beginning in 1995, today the world-famous Woodward Dream Cruise attracts more than 1.5 million car enthusiasts from all over the world each August to watch 30,000 classic cars drive by.
Ferndale Mayor Melanie Piana said she hopes a $2 million repaving and lane reduction project will be worth the minor inconvenience and that the project will be mostly complete in time for when the Dream Cruise rolls along this August 19th.
Ferndale and Pleasant Ridge are working together sharing this $2 million Transportation Improvement Program state grant funding for non-motorized improvements to Woodward. The project will narrow Woodward from four to three lanes in each direction in Ferndale. It will add two-way cycle tracks on both sides of Woodward in most of Ferndale and a portion of southbound Woodward in Pleasant Ridge. This project will create a continuous separated bicycle infrastructure from 8 Mile to I-696.
Pleasant Ridge has a small portion of this overall project, and its local match amount is estimated to be $140,000, which will be provided by the municipality’s major streets fund and will not rely on general funds or local property taxes. The project was the result of years of study and surveying of residents, including a 2019 Woodward Bicycling and Walking Safety Audit.
The average daily traffic flow rate in these municipalities, according to 2017 MDOT data respectively, is 105,000 in Pleasant Ridge and 17,000 in Ferndale.
Pleasant Ridge City Manager James Breuckman said his city, Ferndale, and Birmingham, have similar characteristics in the way that Woodward Avenue serves as a main street for their downtowns, whereas towns like Berkely and Royal Oak have their main drags on a diagonal off Woodward. Breuckman said the changes coming to Woodward in Pleasant Ridge and Ferndale are the result of a decade of planning and collaboration with MDOT.
Over the decades, Breuckman said that one characteristic that changed the feel of Pleasant Ridge was the 1980’s construction of the Woodward Avenue tunnel that goes beneath Route 696, and it was not for the better. The tunnel severed the town into two sides and impacted nearly all the businesses along the corridor.
“We had some great businesses back then that are all long gone,” Breuckman said. “I bet people hardly remember places like Hedges Wigwam, a Native American-themed restaurant that stood on Woodward and 10 Mile from 1927 to 1967.”
Breuckman said when traveling through Pleasant Ridge, motorists have a choice of either using the tunnel or staying at the surface level, where there are three lanes in each direction.
The changes to Woodward are coming this summer and are projected to be completed by the end of 2023. From Northbound Sylvan to Route 696 only, three vehicle lanes will be reduced to two lanes, using that third lane for street parking, thus creating a buffer for a two-way bicycle track that is at sidewalk level. This state Transportation Improvement Program project is being administered by the Southeastern Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG) for MDOT, with the local match being provided by Pleasant Ridge.
Breuckman continued: “Now, you’ll have a dedicated space for cyclists to ride that will be protected from traffic by parked cars and the curbs. We’re excited about it. I think this is going to be a model project for what could happen in many other places.”
When it comes to working with MDOT, Breuckman said things have improved over the last decade, as the state agency is more receptive to hearing from local municipal planners on how M-1 impacts locals while balancing statewide needs as a trunkline.
“Dealing with MDOT today is a far different experience than it was even 10 years ago,” said Breuckman. “They are more open now to locally initiated efforts to understand our position. Overall, they are the state transportation agency. They’re still looking at Woodward as an important piece of the regional transportation network and must fulfill the obligations of efficiently getting people around the region. On the other side, we, the cities, are looking at impacts to our specific part of Woodward. I understand the inherent tension this can cause. It’s great when you want to move from a considerable distance in the region, but locally, it’s designed like having an interstate freeway that cuts through all our communities.”
Ferndale Mayor Melanie Piana said the overhaul and repaving of its stretch of Woodward Avenue that began this March and is set to finish up by this fall is well underway. Will there be some lane closures and orange cones still lingering in August for the Dream Cruise? Probably yes, but Piana said that’s not going to stop Ferndale from taking part in the annual celebrations.
“MDOT has conducted road repair and construction during the Dream Cruise in past years and made it as safe as possible,” Texplained Piana. “I think it will be fine going forward and pretty much two of the lanes on the Woodward Dream Cruise are dedicated to the cruisers and then the two left lanes are for ongoing travel.”
In any case, Piana said the long-awaited project, which includes resurfacing of Woodward from 8 Mile to the northern Ferndale city limit, improving ADA accessibility to curbs, improving visibility at intersections and adding bus islands for those taking public transportation, will be worth it.
Piana steers away from the term “road diet” and prefers to call modifications to Woodward a “lane reduction safety improvement project.”
“In Ferndale, what we are trying to do is encourage lifestyle changes which will be reflected in the reduction of lanes used for vehicles,” Piana said. “A road diet does not accurately describe what is happening but lane reduction safety improvement does. Cities are realizing that walkable communities are more welcoming and equitable. That means within a plan, everyone has been thought of to be a part of the community. Woodward and its history are evolving. There will still be cars traveling down Woodward Avenue. We’re just giving a little bit more space over to people walking, biking, and using whatever wheeled mobility device they choose.
“We’ve heard from our residents for over a decade how unsafe Woodward is to cross at Nine Mile, Cambourne, and West Marshall,” she continued. “We are studying data on crash rates and near misses. Woodward is in the heart of our downtown, and people need to be able to safely cross from one side to another. Speed limits are 35 but most cars go 45 or higher. “
When cars go that fast, even cyclists fear for their safety, so they wind up on the sidewalks with the pedestrians. Of the 200-foot span of Woodward in Ferndale, Piana said only six percent of that width is dedicated to six-foot wide sidewalks for pedestrians of all abilities, including those using wheelchairs. To make matters worse, cyclists, fearing for their safety from high-speed vehicles and without a dedicated lane, have also had to resort to using the sidewalk, along with those using scooters.
Even so, Piana admits the upgrades cannot fix all that Ferndale residents and businesses want out of Woodward, and that includes wider sidewalks. To achieve that, this would require rezoning laws to be created at the state level with MDOT.
“People are riding their bikes where people are walking as well as those with mobility issues using wheelchairs, and this makes for unsafe conditions,” she added.
There are lots of current and upcoming changes coming for the bookends of Woodward Avenue, the urban centers of Pontiac and Detroit. In recent years, residents, commuters and visitors to Detroit have enjoyed a bit more ease of transportation as the Q-Line makes its way through the city’s most iconic stops like Comerica Park, the Fox Theater, and up through Wayne State University and the Detroit Institute of the Arts. In a few years, Pontiac will finally rid itself of the Loop, which diverted traffic away from the city’s downtown and made it impossible for residents in outlying neighborhoods to get to local businesses on foot.
Sam Krassenstein, chief of infrastructure for the city of Detroit said that the tale of Woodward Avenue in the city can be broken into several micro-stories: beginning downtown with the Q-Line which runs three miles from Grand Boulevard to Congress; the proposed future site of a transit hub at Woodward and Baltimore Streets; the activity around the new Amazon distribution hub at the site of the Old Fairgrounds; and up through the northernmost stretch lined with neighborhoods around Palmer Park.
Recent and future MDOT construction projects for Detroit’s section of Woodward include a $1.88 million 2020 project on various locations along Woodward Avenue, notably Woodward Avenue at Grand River to upgrade traffic signal, communications, and operations systems. In 2025, MDOT will begin an $8.914 million pavement reconstruction project on Woodward from McNichols south to 8 Mile Road.
“There are many stories within Detroit’s section of the Woodward Corridor,” Krassenstein said. “The biggest infrastructure change for the city is the opening of the Q-line. Despite a few operational issues, it has largely been a success and has been transformational for the part of the corridor where it runs, from the Riverfront all the way to Grand Boulevard.”
The concept for the Q-Line – then called M1 Rail – was first proposed in 2008 as part of a landmark regional transit plan. The project, which went into operation in 2017, is funded by $110 million in private philanthropic investments, $10 million from MDOT, and $25 million in Federal Transit Administration (FTA) funds.
The pilot project is ambitious in that a street trolley had not run in Detroit since 1956. With 20 stations at 12 stops on a 3.3-mile span down Woodward from Grand Boulevard through its southernmost stop on Congress a few blocks from Campus Martius, there currently is no charge to ride the Q-Line.
The Q-Line has spurred $10 billion in economic development as it connects residents, workers, and students to resources such as healthcare, jobs and education, according to city officials.
Krassenstein said ridership did slip during the height of the pandemic, just as it did on major public transportation systems in New York City and Chicago, but now it is back up to where it was at 2019 levels with 2,500 rides per day, and about 80,000 rides per month.
“The Q-Line is anticipating some healthy growth,” said Krassenstein. “Some of that is from daily commuters, but a lot of it has to do with event-based ridership. There are so many great events happening that are drawing people downtown. We are trying to encourage people to park further out from the downtown center and to hop on the Q-line the rest of the way, and patronize some of the shops, restaurants, and bars that have opened up and down the corridor.”
In the last five years, the Q-line has allowed for an ease in foot traffic to support new businesses such as Detroit has reported healthy growth along the Woodward Corridor. It now hosts Boabab Fare, an East African restaurant that was recently reviewed in The New York Times and other national publications.
Krassenstein said he is keeping an eye on trends in federal infrastructure funding. As it stands now, there are no firm plans to extend the Q-line further uptown or to cross over Eight Mile.
“The project was extremely expensive. Though we are paying close attention to the federal funding that is out there, the Q-Line project is not run by the city and there is nothing the city is doing in its plans to extend as it is not our asset to extend,” he said.
In upper neighborhoods of Woodward Avenue, crosswalks are scarce, and vehicles move at highway speeds along ten lanes of road. And where there are crosswalks and lights, it can take a pedestrian up to five minutes to cross the street, which is uncomfortable in extreme weather conditions or for the elderly or mobility-impaired. So, in general, most residents just don’t try it. If you are a resident without a car who wants to get across the street and to enjoy the park or a restaurant, you find yourself out of luck.
“We are getting a lot of feedback from residents along Woodward, especially who live in the Grixdale Farms neighborhood between Six and Seven Mile who live right across Woodward from Palmer Park,” Krassenstein said. “These residents live right across the street but must take a car to get to the park because it’s just not safe to cross.”
Krassenstein describes Woodward Avenue as one spoke in a wheel with Detroit at its hub. The purpose of trunklines like Woodward, Gratiot and Grand River Avenue, ultimately, is to move traffic, trucks, and goods from the city to the outer regions of the metro area as quickly and efficiently as possible. At the same time, he notes there must be a balance to beautify these vital arteries and keep them as pedestrian friendly as possible for residents who live along each of these corridors operated by MDOT.
When it comes to working with the state, Krassenstein said every municipality would like MDOT to put plans into action more quickly and be more “forward thinking” in terms of making the state’s major corridors more traversable for pedestrians and bikers.
The second major development in intermodal transportation along the Woodward Corridor in Detroit is the future construction of the Detroit New Center Intermodal Facility. Planned for construction at the intersection of Woodward and Baltimore Avenue, in the Milwaukee Junction neighborhood, the hub would combine a station for intercity buses such as Greyhound, Indian Trails, Miller Transportation and Barons Bus with the existing Amtrak train station, which was built as a temporary station in 1992.
“So here we are 30 years later with the same (temporary) train facility,” said Krassenstein. The Greyhound station, built in 1991, is on Howard Street. As it stands now, these two vital transportation centers are separate and disconnected. Detroit needs to create an inter-city transportation hub that has been so successful in many other cities, especially when hubs are combined with retail and restaurant space where people want to meet and gather. The Regional Transportation Authority is also working out a pilot that would provide direct bus access to DTW. We want one central transportation hub where people can get to either the airport, Lansing, Ann Arbor or even Chicago with ease and no confusion.”
According to MDOT, the renovated transportation hub will feature an upgraded train platform to allow for safer and faster boarding and offboarding, a new bus station on the south side of the train tracks connected to the train station by a passenger tunnel; drop off and pick up area for cars and connections to DDOT, SMART and the Q-Line. To enhance micro-modal forms of transportation, the hub will also be a spot to rent bicycles, scooters, carshares and access public parking. Still in its planning phases, a final design plan is not expected to be approved until 2024, with the center not set to open until at least 2026.
Krassenstein said that the city is still working with MDOT to finalize a design.
“The final design must fit the needs of both MDOT as the transportation agency as well as the surrounding Detroit neighborhoods and the customers who will use its services.”
At the edge of the city limits, retail giant Amazon this year completed at 3.8 million-square-foot warehouse distribution center on land that once hosted the State Fairgrounds between Woodward and Eight Mile Road. Employing over 2,000 people, all trucks and vehicles entering and leaving the center are routed onto Eight Mile, thereby not adding more traffic to the Woodward Corridor, said Krassenstein.
Beyond Eight Mile, Krassenstein said Detroit is paying great attention to the changes to Woodward happening in Ferndale to see if similar changes can be made in the northern neighborhoods of the city to make it more bicycle and pedestrian friendly.
“All along the entire 27-mile corridor, I think all townships and cities want the same thing from M-1. We want the corridor to be slower, we want Woodward not to divide our neighborhoods and for our residents to safely use the corridor through a variety of means of transportation. At the same time, each community along the corridor has its own distinct characteristics with different needs.”
Pontiac is getting ready for big changes in the long-anticipated removal of the Loop and the reconnection of Woodward Avenue into a pedestrian-friendly two-way thoroughfare into the downtown district. After all, this plan has been decades in the making, and it’s been nearly 50 years since the 1964 design was put into place. Critics lambasted the plan. The Loop was built to prepare the area for an increased traffic flow that never came but instead severed outlying Pontiac neighborhoods from its downtown core.
“The Loop has been decried by city planners for many decades,” Pontiac Mayor Tim Greimel said. “It has acted like a moat, separating Pontiac’s downtown from the surrounding neighborhoods. Although the posted speed limit around the loop is 35 miles per hour, cars drive often drive 50 miles per hour. As a result, it is a very intimidating physical and visual barrier. It has really separated the outlying neighborhoods from our downtown businesses.”
MDOT’s goal in Pontiac is to turn Woodward Avenue into a pedestrian-friendly series of two-way boulevards, with slower traffic speeds aimed at reconnecting neighborhoods to the downtown while inviting motorists to stop, shop and dine.
The new design of Woodward will slow traffic and provide islands between opposing lanes. That will greatly enhance pedestrian safety, former Pontiac Mayor Deirdre Waterman said. A 2016 city study of traffic hazards showed that nearly 40 percent of crash fatalities in Pontiac involved pedestrians or cyclists, about double the national average.
Greimel said he understands that when construction gets underway to remove the Loop in 2024, some commuters may be frustrated with lane closures and delays. But the result will be worth it.
“After the construction is finished, the reconfiguration of Woodward Avenue in Pontiac is to make sure that our downtown is better connected with the outlying neighborhoods,” Greimel said. “We will have a more walkable downtown that doesn’t have this intimidating four or five-lane highway that creates a very real physical barrier for pedestrians.”
Greimel added that no one likes one-way streets, especially visitors unfamiliar with the tricks of getting around a certain city.
“Pontiac’s streets are infamously tough to navigate for drivers who may not know exactly where they’re going from point A to point B,” explained Greimel. “If a driver gets lost, they need to loop around all over again as opposed to taking a shorter route, like turning around. For all those reasons, we believe that reconfiguring the Woodward Loop around our downtown is one of the essential ingredients to revitalizing our downtown.”
At the center of facilitating between the state and local governments to make sure they deliver the best infrastructure and transportation resources to their constituents through research, funding and municipality-to-state level operations is the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG). The work seen on Woodward Avenue and many of the regions’ main trunklines are the results of decades of studies an analysis in the making. And a comprehensive, corridor-wide rethinking of how vehicles and other modes of transportation should move up, down and across Woodward has yet come into focus.
Michele Fedorowicz, SEMCOG transportation planning manager, explained why proposals and ideas of today may not come to fruition until a decade or more later.
“It does take a long time to get a project done, especially like a major road such as Woodward Avenue Corridor,” explained Fedorowicz. “Not only does Woodward belong to MDOT, but everything the state wants to do requires a federal review by the Federal Highway Administration under the U.S. Department of Transportation. Each infrastructure project undergoes an examination to make sure projects are done fairly, with equity, and meet up to stringent environmental requirements. There are 36 laws that fall under the National Environmental Protection Act for review that each major infrastructure project that receives federal funding must adhere.”
Created in the 1970s, Fedorowicz said NEPA assures that the destruction of certain neighborhoods to make way for infrastructure projects – such as what happened to the historic Black Bottom neighborhood of Detroit which was dismantled to make way for I-375 – are a thing of the past. She said MDOT’s long-range plan for Woodward, which extends decades into the future, is in a pre-NEPA phase.
Fedorowicz explained that all approved infrastructure projects for the next four years are tallied and constantly updated in SEMCOG’s Transportation Improvement Program (TIP) database. Accessible to the public, as the public is invited to weigh in and leave comments on how projects will directly affect them, the TIP is an implementation tool of the Regional Transportation Plan (RTP), which has a planning horizon for the next 20 years. The plan identifies policies, programs, and transportation investments to support the long-term vision for southeast Michigan.
Nearly all major transportation improvements made in southeast Michigan receive federal funding. Most often, the federal government pays for 80 percent of a project, and the local community or transportation agency matches their funds with the remaining 20 percent. But, before a transportation project can receive those federal funds, it must take a series of steps to ensure the money is well spent. Each step presents an opportunity for citizen involvement.
Fedorowicz said SEMCOG’s role in all of this is to facilitate cooperation between MDOT and all the individual municipalities located along all the region’s main truncates.
“It is not up to SEMCOG to create a broad vision for what the Woodward Corridor or any of these roads should be for the future,” Fedorowicz said. “It’s SEMCOG’s role to bring MDOT and individual communities together to facilitate that conversation and make sure everyone’s voices are heard. There are varying issues along the Woodward Corridor. While some want a smaller footprint with lane reductions, others want to facilitate commuter travel. So, there’s a difference of voices here.”
Right now, there are several TIP projects in the books for Woodward. Of those, they include: In Bloomfield Township, construction on Woodward from Square Lake Road to 1-94, is a $3.6 million MDOT project. Work on this project began in 2023.
In Pontiac, beginning in 2024, MDOT will embark on its $26 million project to remove the Pontiac Loop and reconstruct the city’s stretch of Woodward as detailed above.
Also in Pontiac, this year MDOT embarked on a $3.1 million project in Pontiac, closing southbound Woodward Avenue south of the Pontiac Loop, from Rapid Street to South Boulevard for intersection improvements at the I-75 Business Loop at Woodward Avenue and South Boulevard intersection. The project will reconstruct southbound I-75 bound lanes and install indirect left turns.
Fedorowicz said unlike the long-term overall planning concepts and studies that SEMCOG conducts which reach far into the future, projects such as the lane reduction and reconfigurations in Ferndale and Pleasant Ridge are described as Construction Maintenance Projects. Meaning, these are enhanced road repair projects that were already scheduled as regular maintenance. MDOT worked with the municipalities to customize these sections of the corridor with what residents and businesses have in mind.
“These projects are not complete reconstruction endeavors, as what we will see in the future for Pontiac, but rather maintenance ones,” Fedorowicz explained. “MDOT was scheduled to repair the pavement anyway, and they worked with the community asking for their input and interests.”
She continued: “Reconstruction projects, which are more long-range and involved, are very expensive. And corridor-wide projects become more complicated when multiple municipalities are involved, so you want to start that conversation early. That’s why SEMCOG is out there seeking information for entire corridors such as Woodward – to get the community conversation going.”
When he was a reporter at the Detroit Free Press beginning in the late 1980s, John Gallagher wrote about futuristic business and economic redevelopment projects, some that only came to fruition during his last few years at the paper before he retired in 2019. He now enjoys the city’s more walkable and bikeable neighborhoods and routes that move in and around Detroit and up into the metro area, which were things he wrote about years ago and that few predicted would come true.
“When I first wrote about pedestrian-only squares and wider sidewalks, setting aside traffic lanes for bicycles, and even the creation of the people’s plaza at the intersection of Woodward and Jefferson, there was some groaning about how this was going to affect traffic,” Gallagher recalled. “But parts of Detroit have become a very welcome, walkable environment, and the (vehicle traffic) has adapted.”
An avid cyclist, Gallagher now enjoys Detroit’s connectedness of its bicycle routes along the Dequindre Cut, the Riverfront and parts of Woodward, although most of the stretch remains off-limits to safe riding.
“Although there are places along Woodward I could not imagine biking or walking (such as around Bloomfield Township), there are other areas where making it more walkable and bikeable just makes more sense,” he said. “At one point, the (Pontiac) Loop was built to prioritize traffic and transit at the expense of the environment. But there is talk now to reunite this part of the road with the rest of the surrounding neighborhoods, urban areas and roads like Woodward, with neighborhoods to make the traffic slow down, to make them more walkable.”
In 2014 Gallagher penned an article that predicted long-term economic and commercial growth in and around Detroit, including the Woodward Avenue Corridor. Back then, commercial and residential real estate was just beginning to pick up on the street and the tracks for the Q-Line had yet to be laid.
In his last years at the Detroit Free Press, Gallagher traveled the Q-line when he had out of the office meetings.
Though the Q-Line was designed as a demonstration project, Gallagher said that for the light rail to truly become a vital part of transportation infrastructure, it would need to run up to Birmingham.
“I know there are issues with that,” Gallagher admitted. “For one, it is very expensive. And it would have to operate at high speeds and stop less in the suburbs and then move more slowly with more frequent stops in Detroit. As it stands now, it is not an essential mode of transportation such as the El in Chicago or the subway in New York.”
He continued: “It’s encouraging to see the work getting done in Ferndale and Pleasant Ridge to make way for bikers and pedestrians and to see bike lanes opening in and around Detroit.”
Looking further into the future at the city’s other main arteries, Gallagher said he is optimistic of the transformation and raising I-375 and making it a more walkable, livable boulevard that may redeem and restore the history of the destruction of the predominantly African American Black Bottom neighborhood and the vibrant life of what was Hastings Street. MDOT is proposing to spend $150 million on the I-375 project, with estimated construction to begin in 2027.
“We are beginning to recognize what it means to bring back walkability in our urban neighborhoods, and what that means to the quality of one’s life,” said Gallagher. “There are lots of new zoning trends that 15 to 20 years ago were unheard of but now are becoming more commonplace. The trend is called the ‘20-minute neighborhood.’ The concept is built around the idea that people can have most everything they need, from housing to work to other services and features, within a 20-minute walk. It’s becoming a priority because cities are beginning to understand what was lost when we put highways through neighborhoods.”