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Taming Woodward through Birmingham

Woodward Avenue is more than a road to somewhere else – once the world's first road to have a section paved, as reporter Stacy Gittleman explains in this month's cover story on Woodward, the storied 27-mile main drag of our metro area, which runs from the foot of Jefferson Avenue in Detroit through Wayne and Oakland counties to Pontiac. It is the road that made Detroit the Motor City. Yet today, the definition of transit increasingly is taking a multitude of forms besides the iconic car – and residents and businesses along its route are seeking a re-examination of the roadway, looking to make it a part of their communities rather than a fast way past.


According to recent Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) data, between 20,000 and 65,000 vehicles travel Woodward daily in certain sections, with the most congested areas – between I-696 and 14 Mile. 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 was built for speed.


But perhaps no longer. The roadway of the annual Dream Cruise is no longer a dream street. Currently, from Pleasant Ridge to Huntington Woods, the road is being “revised,” especially in Ferndale, whose downtown has grown to encompass and include Woodward, and Woodward's notorious fast and furious speed is a deterrent. Now, lanes and speeds are being reduced, bike lanes added as well as pedestrian-friendly and inviting crosswalks.


Officials up and down the roadway note 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. Birmingham officials, along with those from Bloomfield Township, Bloomfield Hills, Royal Oak and Berkley, who along with Ferndale and Huntington Woods officials are part of the Woodward Municipal Coalition, which aims to find a way to tame the roadway to make it more equitable and multi-modal friendly – it's time to put Woodward on a diet.


As Birmingham has grown and developed over the last 50 years from a sleepy village town to a thriving destination downtown, leaders have recognized that the high speeds on Woodward are not only dangerous, with two fatalities in as many years, but allow drivers to zoom right past the city, rather than inviting them in.


Incoming Birmingham City Manager Jana Ecker, a longtime planner with the city, said that as the downtown has developed, there has been a desire to create vitality on both sides of Woodward. The goals of the Triangle District are beginning to see fruition, but need to see the two sides of Woodward bridge their divide. Woodward at Maple is 200 feet wide – with a speed limit of 45 mph, although, as Ecker noted, drivers often exceed that. She would like to see Woodward with a speed limit of no more than 35 mph, like Ferndale is implementing.


“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.”


An obstacle to the city's vision is at the curb of Woodward, yet officials are hampered in their efforts to remedy the situation, because Woodward, or M1, is a state roadway, meaning the state manages it and sets the speed limit. Typically, MDOT will study the median speed on a roadway and then set it at that speed – which is the opposite of what is needed.. While Ferndale's downtown sits right on Woodward, Ecker said she envisions a lower speed limit in Birmingham would draw in neighborhoods from the east side as well as increase foot traffic and draw more people to the businesses which reside there.


We all know diets are hard. But they're a healthy alternative to harmful lifestyles. Let's give Woodward a reinvigorating new shot.

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