Submitted by Adam Barker
Many Munster residents are grabbing their torches and pitchforks over the proposed change to shrink Ridge Road, from State Line Ave. to Calumet Ave., from four lanes to two (one in each direction, with a turn lane in the middle).
Ridge Road is one of the main thoroughfares from Lansing to Munster and beyond, and if you’re reading this you probably know that Ridge already experiences slow traffic just about every day. It isn’t crazy, in light of this, to suggest that shrinking the road will make traffic significantly worse. Spread the same number of cars over half as much road and the traffic lines are twice as long, or so we imagine.
My goal in writing this is not to talk anyone out of their concerns about increased traffic on Ridge Road. That would never work and the simple fact is that we won’t know what that traffic will look like until the project is completed years from now. (I will say, though, that some reading on the concept of induced demand might ease concerns, as might acknowledging that trained experts are conducting traffic studies as part of the Reimagine Ridge Road project.)
Instead, I want to share why I think the project is worth doing even with legitimate concerns about traffic. I think the simplest way of getting at it is with a question: have you ever slept on a futon?
Futons seem like a good idea because you can get both a bed and a couch out of one piece of furniture. But if you’ve ever slept on a futon, you know that they turn out to be both bad beds and bad couches. They aren’t comfortable for sleeping or sitting.
I want to suggest that the stretch of Ridge Road in consideration for redevelopment is a futon. It tries to do two things — move cars efficiently and build community wealth — and ends up being bad at both.
The good folks at Strong Towns call this a stroad and describe it as “the futon of transportation.” While futons try to be both couches and beds, stroads try to be both streets (places for building community wealth) and roads (avenues for moving cars efficiently) and end up failing at both.
(If you’re not sure what I mean by “build community wealth”, it’s something like what the Town of Munster is aiming for with their stated goal to “improve business and economic vitality along Ridge Road.” Good streets — or what Munster is calling a “Complete Street” — do this well because they’re safely accessible to people using many different modes of transportation: driving, walking, biking, rolling, etc. The primary effect of this is that it creates a sense of place, making the street a desirable place to be — not just to travel through. Here’s a longer explanation.)
Need more examples to see what I’m getting at? They’re not hard to find, because the stroad is central to the development pattern of all American suburbs.
Look no further than Torrence Avenue in Lansing. Torrence tries to move a heavy volume of cars from the interstate to communities both north and south of it while also trying to be hospitable to countless businesses. The result, as far I can tell, is slow-moving, accident-prone traffic and a corridor that is for the most part only attractive to chain businesses who can afford to pay for all the parking space necessary to host the vehicles traveling through. It’s also terrifying to navigate as a pedestrian or bicyclist.
Above all else, Torrence, Ridge Road in Munster, and other stroads like them are simply unpleasant places to be. There might be desirable destinations on a stroad — I love me some Dairy Queen — but a stroad itself is never a desirable place to be (Lansing’s DQ is an awful place to actually eat your ice cream). It’s not a place you want to linger in and enjoy. And it’s the attempt to create a place worth being that I like about the Ridge Road project.
Creating places worth being is always worth it. Have you ever known someone to vacation in the suburbs? No — because suburbs are almost never desirable places. Instead we vacation to Saugatuck or New Orleans or Rome or Paris because, though they have their fair share of stroads, they’re also covered in real places. Main Street-feeling, downtown-y type areas that are walkable, cozy, safe, and entertaining.
Places that are appealing just to be in.
It’s exactly this kind of desirability that Lansing’s downtown shows hints of (consider the difference from DQ to sitting outside Gayety’s with an ice cream). While much more could be done to improve it, Ridge Road from Burnham to Wentworth — though just a handful of blocks — is the sort of “street” (as defined above) that makes a place pleasant to be in because of its design features, which to name a few are:
- Fewer traffic lanes, meaning cars move slower and the street is easier and safer for pedestrians to cross
- On-street parking, which lowers parking lot expenses for small businesses and makes pedestrians feel far safer on the sidewalk
- Parking lots, if they exist, are in the back of the buildings, making the street itself more walkable and visually appealing
- Street trees, which add beauty and are proven to calm traffic (I would love to see more of these)
- Density, i.e. buildings are very close together (even sharing walls), which means 1) there’s a diverse option of shops to enjoy in one walkable area and 2) business owners can share infrastructure costs
Places worth being — where communities can gather, linger, and relax — are a big part of what make life enjoyable and full. I mean, who wouldn’t want to live somewhere others wish they could vacation?
What we often fail to realize is that we have the power to build our own communities into those desirable places.
Here’s hoping Munster’s project is a success and an example to all!
P.S. — If you’re excited by this sort of thing and want to further the conversation, come join me over on Facebook at Strong Towns Illiana. We’ll be sharing resources and ideas to create conversation around how Lansing, Munster, and other nearby communities can work toward stronger futures.