Ferndale, Mich.—When he got to the Michigan House in 2009, Jon Switalski did not expect to be a champion of transportation policy.
But a chance meeting arranged by one of his staff members got him thinking about transportation planning in a new way: Could legislation help people move from where they work, live, socialize and shop in a healthier way? Could healthy activity take place around that movement?
It was something he hadn't exactly considered and when Switalski started looking around suburban Detroit and wondering how people could walk, bike or use public transportation, he had big questions about how to improve his community.
And he found an answer in complete streets, that's the philosophy taking hold nationally that transportation planning should consider all users of roadways, not just cars and trucks.
Switalski authored the complete streets legislation the legislature passed in 2010 and Gov. Jennifer Granholm signed. It calls for a plan for non-motorized usage to be considered in MDOT projects, in part, and seeks model policies for local communities.
What really spurred my interest was the issue in transportation planning that when it comes to dense cities and making livable, sustainable communities, young people are moving out of Michigan en masse.
He's admittedly a bit frustrated at its slow implementation and he calls it "slow and laborious" and still faces opposition, mainly from county road commissions who cringe at the perceived costs of the changes.
But he remains optimistic that complete streets will help contribute to a healthier Michigan.
Mode Shift: How did you become the lead sponsor? Are you a cyclist?
Switalski: Honestly, no. It was a matter of me knowing a guy through someone who works in my office. He wanted to talk about what we could do for bicyclists and it turned into something much bigger: actual transportation policy. But it had an organic start.
Mode Shift: How much was the cycling community involved?
Switalski: The League of Michigan Bicyclists actually was championing this and they were talking about it in terms of safety. They felt that they would like some more policies from MDOT that would provide more traffic safety laws for bicyclists and then it just began to snowball and take into account design aspects for everyone and it grew. We were getting more and more stakeholders involved and adding more to the bill: AARP, cyclists, health kids groups. All of them became involved and were really big champions of this.
Mode Shift: If you're not a bicyclist yourself, what got you so interested?
Switalski: What really spurred my interest was the issue in transportation planning that when it comes to dense cities and making livable, sustainable communities, young people are moving out of Michigan en masse. It's a desire to live in urban communities. And that's what really motivated me to work on the bill.
Mode Shift: Many of the complete streets advocates complain that its implementation is too slow and the general communities arenít picking up on it. Do you agree?
Switalski: When you're not used to moving that way you don't think about moving that way. You don't go to the corner store with a 15 minute walk, you get in your car and drive two minutes. It's part of the culture which is really the tough thing about legislation. You can put it on paper but getting people to change 20, 40, 50 years of mindset? It can be like talking to a brick wall. As part of our basic funding structure, we don't think about anything but cars and moving people in that way, that's part of why we have an obesity epidemic.