Many things may come to mind when you picture a healthy city.
For some, it could be having lots of amenities like parks and recreation centers, retail and restaurants, or a thriving downtown. For others, it could be good schools, a strong job market, or low cost of living.
For Dennis Madsen, manager of urban and long-range planning for the City of Huntsville, the health of a city is directly tied to its citizens being able to move safely, comfortably, and efficiently around the community.
That’s why Madsen’s department is working to ensure Huntsville supports all modes of transportation – not just automobiles.
“We’ve done that very well,” he said. “But due to changes in demographics, we recognize that even though we do want to put a premium on ensuring our traffic moves well and efficiently, we also want to be able to offer more transportation choice.”
Alternative Modes Review
This month, the City’s Long-Range Planning Division released its second-annual Alternative Modes Review, a summary of Huntsville’s progress on alternative transportation infrastructure projects built for safety, quality of life, and recreation.
It comes years after Mayor Tommy Battle tasked Madsen with leading the BIG Picture, a plan that incorporates citizen ideas with a thoughtful analysis of trends and data to position Huntsville for long-term, sustainable success and vitality. Available at BigPictureHuntsville.com, it is the City’s first published, comprehensive plan guided by input from citizens.
This report is really to show people at the end of the BIG Picture what we are doing to realize our vision for a more diverse transportation network.”
Madsen said the BIG Picture plan was a catalyst for the Alternative Modes Review.
“This report is really to show people at the end of the BIG Picture what we are doing to realize our vision for a more diverse transportation network,” he said. “What the steps are that we’re taking and the projects we’re completing in order to do a better job delivering alternative modes.”
What is an alternative mode?
Simply put, an alternative mode is a mode of transportation other than a motor vehicle. It includes walking, biking, running, jogging and even using mobility aids such as wheelchairs and walkers.
Investing in alternative modes is a priority for the City of Huntsville primarily for traffic safety, quality of life, and recreation. To do this, the City builds sidewalks, ramps, crosswalks and bike lanes to improve the safety of streets for all users.
It also invests in greenways, trails, and cycle tracks to enhance the well-being of Huntsville residents and visitors.
“When we talk about alternative modes, it’s how can you navigate your city if you are not in a motorized vehicle or car?” Madsen said. “All of these things go into providing alternative modes of transportation in Huntsville.”
They are so much more than their name.
In addition to supporting health and wellness, greenways foster and promote tourism, economic development, recreation, and the community’s cultural heritage and natural beauty. They also offer diverse, safe transportation options for the benefit of the public.
But every greenway is different and the process to build one unique. Madsen said they can be funded in a variety of ways with a range of partners assisting.
“It’s not quite as simple as going out and putting down some pavement,” he said. “There are a lot of design and property elements that go into how you build a greenway.”
The 2020 Alternative Modes Review highlights two recent greenway projects – Hays-Street (Grissom) Greenway Phase I and Spring Branch Greenway. Both are good examples of the variables inherent in greenway planning, design, and construction.
The report also shares the costs and timelines of preliminary engineering, right of way, utility relocation, and construction for Huntsville’s greenway network projects built between 2019 and 2020.
“We’re being transparent,” Madsen said. “We’re showing you exactly what’s on our roster of projects and when certain things are getting built. We also want citizens to understand how these things get made so they can appreciate why we’re doing what we’re doing.”
Like greenways, new sidewalk projects depend on a number of factors, including the grade of the roadway, drainage along adjacent properties, and utility relocation.
The City has a $600,000 annual budget for sidewalks, which includes both new construction and maintenance of existing pathways.
“We get hundreds of sidewalk requests,” Madsen said. “The challenge is how do you prioritize them? Everybody’s sidewalk is important but we have to look at which projects have the most impact.”
Some of the mobility we take for granted – our ability to get out and walk around – these folks rely on every day.”
The recent pandemic has exacerbated the need for additional sidewalks as more people go outdoors for recreation and exercise. Sidewalks are also important for those who can’t drive or are mobility impaired.
Having a safe, quality pedestrian network enables those citizens to more easily access employment, goods and services in Huntsville.
“Some of the mobility we take for granted – our ability to get out and walk around – these folks rely on every day,” Madsen said. “It’s an important part of what makes their lives fruitful and livable.”
Bikes are a popular method of transportation on Huntsville streets. As more bicycles enter the roadways, the City recognizes work is needed to make streets comfortable for riders of all ages and abilities.
To achieve this goal, Huntsville’s Bicycle Advisory and Safety Committee (BASC) worked with the City to implement See & Be Seen, an online reporting tool where cyclists can share road hazards or incidents with motorists where they felt unsafe. Pedestrians and motorists can also use the tool, available on BikeHuntsville.com, to report similar “near miss” incidents.
The City uses data from these submissions to inform municipal decision-making on road improvements and to determine areas that need more traffic enforcement.
“(See & Be Seen) is not designed so much as a reporting mechanism to get people in trouble – but it does help us from a planning and traffic standpoint identify areas where we need to make investments in bike or pedestrian infrastructure,” Madsen said.
The Alternative Modes Review also shares how Huntsville businesses can become certified bicycle friendly businesses through the national League of American Bicyclists.
Madsen said multiple studies show bicycle consumers will spend a lot of money at businesses that accommodate them. By earning the bike friendly designation, businesses can broaden their customer base and earn more revenue.
“As a business, you want to be near people and you want to make it as easy as possible for people to get to you,” he said. “The more modes they can use to get to your front door, the better.”
A model for the Southeast
The Alternative Modes Review is an excellent example of Huntsville’s commitment to building a well-integrated transportation network. But Madsen acknowledges there is still work to be done.
“We want to make sure our commute times stay insanely low,” Madsen said. “But we also know long-term we really have to diversify our options. I think we have the support of administration, partners and our community to make it happen.”
Mayor Battle agrees. By pursuing smart, sustainable growth, the City’s transportation network can be a model for cities around the U.S.
“Alternative modes are not only good for our health, but they benefit our environment and economy, as well,” he said. “I encourage everyone in Huntsville to read the latest report to see what we’re doing, why it matters, and what our future looks like with a fully-connected, complete transportation network that can be the envy of the Southeast.”
READ NOW: 2020 Alternative Modes Review