The Rapidian

Grand Rapids' dangerous "stroad" problem

The intersection at 28th St. and Breton Road is one of the most dangerous and Grand Rapids. The problem is linked to a much larger issue in Grand Rapids: the prominence of "stroads."

/Gwendy Soendjojo

/Gwendy Soendjojo

/Gwendy Soendjojo

Few places in Grand Rapids are more chaotic than the intersection of 28th Street and Breton Road.

Here, 28th Street’s six lanes of traffic — carrying cars east to west across Grand Rapids — collide with Breton’s five lanes. The businesses accessible from the intersection add to the hustle and bustle as people enter and exit traffic to fill up their tanks and grab their morning cups of coffee.

Chaotic? Absolutely. But is it dangerous?

“A hundred percent, yes,” said Grand Rapids resident Zach Merritt.

Merritt has only been working at one of the intersection’s gas stations for one year but has already witnessed three crashes. In one, a jaywalking pedestrian was hit; in another, a car turning onto Breton collided with a car going straight; the third involved a car that Merritt described as being “crunched” by a semi.

“Yeah, it’s not exactly the safest,” Merritt said, laughing. 

The numbers tell a similar story. In 2019 alone, the intersection saw 55 crashes, making it the fourth most dangerous intersection in GR according to the 2020 Michigan Auto Law list. The third most dangerous intersection, also along 28th Street, is only three miles away — a six-minute drive if you’re lucky.

Janet S., another Grand Rapids resident, agreed with this data. “Sometimes, it’s a little scary — and I was born and raised in Detroit!”

“My whole family warned me to stay away from 28th,” she continued, “but I can’t!” To get to work, she’s forced to brave the intersection on an almost daily basis. 

It’s clear to the community that there’s a problem. To move forward, we need to ask two simple questions: why does this problem exist, and how can we fix it?

Merritt attributed the intersection’s danger to impatient drivers trying to turn. “That’s why most of the crashes happen,” said Merritt. “People try to go at the same time.”

“It’s kinda dangerous. You gotta be very, very cautious,” said Mykerio Kohn, an employee at the Wendy’s on 28th Street. Kohn has a clear view of the intersection from the restaurant, and he’s seen about seven crashes in his three years of employment.

Kohn suggested that part of the issue is the gas stations located on either side of Breton. “A lot of the time,” said Kohn, “there would be a lot of accidents right in the intersection where you’re entering gas stations.”

The cross intersection with multiple through and turn lanes, like the one at 28th Street and Breton, already had various points of conflict; the gas station entrances and exits, positioned a little more than 100 feet away from the intersection, only add to the potential for collisions.

Kohn isn’t the only Grand Rapids resident to complain about the large amount of activity around the intersection. 

Emmaline Harding, who lives along Breton, frequently drives through the intersection. Because of the gas stations’ access points, she said, there are always people coming. This creates conflict for drivers trying to go straight.

Another common grievance revolves around the timing of the traffic signals. “Light timing is really weird,” said Merritt. “People are just sitting there.” This adds to the impatience of drivers, making the road more difficult to maneuver. 

Who’s to blame?            

In addition to access points and traffic timing, residents point to driver fault in accidents.

The problem is “mainly due to the people driving,” said Merritt. “A lot of the people are distracted on the roads.”

Chelsea Puite, an employee at one of the intersection’s gas stations, described witnessing a hit-and-run during which the driver was intoxicated.

Emphasis on driver responsibility in accidents places the burden of the solution on individuals. “Honestly, if people would just slow down and pay attention,” said Puite. 

While driver fault is certainly a factor, the problem goes far deeper.

A recent Atlantic article described the dangers of assigning full fault to the driver. The author, David Zipper, wrote that “blaming the bad decisions of road users implies that nobody else could have prevented them.”

While the “critical reason” for the crash can often be attributed to the vehicle operator —according to the same article, it’s attributed to human error 94% of the time — it ignores the number of other factors playing a role in the accident. 

And while most news outlets blame crashes solely on human error, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration maintained in a memo released in 2015 that “although the critical reason is an important part of the description of events leading up to the crash, it is not intended to be interpreted as the cause of the crash.”

To address the problem at 28th Street and Breton, it is important to look at factors outside of driver responsibility.

Expert opinions of the problem

Experts echo the residents’ concerns about the intersection. 

“It’s not a pleasant street to be on. It’s not a safe street to be on,” said Mark Bjelland, author of “Human Geography: Landscapes of Human Activities” and professor of environmental studies at Calvin University.

Bjelland further described the intersection as “insane.” “People are doing different maneuvers. People are trying to get through the corridors,” he said, explaining the chaos that drivers experience at 28th Street and Breton. “A lot of the local parents won’t let their kids drive on 28th Street until they’ve had a year of experience or two with their driver’s license.”

 

The dangerous driving conditions expand beyond the intersection. Earlier this year, MoneyGeek named 28th Street the most dangerous stretch of road in Grand Rapids based on its number of fatal crashes from 2017 to 2019.

Of the 4002 crashes along 28th Street between 2017 and 2019, 1,281 occurred at an intersection based on data provided by Michigan Traffic Crash Facts, a program recommended by Laurel Joseph, the director of transportation planning [RS7] [RS8] for Grand Rapids. 

And 108 of the intersection crashes along 28th Street were at Breton.

As it turns out, the problem is symptomatic of a larger infrastructure issue sweeping across American cities and suburbs.

According to Lee Hardy, Grand Rapids resident and author of “The Embrace of Buildings: A Second Look at Walkable Neighborhoods,” the problem with 28th Street is that “it tries to do two conflicting things at once: provide fast crosstown transit and provide local access to stores, strip malls, gas stations and the like.”

“In effect, it tries to combine a highway, with very fast traffic, with driveways, with very slow traffic,” Hardy continued. “That speed differential is very dangerous.”

In urban planning lingo, this is called a “stroad.” The word, coined by StrongTowns, describes a combination of a street and road. Bjelland believes that “28th Street is the most classic stroad in the region.”

“It’s the worst of both worlds,” explained Bjelland. “Streets are about interaction. Roads are about getting places. Stroads do neither well.”

Hardy agrees. “It is also bad for motorists,” he added, “because the speed of traffic means that accidents are more likely to cause serious injuries and fatalities.”

According to Bjelland, stroads are a relatively recent phenomenon. Newer cities are “more automobile-oriented, with higher speeds and more stroads.”

Potential solutions, according to experts

So, what can be done to fix the problem?

“We could just not go to 28th Street,” suggested Bjelland.

While Bjelland’s quip holds some truth, it would be impractical for many drivers who rely on the road to get to work. 

That leaves one option: something needs to change about the road itself. 

The consensus among experts is that cities need to separate car traffic from community life. That means 28th Street needs to make a choice: is it going to be a street or a road?

Bjelland, along with his team, solved a similar problem during a project with a Minnesota road. Their solution was to turn the stroad into a parkway. 

“Car drivers don’t respond to speed limits so much as obstacles on the side,” explained Bjelland. When roads are narrower, cars automatically slow down.

 One great way to do this: trees. They serve to reduce the speed of traffic and make the environment more aesthetically pleasing for drivers. “It’s better to have trees,” Bjelland said. The foliage adds beauty to the otherwise commercial landscape, making it not only safer, but also more aesthetic.

Bjelland’s project in Minnesota was well-received by citizens. “The people are so happy with this,” he said.

Hardy gives similar advice. “If I were king of Grand Rapids,” he said, “I would convert 28th Street into a boulevard.” 

Rather than having to choose between a street and a road, a boulevard would provide the best of both worlds, eliminating the danger and confusion of the stroad. Center lanes would move crosstown traffic, while side lanes, separated by a median, would give drivers access to the gas stations and businesses.

Hardy, like Bjelland, emphasizes trees as an important part of the solution. They “reduce the noise of traffic, provide shade in the summer, and set up a barrier between automobile traffic and pedestrians,” he wrote in an email.

Narrower lanes are another common suggestion, backed up by a study conducted in 2015 by Dewan Masud Karim. Additionally, pedestrian fatality rates are lowest in older cities, where streets are narrower and speed limits are lower.

Lower speed limits would prevent collisions and reduce the need for signal delays, making 28th Street both easier and safer to drive on.

Solutions exist, but the remaining problem is practicality.

Obstacles

Right now, 28th Street is under state control. John Richard, communications representative for the Grand Rapids office of the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT), agreed that the experts’ proposed solutions would likely be effective, but points to limited funding as a significant roadblock in changing the structure of 28th Street.

“Michigan and other states throughout the country desperately need sustainable funding,” Richard wrote in an email.

Taxes on gasoline are a major source of funding, according to Richard. But with more people transitioning to electric vehicles or working remotely, adequate funding is a continuous struggle for the department.

A lack of funding means that “[MDOT’s] main focus is preservation and maintaining the existing system,” Richard explained.

Working within their limited budget, MDOT does what they can to make Grand Rapids’ roads safer. This includes adding rumble strips, crosswalks, signages and other safety measures aimed towards slowing cars directing movement. 

Though these measures contribute to ensuring the safety of the roads, Richard emphasized that “it’s vital that the person behind the wheel does their part.”

“Everything we do is under the expectation that motorists are following the rules and paying attention,” he added. “They are clearly not.” 

Looking forward

The fastest possible change can be implemented by drivers themselves. “The number one safety feature of any vehicle is the operator,” wrote Richard.

Defensive driving can also help limit crashes at the intersection. It takes time and practice to build up the skill, but Trusted Choice has provided the public with a list of tips, and Michigan Online Defensive Driving offers residents a course for $40.

Grand Valley Metro Council also has resources available.

However, responsible driving alone isn’t enough. Something more needs to change.

According to Richard, 28th Street has changed so much in past years – transforming from essentially a highway to more of a “busy business corridor” — that state control is no longer ideal. He explained that “28th Street has become more of a local street under state jurisdiction.”

“In my opinion,” Richard continued, “M-11 [28th Street] is a good candidate to transfer jurisdiction to the local cities and townships. That way, they can have control for streetscaping and major changes to fit their vision.”

Regardless of jurisdiction, big changes require funding.

Citizen involvement and lobbying can encourage the government at all levels — from city to state — to funnel more money into transportation and can influence their decision-making.

Here’s a list of local officials and organizations you can contact:

Mobile GR - 616-456-3000 or 311 - [email protected]
MDOT - 616-451-3091 - [email protected]
Advocacy and Government Affairs, Grand Rapids Chamber - [email protected]
George Yang: Safety Planning, Grand Valley Metrocouncil - [email protected]

MDOT also has a form available for residents wishing to contact them.

City meetings are another avenue for speaking out. Check this calendar for the next one.

Take time to do your own research. This article only offers an overview of the problem — if you care about safer roads, it’s worth the time to grow familiar with the situation. 

As a citizen, you have the right to take action. If you want to see change at 28th Street and Breton, go make it happen.

This story was created by Caitlyn Taylor, Celine Sidharta, Gwendy Soendjojo, Henry Rittler, Katie Rosendale, Reese Schwaderer, and Luke Zietse as a part of a group reporting project. The project was completed for a journalism class at Calvin University.

 

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