In Michigan, Redesigning A Campus For People, Bikes And Cars

In our latest student-written story, Curbing Cars intern Matthew Varcak at Central Michigan University looks at plans to redesign the campus for every kind of transportation use.

By Matthew Varcak

If you say Mount Pleasant to anyone in Michigan, the first thing they might name is Central Michigan University – a university that nearly doubles the city’s population from September through May.

CMU is a public school, whose campus covers 871 acres, and has 17,771 undergraduate students. This year, CMU had the NFL’s No. 1 draft pick, Eric Fisher.

Mount Pleasant also has a sprawling casino, resort and water park run by the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe, an ample public transportation system, and a picturesque small town atmosphere.

The city and the university, however, aren’t known for being bicycle or pedestrian friendly. But some people are trying to change this. They are redesigning the campus with an emphasis on how it will be used by people, bicycles and cars.

CMU’s 2013 Campus Master Plan, which sets the direction of the university for the next century, features plans to make the campus more accessible for bikes and pedestrians. (See the master plan at the end of this article.) By removing and reorganizing parking lots, adding more elevated curbs that force vehicles to come up to the pedestrian or bicyclist’s level, and adding miles of dedicated bike trails, CMU is reorganizing who has the right of way on campus.

“Under this plan, pedestrians are given highest priority, bicyclists second. Cars are welcome to come, but they must play by campus rules,” said Ian Lockwood, livable transportation engineer at AECOM Technology Corp., the company hired by CMU to assist in constructing the master plan.

One of the most significant changes proposed in the master plan is to push the many small parking lots scattered throughout campus to its edges.

Described as the “Coconut Theory” by Lockwood, the idea is to push the hard stuff consisting of concrete parking lots and steel vehicles to the outside, leaving a soft inside made of green quads and people. “Our goal is not to increase parking, it is to consolidate parking so that it is easier to find open spots,” said Linda Slater, director of plant engineering and planning at CMU.

8Slater says pushing the lots to the outside serves two functions. First, it keeps the majority of vehicle traffic on the perimeter. Second, it eliminates the urge to drive from small lot to small lot in between classes, which creates much of the congestion CMU’s campus features 9,628 parking spots spread over more than 85 lots.

According to US News’ College Compass website, 55 percent of CMU students have a vehicle on campus. (We looked at CMU’s transportation challenge in this story.)

“My only problem in getting around campus is when I am going to the Health Professions Building and have to cross Preston Street,” said Delaney Hurst, a CMU sophomore. “With no crosswalk, you have to be careful of cars and make sure they see you.”

Bicyclists will be able to ride on “complete streets” that accommodate cars, bikes and pedestrians, or they can ride on dedicated bike trails that weave through campus. The plan is to also provide more bike racks, but more importantly, to place them in more efficient locations.

This means closer to bike paths and further from pedestrian intersections to reduce conflicts. “We have to accommodate all modes of transportation. We have pedestrians, bikes, cars and buses. They are all part of how people come to our campus and experience it,” Slater said. CMU senior Danielle Saigon says it is fairly simple to get to classes from her friend’s place on the west side of campus where she often stays – with one exception. “The worst spot on campus is the intersection of Preston and Washington streets,” Saigon said.

She also said she would like to see more bike lanes for the days she does decide to ride and more trees along pathways. “Especially on days like these,” Saigon said, glancing out the window at the fresh snow powder.

Another key feature of the master plan is to place a walkable, bike friendly “green spine” that runs north to south in the center of campus. Kevin Aust, landscape architect and project manager at AECOM, describes it as a “yellow brick road” that one can see continues along a clear sequence of spaces to the destination.

“Green ribs” that run east to west will serve periphery parking lots, residential neighborhoods to the west, and businesses and student housing to the east of campus.

This will also ease traffic congestion at other intersections such as the one at Mission and Broomfield Sreets, which ranks as the highest traffic incident intersection in the five mid-Michigan counties of Clare, Gladwin, Midland, Gratiot and Isabella, according to Mount Pleasant Transportation Service Center Manager Bill Mayhew.

The master plan looks to change this by converting these intersections into two-lane roundabouts integrating bicycle and pedestrian walkways. “We do not want to create obstacles for cars,” Lockwood said, adding, “but we are changing what we do here. There is no rushing around campus anymore under this plan.”

CMU also hopes to increase the safety of those on campus. “Landscape plays a big role,” Slater said.” Being able to see around you makes you feel safer.” By including more “front door entrances” that shine more light and eyes on the paths and passersby, they hope to create a system of “natural surveillance.”

“I would like to see more lights on campus to feel safer,” said CMU junior Chelsea Schaffer, who alternates between driving, walking and biking. “There are a lot of places where it is just darkness.”

Schaffer, like Hurst, Saigon, and other students, says that crossing Preston Street is the biggest issue she has in getting around campus. The master plan process has included input from the City of Mount Pleasant, Union Township, Isabella County, numerous groups from CMU, and many others.

“We are part of one community,” Slater said. “We have to function together.”

Matthew Varcak is about to graduate from Central Michigan University. He was an editor and reporter for the Kirtland Current. His work has been featured in Grand Central Magazine and on This is his first article as an intern for Curbing Cars. Follow him on Twitter @mvarcak and reach him at .

Land Use Plan Diagram

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