Students and Alumni
January 26, 2021
Interview by Jeff Smith
Some of Groundwork’s most important and iconic achievements during its first 25 years have come in the realm of transportation design and policy—aiming to stop sprawl, protect landscapes and keep towns livable. Our team was instrumental in halting the Boardman River bypass around Traverse City. We were in the mix in Petoskey, working to stop a planned bypass through beautiful farmland there. We elevated the conversation about “smart growth” in the region, bringing in national thought leaders and leading the Grand Vision planning initiative in the Grand Traverse region. Most recently we launched the TC Mobility Lab to assess how new transportation systems and technologies can lead us to healthier, more sustainable ways of getting around.
As we head into our second 25 years, Carolyn Ulstad has signed on to carry that legacy forward and evolve it for today’s world in her position as Groundwork’s Transportation Program Manager. We asked Carolyn to share some thoughts about her past work and what principles will guide her as she dives in.
Carolyn, can you start by giving a sense of your own work journey and how you landed here at Groundwork?
Well, I could begin way back! When I was little I used to draw maps a lot, little towns with roads and buildings, and you know like, ‘This is the grocery store and these are the houses.’ There was just something I liked about planning out the world and making my own little communities. It wasn’t anything too elaborate, just a sharpened pencil and a piece of paper. I got into that when I was maybe 10 years old (laughs).
In college, I was interested in a lot of different things: environment, natural resources, weather, our planet. But also the human experience, so I also studied psychology. It fascinated me how it all worked together and why we do what we do. Eventually I ended up taking a geography class. I really liked the cultural aspects it brought, and the idea of how to build communities was extremely fascinating.
When did you go pro?
After I graduated I was hired into the metropolitan planning organization in the Holland/Zeeland area, and I ended up working there for eight years. We did a lot of work around transportation, so that’s where I really immersed in it, really had my main transportation experience. The work I did there that is most applicable to my work at Groundwork was doing road safety audits. I’d go out with a group of people—professionals like the city planner and community members like leaders of Pedal Holland, a cycling advocacy group—and we’d go out to a specific roadway that was having issues and assess it. We’d look at the danger and stress level for pedestrians and bikers. That process of being in a place and seeing how it makes you feel is really impactful.
What would you do with that information?
Well, in one case, we made temporary pop-up bike lanes. We went out and laid out bike lanes using tape and cones for about a mile stretch, so people could see what it would be like to have a road diet. A ‘try it before you buy it’ approach. And there was something so satisfying about being out and doing that work. Doing that work on the ground and evaluating it afterwards and seeing how many people used it, riding their bikes and enjoying it. But this kind of change takes time. It’s part of the master plan now, but will the road commission agree to it? That remains to be seen. But that kind of change is only possible if you have that conversation. Or if you do something like a popup. Progress doesn't happen on its own. We need to talk about these things and explore ideas together.
When was the first time you thought “Better transportation, I
think that’s going to be my thing.”
I’ve never really thought about better transportation as ‘my thing.’ What I wanted to do is create better places for better lives, and transportation is a key to that. Better transportation is a means to an end, a goal, and the main thing is making better places for better lives. Building for happiness. That’s how I think about it, building for the betterment of our selves, our community, and our planet.
Is there a place where you’ve visited or lived that had a great transportation system that inspired you?
I’ve never lived in a place that had great transportation … could be because I have a very high expectation of what a great transportation system is! (laughs). But I did visit Dijon, France, and was blown away by the fabric of the place, and how transportation design was so important to that. For one, there were no cars driving in the city center. You park in garages under the city and you come up onto the street from the garages. The exception is buses, trams and delivery vehicles. It was so revolutionary when they did it, but other cities are now considering it. It was just so amazing to be in a city nearly the size of Grand Rapids and see no cars, just people walking and biking and using super convenient transit options.
What do you like most about Traverse City from a
Traverse City has good bones. It has a traditional grid layout and is dense, which makes new mobility options, and biking and walking easy to do because you have more connection points. The other is natural beauty. It’s comfortable and fun to be in a place that makes you want to be there! Our physical environment plays greatly into how we perceive ourselves, our happiness, and our relationships with others. Many planners share the view that if a city is built with beauty in mind, it should be successful, and I wholeheartedly agree!
Traverse also has important cultural assets. There is a fun and funky element here that is really into health and wellness and being into the outdoors. And the people here are willing to invest in things that encourage that because they value that lifestyle and they are open to new ideas.
Where do you feel Traverse City needs to focus to move forward
on the walk / bike / comfortable streets arc?
Much of it is continuing to do what the community has been doing. Continue to expand the trail network. Continue to expand the miles of bike lanes and to make them better, like what was done on 8th Street. TC has a ways to go to make the system work for all people and all ages. For instance, to make a bike lane truly safe for a younger child or for somebody uncomfortable riding in traffic, the lane has to be separated from traffic. I think Traverse also needs some specific annual goals. Like adding two miles of protected bike lanes each year, something that keeps steadily moving the needle in the right direction.
As your first year comes into focus, where do you see yourself spending your work efforts?
My main priority this year is new mobility. My job is to raise awareness of new mobility options that are available. I’ll be getting engaged with our community on walkability and bikeability initiatives. And we will be doing some advocacy, educating people about their rights as pedestrians and finding creative ways of adding mobility options like bike-share and e-scooter-share.
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