Complete Streets Allow More Transportation Options

The idea of complete streets has been slowly entering the transportation planning vocabulary. When you decide to "complete the streets," you make pedestrians, cyclists, wheelchairs, and transit users just as important as motorists, or even more important.

While unthinkable to most Americans, many European cities ban cars from the center of the city, while others highly discourage auto traffic through steep parking fees and allowing pedestrians and bicycles great freedom of movement.

This is one of the smarter city planning ideas for revitalizing an automobile-centered place that is beginning to look a little tired. People are interested in seeing other people and socializing, and will tolerate slightly slower transit times if the walk or pedal time is enjoyable.

We think it's pretty understandable that traffic engineers have resisted this movement sometimes; after all, they were educated to engineer big wide roads.  Providing comfortable biking and walking was an after-thought, if considered at all.

Complete streets is a much richer concept than just adding sidewalks and bike lanes in a systematic and thoughtful way throughout the street network, though. It includes also designing for a vehicular speed that is desirable and attainable.

We've been designing urban roads to maximize speed, in theory, for 50 years or more. We have wide lanes, very large intersections, and wide setbacks between the street and the private property, thinking that probably we'll have to widen the road yet again to relieve the congestion.  It seemed so logical to traffic engineers and cannot be resisted even now.

Yet this designing for speed is almost entirely wrong for urbanized areas. The handling of intersections and the stop times inherent in those intersections is really what makes the difference in speed, not the width of the lanes or the number of lanes.

What happens instead is if we build big wide streets, and only a few of them, those roads quickly become congested. If you want to cause traffic congestion, build a great big new road.

You may have heard it said, if you hang around these community circles, that you can't build your way out of congestion. My experience certainly verifies the truth of that remark.

At any given time, 25 to 30 percent of our trips are a mile or less. Complete streets would mean that a number of the short trips can be eliminated from the roads.

Among the states working on some version of a complete streets policy are this year's additions, Hawaii and Connecticut, as well as Oregon, California, Illinois, Florida, and South Carolina. Municipal policies adopted by ordinance or executive order can be found in Philadelphia, Santa Barbara, and Columbia and St. Louis, Missouri.

Six Complete Streets Principles

So if you want to accomplish three or four pro-social outcomes at once, observe the complete streets principles:

1. Devise a plan to bring the building line back up to the street, where it belongs, over time.

And to relegate parking to the rear and sides of the buildings, where it belongs. This is a long range proposal and has to be coordinated with the rest of your municipal planning. Specifically the zoning ordinance must support bringing the building line up toward the street by getting rid of required front yard setbacks in commercial zones, and in fact, prohibiting them to the extent feasible.

More and more communities are moving toward form-based code instead of or as an overlay to zoning. This kind of code governs where buildings should sit on the lot, where parking should be placed, building massing, building height, and so forth.

2. Design and build a bikeable community.

Be as aggressive as you need to be in this, based on your population characteristics, climate, terrain, and land use pattern. College students, older kids, young commuters, and senior citizens there for the exercise are your immediate potential users.

Biking is odd, in that the demand for it doesn't appear until (a) the social stigma disappears, and (b) the safe and hassle-free facilities and support services appear. So don't blame your failure to design for bikes on the fact that you don't see many bikes trying to use the roadways now. Why would they? It isn't safe or pleasant, and possibly no one has explained that bikes aren't just for kids anymore.

You can have striped bike lanes if you wish. On rural and less-traveled streets, simply stripe the edge of the driving lane but pave five or seven feet more.

If you have room, place these bike lanes out of the way of the vehicular lanes and also 3 feet or more beyond where any doors or parked cars might open. And keep the stormwater inlet grates out of the bike lane, please.

3. Design and build for a walkable community.

If you have traffic moving at a fairly high speed even after the complete streets treatment, you're going to need a median between pedestrians and vehicular lanes that feels safe.

Most sidewalks in residential areas were designed with a grassy parkway strip between the curb and the street, but along some arterials you still see the phenomenon of the two-foot wide elevated strip of asphalt that's supposed to pass as a sidewalk. That doesn't qualify as a safe walkway.

If you want to build a shared bike and pedestrian facility because you don't have room to give each their due, that can work.

Just make it fairly wide so that the commuter bikes don't get too angry with mom and her stroller and other toddler walking along on a nice spring day.

Depending on your climate, be accommodating. If it's hot and steamy, provide shade trees. Trees add so much to the look of the street anyway, you can hardly go wrong there, even if it's only hot once in a while.

Of course be quite careful about what tree species you select and how you space them. More errors are committed here than almost anywhere else in municipal policy.

Provide benches and attractive landscaping (a streetscape) so that the side of the street looks inviting rather than cold and hard. This even makes driving along the street more pleasant, and is an important element of the complete streets idea.

4. Narrow the driving lanes and the intersections, and decrease turning radii where feasible, to make pedestrians more comfortable about crossing the street.

Implement a road diet. No, you didn't see wrong; we really do mean making your road skinnier. Complete streets is related to traffic calming, but I see complete streets as a broader concept because it makes the beneficiaries of traffic calming--people on foot, on non-motorized wheels, or on transit--so much more explicit. Narrower lanes naturally make drivers a bit more cautious.

Study the turning movements allowed and try to provide a time when it is genuinely safe for pedestrians to cross the street. If you can make a curb extension, a bulb-out shape at each intersection, you provide a bit more safe haven area for pedestrians and make the distance they have to cross shorter.

Pedestrian and cyclist safety is a big consideration in all of this. Severity of the injury and even frequency of death fall dramatically when you decrease vehicular speeds.

Medians, islands (you can build in a slot that is flush with the roadway to accommodate bicycles), and crosswalks all help improve safety. Medians even decrease vehicular crashes.

5. Incorporate on-street parking if you need to.

If you want to encourage shopping at more than one business on each trip, building complete streets into your transportation planning can help to accomplish that.

In shopping districts rather than shopping centers, on-street parking is important to many types of businesses. I'm not too sympathetic with the knee-jerk response of "we have to have parking in front of the store," but in some instances, it makes sense.

In short, anything that brings the shopping and the street closer together is good for business, and anything that softens the environment and lends it color and motion (such as plantings and people) is a good thing.

6. If you are fortunate enough to have a transit system, make it easy to use.

This seems like a real no-brainer, but the lack of reasonable bus shelters and uncomfortable boarding and off-loading situations discourage ridership.

If you can go further and have bus lanes and other transit-friendly arrangements that eliminate conflicts between transit and drivers, you'll end up with more support for your transit system.

An Even Bigger Concept: Living Streets

Some people are thinking that complete streets is not enough, and they would like to redefine the street not just as a transportation conduit but also as public space. The epitome of this movement probably can be found in Los Angeles.

Inventive pilot projects are being considered and the conceptual tenets of the living streets movement hammered out through the Living Streets LA organization.

In other places, portions of street right-of-way are being re-purposed to perform various ecological functions, varying from stormwater retention to microclimate cooling to solar collection.

But for most of you, complete streets will be a big enough chunk to bite off at first.

By the way, if you need more details, you can download a book on Rethinking Streets: An Evidence-Based Guide to 25 Complete Street Transformations.  Also the National Complete Streets Coalition can serve as a major resource.

More About Re-Thinking Streets:

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