Saturday, July 28, 2012

Complete Streets---Coming to Eat Your Shrubbery?

When you read the phrase, “Complete Streets”, what do you think of? If you’re from a rural area, or a poorly-run major city, you might think it refers to streets that are paved and free of Fiat-swallowing potholes. It’s actually an initiative that’s simply common practice in other developed countries: a Complete Street takes into account all users, not just cars. 

Those other users typically include pedestrians, cyclists, and transit. For pedestrians, sidewalks and safe crossing points are installed. Cyclists might get a dedicated bike lane or off-road cycletrack. Accommodating transit could be as simple as creating pull-outs for buses or as elaborate as a dedicated lane for the bus or streetcar.
A crosswalk along the Fall Line Trace in Columbus, GA. Cyclists are protected by a HAWK signal. Photo by author.
Allowances are also supposed to be made to allow for access by those with disabilities as well. This could mean audible pedestrian signals so that those with vision impairments can cross safely. For those in wheelchairs, ramps would be installed at all crossing points.

These are just a sampling of the changes a Complete Streets program can bring. You might think that there’s nothing even slightly controversial about any of these. You would also be very, very wrong.

Even something as seemingly correct as transportation accommodations mandated by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) can incite opposition from organizations such as the Heritage Foundation. If helping the most physically vulnerable in our society can arouse irritation, imagine the anger at spending taxpayer dollars on those who are simply trying to get about in something other than a car. In the run-up to passage of a transportation funding bill in June of 2012, Senator Rand Paul attempted to eliminate all funding for bike and pedestrian improvements.  The Senate rejected his amendment with 60 Senators voting against it, but 38 Senators thought his amendment was a good idea. 

Their argument centered on the need to divert the money to fix bridges, which by some estimates could cost $71 billion. The elimination sought by Senator Paul would have diverted $900 million at the most to that effort. In other words, those who voted for elimination thought they could achieve fix a major problem with a little over 1% of what was needed. That might have paid for painting a few railings somewhere, but not much else. However, the occasional budgetary complaint from politicians isn’t the biggest problem faced by Complete Streets proposals.

The more pervasive opposition stems from far more mundane concerns. Some residents may complain that a sidewalk in their yard would be too much of an imposition because some of the tree canopy or landscaping would need to be removed. This raises a rather crucial question: should the needs of the pedestrians, such as kids walking to a school bus stop, be secondary to those of the residents’ shrubbery?

To answer this, the benefits of Complete Streets must be weighed against the hassles. As it turns out, they are an incredibly effective expenditure of transportation dollars, especially given their low cost---relative to a freeway widening or other big-ticket item. The Federal Highway Administration found that installing sidewalks can reduce accidents involving pedestrians walking along roadways by 88%! Bike lanes installed in New York City have been credited with a 28% reduction in crashes.
Let’s not forget the convenience benefits, though. As I said, transit is supposed to be incorporated into a Complete Streets Policy. If a dedicated lane is possible, the speed benefits can be significant. At least, that’s what a UC Berkeley Study found in Seoul, South Korea, where bus speeds nearly doubled once dedicated lanes in the median were opened. Faster service typically translates into more users, which in turn means less pollution being inhaled by local residents. 

So, Complete Streets programs have benefits, but a lingering fear remains among those unfamiliar with the concept. They fear that planners will foist a one-size-fits-all approach upon them. Granted, planners haven’t done themselves any favors by insisting on standards designed to accommodate worst-case scenarios. In the case of lane widths, planners may express reluctance to narrow them to less than 12 feet, even though current federal standards allow widths all the way down to nine feet. Why? Because they will  want to allow enough space for the largest fire engine (10 feet) or the largest tour bus (8 2/3 feet). Instead of procuring or allowing vehicles that fit the roads, some planners may want to make the roads fit the vehicles. 

It gets worse. The ADA mandates a clear width minimum of 3 feet for walkways. That’s not a sidewalk width recommendation; that’s how much space must be kept clear of obstructions. ADA guidelines call for the placement of wider sections of 5-6 feet every 200 feet to allow for two users to pass each other, but this is often misinterpreted as a mandate to make an ENTIRE sidewalk 5-6 wide. That’s fine for newly-developed areas, but terrible for areas that are already established. Lots of shrubbery faces its doom, unless planners show some flexibility.

Happily, Complete Streets policies as adopted around the country are demonstrating this flexibility. That’s probably because the pressure for adoption is a bottom-up process emanating from citizens, rather than a top-down approach from a bureaucracy. 

Consider two of the Complete Streets resolutions that I’ve been a part of. The City of Alexandria’s Complete Streets Resolution doesn’t insist on rigid standards, but simply demands consideration of all uses. This is also true of the Washington metro area’s regional Complete Streets policy, which is essentially a recommendation of best practices.  This is hardly surprising. Alexandria has centuries-old streets in the Old Town neighborhood with narrow sidewalks and, in some cases, cobblestones. Washington has the Georgetown neighborhood, which is very similar. Both cities also have sections built in the car-dependent mid-20th century, with minimal pedestrian accommodation. How is a one-size-fits-all policy even conceivable?
A crosswalk in Old Town Alexandria. Notice the signage and bulb-out to shorten the crossing distance. Photo by author.
Complete Streets policies are nothing radical. Their cost is a pittance compared to what urban expressways such as Washington’s Intercounty Connector cost (a cool $2.5 billion). And it’s highly unlikely that they will turn into overpriced parking lots, as urban expressways always do.

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