Are We There Yet? Complete Streets
Editor's Note: This week's excerpt from Are We There Yet? focuses on the response as state and local officials work to craft "complete streets" regulations to make streets safer and more appealing for bikes, pedestrians and transit riders.
The increased interest in making streets safer and more appealing for bikes and pedestrians has resulted in regional and state governments adopting “complete streets” policies mandating that all transportation policies and investments must take into consideration the safety and convenience of all users of the streets — not just drivers.
Complete streets are, according to the National Complete Streets Coalition, “designed and operated to enable safe access for all users. Pedestrians, bicyclists, motorists and transit riders of all ages and abilities must be able to safely move along and across a complete street. Complete streets make it easy to cross the street, walk to shops, and bicycle to work. They allow buses to run on time and make it safe for people to walk to and from train stations.”
Complete streets policies have been adopted by 314 local jurisdictions — 100 were adopted in just the last year — as well as by 25 states and the District of Columbia. The city council meetings where these policies are considered often result in large-scale turnouts of bike, pedestrian and public-health advocates, such as a recent council meeting in Spokane that was attended by more citizens than any other council meeting during the year. A majority of those who spoke at this meeting supported the complete streets policy, including people representing health interests, senior citizens, people with disabilities, affordable housing advocates, locally owned businesses, the local farmers market, and schools. The city council voted in favor, 5 to 2.
Senior government officials are also speaking out in favor of investments in walking and biking: In an op-ed in the Trenton Times, New Jersey Transportation Commissioner James Simpson writes: “As a pedestrian I’ve seen drivers speeding down local streets, showing a lack of regard for pedestrians and bicyclists. I see the need for more ‘complete streets’ — more and improved sidewalks; better markings at crosswalks to put motorists on alert; bike paths where needed; and intersection improvements, including countdown pedestrian signals and accessible curb cuts to accommodate those who are mobility impaired.”
Delaware Gov. Jack Markell has ordered state agencies to develop a statewide plan for a network of bicycle and pedestrian trails with the goal of establishing Delaware in the top 10 of bicycle-friendly states and to expand bike/ped linkages between the state’s cities and towns.
Virginia is saying goodbye to the cul-de-sac in favor of streets that are linked up to provide more connectivity and shorter distances that are easier to navigate on foot or by bike. State officials say the new rules will improve safety and save money on road maintenance because traffic will be spread out over more streets instead of channeled onto heavily trafficked arterials. Bike and pedestrian advocates often complain about the difficulty of changing the status quo, but when efforts can be framed as increasing safety and decreasing costs these changes are quickly prioritized.
A popular tool used to build support for investments in complete streets is the “walk audit”: Teams of people walk all the streets in a neighborhood and take note of the conditions for bicyclists and pedestrians. Lansing, Michigan, is kicking off the biggest such project in the nation, surveying walking conditions along 700 miles of streets.
These audits typically find that it’s rough out there for pedestrians and especially for the disabled; wheelchair users wielding the Americans with Disabilities Act often lead the fight in the courts. In Los Angeles, for example, a recent story in the Los Angeles Times estimated that the city has 10,750 miles of sidewalks, and an estimated 42 percent are in disrepair. Fixing these crumbling sidewalks, and adding curb cuts to make them safe for wheelchairs as well as strollers, is estimated to cost about $1.5 billion, according to the Times.
Some cities are experimenting with reconfiguring streets without curbs or lanes as “shared space” for pedestrians, bikes, transit and cars as a way to improve safety. These are typically narrow streets without curbs and sidewalks where vehicles are slowed by placing trees, planters, parking areas and other obstacles in the roadway, which is often lined by restaurants, street vendors, merchant displays and other commercial uses.
Proponents theorize that this improves safety because motorists become the intruders and must travel at very low speeds. Indianapolis debuted its shared street on TV during Super Bowl Sunday in 2012, winning praise from sports fans and journalists astonished that Indianapolis was actually walkable.
Complete streets are also high on the list of priorities for aging Baby Boomers and the decade-old movement to create “livable communities for successful aging.” Advocates for older Americans want investments that make it easier and safer to walk and take transit so that seniors can get out and about and maintain their independence rather than having to depend on someone for a ride.
Seniors and their advocates are demanding more transportation choices and retrofits of Sun City retirement projects in Florida and Arizona. They’re asking for traffic signals with longer walk times, more sidewalks and medians where pedestrians can seek refuge when trying to cross wide and busy streets, and they want transit to link not just to jobs but also to health-care facilities and community services.
How Livable Streets Make Us Healthier
Ultimately, “the street” is what gives a neighborhood its character: Is it a place where passers-by can stop for a chat on the sidewalk? Where bicyclists can sally forth on a safely marked route? Where residents can gather and become neighbors?
“Great places have to be sustainable not just environmentally, but socially, too,” writes Sarah Goodyear on grist.com. “Because human beings are social animals. . . My dense, walkable, transit-rich neighborhood does a lot of great things for my carbon footprint (no car required, Zipcar within walking distance, farmers market only a few blocks away). But what it does for my soul might, in the end, be more important. “My son has ridden his scooter up and down the sidewalk, and we’ve played stickball with the neighbor kids in the street. I’ve shoveled the snow in front of the house of the old couple next door. I’ve given hugs, picked up trash, and offered my shoulder to cry on. The street I live on is not just an address for me. It is an extension of my home.
“Over the years I have traded dog-sitting services with one neighbor. A store around the corner has accepted packages for me when I’ve been out. I’ve gotten, and given career advice while sitting on the stoop. I’ve dropped my wallet on the sidewalk and had it returned by a woman whom I know could have used the money inside. She didn’t touch the cash. “The sense I have — that my living room extends into the street — is, sadly, a privilege in this day and age. It’s made possible by relatively low car traffic and the high density of dwelling units on my block. This combination opens up a way of life that used to be common — in which human beings naturally connect with each other over time, forming networks that can then be called upon when the going gets rough.”
Goodyear cites a 1960 study by Donald Appleyard that is soon to be re-published in a book called Livable Streets. Appleyard found that people felt more connected to their neighbors and physical surroundings on streets with light car traffic. The heavier the traffic, the less this was true. And she cites other studies that have found that “social capital” — the number and quality of social interactions — is higher in walkable communities, and that even small increases in connectedness and activity can have significant health benefits.
She applauds the success of complete streets legislation around the U.S., and concludes that “changing our streets to bring them back to human scale will take generations. It’s a process, but at least the work has begun in earnest.” She quotes Appleyard from his study: “People have always lived on streets. They have been the places where children first learned about the world, where neighbors met, the social centers of towns and cities, the rallying points for revolts, the scenes of repression . . . The street has always been the scene of this conflict, between living and access, between resident and traveler, between street life and the threat of death.”
Goodyear notes that Appleyard would be thrilled to see how his ideas have been championed by a new generation, but notes that he isn’t around to witness this because in 1982 he was struck by a car and killed.