Complete Streets: Sharing the Right-of-Way by Design - Sustainability: Sustainable Transportation

Complete Streets: Sharing the Right-of-Way by Design

By Rob Kundert | Posted: Wednesday, February 9, 2011 3:33 pm

For decades, communities have tested the waters of innovation by designing streets to accommodate more than vehicular traffic. Bike and bus lanes are nothing new, but it was only about six years ago that urban planners began promoting street designs that accommodate all those who could potentially use a particular roadway.

The concept is broadly termed Complete Streets. Barbara McCann is the executive director of the National Complete Streets Coalition, which promotes the establishment of Complete Streets policies at all levels of government.

"We are really talking about a policy initiative that insures that all future transportation projects will provide for everyone who will be using the roadway," she said. "It's really about changing the vision of what a community sees its roads doing."

Traditionally, streets and highways have been viewed as fast-tracks for motorists and commercial drivers to get from point-A to point-B as quickly as possible. Lost in the equation are all the people - young, old or with a disability - who cannot drive. Further, with the rising costs of fuel, the effects of climate change and the obesity epidemic, there are more and more reasons to adopt this paradigm shift in design thinking.

Accommodating multiple users also means an elevated need for safety. That's one of the reasons that the National Board of Realtors, which sees Complete Streets adding to property values, is a member of the coalition.

They join a broad range of other supporters including professional organizations like the American Public Transportation Association, the Institute of Transportation Engineers, and the American Planning Association, as well as public health officials, the Natural Resources Defense Council and user groups like AARP and America Bikes.

"This combination has been really powerful in terms of being able to work together to hammer out what Complete Streets means and how it works best," McCann said. "There were members of the coalition that have taken on different projects to develop it and spread the word, and here we are now." The Coalition's work is primarily supported by donations from its members.

As of mid January, 23 states and 177 communities across the country have adopted Complete Streets policies; the 200th policy was a state law passed by Puerto Rico.

What are Complete Streets?

Perhaps the better question is, "What does your community want them to be?"

A Complete Street is created based on its location and how it fits within the context of the community. If you are looking at a residential area with limited through traffic, then sidewalks with curb cuts and two-way streets may very well make it a Complete Street for its users, including bicyclists and people in wheel chairs. But if they are in an area with schools, shopping, employment or entertainment venues, the right-of-way could include lanes for bikes and transit as well as cars; sidewalk accommodations for transit users such as shelters and trash containers; curb cuts for wheel chairs and well-marked cross walks.

For that reason, any Complete Streets policy needs to be flexible.

"If there is not going to be travel by a particular mode on a particular roadway - there isn't any now and there isn't going to be any in the future - obviously, they do not need to accommodate them," McCann said.

Costs? Talk to Charlotte

The City of Charlotte, N.C. was an early adopter of Complete Streets, and has been applying complete-streets design concepts on its capital projects since 2005. Its Urban Street Design Guidelines (USDG) were adopted by its city council in 2007, which include these concepts. Mark Cole is the Design Section Manager for the Charlotte Department of Transportation, and says that these multi-modal designs can add costs, but they typically do not.

"The times that we have looked at cost comparisons of projects designed with and without USDG methodology - before and after - it's basically a wash," he said. "We don't believe that the project has to be more expensive to accommodate more than just vehicles."

Cost can also be about what you don't do, as much as what you do, but the bottom line is that the city works to build the types of streets that people tell them they prefer and that have stood the test of time in their older neighborhoods.

"We work to provide projects that serve all users because we've found that provides long-term value for the community," he said.

The cost aspect isn't lost on area residents. Charlotte pays for its street program by issuing municipal bonds, but only after voters approve the projects. If they sensed that street projects were a waste of their tax dollars, they would likely reject them.

"In Charlotte, we have an overwhelming approval rate over the last 30-years or so of bond referendums," he said. Though Complete Streets projects have only been part of these referendums in the last five years, it does indicate citizens' faith in city government to deliver transportation projects that are needed. "Again, here in 2010, the most recent referendum was passed."

Part of that success can be attributed to the way the city seeks public input for each project.

"We generally have several public meetings over the course of planning and designing a project, where we ask a lot of specific questions about how they are going to use the project or what they would like to see in it," Cole said. "We have plans, we have photos, and we use a lot of before-and-after renderings. We've found that these tools, when used in concert, help people really understand what is being proposed as part of a project."

A rather unique part of Charlotte's USDG is a process that helps determine exactly what is needed in a particular project, based on given constraints, including cost.

"The Urban Street Guidelines have what we call a six-step planning and design process," he said. "One of those steps is a trade-off procedure that takes into account: the purpose of the project; the needs of the neighborhood; and the folks that are traveling through the project. Then you make choices based on those needs."

The spin-off effect is a change in mindset related to priorities - identifying what is really important - resulting in projects with long-lasting value and more bang for the taxpayer buck.

McCann notes that, when the coalition has assisted communities to establish a Complete Street policy, cost comes up early in discussions. After the policy has been approved and implemented, she checks back to find out how things are going, and she will ask about costs.

"For the most part, they can't really tell us because they have changed their philosophy, they've changed their priorities," she said. "They are making different decisions. It's more about costs shifting than costs increasing."

The Policy

Though the overall concepts are the same, the actual wording of the Complete Streets policies approved across the county thus far can vary considerably, according to McCann.

Sometimes, the policy can simply be a statement of intent to accommodate the transportation needs of all users. Others may be a directive for a department or agency to develop guidelines, while others, like Charlotte's USDG, are quite detailed, complete with implementation plans.

McCann said the coalition's website offers resources for any governmental body to begin the policy-making process.

"Our website is really built to give people the basic understanding of what a Complete Streets policy is and what the different elements are," she said. "We also do daylong workshops, where we bring in two instructors and spend the day with people in the community to just introduce the concept or to start to develop a policy."

Sometimes the work of writing the draft of a policy takes place within the city departments which would be most effected by it - such as planning and/or engineering. When staff members put something together that they feel comfortable with, they seek public input and reach out to various stakeholder groups that could be affected by the policy.

"They bring in people from the same organizations that we work with only on the local level," she said. "They have those chapters come and talk to them: the disability community, the bicycle groups, senior citizens and environmental groups, to get feedback about the policies."

Push from the Public

Sometimes the push for a Complete Streets policy comes from the community. Jason Schatz is co-founder of Green Dubuque, a non-profit organization that promotes policy issues related to sustainability in Dubuque, Iowa.

"With Complete Streets, it's really a simple concept," he said. "Basically you are just trying to get a locality or state or transportation organization to codify good designs and make that the standard practice for their transportation policy."

To show city officials how Complete Streets could benefit the community, he conducted a study. He began by anticipating the questions he would face from city staff. Identifying the need for such the policy was key.

"So I looked at census data for Dubuque and tried to figure out what groups would be under represented by a standard transportation policy and which ones would be better served by Complete Streets." he said. From there, he showed costs and benefits for various options. "One idea led to another and eventually I think we addressed the main questions pretty thoroughly."

Showing the number of households that do not own an automobile can be eye-opening.

"Right now, the transportation system isn't serving those people," he said. "It may take some innovations, it may take some extra thought and planning but, we should be trying to serve the maximum amount of people with that public space."

Attention from Academia

Despite the newness of the trend, the benefits as well as the design challenges of Complete Streets is not lost on institutions of higher learning.

Kristina Fields is an assistant professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville. She teaches two courses that deal with Complete Streets: Transportation Engineering and Land Development.

"We are responsible for training the next generation of transportation engineers," she said. "It is important that the students realize that we need to include all users of all abilities when we design roadways."

Besides the more obvious design elements, such as bike and transit lanes, sidewalks, bus shelters and safe cross walks, Complete Streets may also include medians in the middle of the crosswalks to serve as a refuge area for pedestrians, and designs to slow traffic and increase pedestrian and biker safety. Traffic signals could have sound and/or visual information to aid those with sight or hearing disabilities.

Highways and arterials can be more "complete" by adding a trail that runs parallel, but a safe distance from the shoulder and roadbed.

Fields points out that, planning-wise, walking and biking can be viable options for streets within a two-mile radius of a school.

"If you have a couple schools in a small community, those two mile distances can encompass the whole town," she said. "It not only benefits the students walking or biking to school, it benefits adults walking to work, or seniors walking downtown to the library and other places."

Staff Buy-In

For some city professions, especially those who design infrastructure systems that need to last for decades, some of these new design concepts can be tough to swallow. They tend to have more confidence in systems that have stood the test of time.

Fields suggests personal experience.

"If city personnel are on the fence or unsure about Complete Streets, they should become a user and experience what they are like," Fields said. "If someone bikes or walks a couple days a week to work, and they experience what that feels like with this infrastructure, they might feel completely different about them."

McCann says she has conducted policy workshops where an engineer or other professional staff member sits at the back of room with arms crossed, perhaps put off by others telling them their business. One approach is to suggest to them that these are just another set of design problems to solve.

"All of a sudden a light bulb goes on, because engineers are really problem solvers. That's what they do. That's their goal in life," she said. "I am inspired by all the things that engineers have come up with to solve Complete Streets problems."