Complete Streets: Tools to Move from Idea to Practice

On Tuesday, November 13th, the American Planning Association held a discussion "Complete Streets: Tools to Move from Idea to Practice." Two speakers from Chicago's community of transportation experts, Stefanie Seskin, deputy director of the National Complete Streets Coalition, and M. Paul Lippens, senior planner with Active Transportation Alliance, gave presentations.

In a post-recession world, cash-strapped governments of all kinds have been forced to reevaluate the kind and scope of projects they undertake. Seskin wove together an assemblage of policy prescriptions for local, regional, and state governments looking for a greater return on their investments.

She claims that the demand is high for projects that add value to a community, that complete streets are a way for governments to meet these demands as well as the changing cultural, political, and practical expectations of streets. Politicians, policymakers, and engineers are beginning to realize that we "can't build our way out of transportation problems" anymore. And at a time when fewer big infrastructure projects are moving forward, complete streets initiatives can be be implemented on small-scale, with rehabilitation and maintenance projects already slated to be done.

Seskin stressed that change begins at the policy level, because much policy actually inhibits the goals of complete streets. A city will not allocate two feet of a road for a bicycle lane if it's illegal to do so. Effectual policy must come first. Additionally, Seskin argued that at the heart of any successful policy must include all users and all modes. That is to say, the vision of the region/city/town must be communicated to all stakeholders, not just the engineers. All stakeholders should have a say in the development of a project. Wrapping up her speech, Seskin suggested that every new policy come complete with performance measures, allowing for transparency for those community members and stakeholders to know and deserve to know how their invest is doing.

In the second part of the discussion, M. Paul Lippens laid out his 10 Themes for Complete Streets. Stressing the need for a common language to simplify complex ideas in the area of street planning, Lippens echoed the CNU policy of re-adopting a standard street typology (for boulevards, avenues, streets, etc.), each with standard measure and characteristics. Couple this with reassessing the mode hierarchy of a street, where "vehicle flow" is not the singular directive for street design, and one can grasp the essence of Lippens speech.

Lippens stressed Seskin and the Complete Street Coalitions' goal of safety, wherein the roadway is designed to make drivers drive safer and this design is linked to the street typology (e.g. target speed of 30 mph on boulevards and 25 mph avenues). He brought up Chicago's trend since the mid-2000s of a decrease in AVMT (annual vehicle miles traveled). A promising trend if it means more transit and less traffic, Lippens pointed to the need for engineers and governments to plan traffic, not "plan for traffic." This method of planning  will preempt the positive feedback loop of highways creating more highways and instead manage all street typologies efficiently, new and old. Doing so will decrease AVMT even more.

Seskin and Lippens informed the crowd that the demand for complete streets is growing exponentially, up to 400 projects today from only 80 a short time ago. The biggest obstacle tends to be money as everyone in every aspect of life is trying to get the most for their dollar. The real benefit though, Lippens argues, is that we are all speaking the same language: complete streets do add value, are cost effective, and can save us all money.

CNU has always championed development that add value to the area in which its constructed, as outlined in the ITE/CNU manual Designing Walkable Urban Thoroughfares: A Context Sensitive Approach. Recently, CNU received a grant from the The Chicago Community Trust to help launch our Design Walkable Urban Thoroughfares for the Chicago Region project. The project will bring together architects, planners, and public officials in the Chicagoland area to implement strategies that will add value to the area, through multimodal transportation options and much of the same ideas behind the complete streets objective.

To check out this and past episodes of Tuesday at APA, visit their podcast page here, and to download the Complete Streets Complete Streets manual from ATA click here.

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