Cities redo streets for pedestrians, cyclists, transit

“Complete Streets” movement presses a growing number of cities to plan for multimodal transportation.

In 2003, bicyclists intent on obtaining safer routes for cycling concluded that they needed a slogan — one that would communicate their goal to the public clearly and forcefully. Instead of continuing to appeal for “routine accommodation” — the bureaucratic phrase they’d been relying on up to that point — they started demanding “Complete Streets.”

This new catchphrase — and the coalition that united behind it — are helping to usher in benefits for cyclists and pedestrians alike. In the four years since the program was approved by the advocacy group American Bikes, “Complete Streets” has been endorsed or promoted by CNU, AARP, the American Planning Association, the Active Living by Design Program and others.

“A lot of cities have recognized the problem and are trying to create real change,” says Jeffrey Tumlin of Nelson\Nygaard, a transportation consulting firm based in San Francisco. The emphasis varies from one locale to another, but the central goal, as defined by Barbara Gray and Grace Crunican of the Seattle Department of Transportation, is “policies and actions aimed at producing streets that are safe, accessible, and convenient for all users.”

Implementation challenges
Among the municipalities that have accomplished the most are Seattle; Portland, Oregon; Fort Collins, Colorado; and Charlotte, North Carolina.

In the Seattle region, the Cascade Bicycle Club has pressed municipalities first to pass resolutions and then to follow up with ordinances. “Eventually that will create enough momentum to get these policies implemented at a regional level” and higher, says Patrick McGrath, advocacy organizer for the 7,400-member club. So far, Seattle and two of its suburbs — Redmond and Kirkland — have pledged to create Complete Streets.

“Seattle is a great example of how to do it right,” McGrath says. The 569,000-population city passed a resolution in October 2006 and an ordinance in April 2007. The ordinance helps ensure that for each capital project in Seattle, there is a Complete Streets meeting, with participants from all the municipal departments that have a stake in the project — most notably Planning and Development, Public Utilities, and Transportation.

“Now they’re all in the room,” McGrath emphasizes. “They can ask, ‘Do you have what you need?” The needs of pedestrians, cyclists, and others do not have to be guessed at.

Gray, a strategic adviser in Seattle DOT, says many transportation projects in Seattle have started to include practices or techniques such as the following:

• Installation of special signal loops (wires under the pavement) that cause signals to change when a motor vehicle or a  bicycle is detected.
• Pedestrian-scale street lighting to illuminate sidewalks.
• “Road diets,” which reduce the width of a road or the number of travel lanes.
• Installation of median islands for the safety and comfort of pedestrians crossing the streets.
• Installation of “bus bulbs” — widened areas of sidewalk where passengers board buses. These allow buses to stop in a travel lane rather than pulling over to a curb several feet away. “This makes the stopping distances shorter” and increases the speed of bus service, Gray says.

“We are in the process of adopting a citywide master plan, which includes measuring every arterial in the city and figuring where we need to add bike lanes,” Gray says. Topography helps determine what provision is made for cyclists. Bikes sometimes get a full lane for themselves on uphill stretches of roads, whereas on downhill stretches, they more often share a lane with motorists.

The intention in Seattle is to reinforce proper design of the street network through intelligent land-use planning. Gray and DOT Director Cunican report that the Complete Streets initiative in Seattle is being complemented by an Urban Village Strategy — a land-use strategy that envisions people living, working, and having access to basic services in centers designed for walking and biking.  

Sacramento’s approach
Some smaller cities handle the implementation of Complete Streets ideas differently. In Sacramento, California, a group known as WALKSacramento — supported by the Active Living by Design program and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation — set up the Partnership for Active Communities, which guides development in a growing northwestern section known as Natomas.

The Partnership established a Design and Development Review Committee, whose members include an engineer, a transportation specialist, two air quality experts, three pedestrian and bicycling advocates, a health industry professional, and a retired lawyer. In a one-year period, the review committee hosted presentations and facilitated discussions on 33 projects covering over 1,400 acres and including 6,840 housing units.

Among the results: wider sidewalks, sidewalks set some distance back from the streets, improved connectivity of walking routes, and better-connected bicycle pathways. Anne Geraghty, WALKSacramento’s executive director, says the group has had “good success” when it’s been able to review projects at a very early stage, “before the developers have done extensive design work.”

Potential conflicts
The National Complete Streets Coalition was formally launched in May 2006 with financial support from a bicycle industry group called Bikes Belong, among others. Barbara McCann, the Coalition’s executive director, credits David Goldberg of Smart Growth America with coining the term “Complete Streets.”

If providing more space for cyclists results in wider rights-of-way, this might conflict with New Urbanism’s affinity for street passages that are narrow enough to feel like “outdoor rooms,” enclosed by the walls of buildings. But advocates and specialists interviewed by New Urban News said they see substantial advantages and few problems in providing better facilities for cyclists.

McCann says that when bike lanes are created on the streets, the space often comes from reducing the width of pavement previously occupied by automobiles; the street as a whole does not expand. Dan Burden of Glatting Jackson consultants in Orlando says bike lanes, much like on-street parking, are useful in creating a buffer between moving vehicles and pedestrians. “Bike lanes,” he believes, “are a great added value to the pedestrian.”

Rich Chellman of TND Engineering in New Hampshire cautions that “if there is not enough bicycle travel, the [bike] lanes simply act as shoulders, promoting faster vehicular speeds, and this, of course, is bad for the pedestrian environment.” Nonetheless, he often recommends bike lanes, especially in established communities.

Heather Smith, planning director for CNU, says Complete Streets is important because it “gets departments of transportation to think about more than automobiles as a mode of transportation, and to integrate pedestrians, cyclists, and mass transit into the mix.”

Connecting Charlotte
Last October the 664,000-population city of Charlotte adopted urban street design guidelines aimed at producing “a dense, well-connected network of streets and traffic-calmed route choices for all travel modes.” The aim is that “street design and land use/urban design decisions will reinforce each other.”

Approval of the guidelines was the culmination of six years of work, including consultations with the police, fire, engineering, and planning departments and successive public reviews, according to Norm Steinman, manager of Charlotte’s Transportation Planning Division. Steinman says that about three years ago the city started incorporating better design practices into city-funded projects, giving “a lot stronger consideration to bike lanes, wider planter strips, wider sidewalks, crosswalks, and to not widening intersections.”

Since then, Charlotte has acted to influence developers more directly, asking them to lay out their new subdivisions with more and shorter blocks and more choices of routes. “The most controversial point,” Steinman says, “was that some developers thought we were asking for blocks that were too short and for creek crossings, and they were concerned about the cost.” Some estimates indicate that shorter blocks, more streets, and more sidewalks will add between  $1,900 and $2,900 to the cost of each lot in single-family residential subdivisions.

“The longest block faces were about 1,000 feet six years ago. Most were 800 feet,” Steinman says. “Developers have been reducing it to 600 to 800 feet.” The city has established preferred or typical block lengths for transit station areas, centers, corridors, and residential and industrial areas.

Oregon in the vanguard
Oregon was the first state to pass a law — in 1971 — mandating the inclusion of facilities for bicycles and pedestrians in all road projects, says Michael Ronkin, a consultant in Salem, Oregon.

“Until the last 10 years, bike advocates were always more vocal than pedestrian advocates,” observes Ronkin, who managed a bike and pedestrian program for the state for 16 years. As he sees it, Complete Streets represents a coming together of the two.

Ronkin encourages governments to adopt Complete Streets policies, but he urges them not to include design standards in their legislation. If rigid standards or dimensions appear in legislation, they often impede creativity, he says.

He also observes that major road projects are not where the greatest gains are to be made. Ultimately, greater progress can be achieved through routine work done by “maintenance and operations folks.” Because existing streets, crosswalks, signals, and other elements undergo continual maintenance and repair, Ronkin says advocates of pedestrians should seize opportunities to do such things as requiring that every time a signal is worked on, a pedestrian countdown signal will be installed.

To make conditions safer for cycling, Ronkin advises bringing the speed of cars and trucks down to 20 to 25 mph — a speed at which motor vehicles and cyclists can comfortably share the road. That also makes pedestrians safer and more relaxed.

In some areas, the city of Portland has extended its sidewalks, marked part of the broadened sidewalk for use by bicycles, and installed separate signals for bikes. “It’s a bike facility in every sense of the word,” says Roger Geller, bicycle coordinator for Portland’s Office of Transportation. “You feel separate from the roadway.”

Although some bicycling takes place on greenways or other routes dedicated to biking, “the great majority of utilitarian biking is done on the roads,” Geller points out. Thus, New Urbanism’s advocacy of extensively interconnected streets serves cyclists well. When there is a grid of streets, Geller says, “people naturally gravitate to sidestreets,” which are quieter and safer.

The result of Portland’s initiatives: Last year the annual community survey of the US Census found that 4.2 percent of the city’s residents commute by bike, reportedly the highest proportion in any American city.

Measuring is a must
Tumlin, the transportation consultant, warns that “it’s very easy to water [Complete Streets] down to the point of meaninglessness.” He says that for pedestrians, cyclists, and transit users to have access to the transportation system equal to that of motorists, there must be measurements of the needs of each mode of transportation. “You have to put tools and measurements in place to determine if in fact the streets are complete.”

“Fort Collins adopted multimodal performance measures early,” Tumlin says. The 122,000-population Colorado city has a “Multimodal Transportation Level of Service Manual,” which rates various kinds of environments — such as pedestrian districts, activity centers, transit corridors, and areas near schools — on five factors: directness, continuity, street crossings, visual interest and amenities, and security. This helps ensure that statements in favor of Complete Streets are translated into improved conditions on the ground.

“If, in your system of measuring success, the only thing that’s measured is automobile level of service, then …. the car will trump the other modes,” Tumlin says.

Tumlin makes two other points:
• At the federal and state levels, “pots of money tend to be divided up into different modes. You’re rewarded [currently] for paying attention to only one mode.” This will have to change. The federal and state governments need to view mobility more holistically.
• Instead of focusing on “the impossible goal of reducing congestion,” governments should focus on “quality of life and sustainable economic development.” Portland has done that. Although, ironically, deaths and injuries of cyclists in traffic collisions were an issue in that city this November, Tumlin says Portland is going in a direction that other cities should learn from.