Complete Streets should be No Big Deal
Of all of the preventers of walkable urban places, traffic engineering is in a league of its own. This profession has led the transformation of American thoroughfares over the last century to create “Big Asphalt” environments that makes human-scale placemaking difficult or impossible in the majority of our “drivable suburban" metropolitan areas.
Walkable neighborhoods that many people want today are those that remain relatively untouched by traffic engineers, who are well-intentioned and capable people. Building more urban places often means going through, over, or around conventional transportation engineering, which builds the bones of communities.
The Complete Streets movement, the tenets of which have been adopted by more than 500 jurisdictions nationwide, was supposed to solve this problem. The basic idea is that streets should be accessible to all users.
Yet Complete Streets remain stubbornly difficult to implement. In New Brunswick, New Jersey, a simple “road diet,” going from four lanes to three with bicycle lanes, is unbuilt after seven years. Or, in Charlotte, North Carolina, the Department of Transportation refuses to make anything more than cosmetic changes in one of the city’s most dangerous stretches of road. Near two transit stations and new urban development, this street should be safe for walking. These cases are no exceptions.
Even when “Complete Streets” are built, engineers often use dimensions suited for highways. Greensboro Drive in Tysons Corner, Virginia, recently was given a road diet, but 12-foot-wide lanes were striped for automobile traffic. Using 11-foot and 12-foot lanes—highway dimensions—is routine for Complete Streets. This design encourages speeding and makes thoroughfares more dangerous.
Below is a Complete Street built in my town recently. Every time I drive on this thoroughfare I speed, and so does everybody else that I observe. It feels very much like a highway and nothing about the design tells you to slow down. Bloated thoroughfares are the soul of automobile-oriented places.
Here’s a street in Provincetown, Massachusetts, that is truly a Complete Street. It is safe, it provides access and transportation, it creates tremendous economic activity and value, allows culture to thrive, and it probably could not be built today. Very few transportation engineers would allow such a street to be built in a meaningful location. This is actually an important thoroughfare through town.
Source: Granola Shotgun blog.
This street is not appropriate for every location. But until such streets becomes a normal, everyday part of transportation engineering, this profession will remain primary preventers of creating places people love.
If a place is safe, creates economic value, and people want it, why should a non-elected profession create enormous barriers to building it? (Not only are such streets safe, they are considerably safer than the streets transportation engineers have tended to build since the mid-20th Century.)
Such a street should be No Big Deal. Traffic engineers shouldn’t even think twice about approving it or designing it. Every study, every bit if scientific and observational evidence suggests that such streets are safe. An engineer should be able to approve such a street, in a location that is meant to be walkable, between his or her first and second cup of coffee in the morning. It should be that easy.
With regards to road diets in places that are planned for walkability—traffic needs to be slowed down, not speeded up. The most effective way to do that is to narrow lanes. In my experience, 10-foot lanes is the maximum for traffic calming. Even they are not effective enough in many cases. With 10-foot lanes and bike lanes on both sides of the road, drivers often still feel comfortable going 30 miles per hour, which is too fast for a walkable, bikable place with transportation choice. In such circumstances, an engineer should think nothing of using 9-foot lanes, or going to even narrower dimensions (The Williamsburg Bridge, which carries more than 250,000 people a day between Manhattan and Brooklyn, has lane sections less than 9 feet. They are the safest part of the bridge, according to San Schwartz, former NYC DOT traffic commissioner and chief engineer). This should be a routine part of the engineer’s toolbox—like approving a crosswalk or the location of a street sign.
Traffic engineering is reforming. Recently I reported that the FHWA (Federal Highway Administration) is now proposing to eliminate 11 of 13 or their “controlling criteria” on urban US highways with speeds of less than 50 mph—admitting that wider lanes and other conventional criteria have little or no impact on improving safety. Some of the bedrock assumptions of transportation engineering, such as using “level of service” as the primary measure of road efficiency, are crumbling.
But even with these changes afoot, it is still a Big Deal to create a Complete Street. It gives engineers and DOTs fits. They jump through difficult, expensive, and time-consuming hoops, some of their own choosing. Under stress, they revert back to sprawl models of thoroughfare design like 12-foot lanes and bloated intersections. Many Complete Street options—I believe the best ones—remain completely off the table.
We don’t need to employ Complete Street designs everywhere. Most of our metro areas can remain automobile-oriented. But strategic parts of our metro areas should be converted from “drivable suburban” to “walkable urban” to accommodate the growing demand for such places. Traffic engineering should neither prevent nor compromise that necessary transition.
Complete Streets must become No Big Deal. They should be routine, like brushing teeth. Every traffic engineer should have Complete Streets—including the current forbidden ones—as part of their regular toolbox. Need to design a bridge? No problem. A highway off-ramp? Fine. Nine-foot travel lanes? Nothing out of the ordinary. A Main Street where cars go 10 miles per hour and people walk in the middle of the road? Done—now I’ll get another cup of coffee.
Robert Steuteville is editor of Better Cities & Towns and senior communications advisor at the Congress for the New Urbanism.