Atlantic Cities
Urban Wonk

Making 'Complete Streets' More Complete

Making 'Complete Streets' More Complete
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In my urban-suburban county in central Maryland, the latest "pedestrian struck by automobile" tragedy is all too frequently on the nightly news. Invariably, there are all sorts of concrete explanations: the road was too narrow, with limited sightlines and too many parked cars. The road was too wide, with uncontrolled pedestrian access, poorly marked crossings, and not enough parked cars. The pedestrian was not careful (wearing earphones, distracted, drunk). The driver was not careful (talking on a cell phone, distracted, drunk). There were not enough traffic lights. The lighting was poor. The road had no sidewalks. The pedestrian was not in the crosswalk. The pedestrian was in the crosswalk, but the driver was speeding. And so on. 

What is often lost in all this sometimes conflicting information is the tragedy itself – that a mother of three, or an elderly grandfather, or a four year-old boy was killed because of one, or some combination, of these problems.

From about 1920-1970, streets and roads in America meant mostly one thing: moving cars and trucks quickly and safely – that is, "throughput." All else was secondary, including pedestrian mobility, aesthetics, other vehicles (like bicycles), or how those roads and streets really "fit" or served a particular setting. Thirty or 40 years ago, interest in streets as integral parts of "place" increased, and road engineers and planners began the process of trying, at least, to humanize them. In the last decade or so, in addition to safety, functionality, and fit, issues of environmental, social and economic costs and benefits of particular urban transportation solutions have come to the fore. But even during most of this latter period, a road’s purpose was still chiefly perceived as making cars very happy indeed.

In the early part of the last decade, transportation expert (and colleague and friend) Barbara McCann came up with the wonderfully clever concept of "Complete Streets," which has become a very successful way for urban communities to re-envision, redesign, and improve their streets, and the ordinances which set the standards for those streets.

The good news is that many dozens of communities around the country have seen the wisdom of some of these ideas, and have made changes that are transforming the former single-minded nature of their streets and roads into a more multi-purposed and nuanced system: one that safely and adequately accommodates all forms of travel, including pedestrians, bicycles, public transit, and of course, cars and trucks. Just look at Chicago’s ambitious new street design guidelines, centered around the new big idea there: pedestrians are now number one. While all transportation modes deserve fair treatment in Chicago’s city streets as they are redesigned or upgraded, walkers now rule. Wow.

These kinds of changes are welcome and long overdue. Communities as diverse as the Borough of Woodbine, New Jersey, or Charlotte, North Carolina, have brought Complete Streets into their public policies, so that, over time, their streets and roads will begin to take on new characteristics. It is a tribute to a smart and original idea with staying power, and hard work, that it is becoming more and more mainstream across the U.S. A number cities and urban counties are finally tackling head-on the very difficult problem of pedestrian safety, and mobility through all modes of travel.

Now that these mobility and safety ideas are starting to take hold, it doesn’t seem too soon to suggest an update of the "Complete Streets" concept, one which brings environmental and economic issues squarely within its ambit. Kaid Benfield has already written about how the concept of "smart growth," now fully into its third decade, could be modernized and improved. Such a "renovation" would more completely reintegrate the environmental attributes that gave smart growth its impetus in the 1990s but may since have faded. Primarily, this would involve the idea of bringing nature back into urban communities, in order to invest them with a crucial dimension of livability that has been left out of some of smart growth’s better known attributes, such as density, walkability, or mixed uses. 

We've already seen how what's commonly referred to as "green infrastructure" can make a significant difference in how a street is perceived or functions, in communities as diverse as Miami Beach, Florida, Copenhagen, Denmark, and Montgomery County, Maryland. These are the systems of street trees and planters, curbside "raingardens" and heavily planted "bioswales," beautiful building-front green-spaces, attractive porous pavement, and even landscaped and "day-lighted" urban streams (streams brought out of underground pipes) with planted buffers, all of which can double as practices for managing polluted stormwater runoff.

Nature in any setting is refreshing, and intuitively provides "food for the soul." The Japanese know this. Their culture encourages "forest-bathing" or shinrin-yoku – taking a walk among the trees so as to breathe in wood’s essential oils, and to relieve stress and thereby naturally boost the immune system. Tom and Kitty Stoner’s TKF Foundation has been building small green refuges, primarily in the urban mid-Atlantic area but now expanding to other parts of the country, with a similar naturally therapeutic aim. Nature in highly urban settings, however narrowly circumscribed as it sometimes needs to be because of those settings, provides an especially valuable respite. Parks of all sizes come to mind as special islands in cities and towns, but even green infrastructure along streets can refresh.

Thus planted, with "green" made an integral part of the urban terrain, this newest version of a "complete street" adds to our roads' multiples of functionality. Green infrastructure provides many positive attributes for urban places, from beautifying and adding economic value to residential and commercial neighborhoods, to absorbing carbon, cleaning and cooling the air (and providing shade for walking, in warm climates), and effectively managing urban and suburban stormwater. And the installation and on-going maintenance of green infrastructure, like other street improvements, supports local employment objectives.

There really aren’t that many opportunities for improving both the transportation and environmental performance of basic urban infrastructure, but the regular rehabilitation of streets is surely one of them. Tearing up urban streets from time to time in order to improve how they are working, which is an on-going responsibility of cities and urban communities everywhere (and, as many urban residents and businesses can attest, seems never to end), provides the opportunity to improve that space in multiple dimensions. 

Using a complete streets concept, streets and roads can meet additional objectives rather than simply maximizing the throughput of cars, such as bringing transit, bikes, and pedestrians fully into the picture, and vastly improving safety. And improving street function by adding green infrastructure to the mix can do triple duty, promoting environmental, social and economic goals. 

This creates a win all around – making complete streets, well, complete. 

Top image: TonyV3112 /Shutterstock.com

Lee Epstein is an urban planner and environmental lawyer working in the mid-Atlantic region, who blogs regularly about sustainability issues. All posts »

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