It’s been a long time since I was single, lived downtown and my only transportation was a bicycle—those were pretty good days—but I still remember the difficulty getting around, so the idea of “complete streets” as exemplified in this article from Governing Magazine, resonates with me.
The ‘complete streets’ movement is reshaping urban boulevards, small-town main streets and even rural highways. But there are still plenty of bumps in the road.
The first time Dean Ledbetter heard about “complete streets,” he thought it was a crazy idea. Ledbetter, a North Carolina traffic engineer, had devoted his career to creating roads that allowed cars to move faster. Complete streets would slow cars down, reworking roads to accommodate bicyclists, transit users and pedestrians, including people pushing baby strollers and riding in wheelchairs. Ledbetter’s first reaction, he says, was, “Why would you want to ruin a perfectly good road?”
But the federal government, worried about North Carolina’s stubbornly high pedestrian fatality rate, started offering state traffic engineers like Ledbetter free classes on complete streets. He took the classes three times. The first time, he wrote off the idea. The second time, he figured it might be feasible in big cities like Charlotte and Raleigh. The third time, he started thinking about how he could use it in his own work.
The opportunity came when leaders from West Jefferson, a town of 1,300 people, approached him about improving its main downtown strip. Ledbetter suggested getting rid of two stoplights and replacing them with all-way stop signs. That would save the state money and make the downtown easier to walk through. He also recommended repainting the road to make it look friendlier to pedestrians. If West Jefferson implemented these streetscape improvements, the town would get $250,000 in state money. Its board approved the deal on a 3-2 vote on a Monday night; by Thursday, the street was repainted and the traffic lights were gone.
The more attractive — and more walkable — downtown started bringing in more businesses. A wine shop and a brewery opened up, along with stores selling jewelry, kitchen gadgets and antiques. The number of vacant downtown storefronts dropped from 33 to three. Tourism increased dramatically. Of course, the street design was not the only factor in play. West Jefferson benefited from a decade-old plan to revitalize downtown, not to mention a wealth of local artistic talent that helped with the transformation. But promoting foot traffic was a catalyst for bigger changes.
West Jefferson may be a very small place, but its new approach reflects a movement that has gained strength quickly. The notion that roads should not be built just for cars and trucks is having profound effects on public spaces. Most famously, New York City has closed — for now — much of the area around Times Square to autos. Indianapolis has gone on a sidewalk-building spree. During a single week this August, Los Angeles adopted a new pedestrian-friendly master plan and San Francisco created a walkers’ enclave on Market Street, its busy downtown thoroughfare.
Protected bike lanes, virtually nonexistent in the United States a decade ago, are cropping up all over the country. The roster of local governments that have officially committed to complete streets now numbers more than 700. Still, even the most ambitious jurisdictions are a long way from seeing their vision fully realized. And elements of a backlash are starting to emerge.
There is no definitive template for what makes a complete street, but there are many common elements.
Bike lanes, especially ones separated from automobile traffic, are the most obvious. The prototype for complete streets, the 2007 overhaul of Ninth Avenue in New York City, included a protected bike lane among its many new features. The revamped street showed other cities that bike lanes could be physically separated from vehicle traffic by more than painted lines. It is now almost common to see bike lanes cordoned off from cars using curbs, planters and other barriers, which increase safety and comfort for cyclists while discouraging drivers from illegally parking in the lanes. Protected bike lanes are now found in 24 states and 53 U.S. cities.
Retrieved October 29, 2015 from http://www.governing.com/topics/transportation-infrastructure/gov-complete-streets-roads-bikes-pedestrians.html