Monday, September 10, 2012

An Introduction to Complete Streets

Streets underwent an evolution during the 20th century.  It was an evolution that many regret.  And it worked against the goals of urbanism.

When the 20th century dawned and the first few cars were making their appearance, streets were open to all forms of transportation.  It wasn’t always a pretty picture, especially in larger cities, with trolleys, horse-drawn delivery wagons, pedestrians, and the occasional bicycle competing for space.  But it mostly worked with everyone eventually accommodated.

The increasing pervasiveness of the automobile changed that.  Transit and delivery vehicles mostly converted to gasoline engines, but the bicycles and pedestrians were largely displaced.   By the end of the 20th century, it was common to see streets on which pedestrians were walking on undersized sidewalks or unpaved shoulders and bicyclists were sharing travel lanes with vehicles that outweighed them fifty-fold.

It wasn’t a grand conspiracy on behalf of cars, but a series of incremental decisions.  First by people who thought that cars were a superior transportation option that deserved preferential treatment.  And later by people who had been raised in a car culture and were unable to think of any other way the world might be.  Nonetheless, it resulted in a world in which bicyclists and pedestrians were treated as less important than car passengers.

Even bus riders were inconvenienced as their travel speeds were reduced by growing traffic congestion.

As the reality of modern streets became clear, people began pushing back.  Some advocated for bike lanes.  Others argued for more and better sidewalks.  Still more proposed improved handling of transit.

And then some decided that all of these goals were worthy.  They launched the Complete Streets movement.  They argued that all cities should adopt Complete Streets policies to balance transportation options.  From the website, this is their statement:

Instituting a Complete Streets policy ensures that transportation planners and engineers consistently design and operate the entire roadway with all users in mind - including bicyclists, public transportation vehicles and riders, and pedestrians of all ages and abilities.

A key aspect of the Complete Streets movement is the acknowledgment that every street is unique, in its setting, its configuration, and its users.  From the FAQ:

There is no singular design prescription for Complete Streets; each one is unique and responds to its community context. A complete street may include: sidewalks, bike lanes (or wide paved shoulders), special bus lanes, comfortable and accessible public transportation stops, frequent and safe crossing opportunities, median islands, accessible pedestrian signals, curb extensions, narrower travel lanes, roundabouts, and more.

The lack of a singular template may be disconcerting to some cities, but it allows for the design creativity to find the best solutions.

In the North Bay, Complete Streets policies have been adopted by Marin County and by the cities of Novato, San Anselmo, and Fairfax.  Other cities are undoubtedly sympathetic to the Complete Street goals, but an adoption of a Complete Streets policy would give a better basis for design decisions.

If you know of other North Bay municipalities considering a Complete Streets policy, let me know.  I may need to testify in support.

Now that complete streets are part of our urbanism conversation, I’ll refer more frequently to street design issues.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

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