Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Complete Streets: A Design Anecdote

Although the phrase “Complete Streets” wasn’t used, a few years ago I was involved in a design process that illustrated the balancing act called for under the Complete Streets movement.

I was the civil engineer on the design team for a downtown mixed-use project.  The development had four buildings, including buildings on both sides of a new street segment.  The governing code was quite explicit about the street, giving an exact width for the right-of-way and allocating that right-of-way into travel lanes, parking lanes, and sidewalks.

The design team conformed exactly to the requirements, and also to the requirement that the buildings directly abut the back of the sidewalk.  There was a slight problem when it was discovered that the city design code was inconsistent with the Fire Code regarding fire vehicle access, but we found a solution through some creative head-scratching and a helpful fire marshal.  The project eventually passed all the hoops (which is a story for another time) and was scheduled for public hearing.

A couple of weeks before the hearing, city staff advised us that they were having second thoughts about the street configuration.  A separate city code called for bicycle lanes on all streets having the classification of the new segment.  Staff decided that this code superseded the code under which our design had been completed and that a bike lane was required.

To their credit, they didn’t suggest that we move the buildings back.  The buildings fully occupied their lots, so any adjustment to the front face would have reduced the size of the buildings.  It would have been an ugly meeting and might possibly have ended the project.

Instead, city staff directed that we reduce the sidewalk width to allow enough width for the bike lanes.  The design team and the developer respectfully disagreed, arguing that twelve-foot sidewalks were appropriate for the downtown setting and would allow room for casual chatting, sidewalk cafes, and sidewalk sales.  City staff continued to support bike lanes, but agreed to let the planning commission make the final decision.

Lest anyone think that the design team was anti-bike lane, let me explain the setting further.  The street segment in question was quite short, didn’t have connecting bike lanes at either end, and was controlled by stop signs at both ends.  So bicyclists would have had a short segment of bike lane, before re-merging with the cars.  And the cars would have been moving slowly because of the stop signs.  Given those facts, we felt that the wider sidewalk had greater social value.  (The bike lane option would probably have been less expensive for the developer.)

The planning commission agreed with us.  Before approving the entire project, they unanimously voted for the wider sidewalk over the bike lane.

Nothing here is meant to criticize city staff.  They raised a legitimate point and pushed for it reasonably.  I disagreed with their preference for bike lanes, but reasonable people are allowed to have differing opinions.  And city staff allowed the disagreement to be settled by the planning commission.  Overall, it was a fair and reasonable resolution.

And it was a fine example of the type of balances that a Complete Streets policy would entail.  Good responsible balances, presented with integrity and judged fairly.

Short Notes and Follow-Ups

Party Platforms - I checked the Republican and Democratic Party platforms.  Neither included the word “urbanism” even once.  Nor did related terms such as town planning or transit get much favorable comment.  Our work here is not done.

A few months ago, I wrote about the movie “Urbanized”.  Here is another review of the movie.  A very positive one.

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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