Making Streets for Everyone

'Complete Streets' movement includes pedestrians and bicycles

For decades, Cincinnati’s leaders have bemoaned the loss of people and businesses to distant suburbs and other cities. Cincinnati City Councilwoman Roxanne Qualls thinks an important part of restoring vibrant city living is by appealing to those who want to do more than just drive through the Queen City.

“If you design streets for traffic, you get traffic,” Qualls told an audience at the Mercantile Library on June 9. “But if you design streets for people, you get people.”

As part of her 2009 budget policy motion, Qualls proposed a Complete Streets program that gives all users — motorists, transit riders, pedestrians and bicyclists — safe access on city roads.

City Council included funding to develop a Complete Streets program in the 2009-2010 budget and asked Michael Moore, interim director of the city’s Transportation and Engineering Department, to draft a citywide Complete Streets policy.

“This is an important step for Cincinnati, so we can’t create this policy in a vacuum,” says Moore. “The worldview of what streets are and what they mean to communities has changed. We plan to complete a first draft of the policy by the fall of 2009, then ask colleagues, stakeholders and citizens to give us their input.”

Influencing infrastructure

The National Coalition for Complete Streets is a movement that stems from efforts by America Bikes to ensure federal transportation projects don’t define transportation to mean automobiles only. (Web site is here.)

A nonprofit organization, America Bikes is a coalition of bicycle community leaders that advocates using federal transportation funding for bike and pedestrian initiatives.

The conceptual agenda for Complete Streets developed beyond bikes to integrate bike lanes, transit stops and sidewalks into street design. Rather than widening roads to create walkways and cycling lanes as add-ons, the policies give priority to reallocating existing street space, with possibly fewer or narrower lanes for automobile traffic.

The result is what Qualls and other Complete Streets proponents call “great public spaces” – places where people want to be, which in turn encourage business and residential development.

Post-World War II roads that are congested with cars and lined with strip malls and widespread suburbs require people to drive everywhere. This is not how many Cincinnati streets originally were designed, nor how Qualls thinks they should be used.

“Streets are the public living rooms of our communities,” she says. “Look at the main streets of neighborhoods like Westwood, College Hill, Oakley, Hyde Park, Clifton, Northside or Pleasant Ridge.”

Complete Streets policies have been adopted in whole or in part at many levels.

On June 4, Mayor Michael Nutter signed Philadelphia’s first Complete Streets policy. The states of Hawaii, Delaware, Illinois and California also have incorporated design and planning along Complete Streets methods.

At the federal level, legislation is under debate. The Complete Streets Act of 2009, introduced in March by Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and U.S. Rep. Doris Matsui (D-Calif.) defines Complete Streets policies for daily transportation planning practice and directs state transportation departments to adopt such policies in two years.

The House Surface Transportation and Authorization Act of 2009, released in June by Reps. James Oberstar, (DFL-Minn.), John Mica (R-Fla.), Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), and John Duncan (R-Tenn.), also identifies design principles similar to those supported by the National Complete Streets Coalition, encouraging a multi-use perspective for road projects that use federal funds.

Complete Streets concepts can apply to rural, suburban and urban layouts. In some places, this inclusiveness has also led to opposition. The Missouri Department of Transportation (DOT), for example, lobbied successfully for substantial amendments to the state’s Complete Streets bill, arguing that universal access to all roads for all users was neither necessary nor realistic.

In a recent survey of planners and engineers, 52 percent said conflicts between state DOTs and local jurisdictions are a major barrier to Complete Streets improvements. Another 35 percent called state DOT conflicts a minor barrier.

Complete Streets coalition members include the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), advocacy groups for walking, biking and physical fitness, as well as the Institute of Transportation Engineers and urban planning groups.

Speed kills

While Complete Streets focuses on equal access to transportation options, another non-profit organization, Project for Public Spaces (PPS), also has played a significant role in reframing urban design and planning. (PPS web site is here.)

Speed turns communities into raceways, claims PPS, the opposite of creating inviting places and appealing experiences that attract residents, businesses and customers.

The organization advises communities and local business districts to actively decide and manage how traffic flows through them, rather than accepting more cars, noise and deterioration.

Concerns about slower traffic and backups are often exaggerated, PPS advocates contend: Well-designed streets may create more continuous, if slower, movement of vehicles leading to minor increases in travel time, but major improvements in community viability and quality of life. Living streets cannot simply be high-speed, one-way corridors designed to evacuate the city when the workday ends.

Two-way streets that allow for slower-moving local traffic generally are seen as more “complete” than one-way streets.

Qualls’ highest priority for restoration of two-way traffic is in Walnut Hills, where William Howard Taft and McMillan avenues have become one-way car conduits.

“This effectively destroyed the Walnut Hills business district, which had been a thriving community,” Qualls adds.

Even without a comprehensive plan, communities throughout Cincinnati are embracing Complete Streets ideas. The Mount Washington Community Council has requested the city’s help to retrofit part of Beechmont Avenue to possibly include on-street parking, more walkways, bike lanes and reduced traffic speed.

Westwood citizens are trying to tame traffic on residential parts of Montana Avenue.

“This is about going from strip malls to markets where people interact, support and serve each other as business owners, customers and members of a real community,” Qualls says. “It’s about arterials becoming boulevards and seeing community performance not in terms of how fast people from elsewhere move through it but as places that encourage a full range of healthy human activity.”

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