Complete Streets means more than single, unconnected streets. It means creating connected networks of roadways that balance the needs of all travelers, regardless of age, ability, or how they choose to travel. It means safely connecting jobs to homes, and parks to schools, aunts and uncles to nieces and nephews, and giving folks options in how they get around, no matter their destination.
And in communities with natural barriers like rivers and lakes, building “complete” bridges is necessary to allow those kinds of connections. A commuter may have great bicycling routes on either side of the bridge, but without safe, easy accommodations across, she’s not getting to work by bike.
The opportunities to make these connections are rare. Bridge projects are expensive and time-intensive to build, and they last a generation. Anticipating the needs of all users in each bridge project now assures years of walking and bicycling across, providing new opportunities for commuting as well as recreation.
Communities across North America have realized the benefits of complete bridges. In Columbus, Ohio, the new Main Street Bridge meets the needs of all users and features an 18-foot wide path for pedestrians and cyclists on the north side of the bridge and a five-foot sidewalk on the south side. Mayor Michael B. Coleman added that the bridge will be “a catalyst for residential and economic development” (pdf) on both sides of the bridge. Ohio Department of Transportation Director Jolene M. Molitoris added that the project “will serve as a magnet for new jobs and economic growth in one of [the] state’s vital urban centers.”
The new bridge in Columbus will soon complement the many successes already apparent in a number of other communities. A shared-use path on Portland, Oregon’s Hawthorne Bridge carries over 7,000 bicyclists every day, accounting for 20% of daily traffic across the bridge. A similar facility on the Arthur Ravenel, Jr. Bridge, connecting Charleston and Mount Pleasant in South Carolina, has helped two-thirds of its users be more physically active. And the transformation of an auto-only lane into a bike-only lane on Burrard Bridge in Vancouver, British Columbia has resulted in an additional 200,000 bike trips, with little effect on motorized traffic — negating the need for a $30 million retrofit to better accommodate the demand.
However, years of building bridges solely for motorized traffic still results in the construction of many incomplete bridges. In 2007, a 17-year-old was killed while biking across the only bridge over the Fox River near Cary, Illinois. His parents filed a successful wrongful-death lawsuit, forcing the Illinois Department of Transportation to invest $882,000 retrofitting the bridge with a side path for bicyclists and pedestrians. This was much more than it would have cost to include non-motorized user facilities in the bridge’s initial design.
Though advocates in Cleveland, Ohio have a strong case for including bicycle and pedestrians in the proposed Inner Belt Bridge plans, the Ohio Department of Transportation still views multi-modal accommodations as an obstacle to current plans, rather than an opportunity.
As more towns, regions, and states adopt Complete Streets policies, the less residents will need to press for accommodations of all users on every bridge project. Successful integration of the Complete Streets approach will change the question from “how will added users further complicate traditional bridge design?” to “how can we best balance everyone’s needs to create opportunities and choices in transportation?”