Complete streets and gas prices

Guest post by Barbara McCann, coordinator of the National Complete Streets Coalition

As Americans watch the seemingly inexorable climb in gas prices, many are looking at their streets in a new way. They are looking for streets that can give them more than a way out of their neighborhood – they need a way out of paying at the pump.
Luckovich on Bike Jacking
The stories are everywhere – the American Public Transportation Association reports a surge in transit ridership, even as transit agencies prepare to celebrate “Dump the Pump Day“; NBC News is reporting on an increase in bicycle commuting and numerous stories have reported on more people choosing to walk. Mike Luckovich, editorial cartoonist for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, summed it up with his ‘bike jacking’ cartoon last week. (click to enlarge)

But while some SUV owners may be on the lookout for a bicycle to steal, the first step for many commuters is more likely to be a close look at their streets: is there a sidewalk, and a safe way to cross? Are there bike lanes I can use? Where does the bus stop, and does it offer more than a pole in the grass to wait by? In too many communities, the answer is still ‘no.’ Bicycle and pedestrian facilities (and decent bus stops), have been treated as nice ‘amenities,’ rather than as essential transportation infrastructure. They have only been installed if some extra funding can be found, or if local advocates push hard enough. The folly of that approach is becoming all too clear, as Americans survey their neighborhoods in dismay – and resign themselves to paying at the pump.

Across the country, states, cities and regions had already begun to recognize the shortcomings of planning only for cars, and have been passing Complete Streets policies. The gas price spike is lending new urgency to the movement. The Buffalo City Council passed a Complete Streets ordinance on May 27th, calling for all future road construction, reconstruction, and public works projects to take into account the needs of all travelers, including bicyclists, pedestrians, and transit users. According to a local Artvoice blog, Buffalo City Council member Michael LoCurto pointed to the rising price of gasoline as an impetus to pass the complete streets legislation. “With gas up to $4 per gallon, we need more options for how to get to work. Making this city progressive—forward-thinking in terms of transportation—is a plus.”

Back in the 1970s, the gas crisis helped lead to the development of some bike route signage and multi-use paths. But many of the new trails were poorly designed and fell into disrepair and disuse. This time around, many more planners and engineers are well-versed in designing for non-motorized users (pdf), thanks to an under-the-radar movement that has increased federal and state funding and training for such facilities over the past 15 years. Many of those designs are working in tandem with new public transportation services to transform existing streets.

This movement hasn’t gotten a lot of media attention, except through ‘feel-good’ news features — after all, walking and bicycling are not ‘real’ transportation, are they? But more people – and planners – are waking up to the fact that 40 percent of all metro area trips are less than two miles. More importantly, our wallets are now involved – and providing complete streets is serious business. Expect to see more communities fighting the high price of gasoline with local complete streets policies – and keep an eye on the federal Complete Streets legislation now working its way through Congress.

Barbara McCann is a writer and coordinates the National Complete Streets Coalition. For more information, visit Complete Streets. Want to receive news and updates about Complete Streets? Sign up today.

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