Completing Our Streets: From drudgery to metamorphosis

Maintenance activities, such as repaving a roadway, offer an opportunity for modest, low-cost improvements toward more complete streets. Photo by Barbara McCann.

This post is the seventh in a twice-monthly series of excerpts from Completing Our Streets: The Transition to Safe and Inclusive Transportation Networks, the new book from Island Press by Barbara McCann, founder of the National Complete Streets Coalition. The book discusses the keys to the movement’s success, and how places and practitioners in the United States are tackling the challenges of putting a new transportation paradigm into daily practice.

All National Complete Streets Coalition Platinum Partners and those who upgrade to the next Partnership level will receive a signed copy of Completing Our Streets. Become a Coalition Partner today!

From Chapter 5: Looking for Every Opportunity

Integrating a Complete Streets approach into maintenance and operations projects allows change to begin to happen right away, and such projects also have value precisely because they are pedestrian in the first sense of the word. In Anniston, Alabama, city councilman Jay Jenkins told the Anniston Star that the city’s new Complete Streets policy would be “a plodding kind of change.” The initial changes made to complete the streets can be modest and unimaginative, but within this drudgery lies the makings of metamorphosis.

A new in-road pedestrian sign or a curb ramp on a suburban arterial are small things. But when it comes to safer streets, the divine is in the details, because these elements introduce the human scale into the road environment. For a wheelchair user, that curb ramp can mean the difference between independent travel and reliance on expensive and inconvenient paratransit service. As the small details proliferate, they start to telegraph a new message about the road: the people alighting from buses or bicycling down the street have a place, and they need to be seen and respected by drivers.

The Federal Highway Administration has issued a primer to help agencies achieve sustainability through maintenance and operations. It includes a guide for incorporating multimodal factors into an operations plan for a typical major suburban arterial over a fifteen-year period. The primer makes clear that such an arterial–with its wide lanes, many driveways, and few safe crossings–won’t be transformed overnight. But it can be transformed nonetheless. According to the timeline, in year 2, safety projects concentrate on fixing a critical intersection or improving intersections for people with disabilities. In year 4, a new corridor access management plan enables the agency to close some driveways and add sidewalks. By year 7, land use changes and improvements in earlier years allow the agency to reconfigure the street for six lanes of traffic instead of eight, with a landscaped median and continuous bike lanes; a roundabout may follow the next year. By year 12, it is time to start up bus rapid transit (BRT), with signal prioritization, stations with prepaid boarding, and stops with signs that tell when the next bus is coming. This gradual method is how most of the nation’s suburban arterials will likely become Complete Streets.

Incremental changes are especially valuable in communities like Anniston, where driving is the default. Small changes can fulfill obvious safety needs, such as lowering speeds through neighborhoods and providing a place to walk. Achieving a minimum level of safety is a threshold over which most communities must pass before they can start to realize any health, sustainability or economic goals that depend on getting more people out on foot, bicycle, or bus. Modest changes build understanding and support, and also allow time for people to change their habits so the new sidewalks, bike lanes, and bus shelters are well used. Indeed, the Anniston Star’s editorial board praised the move, concluding that “cities that invest in tangible, quality-of-life amenities are investing in their future.” Gradual change can also lead to a gradual realization that a few bike lanes won’t be enough to really transform a community—and that can lead to more far-reaching projects and plans. Complete Streets can become a “gateway drug” to smarter growth.

Order your copy of Completing Our Streets to read more from Chapter 5, including:

  • Achieving Complete Streets Through Private Development
  • A Prominent Place for Public Works

Related resources from the National Complete Streets Coalition:

Complete Streets