Completing Our Streets: The revolution begins with a meeting

Brownsboro Rd before and after
Bill Deatherage, of the Kentucky Council of the Blind, walking along Louisville, KY’s Brownsboro Road before and after sidewalk construction. Photo by Anne M. McMahon.

This post is the fifth 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 4: Process Over Projects: Changing How Decisions are Made

The disconnected sidewalks, marooned bus stops, curb ramps to nowhere, and other gaps in transportation infrastructure are usually a reflection of gaps in the processes used for planning, design, and construction. In many jurisdictions, no one has thought about how to balance the needs of more than one mode, or how to get the details right on small-scale nonmotorized infrastructure, or how to coordinate transportation planning with the surrounding neighborhood. Another gap is human. The people navigating that landscape by foot or wheelchair were likely not in the room when the decisions were made.

The first way to start filling in these gaps is to be more inclusive: expand the number and type of people involved in making decisions. The next challenge is understanding the shortcomings of the current project development process and creating an implementation plan that will address them. This usually leads to actions that end biases that favor one mode and one type of user and that create entirely new systems to help make decisions.

Be Inclusive
The first and most revolutionary change brought about by most Complete Streets policies is a meeting. People who work for the planning, public works, and parks and recreation departments usually attend. Representatives from the health department, the development authority, and the water and sewer authority take a seat. Sometimes the city manager’s or mayor’s office sends a representative. In some communities, this meeting includes community groups as well, perhaps from the disability commission, the bicycle advocacy group, or a residents’ association. The meeting may begin with a review of the goals of the new policy; usually, the most fundamental is improving safety for all users, but in some communities the most-talked-about goal may be increasing physical activity and health, providing a base for economic growth, or meeting sustainability targets. But this meeting, and those that follow, isn’t about lofty goals; it is about what needs to change in the way that people do their jobs.

That’s a touchy subject. Lines of responsibility are often clearly drawn. Everyone respects the right of department directors to run their own show. Departments, divisions, and even individual offices control well-defined turf, and they sometimes do not want to relinquish control. One bicycle-pedestrian coordinator told me the departments in his small city operate as “fiefdoms,” with each department director working independently on a narrow agenda. If one department, or even one individual in a position of power, doesn’t buy into the vision, it can block progress. And in transportation, the turf is viewed in highly technical terms; typically, everyone defers to the expertise of the engineers. One consultant working on Complete Streets guidelines for a large city called this a “technical shield” that engineers have used to protect themselves from questions as they make decisions on everything from lane width to signal timing.

But once discussions start to take place in an open room, it becomes clear that traditional practices are standing in the way of the new policy objectives—and people can start challenging those traditions. Ryan Snyder, a California transportation consultant and a Complete Streets workshop instructor, says he tries to make these choices clear when he speaks at a meeting that brings together different constituents in a city. If everyone in the room “gets a vote,” different decisions start to get made. “Traffic engineers are legitimate stakeholders at the table, but so is the planning department, so is the city manager’s office, so are architects and planners, and landscape architects, and of course people from outside [the agency]: the merchants, homeowners, and residents,” says Snyder. “Other people should have some say about what happens with their public space.”

A committee charged with implementing a policy becomes a driver of change precisely because it provides a forum for different departments to work out problems—if it has the right people in the room. For example, Deerfield Beach, a town in Broward County, Florida, established an internal committee made up of Planning, Engineering, Landscaping, Fire and Rescue, and the City Manager’s Office. Many places have established formal advisory boards made up mainly of citizens; they need to work in concert with a staff committee or have strong staff participation and leadership support to be successful in penetrating the agency bureaucracy. Committees can derive energy and focus from zeroing in on a single document or plan. However, communities with time-limited committees or ad hoc groups convened to write a policy or guide find that once the meetings stop, collaboration wanes and past practices may reassert themselves. Ongoing, officially sanctioned committee structures are the most successful route for change.

Project-level teams are another forum for continuing collaboration that can bring together every imaginable agency to weigh in at the beginning of a new project. This has been a hallmark of Seattle’s approach to Complete Streets. The inclusive foundation of Seattle’s work goes back to the voters—who approved the nine-year, $365 million “Bridging the Gap” levy in 2006, with an explicit focus on building infrastructure to serve pedestrians, bicyclists, and public transportation. With that backing, the city has not been shy to propose cutting-edge projects, such as road conversions, miniature bus plazas, and colored and buffered bike lanes. The changes are all open to community feedback, and most projects get their own web page, with maps, photos, specific timelines, project contacts, and an opportunity to sign up for e-mail alerts.

An inclusive process also requires maintaining communication as individual projects move forward. Many traditional agencies have rigid stovepipes between planning, engineering, construction, and maintenance: projects are handed off from one to another without much communication. Washington, DC, has tried to break down those divisions in part by ensuring that design drawings made by engineers come back to planning and other concerned agencies as certain points in the process—for example, when they are at 30, 60, or 90 percent completion. At this point, they can be run through the policy sieve and adjusted accordingly—or at least the process can spark a conversation about how to make adjustments.

Duluth, Minnesota, is implementing its Complete Streets resolution primarily through an internal, multidisciplinary Complete Streets workgroup meeting every month that encourages cross-departmental discussion of each project through the lens of Complete Streets. The discussions within this group have greatly influenced the transportation planning process.

Many agencies are also becoming more sophisticated in making residents part of the decision-making process, and this can itself be a learning experience. For planners and engineers in Seattle, the realization that they needed to take a different approach came when they gave each neighborhood a small transportation fund of $8,000. Peter Lagerwey, a city planner formerly with the City of Seattle and Complete Streets workshop instructor, was enthusiastic as he told me the story. “Of all of those neighborhoods, every single one chose bicycle and pedestrian improvements,” said Lagerwey. “Not one chose Level of Service improvements or congestion relief—yet these were the purported goals of our entire transportation program! That is when the light bulb started to go on for some of the staff.”

Order your copy of Completing Our Streets to read more from Chapter 4, including:

  • Understand the Process
  • Plan for Implementation
  • End the Tilt
  • Create New Systems
  • Change Design Guides
  • Educate and Train
  • Measure Success in New Ways

Related resources from the National Complete Streets Coalition:

Be sure to catch Barbara on the road!
She’s traveling the U.S. in the next several weeks in support of her book. Come to one or more of these events!

  • October 30 in Madison, WI at Redamtè Coffee Shop, 7:00 PM. Sponsored by the Wisconsin Bicycle Federation.
  • November 1 in Chicago, IL at Women & Children First Books, 7:30 PM. Sponsored by the Active Transportation Alliance.
  • November 4 in Austin, TX at CNU Café, 5:30 PM. Sponsored by the Congress for the New Urbanism Central Texas Chapter, WalkAustin and Bike Texas.
  • November 5 in Austin, TX at the ASCE Green Streets Conference, special session 1:30-3:30 PM. Sponsored by the American Society of Civil Engineers.
  • November 12 in Washington, DC at Tuesdays at APA, 5:30 PM. Sponsored by the American Planning Association.
  • November 25 in Seattle, WA at Town Hall, 7:30 PM. Sponsored by Futurewise, Feet First, Bicycle Alliance of Washington.
Complete Streets Local Leaders Council