Completing Our Streets: Who gets priority?

Health Line
Cleveland, OH’s HealthLine is a bus rapid transit (BRT) system that offers rail-like convenience with the flexibility of a bus. It connects Public Square to the Louis Stokes Station at Windermere in East Cleveland. Photo by EMBARQ Brasil via Flickr.

This post is the sixth 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 8: The Balancing Act: Setting Priorities for Different Users

Making a commitment to Complete Streets breaks open a tidy linear system that has traditionally delivered roads designed only to speed motor vehicles to their destinations. The transportation project pipeline was good at taking in a narrow set of inputs at one end and pouring out a finished road at the other. Agencies must now bring many more modes, voices, and considerations into the process all along the way. What was a pipeline can become something of a swamp; everyone involved may end up feeling caught in a morass of competing claims for limited roadway space and limited funding. Rather than simply delivering a project, transportation professionals must navigate their way toward a solution that may not quite satisfy anyone.

Who Gets Priority?
To help decide this question, agencies are using new systems to translate the Complete Streets policy commitment into funding decisions and projects on the ground, fashioning charts and scoring systems to help them strike a balance between road users with different and sometimes incompatible needs. But before discussing these systems, it is important to acknowledge that allocating road space won’t be a wholly rational process. All the players have something at stake, but they don’t all have the same capacity to fight for it.

Public Transportation Riders
The Complete Streets movement is often assumed to be focused on making the streets work better for pedestrians and bicyclists. That is the biggest challenge in the many places where there is no safe place at all for people on foot and bicycle. But public transportation stands to gain the most in the push and pull around who gets use of limited street space. In the shift to ensuring that streets are safe and efficient in moving people instead of vehicles, public transportation inevitably rises to the top: buses, trains, streetcars and light rail trains are the fastest way to carry the most people. For example, in one corridor in Washington, DC, planners estimate that buses make up just 3 percent of the vehicles but carry 50 percent of the people. And aside from crashes involving transit patrons during the pedestrian part of their trip, transit is also the safest way to travel. Transit vehicles can also be thought of as “pedestrian accelerators,” a critical component of a truly walkable city.

But buses and trains have a requirement fundamentally different from the pedestrians they serve: speed. They need to move quickly enough to be competitive with private cars. And while the calculations of the costs of traffic congestion for individual drivers are suspect, for transit agencies time really is money. Slower bus service means agencies must pay drivers more per route and must buy and run more buses to provide frequent service (and frequency is essential when trying to draw drivers out of their cars). Complete Streets converges with the movement toward light rail and bus rapid transit, because both involve reallocating street space to the exclusive use of transit vehicles, retiming signals to give priority to transit, and enhancing pedestrian access to the stations.

Jarrett Walker, a public transportation consultant and author of Human Transit, believes that in some cases the success of public transportation will eventually depend on taking lanes from automobiles—even though he told me most DOTs still react to this idea as if “you’re proposing to kill kittens.” He says, “If transit were allowed to succeed, it would use that lane much more efficiently in terms of person through-put, and it would be reliable in a way that cars will never be.” Walker argues in his book that the nation’s surfeit of suburban arterials, with many destinations along a straight line, are in fact the perfect place to reallocate street space to allow buses fast, frequent, predictable travel. This would require some dedicated lanes, relatively infrequent but carefully placed stops, and a safe pedestrian crossing at every stop. But it wouldn’t mean converting that arterial into a classically “walkable” urban street–because slowing the street that much would also slow down transit service. Instead, Walker argues for a buffered pedestrian zone that is safe and functional.

Until very recently, the people who ride public transportation have generally not organized to push for more space on the street, and while low-income bus riders formed a successful “union” in Los Angeles, similar efforts have not been very successful elsewhere. Chicago’s Active Transportation Alliance and New York’s Transportation Alternatives advocate for public transportation improvements, as well as for walking and bicycling. In big cities where ridership is going up among younger people, transportation blogs and apps are giving voice to a desire for better service.

The American Public Transportation Association is a major supporter of the National Complete Streets Coalition and has worked to spread the word across the industry. But in most places, transit agencies have not been leading the charge for a higher priority on the street. These transit operators are most engaged with the challenge of running the buses and trains, day in and day out. Because of the historic siloed approach to transportation planning, they are also usually entirely separate agencies from those that plan and build the roads, with boundaries that don’t coincide with city or even county lines. For them to assert any say over the road side of the equation is seen as invading someone else’s turf.

But Walker says that city governments that want to solve their transportation problems with transit should not be shy about working directly to find more space for public transportation. Seattle wrote its own transit plan, even though the city does not run the bus service. The 2005 plan [Ed. extensively updated in 2012] clarified what the city wanted from the regionwide transit agency, King County Metro, and became an important tool for Metro to use in providing better, more innovative service.

Order your copy of Completing Our Streets to read more from Chapter 8, including:

  • Shifting Space
  • Shifting Spending

Related resources from the National Complete Streets Coalition:

Complete Streets