Completing Our Streets: Why do so many communities build incomplete streets?

An incomplete street. Photo via Flickr.

This post is the second in a twice-monthly series of excerpts from Completing Our Streets: The Transition to Safe and Inclusive Transportation Networks, the forthcoming 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. Look for the book out on October 14, 2013.

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 1: Why We Build Incomplete Streets

The first chapter of Completing Our Streets outlines how the history, political standing, habits, and orientation of the transportation industry in the United States have made it difficult for any policy movement to shift the way transportation projects are planned and built. Undertaking a Complete Streets approach is a challenge because of long-standing divisions: between modes, governing structures, and people.

The Cultural Divide
The people who work inside these modally organized structures and systems tend to be divided as well. When I talk to Complete streets proponents about how it’s going, often at some point someone leans in, lowering his or her voice to say, “There’s an engineer here who just doesn’t get it. He blocks everything we try to do.” The person may joke that the best course of action is an early retirement program.

Many Complete Streets efforts are led by planners or landscape architects whose training predisposes them to the movement’s inclusive, policy-driven approach; engineers are more likely to stick with thinking of their work in terms of delivering projects according to clearly defined standards.

John LaPlante, a traffic engineer who is also a leading voice on Complete Streets, acknowledges the cultural divide. “People become planners for different reasons than they become engineers,” LaPlante says. “Engineers are uncomfortable with the touchy-feely, feel-good stuff. Engineers really like certainty.” LaPlante may stand out a bit in engineering circles with his goatee and direct sense of humor, but he has worked since the late 1980s to change transportation engineering from the inside—by changing its design manuals, and more importantly, how these are used.

LaPlante argues that a bigger obstacle than the design manuals themselves is the “cookbook” approach to their use. LaPlante is quick to point out that the Federal Highway Administration’s Green Book allows narrower automobile lanes and other design elements that help create Complete Streets, and that the book itself makes clear that the numbers it contains are guidelines, not hard-and-fast standards. But LaPlante says some engineers are reluctant to use their engineering judgment. He notes as an example his experience teaching a Complete Streets training course to engineers in Massachusetts, in which many participants were reluctant to consider various options for accommodating different road users. “Some really objected,” LaPlante says. “They were upset with not having a table [of specifications] to go to. I tried to tell them, ‘That’s why you go to school, to learn engineering judgment. If you are just going to take a number out of a table, all we need is to do is hire someone who has learned how to read!'” A cookbook approach precludes the trade-offs and judgments that need to be made when coming up with design solutions that serve automobiles, public transportation, trucks, bicycles, and pedestrians of all ages and abilities. LaPlante partially blames the legal system for fostering this attitude among engineers; lawyers filing lawsuits have used deviation from guidance against transportation agencies.

But the bias remains. Often when planners or urban designers want to provide more space for pedestrians or bicycles or trees, they draw up the concept and hand it off to engineers for final design—who then align the project with engineering standards, unraveling the multimodal intent. For example, a tight turn, intended to slow cars, might be softened; a proposed landscaped median might become a narrow ribbon median in order to maintain a standard twelve-foot traffic lane.

Other practitioners confirm the cultural divide and note that it isn’t all about personalities. Part of what is happening is that planners are making decisions on projects that public works engineers will have to build—and then maintain. The cultural divide is exacerbated in the structural divide between planning and construction. Transportation planning is typically in a separate division or department from public works, which is responsible for constructing and maintaining the roads. So a fundamental tension arises when the planning department is setting policy that has an impact on the budget and activities of public works: the engineers are often justifiably concerned that new infrastructure will lead to new expectations and new maintenance demands.

Forces Converging to Ease Change
All of these forces—funding and systems oriented toward project delivery and divided by modes, the political independence of agencies, and the divisions among personnel—work against more diverse and policy-driven transportation planning. But in many places, the headwind of traditional practice that Complete Streets proponents have faced has been easing for some time.

Broader trends are forcing transportation agencies to be more open to Complete Streets and other reforms. After decades of steady to explosive growth, the total miles driven per capita peaked in mid-2005 and has been falling since. Car travel has continued to drop for the past eight years despite an improving economy and a stabilization of gas prices. This decline in driving—along with the advent of more fuel-efficient vehicles—has led to falling gas tax revenues which has completely upended the politics of transportation budgeting. Attempts to raise the federal gas tax have gone nowhere. The arguments that worked in the past to keep the money flowing—such as a need to build roads to ease congestion—are not working so well today. And a growing number of communities and states have realized that they can no longer afford massive highway projects, and that the billions of dollars spent on preventing delay have not delivered. People want new solutions. In short, the transportation industry is being forced to become more responsive to the political process, and to the policies that it produces.

Preorder your copy of Completing Our Streets to read more from Chapter 1, including:

  • The Modal Divide
  • Systems Designed for Mono-Modalism

Related resources from the National Complete Streets Coalition

Complete Streets