The last frontier: Complete Streets in Alaska

anchorageThis multi-use sidepath in Anchorage, AK is maintained and used for transportation year-round. Photo courtesy of Lori Schanche, Anchorage Department of Public Works.

Last month, Senator Mark Begich of Alaska introduced the Safe Streets Act of 2014 (S. 2004), which requires states and regions to adopt Complete Streets policies for federally funded transportation projects.

Why would a Senator from the nation’s coldest state introduce legislation that supports walking, biking and transit? Complete Streets strategies aren’t just for big cities or warm climates. Smaller cities and towns across the country are embracing Complete Streets, with policies now in place in 48 states, Puerto Rico, and the District of Columbia.

In Alaska, communities as far north as Fairbanks and North Pole are putting Complete Streets principles to work as more and more residents get around without getting in the car. And these efforts are paying off. The state ranks highest in the U.S. in the percentage of walking and biking commutes and in per capita funding for non-motorized transportation, and third-lowest in fatality rate among walkers and bicyclists.

A new implementation brief about Complete Streets in Alaska has even more information about the strategies being used by this snowy state. Here are some highlights from the brief.

Design flexibility and Complete Streets

The safer multimodal networks Alaskans are building reflect the unique local demands of geography and climate.

Fairbanks' new downtown intersections.
In downtown Fairbanks, wider sidewalks, street furniture and plantings, new bike lanes and narrowed travel lanes will make the streets safer for all users. Image courtesy of FMATS.

This spring, Fairbanks will start reconfiguring downtown streets to improve conditions for people traveling on foot and bicycle. Wider sidewalks, new bike lanes and narrowed arterials will calm traffic and make travel safer for everyone using the road.

With encouragement from the Alaska Department of Transportation (ADOT), cities are replacing traffic signals with modern roundabouts, helping to cut congestion, emissions and crashes while moving traffic more smoothly. Donna Gardino of the Fairbanks Metropolitan Area Transportation Study says ADOT’s new “roundabouts first” policy is cheaper, too. “If you can have the same safety and capacity with the reduced maintenance—no signal to maintain or fund—it seems like the right choice,” Gardino says.

Front Street roundabout in Juneau, AK.
Front Street roundabout in Juneau, AK. Photo courtesy of ADOT.

Multi-use trails, traveled year-round for both transportation and recreation, are primary links in Alaska’s transportation networks. Alaskan cities’ multimodal plans consider not only walking, biking and transit, but also cross-country skiing, dog sledding, snowmobiles and all-terrain vehicles. The standard design section for in-town state roads includes a paved sidepath, and many locales have extensive off-road trail networks to accommodate these modes.

Cities across Alaska are incorporating Complete Streets principles into their transportation design processes and comprehensive plans. Fairbanks, Juneau and Anchorage are all working to revamp plans and processes so that all users and modes are routinely considered, and Anchorage has dedicated staff for non-motorized transportation. Several communities are working towards adopting formal Complete Streets policies.

Winter maintenance: Keeping everyone moving through the winter

Anchorage averages more than six feet of snow annually, and half the street maintenance budget goes to snow removal. While a 60-vehicle municipal fleet clears roads, a second set of narrower tractors maintains the rest of the network—clearing sidepaths for walking and bicycling and packing trails for skiers, dog teams and snowmobiles. The local transit agency clears more than 1,100 bus stops and shelters.

Skier in AlaskaA skier on Anchorage’s Coastal Trail. Photo courtesy of Lori Schanche, Anchorage DPW.

Since 2009, the Fairbanks region’s interagency Seasonal Mobility Task Force has studied the seasonal travel barriers faced by people who don’t get around in cars. Like other cities, Fairbanks has a growing population of older adults and people with disabilities, making winter maintenance of pedestrian routes and transit access ever more important.

Around Fairbanks, which is under snow almost half the year, the community of North Pole now uses a modified skid loader to sweep and blow snow from sidepaths, and the City of Fairbanks clears sidewalks with nimble articulated tractors.

Making way for tourism

In ports of call like Juneau and Sitka that see thousands of tourists from cruise ships, keeping pedestrians and bicyclists safe and comfortable is just good business.

A skid steer snow sweeper cleaning sidewalks in North Pole, AK. Photo courtesy of Donna Gardino, FMATS.Clearing sidewalks in North Pole, AK. Photo courtesy of Donna Gardino, FMATS.

Juneau, where more than one million passengers debark annually, has comprehensive wayfinding signage to help visitors navigate the city on foot. The harbor city of Sitka has 9,000 residents in a land area of 2,870 square miles and is accessible only by water or air. But its compact urban core works fine for people without a car, including both residents and thousands of cruise passengers. Outside of downtown, Sitka has built than 50 miles of multi-use trails, with plans on the books for 100 more.

National recognition is another dividend: Sitka and Juneau have both been designated Walk Friendly Communities, and honored along with Anchorage as Bicycle Friendly Cities.

Download these ideas and more in our new implementation brief about Complete Streets in Alaska. And to get resources like this delivered straight to your inbox, sign up for the National Complete Streets Coalition’s email list.

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