VIDEO: Complete Streets in Pittsburgh are vital for improving public health

Our newest video tells the story of how Pittsburgh’s former mayor decided to take action on building safer, complete streets, why the city’s new mayor is picking up the baton with a focus on equity, and how city staff are making progress across administrations.

“This is affordable, essential mobility. But it’s not: ‘should we?’ It’s ‘HOW should we.”

– Karina Ricks, former director of Pittsburgh’s Department of Mobility and Infrastructure.

A 2016 Complete Streets policy is providing the actionable blueprint for “how,” giving Pittsburgh the guidance they need to design and build safer streets.. The city’s new mayor has a clear understanding of how safer and more enjoyable streets contribute to making his city both healthier and more equitable.

“This is a public health issue, and if we don’t address equity from a public health standpoint, then we can’t get healthy,” says Mayor Ed Gainey.

About these videos

With the support and partnership of CityHealth, we have been profiling cities with exemplary Complete Streets policies and starting today, we’ll be releasing a new video each week for the next three weeks. Next week, on Tuesday, February 15, we’ll be taking you to Louisville, Kentucky. On Tuesday, February 22, we’ll be bringing you the story of Tucson, Arizona, which in 2019 passed what our National Complete Streets Coalition says is one of the strongest policies they’ve ever scored. The videos will premiere at 12 p.m. Eastern each day on our Youtube channel, and we’ll be sharing them immediately on twitter at @smartgrowthusa, @completestreets, and @city_health

The National Complete Streets Coalition at Smart Growth America has been advancing the adoption and implementation of Complete Streets policies for two decades to ensure that everyone who needs to use our streets—no matter how they get around—can safely and comfortably do so. Complete Streets are streets for everyone—designed and managed to prioritize safety, comfort, and access to destinations for all people who need to use a street. Complete Streets policies can help cities transform how they make decisions about their streets. Done right, these policies can help cities improve public health and address longstanding inequities in the transportation system.

CityHealth and the National Complete Streets Coalition at Smart Growth America recognize cities with exemplary Complete Streets policies—a key step in producing safer streets that can be used by everyone. Learn more at cityhealth.org and completestreets.org

Pittsburgh’s story

Whereas the road to change a city’s approach to street design and construction is sometimes driven by nonprofit advocates and community stakeholders, former Mayor Bill Peduto deserves a lot of the credit for getting the city’s Complete Streets work off the ground and building the political support that was vital to both its creation and implementation.

With the support of nonprofit advocates like AARP, the American Heart Association, and Bike Pittsburgh, Mayor Peduto signed an executive order in 2015 calling for a city-wide Complete Streets policy and updated street design guidelines, which passed in 2016. The new policy also created a new transportation department to coordinate these efforts: the Pittsburgh Department of Mobility and Infrastructure (DOMI). Karina Ricks was hired as DOMI’s first director and was charged with (among other things) the implementation of the Complete Streets ordinance to ensure that it would drive all design and construction decisions about streets.

The ordinance laid “a foundation to have the conversations and get other planning documents in place,” as DOMI Acting Director Kim Lucas says, such as the city’s connected bike network plan, their long-term transportation plans, and other design guidelines.

“The double-black diamond of roads.”

The most difficult and steep of extreme sport ski trails: That’s how former Mayor Peduto characterizes the challenges of mobility within a city of 302,000 people that has 90 distinct neighborhoods, 800 public staircases, incredible elevation changes, multiple rivers, and more bridges than almost any other US city—as well as the ripple effects of an economic collapse in the 1980s that devastated the city and took 30 years to recover from.

With that last point in mind, he urges other mayors weighing Complete Streets laws of their own to consider the economic power of improving mobility.

“If your population needs multiple different ways to get from point A to point B, then you have a responsibility. [Because] the greatest factor in economic mobility is the ability to get from point A to point B,” he says.

A difference of equality and equity

This policy is “not about [building] a complete street in every council district,” Mayor Peduto says. Mayor Ed Gainey, the city’s first Black mayor who was inaugurated in January, is on the same page with his predecessor on an equitable approach to Complete Streets.

“We start with who is in the most need, and then you move forward,” Mayor Gainey says, making it clear that data and equity should drive decisions about where to make improvements.

But the city’s policy is the foundational key, providing the blueprint for the future.

“We have a Complete Streets law on the books, and it’s our mandate as representatives and trustees of the city to follow that. Having that is a great north star, for us to aspire to in all areas and neighborhoods of the city,” says Councilmember Erika Strassburger.

The work isn’t easy, and after a few years of making changes and improvements to dangerous hotspots, starting to build out the city’s protected bike network, and reconfiguring some key corridors, “all of the easy stuff has been done,” according to Karina Ricks. “This is something that’s going to have to continue to be implemented over many mayors and many directors and many city councils.”

It won’t be easy, but the Complete Streets policy provides the path for a healthier, more economically inclusive city. “If we invest and we plant the right seed of change in this city, then this city will be a better city because they will see it as a city for all,” concludes Mayor Ed Gainey.

Read a full transcript of the video here. (pdf)

Stay tuned for more videos!

Louisville, KY will release on Tuesday, February 15, and Tucson, Arizona will release on Tuesday, February 22.

Follow us on social for more news: @smartgrowthusa / @completestreets / @city_health

Complete Streets