City streets are changing…to the pleasure of some, dismay of others
Seems everyone is talking about infrastructure and all eyes are on Washington to see if the new president is going to launch a huge infrastructure reform. But, there is heated discussion also about a different type of infrastructure – city streets. The winds of change are creating very interesting trends…ones that are definitely worth watching.
Bridges and highways continue to cry out for attention, but many municipal leaders are focusing most of their immediate efforts on city streets. Don’t be confused though – their focus is on particular types of city streets – ones that fit the guidelines of complete streets.
These new urban streets are different and they almost always include bike lanes, improved sidewalks and other amenities. The bike lanes are not the types one might consider the norm. In a complete street design, bike lanes are usually separated from automobile traffic by barriers – either concrete or plant barriers. Many transportation enthusiasts believe bike lanes only add to and/or increase traffic congestion but the trend toward bike lanes is strong indeed. Protected bike lanes are now found in 24 states and 53 U.S. cities.
Wider sidewalks also are standard in complete streets. The argument is that bigger and better sidewalks increase pedestrian traffic and that results in more income to merchants located along the streets. Concrete islands for pedestrians who stop midway between streets at crossings are much more common in complete streets. Many cities now plan sharper angles on corners so that automobiles must slow down to turn. That’s a safety feature for pedestrians because foot traffic is one of the desired outcomes of complete streets. Other common features include dedicated turn lanes for automobiles and bus bays for loading and unloading public transportation passengers.
New York City used a complete street design when renovating 9th Avenue in Manhattan and city leaders say that resulted in a 50 percent increase in retail sales and a 50 percent decrease in commercial vacancies. Complete streets, of course, are kinder to the environment because they incentivize mass transit, walking and bicycles. Boulder, Colo., is a notable example because after the city incorporated complete streets, carbon emissions were reduced by a half million pounds.
Seventeen states now have complete street policies. The state of California offers grants to cities that design and build complete streets. Los Angeles and San Francisco were quick to put the grant funding to good use. Both cities used the grants to redesign and upgrade numerous streets.
In Orlando, complete streets are being credited with reducing accidents 35 percent and incentivizing more bicycling and walking by 23-30 percent respectively. The city of Austin has adopted a complete street implantation policy for much of its downtown area.
Nationally, a total of 899 complete streets policies are now in place in all 50 states, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia. Thirty-two state governments or agencies, 76 regional organizations and 663 individual municipalities have all adopted complete street policies. These laws, resolutions, policies and design plans have created an emerging trend that will have definite impact. There are supporters and detractors. The question, of course, is whether complete streets can really relieve traffic congestion long term…or not.
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