Infrastructure & Environment

Roads Are Getting a Redesign

The ‘complete streets’ movement is reshaping urban boulevards, small-town main streets and even rural highways. But there are still plenty of bumps in the road.
by | October 2015
(Flickr/NYC_NYCDOT)

The first time Dean Ledbetter heard about “complete streets,” he thought it was a crazy idea. Ledbetter, a North Carolina traffic engineer, had devoted his career to creating roads that allowed cars to move faster. Complete streets would slow cars down, reworking roads to accommodate bicyclists, transit users and pedestrians, including people pushing baby strollers and riding in wheelchairs. Ledbetter’s first reaction, he says, was, “Why would you want to ruin a perfectly good road?”

But the federal government, worried about North Carolina’s stubbornly high pedestrian fatality rate, started offering state traffic engineers like Ledbetter free classes on complete streets. He took the classes three times. The first time, he wrote off the idea. The second time, he figured it might be feasible in big cities like Charlotte and Raleigh. The third time, he started thinking about how he could use it in his own work.

The opportunity came when leaders from West Jefferson, a town of 1,300 people, approached him about improving its main downtown strip. Ledbetter suggested getting rid of two stoplights and replacing them with all-way stop signs. That would save the state money and make the downtown easier to walk through. He also recommended repainting the road to make it look friendlier to pedestrians. If West Jefferson implemented these streetscape improvements, the town would get $250,000 in state money. Its board approved the deal on a 3-2 vote on a Monday night; by Thursday, the street was repainted and the traffic lights were gone.

The more attractive -- and more walkable -- downtown started bringing in more businesses. A wine shop and a brewery opened up, along with stores selling jewelry, kitchen gadgets and antiques. The number of vacant downtown storefronts dropped from 33 to three. Tourism increased dramatically. Of course, the street design was not the only factor in play. West Jefferson benefited from a decade-old plan to revitalize downtown, not to mention a wealth of local artistic talent that helped with the transformation. But promoting foot traffic was a catalyst for bigger changes.

West Jefferson may be a very small place, but its new approach reflects a movement that has gained strength quickly. The notion that roads should not be built just for cars and trucks is having profound effects on public spaces. Most famously, New York City has closed -- for now -- much of the area around Times Square to autos. Indianapolis has gone on a sidewalk-building spree. During a single week this August, Los Angeles adopted a new pedestrian-friendly master plan and San Francisco created a walkers’ enclave on Market Street, its busy downtown thoroughfare.

Protected bike lanes, virtually nonexistent in the United States a decade ago, are cropping up all over the country. The roster of local governments that have officially committed to complete streets now numbers more than 700. Still, even the most ambitious jurisdictions are a long way from seeing their vision fully realized. And elements of a backlash are starting to emerge.

There is no definitive template for what makes a complete street, but there are many common elements.

Bike lanes, especially ones separated from automobile traffic, are the most obvious. The prototype for complete streets, the 2007 overhaul of Ninth Avenue in New York City, included a protected bike lane among its many new features. The revamped street showed other cities that bike lanes could be physically separated from vehicle traffic by more than painted lines. It is now almost common to see bike lanes cordoned off from cars using curbs, planters and other barriers, which increase safety and comfort for cyclists while discouraging drivers from illegally parking in the lanes. Protected bike lanes are now found in 24 states and 53 U.S. cities.

Improvements aimed at pedestrians are an equally familiar feature of complete streets. Wide sidewalks make it easier for walkers to pass one another. Bigger sidewalks in commercial areas also encourage passersby to window-shop and allow restaurants to offer outdoor seating. Designing the sidewalks to bulge into intersections in bulb shapes or stick into the street with sharp corners means pedestrians have less pavement to cross before getting to the other side. The sharper angles make it harder for drivers to whip around corners at high speeds, reducing the risk to pedestrians and bicyclists. And pedestrian islands ensure walkers aren’t stranded halfway through the street when the light turns red.

[click_to_tweet]The notion that roads should not be built just for cars and trucks is having profound effects on public spaces. [/click_to_tweet]

But complete streets features don’t just favor pedestrians and bicyclists. Some features make travel smoother for motorists and transit users. One of the most common changes is to convert a four-lane road, with two lanes in each direction, into a three-lane road, with one lane in each direction and a central turn lane. Such “road diets,” advocates say, clear the travel lanes of turning cars that block traffic. Other features include bus shelters that keep riders out of the middle of the sidewalk, and bus bays that make it easier for bus drivers by letting them pull out of traffic when picking up fares.

Many of the complete streets ideas are borrowed from European cities where they have been successful, including Amsterdam, Copenhagen and Stockholm. Groups such as People for Bikes take U.S. public officials on European tours to build excitement. But what works well for dense cities filled with medieval architecture and pint-sized diesel hatchbacks does not always translate directly into solutions for American cityscapes. More and more, U.S. transportation and planning agencies are looking to each other for templates and practical experience in constructing complete streets.

One group encouraging experts to trade ideas is the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO), which has released design guides specifically for bike infrastructure and urban street design. NACTO began developing those guides because traffic engineers were using templates that didn’t address many of the situations they faced, says Corinne Kisner, the group’s director of policy and special projects. “Existing guidance on street design was clearly heavily skewed toward highways, not local, urban streets,” she says. “NACTO saw that gap [and created] a document by cities and for cities that put people as the highest priority in a city street. The main principle of the urban street design guide is that streets are public spaces. They belong to the people. They should be designed with people in mind. That was fairly new in U.S. guidance.”

The National Association of City Transportation Officials has released design guides specifically for bike infrastructure and urban street design. This template shows protected bikes lanes, as well as sidewalk bump-outs and islands that are meant to protect pedestrians by slowing down traffic and giving walkers a safe place to stop when the light turns red. (Flickr/NACTO)

The hyperlocal focus of street design sometimes pits adventurous urban planners against veteran state engineers who have spent decades helping cars move faster. But Malcolm Dougherty, the director of the California Department of Transportation (CalTrans), says state agencies are increasingly incorporating complete streets principles into their playbooks too. Seventeen states now have complete streets policies. CalTrans, for example, includes NACTO’s standards in its own design guidelines. It is working through a detailed plan -- its second -- to absorb complete streets ideas in its everyday work. To facilitate the process, the agency is awarding $300 million in grants over two years. “Some cities we’re trying to keep up with. Some cities we’re trying to push and encourage,” Dougherty says.

Complete streets won major victories in California this summer with the adoption of the new Los Angeles transportation plan and San Francisco’s decision to close off portions of Market Street to private vehicles. But Dougherty admits that other California municipalities need considerable prodding to incorporate complete streets into their designs. “We’re trying to work with local communities to find out what they’re trying to accomplish,” Dougherty says. “How can our portion of the transportation system match what they’re trying to accomplish?”

Wisconsin’s experience with complete streets shows why matching those interests is so important. The state’s complete streets law attracted a determined core of critics who claimed that the state was trying to tell local governments how to plan for their own communities -- sometimes forcing cities to make impractical decisions.

The Wisconsin law, passed in 2009, required all road projects using state or federal money to incorporate sidewalks and bike lanes, although the law included exceptions for, among other things, excessive cost or damage to the environment. In West Allis, a working-class Milwaukee suburb, the state proposed adding bike lanes to a six-lane highway that is one of the biggest commercial corridors in town. Many of the stores, fast-food restaurants and hotels either run right up to the street or rely on a single row of parking there. To accommodate the new bike lanes, the state would have had to widen the road by 10 feet. Some designs called for even more land to be taken. The city estimated the expansions would require the conversion of $10 million to $30 million of real estate into the highway right of way. “When we saw this, we were horrified,” says Peter Daniels, the city’s principal design engineer.

Daniels also worried about the safety of cyclists on the road. If a neighboring town’s bike lanes on the same road are any indication, the lanes would not have been protected by anything more than stripes on asphalt, on a road with a 45 mph speed limit.

It was just one of many examples, according to Daniels, of the state overzealously promoting complete streets with projects that did not make sense. He fought another proposal that would have required the city to remove more than 80 trees to make way for bike lanes. Meanwhile, West Allis has been building bike lanes and bike paths elsewhere in the city. To Daniels, the decision of where a city should put bike lanes and sidewalks should be based on how much use they will get and how much they would cost. “We can’t put bike lanes on every single road, because we can’t afford it and we can’t maintain it,” he says.

Daniels shared his frustrations with state Rep. Joe Sanfelippo, who represents West Allis in the Assembly. The lawmaker started pushing for changes through legislation, and Gov. Scott Walker eventually included a repeal of the state’s complete streets policy in his budget, claiming it would save money. In the end, legislators drastically scaled back the law so that the state would only have to “consider” whether to add bike lanes and sidewalks. Affected localities can now veto those proposals as well.

Dave Cieslewicz, a former Madison mayor who heads the Wisconsin Bike Federation, worries that the change will prevent the state from building networks of bike lanes. It could hinder the development of small-town commercial districts and block the construction of paved shoulders in rural areas, which benefit both cyclists and motorists. Repealing complete streets, he says, may discourage cyclists from riding their bikes and could lead to more cyclist injuries and deaths.

In North Carolina, traffic engineer Ledbetter has not wavered in his commitment to the complete streets idea. One of his most ambitious efforts was a proposed road diet for a four-lane highway near West Jefferson, which would allow the state to add bike lanes and a center turn lane. “There was no selling that to the town,” he says. It was the only four-lane road in the county, and local residents worried they would get stuck behind trucks with no way to pass them for miles.

West Jefferson’s complete streets makeover involved improving its main downtown strip. The town got rid of two stoplights and replaced them with all-way stop signs and repainted the road to make it look friendlier to pedestrians. The transformation has reinvigorated the area. (Town of West Jefferson)

But Ledbetter has had better luck convincing other towns to get rid of their traffic lights, even though they can be a point of pride in small communities. Leaders in nearby towns have seen the improvements in West Jefferson that came from pedestrian-friendly streets, and they want to try something similar. In the last four years, Ledbetter’s office has convinced towns to retire 5 percent of the 250 stoplights in their eight-county region, and more are coming down.

That frees up Ledbetter’s maintenance crews to focus on areas with more congestion. “In most places in North Carolina, it’s the towns that are pushing the [Department of Transportation] to do these things,” Ledbetter says. “But in the mountain areas, it’s very much the DOT leading the charge in trying to improve pedestrian safety, which is really ironic. Most of my colleagues at the state can’t believe I’m out trying to sell complete streets projects to small towns.”

But whichever level of government supplies the momentum, the ideas seem to be taking hold. As some of the missteps in Wisconsin show, overhauling decades of street design is no easy task. But proponents of the new ideas are confident that the idea of complete streets will gradually evolve into an urban design pattern that might just as easily be called “complete networks.”

“We’re seeing the start of networks being built out, but it’s a big challenge,” says Zach Vanderkooy, the international programs manager for People for Bikes. Take bike lanes. Many cities, he notes, start by building one bike lane at a time, because every project, especially the first one, takes energy, time and political capital. When a project is complete, it may only cover part of a cyclist’s trip. But as more protected lanes are added, all of the parts of the bike network become more useful. “It takes a generation, really, to do this. We need patience to see how all of this connects,” he says. “That said, we’re fairly impatient.”

In the end, predicts Gabe Klein, a former city transportation director for Chicago and Washington, D.C., redesigned streets will allow city planners to build a new type of urban community. “We’re trying to create places where you use as little transportation as possible,” he says. Ideally residents would walk for less than five minutes to take care of most of their day-to-day tasks, from going to work to buying groceries to visiting the doctor. Good bike networks make it easy for residents to travel within three miles of their home; transit can serve them for trips longer than that. “The cities that are doing it right,” Klein says, “create this mesh of walkable, bikable, transit-oriented places.”

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