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Sustainable Streets

Multimodal complete streets support mobility, community, and ecology.

March 2011

By Katharine Logan

Sustainable Streets
Illustrations by Thorbjörn Ingason
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Contrary to law, I sometimes ride my bike on the sidewalk: in the rain, through the dark, along rush-hour arterials where there are no pedestrians anyway. The notion that bikes belong on the road with other vehicles may have worked back when other vehicles were horse-drawn. Nowadays it’s just perverse.

Fortunately for those of us weary of pitting flesh and reflex against the vagaries of the mini-van, and for those of us who choose to drive rather than shepherd our kids along a narrow sidewalk beside four lanes of traffic, a nationwide push for sustainable streets is transforming transportation planning on a scale not seen since the private automobile invaded the streets more than 50 years ago. “People have realized that what we have now is not working,” says Stefanie Seskin, policy manager with the National Complete Streets Coalition, an organization whose membership list forms a directory of public realm design, policy, and advocacy groups at local, regional, and national levels. “It’s not working in large communities, and it’s not working in small communities. We need more options, and building complete streets is one of the best ways to ensure that people have options.”

The term “complete street” describes a street that enables safe access for all users, regardless of age, ability, or mode of transportation; it’s a street that promotes movement, community, and ecology simultaneously.

Solutions are flexible and context specific, says Seskin. In a rural context, a complete street might consist of narrower drive lanes, which help drivers to keep to the speed limit, with a 5- to 6-foot paved shoulder that walkers and cyclists can share as, for example, the state of Vermont mandates. The street section may be designed to allow drainage to mimic the site’s pre-existing patterns, and street layout may integrate with existing topography to enrich travelers’ experience of the landscape through which they are walking, biking, or driving.

In an urban context, a complete street might include priority lanes for public transit vehicles, transit shelters and benches, bike lanes, pedestrian-controlled or well-marked cross walks, and traffic-calming elements such as narrowed lanes, roundabouts, and bulge-outs. Medians provide opportunities for street trees to contribute beauty and shade. Curb cuts may allow planted bulge-outs to form part of a street’s rainwater management strategy. And roundabouts may become a community gardening project. Ultimately, complete streets form part of a community-wide network of connectivity that allows people to choose their mode of transportation, and to enjoy a safe and pleasant journey regardless of their mode.

Seattle’s Stone Way re-channelization project illustrates some of the successes that come with a paradigm shift to complete streets. The re-channelization affected just over a mile of an arterial street connecting two urban villages and carrying about 13,000 vehicles per day. Land uses along the street include a mixture of residential, retail, and commercial buildings. Numerous bus routes run along or across the corridor and, within five blocks of the corridor, eight schools, two public libraries, and five parks generate pedestrian traffic.

Before the re-channelization, the 30 mph street comprised four general-purpose travel lanes with uncontrolled marked crossways. It now consists of two general-purpose travel lanes, with a two-way, left-turn lane, bike facilities (a dedicated lane uphill and shared-lane markings, or “sharrows,” downhill), and marked crossways.

The results are impressive, according to a study carried out by Seattle’s Department of Transportation (DoT). Overall travel speed along the street dropped, with the number of vehicles exceeding the speed limit by 10 mph dropping by nearly 75 percent. Collisions declined 14 percent, injury collisions declined 33 percent, and pedestrian collisions declined 80 percent. Motor vehicle traffic decreased 6 percent in the corridor, while bike traffic increased 35 percent, with bikes now representing almost 15 percent of rush-hour traffic. And, while residents sometimes worry that a re-channelization project will divert traffic onto residential sidestreets, the study found daily traffic counts on parallel streets dropped by 12 to 34 percent.

Complete Street

Illustration by Corey Kuepfer


“The safety increase is extraordinary,” says Darby Watson of Seattle DoT’s Policy and Planning Division. “As well as improvements in access for cyclists and pedestrians, the project improved the quality of life of the street.”

From New York to San Francisco, from San Antonio to Fargo, over 200 jurisdictions across the United States have now adopted Complete Streets legislation, 100 of them in the last 14 months alone, according to the National Complete Streets Coalition’s tally. “To me, this is a no brainer,” municipal councilman Tony Albensi summed up, as his community of Oxford Village, Michigan, passed Complete Streets legislation in January of this year.

Sustainable Streets
Illustration by Corey Kuepfer

Across the United States, the transportation sector’s carbon emissions are rising 2 percent per year, making this sector the nation’s fastest growing source of carbon dioxide emissions. By 2030, even accounting for improvements to vehicle and fuel perfomance, carbon emissions from transportation are projected to exceed today’s levels by 41 percent. Walking, biking, and transit offer zero- and low-emissions options for slowing and reversing the transportation sector’s soaring emissions rates.

In Boulder, Colorado, where a transportation master plan has prioritized complete streets since 1996, residents’ walking rates are three times the national average, transit rates are twice the national average, and cycling rates are 20 times the national average. In Portland, Oregon, transit investments and improvements to cycling and walking infrastructure since 1993 have resulted in per capita emissions reductions of 12.5 percent below 1990 levels.

Charlotte, North Carolina, was an early adopter of the complete streets paradigm, and its Urban Streets Design Guidelines (USDG) have won a National Award for Smart Growth Achievement in Policies and Regulations. Since it began applying the USDG in 2005, Charlotte has completed dozens of street projects at a variety of scales, including a $50-million investment directed at making Charlotte’s new light-rail transit system convenient to cyclists, pedestrians, and transit vehicles as well as drivers.

Charlotte’s South Corridor Infrastructure Program (SCIP) included 25 projects aimed at connecting businesses and communities to the transit line. The intersection of South Boulevard and Sharon Road West, for example, posed a barrier to pedestrians and cyclists needing to cross to a new transit station. South Boulevard has five lanes, a 45 mph speed limit, and high traffic volumes. The redesign of the intersection improved sidewalks, enhanced crosswalks, created wider planting strips, and provided pedestrian countdown timers and mid-street pedestrian refuges. Street trees, landscaping, and public art boost the intersection’s aesthetics and give it a human-scale character.

Another SCIP example, the DeWitt Lane extension, improves the street network around a light-rail station by providing an alternative to busy South Boulevard. The extension connects to the station’s park-and-ride lot, is a three-lane avenue with bike lanes, has mid-block pedestrian crossings, landscaped medians, 8-foot planting strips with large maturing trees, and 8-foot sidewalks to accommodate increasing pedestrian traffic as the area transforms from an industrial area to higher-density, transit-oriented development.

According to Tracy Newsome of Charlotte’s DoT, the impetus for the city’s Complete Streets policy arose in part from the projection that, by 2035, Charlotte is expected to grow by nearly 50 percent. “We need a variety of ways to handle that growth,” says Newsome. “Good street design is an integral part of a more sustainable transportation network.” And it helps safety-conscious cyclists to stay off the sidewalk.

Katharine Logan is an architecturally trained and LEED-accredited writer based in British Columbia.


This article appeared in the March 2011 print issue of GreenSource Magazine.

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