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As Cleveland designs Complete and Green Streets, a former DOT engineer offers direction

Marc Lefkowitz  |  04/30/12 @ 4:00pm  |  Posted in Transportation choices

"The era of single-serve funding is over," Gary Toth, Project for Public Spaces Director of Transportation Initiatives, declared last week in a room full of Cleveland traffic engineers and construction managers. An engineer for the New Jersey Department of Transportation in the 1970s and 80s, Toth understands the grey area and trepidation that Cleveland's Complete and Green Streets legislation represents for the men and women around the table.

Cities like Cleveland are discovering that they can create more value in this tumultuous funding landscape, he assured, when items like bike lanes are baked in to the design.

"Other cities are clamoring to do what you've done with Euclid Avenue."

That clamor is driving some 280 cities who adopted Complete Streets laws, which consider the comfort of a range of 'users'-seniors, kids, walking with assistance or who bike rarely.

Cleveland is one of the newer members to the club. It makes it all the more impressive that it managed to build the Euclid Corridor in 2008 without a local (or national) complete streets mandate.

The city should have wind in its sails from the new Complete/Green Streets legislation. But all of the 'national model' talk for Euclid can be daunting. Considering it took decades of death and ressurection, Euclid's encore will prove that it wasn't a fluke; that the city has the vision and the will to do it again (while the city currently doesn't have any big complete streets projects in the works, when it does, it will almost certainly improve on Euclid thanks to the folding in of green elements like bioswales to capture rain and LED streetlamps that use less energy).

The new reality, says Toth, will ask traffic engineers to consider 'quality of place' and to remove the blinders on such context sensitive issues as how is land being used.

In his windshield survey of Cleveland, Toth sees opportunity to boost the 'value' of streets with bike lanes, sharrows, crosswalks and green elements.

Engineers have a key role to play in leading the charge. Done right, complete streets can be good for cars, too.

"Completing the street does not change travel times," Toth said, citing data from the addition of a bike lane on Prospect Park in New York City. "They decreased crash rates. Travel time is pretty much the same, but more cyclists are getting more value out of that road."

Toth's example adds credence to the city of Cleveland's legislation to make streets simultaneously Complete and Green. The city included data gathering as part of its ordinance.

"As you build an action plan and experience in Cleveland, you're going to want to know when it's not working or when you need to use temporary items like planters and paint." Toth praised Cleveland's air of experimentation with Pop up Rockwell, a weeklong complete and green street demonstration project.

He added that Cleveland's predictable crosshatch grid of streets is an advantage when it comes to evaluating where low cost enhancements like crosswalks, Sharrows and bus shelters are warranted. Local partnerships between Cleveland, RTA and the Northeast Ohio Sewer District should help leverage the $1 million cap set by the city on Complete and Green Streets.

Toth spent the better part of his career making the case for more highways and wider roads as an engineer for the New Jersey Department of Transportation until his revelation that 'context' and 'quality of place' don't have to be pitted against the flow of motor vehicles.

"As engineers, we get to design for a certain vehicle," he explains. "It has a huge effect on cities. The big, sweeping round curves you see at intersections means someone selected a large truck as the design vehicle. Thirty years ago, that was perfectly logical."

Now, he helps cities design and use 'multi-modal' guidelines. He helps engineers gain the confidence to challenge assumptions that might work at odds with the new emphasis on vibrant places. For example, most engineers are padding in more 'design speed' which leads to wider roads even though street design standards already have a margin of error. His advice for Cleveland as it develops its urban street design guideline is to think of it like a cookbook.

"If your cookbook tells you to use a lot of high fat ingredients versus veggies you're going to look one way."

Toth uses self-deprecating humor to defend engineers. "We're not bad people." Engineers are problem solvers; to the advocates for Complete Streets he advises defining the problem, not the solution. (Take a local example-the Euclid Avenue bike lanes which end abruptly at E. 18th Street). "Instead of saying, 'I want a bike lane here' you've defined the problem, that cyclists cannot easily ride from CSU to Public Square."

"You might come to a compromise, like flexible space or closing lower Euclid to cars at certain times…"

The greatest examples around the country of complete and green streets all formed in a collaborative, 'can-do' environment: Bulb-outs doing double duty as bioswales in Philadelphia, miles of alleys replaced with permeable pavement in Chicago, and the city center bike path in Indianapolis. The 'how tos' can be found in updates to the standard engineering books, such as the Model Design Manual for Living Streets or NACTO's urban street guideline.

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