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Moving Complete Streets beyond pretty picture

Marc Lefkowitz  |  04/29/13 @ 1:00pm  |  Posted in Transportation choices

Northeast Ohio's contribution to complete streets over the last decade has been anchored by one program at NOACA: The Transportation for Livable Communities Initiative (TLCI). TLCI paid for some nice studies, but, in most cases, is not leading to much transformation of streets as the lifeblood for vibrant cities, a recent evaluation reveals.

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The disconnect between TLCI and more complete streets can be found primarily in:

1.) TLCI's idea is to improve "livability," but, where it weilds the most ability to do so—in the roadway—it too often demures to traffic engineers' monolithic vision.

In the April issue of Better Cities and Towns, Congress for New Urbanism explains that, "American roads tend to be inefficiently designed. They generally provide more space than is necessary to accommodate vehicle traffic, with excess pavement that isn't properly utilized."

Roads were widened in the 20th century because traffic engineers decided it would lead to fewer crashes. What happened instead was encouraging cars to speed, CNU concludes.

As urban demographies shift, young Americans drive less, choose to bike and use their feet more to get around repopulated cities. TLCI should help Cleveland and the inner-ring suburbs stake a claim to their share of the market. But TLCI is hamstrung because cities in Northeast Ohio don't have comprehensive complete streets ordinances that recognize the utility of roads to attract these demographies.

While TLCI plans are relatively small, their impact can be larger.

In the absence of Complete Streets laws outside of Cleveland, the county can embrace TLCI as an aid in defining its "aspirational geographies" as writer and researcher Richey Piiparinen describes the places that tend to attract young talent and keep families rooted. Here streets are fine grained with activity measured in distances of walking and biking and cities respond by easing the way with bike lanes, wider sidewalks and calmed traffic. Streets encourage parents to send their kids to school on a bike.

And yet, if recent plans are any indication, there's a troubling trend in TLCI—a tendency toward expensive and, thus, unrealistic off-road bike paths. Young kids will likely ride on a sidewalk, making bike paths in cities not only redundant but arguably less safe (motorists don't tend to look for bikes crossing at intersections). TLCI needs to grow up, and encourage instead an easy reconfiguring of a few feet of roadway to calm streets with bike lanes and smaller intersections. Metrics for success can be in measured in miles of bike lanes and in less crossing width for pedestrians.

These metrics are important not just for Millennials who bike to work. Bike lanes and narrowed intersections will produce calmer streets for the "8-80" crowd (as in years old). Complete Streets means as much to families with small children in Cleveland, Cleveland Heights and Lakewood as the performance of schools. One leads to the other. Kids whose streets encourage parents to trust them biking and walking to school will concentrate better in class, build lasting (real, not virtual) social networks, and, of course, get their daily physical exercise. Complete Streets express democratic ideals. They are indicators of a healthy place just the same as parks, playgrounds, t-ball leagues, libraries, ice cream socials, and walkable town centers.

2. ) This idea of a "lane diet" is no longer new, even if it is to Cleveland and the inner suburbs. But TLCI plans too often shy away from trying lane diets -- arguably the easier and certainly the less expensive way cities bring balance to the varying speeds of cyclists, seniors, kids, the disabled, and motorists (who become pedestrians again after they park the car).

The disconnect can be traced in part to a lack of complete streets ordinances. But the bigger culprit may be that TLCI doesn't have the stamp of approval from traffic engineers. TLCI is viewed with disdain by traffic engineers as a "soft" planning initiative. In the end, traffic engineers—those high priests of the arcane traffic Bible that was passed down directly from the state Department of Transportation—are the deciders. They are keeping lanes wider than necessary. If it worked in the past and no one complained, why stick your neck out and change it?

This is more than conjecture, this is worldview confirmed from the planning staff and bike advocates who work within this 1950s Highway era mentality of road building that pervades Northeast Ohio. Even the traffic engineers admit that they are not empowered to change the situation, a bike advocate recently told me. They want marching orders from their bosses—the mayors.

Mayors will only pay attention to this issue when Complete Streets are translated from technical geekery to placemaking strategy. Placemaking is also a soft but important idea for attracting tax base through a strategy that says the "democratic" facilities mentioned above are stronger than the next guy's.

"Reducing the width of roadways permits planners to reclaim underutilized space for the addition of landscaping and sitting areas or wider sidewalks than can accommodate outdoor seating for restaurants or create larger and safer bus stops," CNU writes.

Complete streets also lay the foundation, particularly in Cleveland and the inner ring, for more development. What will fix TLCI to make it a strong pipeline for placemaking and establish the dynamics for more infill development?

Cities like Cleveland, for one, need to move with purpose to write, this year, its own urban thoroughfares manual and set some performance metrics to its Complete Streets policy. Cleveland needs to act with some urgency, and make 2013 the year it takes control of its road design back from ODOT which is perpetually behind the times in recognizing that streets look and feel differently depending on the context.

For their part, it's time for the inner-ring suburbs to bone up on Complete Streets. At this point, it isn't clear that—beyond Cuyahoga County Planning Department's efforts starting this week to move the county toward a Complete Streets policy—that any of Cleveland's suburbs are discussing the advantages of complete streets. This is a huge opportunity for suburbs in Cuyahoga County which were warned yesterday of a coming tsunami of vacant land from foreclosures. Complete Streets are not the panacea to that problem, but they will help focus redevelopment efforts and reinvigorate a conversation about meeting the plague of vacancy with building more vibrant communities.

As these cities make the case for TLCI planning, they would do well to show how the plans will be followed—by not only their planning staff, but also how TLCI is adhered to in capital budget and public works. In some cases, these are $50,000 outlays for plans that have already been written off by the Streets guys.

Mayors and city councils can groundtruth the street technocrats. Livable communities should be trumpeted by City Hall with marching orders to traffic engineers to implement.

Not to overstate the case, but cities have a much stronger hand to play in directing the outcomes of TLCI plans when policy, budget and oversight from the mayor align to produce a clear vision of how the city builds streets that build community. Otherwise, TLCI will continue to get short shrift from the Streets Division, and that won't help Cleveland become the sustainable city it aspires to become. At some point, being a green city on blue lake will involve the dirty work of translating visionary ideas like Complete Streets or nice plans like TLCI in to actual changes like lane diets and a regional green/bikeway system.

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I Will Not Walk My Bike Across the Street
4 years ago

Time for the inner-ring to step up!

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