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Everybody's for equity, but who wants to walk the talk?

Marc Lefkowitz  |  04/10/17 @ 11:00am  |  Posted in Biking, Transit, Walking, Driving, Transportation

Over the last decade, complete streets have been firmly established with urban planners, biking, transit and health advocates as a central tenet to improved access and safety on roads largely built for the convenience of cars.

<br /><br />With its MemFix plan, the City of Memphis has given its blessing to groups of volunteers helping pilot complete streets. <br /><br />Road diet with buffered bike lane proposed for Noble Road in Cleveland Heights.<br /><br />
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Now, the national group overseeing complete streets has raised the concern that equity needs to be a pillar. With new figures arriving about the danger that streets pose to minorities living car free in cities—equity was at the center of a #SafeStreetsSummit last week that started with this appalling figure: people of color are 54% more likely to be struck and killed while walking.

One could dwell on the obvious shortcomings of the mismatch between design and funding of equitable and safe streets in American cities, or one could take a robust approach to fixing the problem—like the City of Memphis is doing. Memphis took center stage at the summit for its complete and equitable streets program @LivableMemphis.

Notably, Memphis has flipped the script on who (pedestrians) has priority over what (cars) in its road planning. The City of Memphis‘ complete streets policy has an explicit Order of Considerations for Travel Mode that places the scale and pace of the pedestrian first, followed by a bicycle, then transit and finally the auto.

Memphis is doing something unusual for a city when it comes to implementing its policy (which is often the most challenging aspect, if there’s a deficit of political will or just a plain old budgetary one).

To pave the way on complete streets, the city produced its MemFix, a city blessed guide to “tactical urbanism” or the type of pop up street fixes popularized by New York City’s former Department of Transportation Director, Janette Sadik-Khan. In colorful pictures, MemFix shows volunteers from the community painting in bike lanes and filling in excessively wide roads with painted areas or pocket parks. The idea is to experiment with paint and other inexpensive materials, gather data about what works and elevate the best examples into the firmament of permanent infrastructure.

Why, if the data is clear that roads are killing people (more than 40,000 pedestrians last year were killed in motor vehicle crashes) at such an alarming rate, does the professional response need to be super ceded by a grass roots or volunteer one?

To give an idea, take Noble Road in Cleveland Heights. It’s the perfect example of a road where intention and plans often fail to meet. In 2015, Noble Road was identified in a high profile plan, The East Side Greenway, as a top priority for a north-south bikeway to connect the Heights area with the lakefront. Cuyahoga County’s plan is well researched and conceived to connect the dots between 14 suburbs with bikeways enhanced with green space.

As people have fled Cuyahoga County for the exurbs, Noble, a four-lane road in Cleveland Heights and East Cleveland, has seen average daily traffic drop. That hasn’t stopped a rash of motorcycle thrill seekers from speeding at all hours, a resident explained during a public meeting this month.

Noble is currently being resurfaced, and in an attempt to control the bad behavior that has led to 39 and 35 crashes per year in 2014 and 2015 (with multiple pedestrian injury), the City of Cleveland Heights Planning Department hired an engineering consultant to study a road diet for Noble that would convert it from 4 to 3 lanes, reallocating one lane for two bike lanes. The engineers approved it, finding minimal impact or traffic delay, and the city seemed poised to transform Noble with paint.

But, the Noble Road diet has stalled. The plan needs a section painted with a buffered bike lane, which is labor intensive (hand painting diagonal lines—a project that MemFix let volunteers do) would need another $30,000 in the budge. City officials say they could do it, but their annual striping budget is $80,000. So, even when a plan follows all of the correct procedures, equity in complete streets fails to move from drawing board to implementation. This story plays out again and again.

The problem of inequitable streets is pervasive—from how we talk about “investing in highways versus subsidizing transit” (Scot Spencer of @AECFNews) to how we lack simple metrics that tell the story—like the huge disparity between sidewalks and marked crosswalks in high income vs. low income communities (see images above, from Safe Routes to School).

The answer might start with a worthwhile exercise of setting equity goals in community street design like Memphis. Equally important is the connection to capital budgets—for bringing balance and safety back to streets. And that will require more and bigger public conversations that keep the pressure building up (Transit Center’s director of advocacy, Jon Orcutt in Cleveland) on public officials to walk the talk on equity.

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