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We (heart) Complete Streets

Marc Lefkowitz  |  11/14/07 @ 4:43pm

The American Planning Association is sending a Valentine to the federal government. The message: We (heart) our cities and suburbs, but they're not helping us lose that spare tire around our waist.

APA has joined a national movement of health, recreation, bike, and disability groups who are sickened by communities expanding without sidewalks, streets widened without a thought toward bike lanes, and public transit as an afterthought if at all.

Not always known for bold public stances, APA is pushing hard on Complete Streets-in part because of a looming health crisis in America, land of sedentary lifestyles.

The groups want to retool urban design to make room for pedestrians, bicyclists, and transit users on auto-oriented roads. They're hoping to reverse the trend of jumping into cars to run errands under a mile from home as a whopping 66% of Americans do (compare that to the 1960s when 66% rode bikes or walked).

If all streets are made to be Complete Streets, a large percentage of trips now made by car could be made by bicycle or on foot, John Gideon, President, Central Ohio Bicycle Advocacy Coalition says. And the benefits would be enormous: less traffic congestion, better health, lower energy use, reduced global warming, more localized economic development and more eyes and ears on the street to prevent crime.

It should be the policy of all state agencies and departments including the Ohio Public Works Commission which dispenses state bond infrastructure funds for the building of roads and bridges, he adds.

Easier said then done? Not if Congress passes a bill to establish Complete Streets as the law of the land, says Dominic Liberatore, Complete Streets Coach for national cycling advocacy group Thunderhead Alliance.

"Even though we have federal transportation enhancement funds (TEA) and ODOT has plenty of money, a majority of department of transportation directors do a token amount and then ignore cyclists, transit users, and pedestrians. Their default answer is no," says Liberatore.

Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) has considered introducing a Complete Streets bill, Liberatore says, that will compel states to accommodate cyclists and pedestrians in every road project.

"Take the Cleveland Innerbelt Bridge," Liberatore says. "Whoever is saying no (to a multi-use path on the bridge) is allowed to separate bike and pedestrians out of the mix by saying it costs too much. In the future, ODOT will not be able to look at cycling and pedestrians as separate; they would have to factor in the cost of designing in facilities."

Some of the cost to design and build bike and pedestrian facilities on new and rehabilitated roads could be absorbed by TEA and other federal transportation funds like Congestion Mitigation Air Quality (CMAQ), which pays for projects that reduce air pollution.

In the void of federal and state leadership, cities are attempting Complete Streets on their own. A growing, national network including the Complete Streets Coalition, the Congress for New Urbanism, and federal programs like Safe Routes to Schools have promised help.

Ohio will be able to give out $20 million in Safe Routes to Schools funding from now to 2009, but few communities even know of the program let alone that the money is there. The problem is ODOT hasn't spent a red penny on education or workshops geared to help communities tap this fund, Gideon says.

Some cities are making up Complete Streets-type of solutions when the opportunity arises.

"In the past, to get transportation money you would have to widen the road. So, when Shaker Heights redid Chagrin Boulevard at Shaker Town Center, we narrowed the lanes but added on-street parking," says Ann Pylkas, Senior Planner, City of Shaker Heights. "So, it's a case where cities can get funding and meet ODOT requirements" but still do something to calm traffic and accommodate other modes of transportation.

Pylkas is a member of the Ohio Planning Conference, a local chapter of APA, which will host an audio web conference on Complete Streets this Wednesday at NOACA in downtown Cleveland. Presenters include representatives from the City of Boulder, Colorado which, along with Chicago, is on the vanguard of implementing Complete Streets. In Oct. 2006, Chicago passed a Complete Streets Policy that envisions streets where "even the most vulnerable?children, elderly and persons with disabilities?can travel safely within the public right-of-way."

"We're pushing that initiative here," says Martin Cader at Cleveland Planning Department. "Community development corporations like Slavic Village and Ohio City Near West have adopted it, and we're hoping it will be adopted by Cleveland City Council so that street projects would support all modes of transportation."

Complete Streets was a hot topic at last week's Healthy Lifestyles Summit hosted by the Ohio Parks and Recreation Association. "It came up repeatedly in discussions about our adult epidemic of obesity and heart disease," Cader says.

Education initiatives and progressive leadership is needed to close the gap between local communities clamoring for more New Urbanism and what critics call as rigid, bureaucratic environment at departments of transportation.

"We think we have it bad in Ohio, but the State of Texas is sending their enhancement money back to Washington because they don't see doing bike trails as their priority," Cader laughs in disbelief. "You don't even have to put up state money-it's a local match to the federal dollar. So there are funds, but communities have to have access."

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