The Complete Streets movement, now 13 years old and with a newly released criteria for evaluating policies, is considered by some to be a success. Not by me.
There are two gaping flaws in the complete streets concept, that after all this time have not been addressed:
- Who is responsible for sidewalks?
- How close should safe crossings be?
Sidewalks: On the first issue, responsibility for sidewalks, most cities and counties (not all) have code that makes sidewalk maintenance the responsibility of the adjacent landowner. This includes repair and snow removal. Most cities have some money set aside to repair sidewalks, but only a tiny fraction of what is needed for the huge backlog of deteriorated sidewalks. A very few cities also clear sidewalks after snow. Sidewalks are every bit as much of the transportation network as travel lanes and bike facilities, but most places wash their hands of this reality and this responsibility, pushing it off to others. It has been pointed out that few cities and counties have the funds to also take care of sidewalks, but that is exactly the point. If we allow cities and counties to prioritize cars over walking, they will continue to do so.
How does complete streets play into this? It doesn’t. Complete Streets set no expectation that cities and counties will maintain their sidewalks. In the new policy rating documents, the word sidewalk only shows up twice, neither in this context. Even a search of the Complete Streets website only mentions sidewalks in relation to case studies and model projects. Fortunately, a few places do much better than just have a policy, but the Complete Streets movement does nothing to encourage this.
Crossings: the second great weakness of the complete streets movement and Complete Streets documents is the lack of attention to frequent safe crossings. The new criteria does not mention crosswalks or crossings. The illustrations of a complete street often show an intersection with high visibility crosswalks and sometimes curb extensions to increase visibility and shorten crossing distance. But other illustrations show long distances along a “complete” street, with the next safe crossing often not visible.
In the Sacramento region, every complete street project along arterials has added sidewalks and bike lanes, but none of them have added safe crossings. In fact, several of them have removed crossings. If a busy street is hard for walkers to cross, they won’t cross it. They will either drive, or just avoid the other side of the street. So that fancy complete streets project, with the wonderful looking wide sidewalks, does not serve the very people it is claimed to serve. People need to be able to cross any land all Streets in a safe crossing at an interval of no more than 1/8 mile. The grid in downtown Sacramento is 1/12 of a mile. Few places in the suburbs are less than 1/4 mile, and many are 1/2 mile. To me, this is unacceptable. I would think a complete streets policy would address this distance between safe crossings issue as being key to walkability. Again, the Complete Streets movement ignores this issue.