complete streets failure

Summary: Complete streets concept is a failure because it doesn’t address frequent safe crossings. It leaves streets dominated by motor vehicle traffic while not necessarily increasing safety or welcoming design for walkers and bicyclists.

A recent post on Strong Towns (Ager Road: Where Complete Streets Fell Short) shows a street that was converted to a ‘complete street’, and won awards, but is actually less safe and less pleasant than what was there before. A fatality occurred shortly after the conversion, perhaps as a result of the conversion increasing vehicle speeds, perhaps not, but the conversion did nothing to reduce the likelihood.

From the post: “This is a stroad in disguise,” remarked Strong Towns Director of Community Action Edward Erfurt when examining Ager Road in Hyattsville, Maryland. And a Twitter post below.

My response:

The complete streets concept is largely a failure, everywhere it is implemented. I’m sure the original intentions were good, but every complete street project I’ve seen affirms the primacy of motor vehicles over other modes. The greatest failure of all is not what happens along the street, but that the concept does not even address the need for frequent safe crossings of the roadway. No wonder traffic engineers have embraced the concept – it allows them to continue motor vehicle dominance and accept traffic violence.

Dan Allison

So you can see the present ‘complete street’ more clearly:

Google Street View of Agar Rd, referenced on Strong Towns
Google Street View of Agar Rd, referenced on Strong Towns

The complete Streets concept is all about travel ALONG streets. Though it recognizes that crossings of streets are important, and encourages designs that make crossing safer and more welcoming, it does NOT address the frequency of safe crossings. The Complete Streets Coalition, part of Smart Growth America, does not require that complete streets policies include anything about the frequency of safe crossings. And so nearly all polices do not address that. The Caltrans policy, which applies only to state highways but is often applied to other streets, does not mention the frequency of safe crossings.

Traffic planners and engineers have embraced the Complete Streets concept, and tout policies and implementation. But what do we really end up with in most cases? Just more motor vehicle dominated streets, which is what most traffic planners and engineers want anyway, and claiming a complete street isolates them from criticism of the roads being designed and built, while making it more likely that they will be a federal, state, or regional grant for their project. Very few projects are awarded grants these days unless they claim to be a complete streets project. That is good, but the bar is set so low for what can be called a complete street, that the result is just more car infrastructure.

The project shown in the Strong Towns post checks off the following elements:

  • sidewalk, check
  • bike lane, check
  • green paint, check
  • general purpose lane(s), check
  • fence to prevent walkers from crossing any place other than the signalized intersection, check (I put this here with tongue in cheek)

What it does not check:

  • narrow the travel lanes to calm traffic
  • reduce the speed limit or actual speed through design
  • remove slip lanes (ask any bicyclist how they feel about bike lanes that cross high speed slip lanes)
  • reduce the corner radius at driveways
  • install or maintain street trees to calm traffic and provide shade for walkers
  • widen sidewalk buffers to ensure healthy trees and vegetation
  • create a pleasant walking environment
  • provide wayfinding to the nearby Metro station

The next time you hear a planner or engineer mention ‘complete streets’, hold on to your wallet (because, after all, it is your tax dollars that fund ineffective projects), and look around you to identify the traffic violence that will remain or even be increased.

The first step in designing a safe and welcoming streets is top ensure that there are safe and welcoming sidewalks and crossings of the street. Everything else comes after that, if at all. Adding bicyclist facilities that are neither safe nor welcoming, and reducing the the environment for walkers in trade, is going the wrong direction, and will lead to less walking and more traffic violence.

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