Measure 2022: ‘complete streets’

This post is a follow up to (in)complete streets and streets – stroads – roads, and will make more sense if you read those first.

The proposed sales tax measure Transportation Expenditure Plan (TEP) for Sacramento County has 20 occurences of the term ‘complete streets’. The first is this phrase: “complete streets with or without capacity expansion”. This alone should make everyone uncomfortable – the sponsors are perfectly happy with expanding roadway capacity so long as all modes are accommodated in some way. The roadway could be 20 lanes wide, and that would be fine so long as there is some facility for walking and bicycling. Within the ‘Local Street and Road Repair and Transformative System Improvements’ section, Citrus Heights lists 15 possible projects, and within the ‘Local Projects of Regional Significance’ section no projects. The table below shows the complete streets summary (note that Isleton is an insignificant portion of the measure and is not listed). Only County of Sacramento specifically calls out that 15 of the projects will include road capacity expansion, but many of the other projects in all of the locations might also include expansion.

In the lead implementation section, paragraph H, ‘complete streets’ are sort of defined:

Complete Streets. Transportation projects provide opportunities to improve safety, access, and mobility for all users of streets, roads, and highways in Sacramento County and recognizes bicycle, pedestrian, vehicle, and transit modes as integral elements of the transportation system. The term “Complete Streets” describes a comprehensive, integrated transportation network with roadways designed and operated to enable safe and convenient travel for users of all abilities, including motorists, pedestrians, bicyclists, persons with disabilities, seniors, children, movers of commercial goods, operators of public transportation, public transportation users, and emergency responders, in a balanced manner that is compatible with an urban, suburban, or rural context.

Transportation Expenditure Plan, I. Implementation, H. Complete Streets

Sounds OK, but it is so vague as to allow practically anything, based on the preference and judgement of city or county. No reference is made to state or federal definitions or guidelines.

The TEP does require the cities and counties to adopt a ‘complete streets’ policy. So far as I’m able to determine, only the City of Sacramento has a policy at this time. That is good. But again, no guidelines as to what a good policy would address. No reference to the National Complete Streets Coalition model, or state or federal guidelines. All of the General Plans address complete streets to some degree. It is not clear whether these existing aspirations constitute a policy.

Within one year following the implementation of this Measure, each local jurisdiction in Sacramento County receiving Measure funds shall adopt or maintain an existing “complete streets” policy or a similar document that incorporates design guidelines and standards promoting safe and convenient travel for all users including bicyclists and pedestrians when considering any construction, reconstruction, retrofit, or alteration of streets, roads, highways, bridges, and other elements of the transportation system.

Transportation Expenditure Plan, I. Implementation, H. Complete Streets

And lastly, the TEP says that projects should be consistent with policy. But again, the language is vague. What does consistency mean? Always, or only when it doesn’t impact traffic flow? No performance measures for the jurisdictions to achieve, or against which to judge their success.

Planning and design of projects affecting the transportation system shall be consistent with any local bicycle, pedestrian, transit, multimodal, and other relevant plans and/or the local complete streets policy to ensure that all transportation types and users are considered in the expenditure of Measure funds.

Transportation Expenditure Plan, I. Implementation, H. Complete Streets

So, does use of ‘complete streets’ and identifying projects as complete streets mean anything. No, not really. It is up to each transportation department to determine for themselves whether the project is complete streets, and what it would have to do to ensure that.

Even if the project does produce a ‘complete street’, it still won’t address frequent safe crossings of the corridor for walkers, nor the need to significantly reduce motor vehicles speeds to create comfortable walking and bicycling streets.

Search for category Measure 2022 to see posts as they are added.

(in)complete streets

Note: This is a follow-on to streets – stroads – roads. It will make more sense if you read that one first.

The complete streets concept says that all modes of travel (walking, bicycling, motor vehicles, and transit when appropriate) should be accommodated on streets. The accommodation is accomplished by providing separate spaces for each: sidewalks for people walking, bike lanes for people bicycling, general purpose lanes for people driving.

The concept was and is promoted by the National Complete Street Coalition, now part of Smart Growth America, since 2004. The traffic planning and engineering professions strongly resisted the concept for years, but it now receives at least voice support from most planners and engineers. In California, chances of getting a transportation infrastructure grant are low if it does not at least claim to meet complete streets concepts.

The two biggest weaknesses of the complete streets concept are:

  • No guidelines for the frequency of safe crossings are built into the complete streets concept. It could be, but it is not. So travel along corridors is better, but crossing that corridor may not be any better than it was before.
  • Speed limits are rarely reduced on a reconstructed complete streets. Traffic lanes are often narrowed, and sometimes reduced, in an effort to slow traffic. However, a design that actually enforces a lower speed, and therefore allows a lower speed limit is rarely considered.

FHWA (Federal Highway Administration) recent released a Complete Streets Report to Congress and related webpage. I have not had a chance to look at this in detail, so I don’t know if the federal concept overcomes the weaknesses of the previous complete streets concept. The graphic below was the leading one in the new effort, and was justifiably criticised as presenting an unattractive if sort-of compliant complete street, but some people who have read the document say it is better than this. Streetsblog USA: USDOT Tackles Overlooked Barriers to ‘Complete Streets’ — And Sparks Debate.

FHWA complete streets graphic

Caltrans has a recently adopted Complete Streets Policy. The City of Sacramento has a complete streets policy. Citrus Heights, Elk Grove, Folsom, Rancho Cordova, and the county express support for complete streets concepts in their general plans, and have complete streets projects, but apparently do not have specific policies.

There have been a number of complete streets project already in the Sacramento region, and more are on the way. The proposed Measure 2022 transportation sales tax flags complete streets for much of investment, so it is important to understand what a complete street is and is not. Let me say that a complete street is almost always better than what was there before. A lot of our streets were constructed without sidewalks, or with narrow sidewalks interrupted with utility poles and other obstructions, and lacking curb ramps. Complete streets usually have continuous sidewalks of six feet or more, with fewer (but not no) obstructions, and curb ramps at corners. Almost all of our streets were constructed without any place for bicyclists, so a complete street with bike lanes may be an improvement (though many traffic engineers continue to think that painted bike lanes work on higher speed streets).

I was working partly in the City of Citrus Heights when the Auburn Blvd Complete Streets Phase 1 project was designed and implemented. Indeed, travel along the corridor was much improved, and the road was more welcoming to all modes of travel. But there were no more safe crossings of Auburn Blvd than there were before. The crosswalks were still way to far apart for people to conveniently access the businesses, homes, and schools along the corridor. The speed limit was unchanged, though my perception was that actual speeds were a bit slower.

Nearly all streets that have become, or are proposed to become, complete streets are stroads. Think of a major roadway in the county, and you are picturing a stroad. Making a stroad a complete street does not make it not a stroad. Complete streets projects often forget to answer the most basic questions: what is the purpose of this roadway, and how can we construct it so that it fulfills that purpose? A stroad with sidewalks and bike lanes is still a stroad if the primary function is to move people along the corridor, rather than allow them to be in the corridor.

If the purpose of a roadway is to move a high volume of motor vehicles quickly, a road, then sidewalks and bike lanes probably aren’t appropriate, and those modes should be provided for on parallel routes. If the purpose of a roadway is to provide a place for people and building wealth, a street, then sidewalks and SLOW or no motor vehicle traffic is the only appropriate design. This is often expressed as a place where ‘cars are guests’ and bicyclists mix in with other street users rather than needing an exclusive space.

Yes, I am talking about an ideal here. Almost all of our roadways were designed and function inappropriately. We have a long ways to go, but we at least have to get started by stopping what we are doing wrong, and starting to do it right. The proposed Measure 2022 transportation sales tax largely commits to continue doing it wrong, for 40 years. That is the next post.

Dangerous by Design 2019

Smart Growth America has released its ‘Dangerous by Design 2019‘ report for 2019. Pedestrian (walker) fatalities have increased 35% over the last decade, becoming a bigger percentage of roadway fatalities, now at 16%. Sacramento (the Sacramento-Roseville-Arden-Arcade Metropolitan Statistical Area MSA) ranks 46 of 100 on the list of most dangerous areas for pedestrians, and the danger increased 4.9% from 2016 (year of the first report they did) to 2019. California ranks 16th on the list of states, and had an increase of 3.8%.

The National Complete Streets Coalition is part of Smart Growth America, so it is expected that the report emphasizes complete streets and roadway design. However, by focusing mostly on that, it misses some important issues. The report acknowledges, on page 7, that the design of vehicles, particularly the explosion of pedestrian-killer SUVs, is important, but then fails to list a significant action related to it. If these vehicles are 2-3 times more likely to cause fatalities, as research indicates, then that could explain more of the increase than many other factors.

Another issue that the report does not even mention is driver behavior. Though an increase in the number of poorly designed roadways could explain part of the overall increase in pedestrian fatalities, I doubt that it could account for all of it. Though most of our roadways are dangerous by design, we are building fewer of the most dangerous ones, and have fixed some of the worst of the worst. I will speculate, without research backing but with anecdotal and direct experience, that a precipitous decline in driver behavior is a significant cause. More pedestrians are being killed because more drivers are killing them. Yes, roadway design is responsible, and is the easier problem to solve in the long run (than human behavior), but if behavior, violation of the law, is in fact a significant contributor, we miss the boat by only talking about design.

Though ultimately, the redesign of our roadways is the best solution, in the meanwhile we need to prevent fatalities, and addressing driver behavior is part of that. This is not a minor issue. This morning, while using a clearly marked crosswalk, I was nearly hit by a driver who passed through the crosswalk without even slowing down. If I had not jumped back, I would not be here writing this post right now.

The report uses the National Household Travel Survey (NHTS) as data for the number of people walking, and says there has actually been a decline in walking over four years and a slight increase over ten years. However, the NHTS only counts commute trips, and assigns all commute trips to the category of the longest leg. Therefore, a transit and walking commute would be classified as transit only. Data about overall walking rates is lacking, and Smart Growth America can hardly be blamed for that. California performed one broad-based survey in 2013, and the results varied significantly from the NHTS data. I realize that Smart Growth America is a nonprofit with limited resources, but at least a small sample analysis using other sources of data would really help illuminate the cause of the increase in fatalities. We can’t adequately assign fatality rates if we don’t really know the rate of walking. It would seem to me that one of the key actions at the federal, state and local level would be better pedestrian trip data, but that does not show up in the report.

As I have said many, many times, here and other places, the model complete streets policies that Smart Growth America and the National Complete Streets Coalition promote do not give sufficient weight to the frequency of safe crossings. As a result, most local policies fail to address this issue at all. If we end up with a national policy that continues this weakness, we won’t really be solving the problem. So I can’t, at this time, support the recommendation, on page 7, for a national complete streets policy. NCSC needs to clean up its act before asking others to clean up their act.

Complete Streets aren’t

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.

El Camino complete street, 0.3 miles to the next safe crossing

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.