Passing a Law Is the Easy Part: The Challenge of Building Complete Streets

If Ontario Street in Cleveland, Ohio, is any indication, a complete streets policy is no guarantee you’ll get a safe place to ride a bike, or even a comfortable place to walk.

Now that Cleveland has a complete streets policy, the city is taking this eight lane road and ... drum roll ... adding sharrows. Image: ## Rust Wire##

Ontario is one of those roads designed to simply funnel traffic to and from a highway — and in fact there’s not much to distinguish the street from a highway. It’s eight lanes wide and devoid of landscaping, or any obstacles to fast driving, really. The most tragic part is, it’s right in front of where the Indians play, Progressive Field, which was sold to taxpayers as a way to enliven the city.

This road just came up for resurfacing, and with the city’s complete streets policy, now two years old, it seemed like an ideal time to correct this mistake. Instead, Cleveland’s traffic engineering department punted, leaving the road basically as is but adding shared lane bike stencils, or sharrows. (Actual bike lanes would compromise the street’s ability to accommodate cars during rush hour, you see.)

And there you have it. A complete streets policy should be a fabulous thing that elevates safety, the economy, and social equity in cities, but it can also amount to nothing more than a few new rules that are easily ducked if officials don’t want to follow the spirit of the law.

Some 500 communities and states across the United States now have complete streets policies, so the good work of enacting these laws is well underway. Implementation is the next frontier.

And it’s not easy, especially in communities like Cleveland where these ideas still feel new. But some cities are doing a better job than others, says Stefanie Seskin at the National Complete Streets Coalition. Charlotte, for example, developed six key steps to the project development process. Seattle passed a special tax levy to help support safe streets improvements for active transportation. San Francisco, in its “Better Streets” guide, prioritizes pedestrian concerns.

“The cities that I listed are leaders because they’ve changed a lot in their decision-making process,” says Seskin. “It’s not like sexy and you don’t have pretty pictures, but when you set a goal for an agency and you realign practices to achieve that goal, I think that makes a big difference.”

Cleveland, meanwhile, has a complete streets task force, but in practice the decisions still lie with the Department of Traffic Engineering — the same folks who designed an at-grade highway for the front of the city’s baseball stadium.

Indianapolis measures how many kids are biking and walking to school as part of its complete streets performance measures. Image: ## SFbike##

Having good city staff — people who are committed to seeing complete streets implemented and understand why it’s important — is crucial. Or, like Charlotte, you can develop and train a working group or committee to oversee the process.

“You have a lot of people that have been around for years that are used to doing things the way they have been doing them,” Seskin said. “You have to change the problem and make them understand they’re solving for a new problem.”

Another key element is performance measures. What does success look like? Boulder, Colorado, set a goal in the 1990s to reduce traffic. Since then, the city has invested heavily in transit and reduced the percentage of trips taken by car, said Seskin. Indianapolis incorporated a lot of easily “countable” performance measures into its complete streets plan, including the percentage of children walking or biking to school and the number of transit stops that are accessible with sidewalks and curb ramps.

If decision makers in your city are still under the impression that moving cars is the most important factor in street performance, your streets probably won’t get a whole lot safer. But some progress is possible even if cities still try to accommodate “peak hour” traffic. Charlotte, for instance, decided to define “peak hour” as the full two hours around rush hour, not the most congested 15 minutes during that period. As a result, they didn’t consider it so imperative for streets to be dangerously wide.

Cities should also be sure to update their design guides. Many communities, after passing complete streets ordinances, develop design manuals that serve as a rough guide for the physical geometry of streets across the city. That way, safety improvements can be applied according to a consistent set of principles whenever streets are repaved, instead of starting from scratch with every street.

“Then, every time a project comes up, it’s not a question of whether this is going to be a complete street or not,” said Seskin. “It’s, ‘How can we accommodate all these users.'”

  • thielges

    That’s unfortunate because a street that is 8 lanes wide should be able to spare some of its width to bikes. It sounds like business as usual where the traffic engineering department has a lot of leeway in their decision process and naturally steer towards solutions that prioritize motorists. Maybe future complete the streets regulations will be more specific about when bike lanes *must* be provided. As in “if a street has more than 6 lanes, create bike lanes”.

  • Barbara McCann

    Great article; it is so important to step back from the design of the individual street and look at all the policies, processes, and habits that led to it. Too many communities pass a policy but don’t follow up with this hard and (as Seskin notes) not so sexy work. But without it, advocates will be left fighting project-by-project battles. I talk about all the ways to ensure that policies result in real and consisten change in my forthcoming book, Completing our Streets: The Transformation to Safe and Inclusive Transportation Networks. Watch for it this fall.

  • Bob Gunderson

    The only complete street is one without bikes and plenty of room for cars to drive fast and store their cars, like the Masonic Freeway.

  • Bob Gunderson
  • jimsey

    Speaking of Cleveland, what about the lovely “Opportunity Corridor” poised to dumped upon the East side so a few west siders can get to University Circle about 2 minutes quicker? (as in a suggestion for an article)

  • Bruce F. Donnelly

    You’re absolutely right, especially about Cleveland. It’s a case of regulatory capture, or maybe it should be called engineering capture.

  • Streetsblog Network
  • jimsey

    Hmm. Musta missed that one. Thanks!

  • Moses Cleaveland

    And don’t forget that, as part of the complete streets makeover of Ontario Ave., the city actually removed one of the few pedestrian refuges in the downtown area, which sat at an important pedestrian crossing for folks going to and from Jacob’s Field.

  • DANL

    nice plug

  • DANL

    context context context

  • Kevin Love

    The problem appears to be the lack of traffic design engineering standards. If people can get away with whatever they want… then they will.

    Since we need design engineering standards, why not use the best? My suggestion: Mandate the use of the Dutch CROW traffic design engineering standard.

  • easportz

    This is like something out of that twilighty show about some zone!

  • Albert “Pave it Over” Porter

    I agree that it is a weak attempt at bike friendliness, but one must ask whether the complete streets ordinance was required to be applied to the project. I think it might have been funded with county funds, meaning that the city’s complete streets ordinance would not apply. But that doesn’t mean that a cycle track shouldn’t have been built on the unused sidewalk east of ontario and west of the tree line — and it certainly doesn’t mean that the pedestrian refuge in the sidewalk to Jacob’s Field should not have been removed. BTW, can we talk about how the Group Plan Commission has completely whiffed on improving the (pedestrian) connectivity between the Malls?

  • Nathanael

    Ugh, Cleveland.


So You Have a Complete Streets Policy. Now What?

A growing number of communities across the country now have complete streets policies — somewhere in the neighborhood of 280, if you want to get specific. But now comes the hard part: implementing those policies on real streets. Complete streets policies represent a complete 180 from the way transportation planning has been done in 99 […]

Ohio Cities to State DOT: No More New Roads, Just Fix What We Have

Given that the federal Highway Trust Fund is broke and the Interstate Highway System is more or less complete, maybe — just maybe! — it doesn’t make sense to keep expanding highways. And if there’s one place in the country where it’s especially urgent to stop building more highways, it’s northeast Ohio. The combined metro areas of Akron, Cleveland, […]

When the State DOT Stands in the Way of Local Progress

There should be a special term for the all-too-common phenomenon of a state DOT putting the kibosh on a promising local project. DOT-blocking! (Yes, it’s pronounced “dot-blocking.”) And have we got a good DOT-blocking story for you today. Ohio Department of Transportation regulations are essentially making it impossible for Cleveland to act upon its recent, […]

Which Places Got Complete Streets Policies Right in 2014?

Complete streets policies have proliferated rapidly in American cities and towns over the last few years. A total of 712 jurisdictions nationwide — counties, cities, suburbs, even transit agencies — now have complete streets resolutions or ordinances that codify an approach to street design that serves people who walk, bike, and ride transit. In the […]

Even Places With No Congestion Are Widening Highways

For every transportation agency trying to innovate and update policies for the 21st century, there are several thoughtlessly widening highways like it’s still 1956. Case in point: Ohio DOT, which wants to widen three highways in the Cleveland region. Tim Kovach has been poring over the global urban congestion rankings produced by Tom Tom, the GPS company. TomTom says that out of […]