Infrastructure built today will continue structuring lives 50 or 100 years hence. This is why it remains all but impossible to commute by bicycle in many American cities. Getting to places by bus or rail is extremely time-consuming or not an option. Even walking can be hazardous to residents’ health.
Roads built between 1950 and 1980, the heyday of U.S. suburbanization, were designed for cars, and cars alone. The National Complete Streets Coalition formed in 2004 under the auspices of Smart Growth America to add what transportation planners omitted decades earlier.
According to the coalition, complete streets are “designed and operated to enable safe access for all users.” Key features include bike lanes, sidewalks, bus lanes, and improved crossings and signals. Trees and green spaces also factor into the development of complete streets.
Starting with 35 communities, the complete streets movement has spread to 1,348 communities. The Best Complete Streets Initiatives of 2017 and a companion webinar highlight success stories, calling particular attention to Baltimore, Las Cruces, N. Mex., and South Bend, Ind.
A common theme that emerges from the stories of these cities is that low-income and minority neighborhoods suffered the most from neglecting public transit, bicyclists, and pedestrians. These planning decisions isolated and cut people off from jobs and social connections.
The three cities’ experiences also show that developing complete streets requires input and buy-in from business leaders and affected communities. Fully reversing the effects of car-centric 20th-century transportation planning requires committing to and funding major infrastructure programs other than endless widening of highways that quickly fill again with motor vehicles. Creating biking, walking and mass transit options can be far more cost-effective and beneficial.
Baltimore commenced car-centric development in 1953, the same year that its first traffic director, Henry Barnes, explained that he “didn’t mind” streetcars “except for the fact they ran on streets.”
At the time, noted Baltimore City Council Member Ryan Dorsey, streetcars occupied just 3-4 percent of road space but carried half of all travelers.
The first attempt to complete Baltimore’s streets came in 2010, when recommendations were made, then shelved. Dorsey resurrected those recommendations as Council Bill 17-0102, which was passed in 2017.
The new ordinance mandates the creation of a Baltimore Complete Streets Design and Implementation manual, calls for better community engagement, and requests an equity gap analysis. New and renovated streets must meet National Association of City Transportation Officials’ design standards. One thing this means, Dorsey said, is that Baltimore’s streets will have narrower lanes for vehicle traffic “for trying to make neighborhoods safe.” Annual reports and binding measures are specified to ensure real progress.
Dorsey compared the process of reconfiguring streets to affirmative action. He said that Baltimore is “starting to repair the damage that our roadways have done to historically disenfranchised and disadvantaged communities” that were ill-served by car-centric streets and denied transit options.
“It’s still an issue of equal protection,” Dorsey stated, citing a long history of dividing neighborhoods by race.
While Baltimore is finally moving forward, a tremendous amount remains to be done to prioritize transit options, according to Dorsey. He pointed to a proposal to “spend $200 million to widen one mile of road and build a little flyover on some train tracks. For the same cost, we could have built our entire bus priority lane and our entire bicycle master plan.”
Restoring the heartbeat of Las Cruces
As it grew through the second half of the 20th century, the hundred-year old city of Las Cruces saw its residential neighborhoods stranded by the construction of super blocks. Decades of increasing isolation were exacerbated by the appearance of a ghost town where stores and office buildings had once stood. At one point, according to Andy Hume, the city’s downtown coordinator, 70 percent of the buildings were demolished.
Urban planners thus initiated a plan to get “the heart of Las Cruces back up and vibrant,” Hume said. The first major project was completed in 2016 as the mixed-use Plaza de Las Cruces development. Earning recognition from the National Complete Streets Coalition required implementing “road diets, converting one-way streets into two-way streets, adding wider sidewalks, bike amenities, and a public plaza.” Opening the roads to two-way traffic slowed drivers and made the area more walkable.
Acknowledging that a new heart is not much good without healthy arteries and veins, Las Cruces’ complete streets plan calls for connecting neighborhoods such as the Mesquite historic district and the Alameda Depot neighborhood, which has fallen into poverty. Hume said the aim is to move beyond simply revitalizing the downtown area and toward reconnecting “callecitas – little streets … making them truly the pedestrian and bicycle access points that they were intended to be.”
Las Cruces is also implementing a form-based code that moves building fronts closer to the street, permits fewer parking lots, and makes zoning for mixed-use developments simpler to get.
Curbing cars in the Midwest
Street planning that disconnects communities took hold in South Bend during the 1970s. Trying to modernize, the city laid out four-lane, one-way thoroughfares that were great for automobiles but not for people.
South Bend city planner Michael Divita described cars zooming through downtown while residents “didn’t feel safe or comfortable walking, biking, or window-shopping.” What should have been a vibrant center of civic life became “a death zone for bicyclists” with scant street life.
Some 40 years later, South Bend committed to converting “seven key downtown routes” into two-way complete streets. Landscaped medians, trees, curb extensions, raised crosswalks, protected bike lanes, bus shelters, and pedestrian-scale LED lighting were added. The city also replaced three intersections with roundabouts, installed intelligent street lights, and put down porous pavers to bolster safety and protect the environment.
The plan to revitalize South Bend includes a special focus on Western Avenue, which Divita characterized as “a heavily Latino and African American low-income area” with narrow sidewalks and poor lighting that had suffered from disinvestment. New buses and building rehabilitation led to “a striking reversal” in the neighborhood, he said.
The changes spurred $100 million in private investment, proving that human-centered planning doubles as wise economic planning. The results in South Bend also show that transportation design that accommodates the full range of human activities helps everyone, not just the historically marginalized.
Still a long way to go
While still in its early stages, the complete streets movement, along with Vision Zero and smart growth projects, has made notable progress in counteracting more than 50 years of policies and infrastructure construction dedicated to making cars central to social identity. For instance, The Best Complete Streets Initiatives of 2017 points to a 25 percent rise in biking to work over the past 10 years and a doubling of bike riding by African Americans from 2001 to 2009.
There is still a long way to go, however, especially in terms of protecting pedestrians. According to an estimate published by the Governors Highway Safety Association, 5,984 U.S. pedestrians were killed in crashes during 2017. People of color and seniors were especially vulnerable, and texting while driving likely contributed to causing a significant number of fatalities. Fully reversing the tide and toll of American motor vehicle traffic will take further effort.
Photo by Elliott Plack.