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What’s Up With (in)Complete Streets ?

Dan Scheir | November 25, 2019

Photo by Dan Scheir

Complete street initiatives have been a hot topic in transportation planning in the last decade, and many cities have adopted policies with the intention of improving accessibility, safety, and livability for their residents. Complete streets are roads designed to increase safety and access for all users including pedestrians, cyclists, motorists, and transit riders of all ages and abilities with the intention of making more livable cities. Many projects on large roadways implement a lane reduction method known as a “road diet” to achieve a better balance of uses and accessibility on arterial streets.

According to a recent study, over a quarter of all local municipalities in The United States reported that their city or town had adopted complete streets policies by 2014. However, projects under these policies often come to a screeching halt when municipalities are met with staunch opposition from disgruntled residents. As a result, cities maintain dangerous auto-centric thoroughfares with high speed limits, many crashes, and few pedestrians.

Benefits are Clear

Complete streets have been shown to reduce congestion, accidents, and emissions, as well as improve the physical health of neighboring residents by encouraging physical activity through walking or biking. Researchers have also documented air quality improvements from complete street projects.

In Santa Monica, CA a complete street retrofit was implemented along Ocean Park Blvd. (Figure 1) and was shown to have significant impacts on the reduction of harmful particulate exposure for users of the roadway as a result of added street trees and reduced traffic congestion. Overall, complete street projects aim to improve the livability of neighborhoods for all residents and many benefits are documented.

Figure 1. Complete street retrofit along Ocean Park Blvd. in Santa Monica, CA. Photo by Dan Scheir.

So why is there so much push back on well-intentioned improvements to our urban landscapes? And what the heck can we do about it?

Opposition Abounds

Despite the documented benefits, opposition to complete streets is strong in many communities. Local opponents voice concerns about the removal of lanes for vehicle travel. Residents argue that these interventions will negatively impact traffic by significantly increasing travel times. As a result of increased congestion, people will have a hard time accessing local businesses therefore hurting the economy. Lastly, communities argue that traffic collisions will increase due to the greater presence of cyclists and pedestrians on and around the roadway. But are these concerns credible?

Travel Times – Myth and Reality

The concern that removing a couple travel lanes from a main arterial street will add to congestion is a reasonable reaction, but what happens when a complete street project gets constructed?

My neighborhood of Mar Vista, located on the west-side of Los Angeles, saw the implementation of a complete streets project on the main arterial street of Venice Blvd. in 2017 (Figure 2). According to a 2018 report, lane reductions and protected bike lanes were implemented along a stretch of Venice Blvd. where daily traffic volumes are roughly double the maximum recommended traffic volumes. While volumes along the corridor dipped immediately following construction, the most recent ‘one-year evaluation’ data shows that those volumes have returned to pre-construction levels. Travel times along Venice Blvd. during peak morning and evening hours showed only minor increases.

Figure 2. Complete street retrofit along Venice Blvd. in Mar Vista, CA. Photo by Dan Scheir.

Economic Activity Actually Increases

Residents and small business owners frequently voice concerns about how complete street projects and road diets may impact the local economy. These types of arguments have caused municipal government officials to kill street improvement projects in the past because it is often not in the best interest of politicians to oppose small business.

One analysis of a Los Angeles road diet on York Blvd., located between the Eagle Rock and Highland Park neighborhoods, looked at pre- and post-improvement economic conditions. Using qualitative surveys and quantitative data, the researcher found that the on-street changes had little effect on businesses. In the case of the Mar Vista complete streets project, business revenue increased at a higher rate than past years, seeing an additional three million dollars between 2016 and 2017.

Traffic Collisions Decrease

People voice their opposition to road diets and complete streets by claiming that the improvements in bike and pedestrian infrastructure will increase collisions with those users. It is argued that the improvements will inspire more cyclists and pedestrians to use the roadway, therefore increasing the frequency of crashes.

In 2018, I attended a community meeting in Los Angeles where the main topics discussed were on-road improvements made to Venice Blvd. running through Mar Vista. In that meeting, members of the community voiced their opinions that the new protected bike lanes, separated from traffic by on-street parking, were more dangerous for cyclists than the original six-lane configuration. After construction, a one-year traffic study showed a 14% reduction in overall collisions across the project area and a 75% reduction in collisions at the street’s busiest intersection, Despite this data, an anti-complete streets community group continues to make unsubstantiated claims about collision increases caused by the project.

The collision reductions seen in the Venice Blvd. complete streets project are not anomalies. Research comparing collisions on complete streets and non-complete streets shows that crash frequencies after the implementation of road diets are lowered on average by roughly 6%. The same study showed an insignificant change in collision type, meaning the addition of walking and biking infrastructure did not increase collisions with cyclists or pedestrians.

Working Through Opposition

In order to address community backlash on complete street projects, it is crucial that advocates, planners, designers, and city officials understand the core arguments made by skeptical residents and business owners. They must recognize that big data analysis from transportation studies will likely be contentious and not accepted by all members of the community. To combat this, a strong community engagement process is needed.

An example of a successful complete street project that took a community-forward planning approach was documented in Huntsville, AL. The project team partnered with the South Huntsville Business Association to hold a listening session where the perspectives of the community could be heard by city officials, planners, and designers. The input was used to guide the design of the pilot project and was conducted in collaboration with local businesses and community organizations. Even though the project was resisted by some elected leaders, who opposed the project due to unfounded perceptions that vehicle travel would be affected, the community engagement process garnered enough support to push the pilot project through to completion.

It is important throughout the community engagement process that planners treat residents as technical experts and not as people who need educating on how street improvements will benefit them.

Reducing lanes is likely to receive push-back if it has not been a product of community engagement and consultation. It is important throughout the community engagement process that planners treat residents as technical experts and not as people who need educating on how street improvements will benefit them. Additionally, case studies may provide residents with assurance that street improvements, like the ones planned for their community, are proven to create safer, more livable, and more accessible streets for all.

Regardless of the amount of support from the community, there will always be people that simply do not like change; they will yell the loudest and fight the hardest to kill projects. A strong community engagement process is our best shot to create safer, more accessible, and more livable streets for all people, not just cars.

Dan Scheir is a graduate student in the Master of Landscape Architecture program at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. He has strong interests in working to improve the health of communities by encouraging active lifestyles through his planning and design.