Complete Streets: Changing the Rules for the Better

Let's face it: the tri-state region, as it has developed over the past century, was largely designed and built for the automobile. Highways — and lesser roads that feel like highways — criss-cross communities all across the three states.

There's only one problem with that model: people live in these communities, not just cars. And for them, life can be difficult in such an auto-centric environment. In New York City, for example, a pedestrian is killed in a traffic accident once every two and a half days. On Long Island, the number is once per week, and in upstate communities it is once every ten days.

Then there's the poor air quality and increased greenhouse gases that all these cars cause, as well as high levels of traffic congestion. Simply put, your quality of life is worse when the only way to get around is to drive.

On the bright side, the region is recognizing this situation, and doing something about it. States and cities are working to lessen our dependence on the automobile and reclaim our streets for pedestrians and bicyclists. In the process, communities in the tri-state region are poised to become eminently more livable and sustainable — but only if we encourage transportation planners to use all of the tools at their disposal.

Over the summer, New York joined Connecticut and New Jersey in its adoption of rules requiring the redesign of state roads to consider all users of the right-of-way, including pedestrians and cyclists. This movement, known collectively as Complete Streets, aims to tame the streets through a range of design practices, from constructing separated bike lanes and adding sidewalks, to altering the striping on existing lanes and improving signage and signaling.

This is a good thing, but there are problems in the programs' limited scope and execution. For one thing, they only cover state-owned roads, which is a minority of total streets. Secondly, the states exempt the most common type of roadwork, repaving, even though this is an ideal time to do low-cost solutions like narrowing a traffic lane and painting in a bike lane. Third, even capital projects may avoid improvements if there are concerns about safety or cost and time overruns.

For this reason, it is critical that advocacy groups and citizens continue to press for better application of the Complete Streets laws. Two things will help communities realize the full potential of Complete Streets:

First, we need to articulate a better vision for how each community's local efforts fit into a broader regional network. If each community adopts its own standards for Complete Streets, or chooses to adopt none at all, it will severely curtail people's ability to travel between places safely and to link up with nearby open spaces elsewhere in the region. Local governments, working with states, should forge a common set of standards and implement priority projects that could serve as the basis for an amenity that benefits everyone.

Second and relatedly, local governments need help adapting best practices to specific road and community types. This is especially important in this early stage when the concept of Complete Streets is still new. Collecting examples of where roads have been redesigned successfully to accommodate pedestrians and cyclists will help transportation planners find creative solutions to specific challenges.

One such example is likely to be a new 14-mile, off-street and landscaped bike and pedestrian path along the Brooklyn Waterfront from Newtown Creek to Sunset Park. RPA is working with Brooklyn Greenway Initiative to generate support for the project and plan open spaces along the route. Because of this, we've seen firsthand our counterparts at New York City DOT devise creative solutions for unsafe streets with heavy traffic problems, and improve portions of the right-of-way not slated for reconstruction.

Just in the last two weeks, a major portion of the greenway along Columbia Street near Atlantic Avenue was improved by reclaiming a traffic lane for a two-way cycling route and buffering it from traffic with Jersey barriers. This simple alteration to the roadway will bring greater, safer options to community residents in a part of Brooklyn notoriously isolated from convenient transit options. Taking even temporary measures now will have lasting positive results by slowing traffic and getting more people walking and bicycling.

With increased vigilance and public pressure, as well as a modifying of rules and guidelines now in place, the Complete Street laws and programs can be made more effective and far-reaching. We will all benefit.