Thursday, December 8, 2016

What "complete street" really means

Any City consists of about 30% streets and plazas, almost a third of the entire urban footprint is entirely public and under full local control. In Baltimore that is 2,000 miles of roads, 3,600 miles of sidewalks (DOT). Those public spaces  are the calling card of every city.

The street and sidewalk  are public spaces for many uses: Fulton Avenue, Sandtown
(Photo: Philipsen)

Whether they are filled with cars or people, whether they are places to get killed or places to enjoy, whether they are grey, cold and bleak or green, vibrant and pleasant, whether trash blows through them or leaves, whether they are noisy or calm, dark at night or pleasantly lit, whether they are controlled by violence or safe for the elderly and the young, all that isn't just fate but the result of local policies and should be the result of the will of the people who live in the city.

Baltimore's streets aren't for the most part aren't glamorous. There are few grand boulevards and among those several have been turned over to everyday utility. Gwynns Falls Parkway, Fulton Avenue, Eutaw Place, the Alameda, Roland Park Avenue are a few examples of grand avenues. Some are thriving, some fell victim to traffic, decay and neglect.

Streets as public spaces need to be become part of the open space network and be seen as one with the parks and green spaces like the Parks without Borders program in New York City currently undertakes. Baltimore's most egregious example to the contrary, a park with borders is Druid Park. The super wide streets on the south, east and west completely cut off the park, the streets are barriers and not adjuncts assets to the park and meaningful public spaces.
New streetscape built to DC's design standards with wide sidewalks
and much green

Streets and open spaces must be assets to the residents of the city, to the people that live along them and for those who use other means to get around than the car. A beautiful street can add significant value to any property on either side just as a traffic clogged noisy artery can drag property values down. It has become fashionable to speak about transit oriented development, or TOD in an emphasis of the close linkage between land use and transportation. This link exists for streets as well, if not more so.

A wrong headed car-centric streets policy creates a self fulfilling negative feedback loop. People move away from busy streets out into leafy suburbs only to return by car, creating more traffic. Streets with skimpy unsafe sidewalks make people choose the car over walking even for short distances exacerbating the problem. Badly designed streets can make successful retail impossible and hamper economic development. They require schools to bus students even if the live well within walking distance. They discourage people from using a bicycle or scooter because they fear for their lives in the fast moving roar of trucks, buses and cars. Car clogged streets discourage residents from taking transit because the buses are exceedingly slow.
Traffic clogged Pratt Street (Photo: Philipsen)

By contrast, a complete streets policy that considers land use, economic development and quality of life requires an almost complete reversal of current priorities but creates a positive feedback loop. Wide tree-lined sidewalks with curbside parking allowing quieter living will allow people to live along all kinds of streets because the traffic flows a bit further away from the house, at lower speeds. Residents can park their car in front of the house even on arteries, customers can park near the store they want to visit. Traffic reduces exponentially with lower speed.

Walking on wide tree-lined sidewalks protected by parked cars is so much more pleasant especially when the houses along the sidewalk are filled with people instead of being boarded up. Some may may even sit on their stoops providing the much discussed "eyes on the street" that Jane Jacobs described in her book The Death and Life of American Cities which provides much of the intellectual underpinning for the Complete Streets movement. How much more fun to walk on sidewalks that are wide enough to allow restaurants to have outdoor seating or outside displays!

Complete streets have bike lanes and bus stops on curb bump-outs for plenty of space for the people waiting for the bus. Complete streets may have separate sidewalk lighting and planters to give street trees enough water and air to survive urban conditions.
Fulton Avenue: Trees in the median but barren sidewalks (Photo Philipsen)

Anybody walking through Baltimore's streets will quickly see how far away most of our streets are from those pleasant conditions. Fast moving traffic drags wads of trash along, trees are dying or absent, parking lanes are given over for so-called rush hour lanes allowing cars to zip by within inches of pedestrians cramped on narrow sidewalks, if there are any pedestrians left at all. Most sidewalks in Baltimore are eerily empty compared to other cities. Just take a trip down to DC and emerge at just about any downtown Metro station and you will be instantly absorbed into a bustling street life with plenty of people walking this way and that. You will see bicyclists, street vendors, sidewalk cafes. If this looks so drastically different than Baltimore, don't attribute this to size, wealth or the fact that this is the Capital of the Nation. Just a few decades back, DC was just like Baltimore, Boarded houses and businesses, trash flying around and hardly any people walking except at the Mall and tourists attractions.
Even historic Annapolis can have wide sidewalks (Photo: Philipsen)

It isn't a miracle that DC turned around the way it did, it was a set of focused policies promoted by courageous mayors and department heads. One of a set of planning documents is Move DC which is based on a Complete Streets policy that put walking, transit and alternative modes over car driving. The plan isn't just an esoteric vision, it included short term easy implementable actions that set the entire District onto a different trajectory. The results are stunning. Most notably, DC has a rapidly growing tax base which provides new discretionary spending capabilities allowing the District to invest in schools and infrastructure, making its streets even better.

Complete Streets policies are not just about more balanced transportation. They are about the quality of life in a city overall. The 30% of the cities footprint that are public can be leveraged for a better quality of life. Cities across the country from New York to San Francisco and from Philadelphia to Portland show that Complete Streets policies pay big dividends. Quality of life and diverse transportation choices are key factors for people to decide which city they ant to live in.
Refurbished Center Plaza Baltimore. refurbished public space
(photo: Philipsen)

Baltimore needs to begin leveraging its best assets. Public spaces and streets are still for the most part a vast untapped asset.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Related articles on this blog:
Baltimore's antiquated transportation management
Complete Streets, the DNA of a new urban mobility culture