Thursday, March 9, 2017

Complete Streets 2.0

Councilman Ryan Dorsey and Bikemore CEO Liz Cornish each spoke for about 20 minutes at Design Conversation #81 on Tuesday without ever falling into transportation engineering lingo. In fact, there was little talk about traffic or movement at all and much talk about social capital, equity, land use and community.
I am proud to announce that I will be the lead sponsor on a Complete Streets bill in the Baltimore City Council! Complete Streets legislation will decongest our streets, invest in more forms of transportation, and report the City’s transportation investments using an equity lens that lets us know how much attention DOT is paying to each of the City’s neighborhoods.(Ryan Dorsey)
Tactical urbanism makes a more complete street for a day
The presentations contrasted from a 2014 BC-DOT slide show about the 2010 adopted complete streets policy. That presentation lists all the cool modes of travel they could think of, including Segways, Joggers and Zipcars, as all a complete streets policy would have to recognize.

Maybe so, but the point of the conversation at the Wind-Up Space was to stretch the envelope beyond the first generation policies (Complete Streets 1.0) which have been adopted in one form or another in over 900 cities nationwide. Chicago set the pace for the bigger picture early. They called their initiative "Livable Streets" and tied it to sustainable infrastructure and the larger goals of the city.

Given that the Baltimore Complete Streets Policy of 2010 has yielded hardly any results aside from the much celebrated Maryland Cycle Track, a project that was eons in the making and aside from a few painted downtown bus lanes, stretching the envelope wouldn't be too hard. Freshman Councilman Dorsey wants to force DOT's hand a bit by passing a bill that puts more teeth into the matter than the 2010 resolution did. The Pugh Transition Team also recommended making Complete Streets mandatory and not only subject of a resolution. Dorsey's bill is still being drafted, but in the principles he handed out at the presentation, he lists equity, prosperity, safety, health and community as the key reasons why complete streets are needed.
Baltimore's Pratt Street illustrates car dominance

In what I call Complete Streets 2.0 Dorsey wants to see no exceptions, that is to say "all projects will become complete streets". He envisions a new project delivery process with "robust community engagement". Complete Streets become the result of cross-disciplinary engagement that includes the MTA but also Baltimore Development, and the Public Art Commission.

Bikemore's Liz Cornish described how walking and biking made her know more neighbors in three months than driving to and living in a cul-de-sac had allowed her in 13 years. See her in a video here.

The approach in which complete streets are not only the result of the work of transportation planners but the result of many departments working together speaks to my heart as an urban designer.  Streets represent a large part of our our public open spaces that call for a generous helping of urban design when messed with. Between 25-30% of the entire city footprint is designated as streets, a space that can be fully controlled by the public, I said in my part of the presentations. Streets have been left in the hands of traffic engineers for way too long. So long that citizens have been brainwashed in thinking of streets as only for traffic and parking, as nothing but mobility conduits. Sure enough, in many community meetings this is now all that anybody seems to be able to think of.
Chicago: Livable Streets org model
Streets Are Public Spaces Streets are often the most vital yet underutilized public spaces in cities. In addition to providing space for travel, streets play a big role in the public life of cities and communities and should be designed as public spaces as well as channels for movement.(NAACTO Design Principles)
Chicago Livable Street Design Guidelines
Time for a change. Ryan Dorsey's bill will demand that BC-DOT adopts design guidelines for various types of conditions so the department won't have to make up what to do in each case that lands on their desk as repaving plan, a sinkhole repair, bridge repair,  or rebuild after extensive pipe replacement.

Luckily, the City won't have to spend big bucks for creating those guidelines since plenty of cities have them already and many organizations are promoting Complete Streets with websites full of best practice examples. One set of the landmark design guidelines was created in Chicago in 2013. The then Chicago DOT Commissioner states right up front:
Chicagoans experience city life through its streets in our daily commutes, street fairs and block parties, and even the view from our front porches. Public activity and neighborhood vitality often reflect the nature of surrounding streets. We must build and maintain our roads for healthy business districts, vibrantneighborhoods, and high quality of life– and move away from the narrow perspectives of the past. (Gabe Klein, Chicago DOT Commissioner who late 2013 went back to DC)
The street as an open space to build community
As an urban designer, I am concerned about the tendency of traffic engineers to relegate each user into a strictly delineated space, possibly painted in its own color. Green boxes for bikes, red lanes for buses, space above the curb for pedestrians etc., all separated with flex posts, barrels and barriers spread all over the place. All in the name of complete streets.

While those tools may be necessary for a while, they not only make the street very messy as a public space, they also encourage the self-righteous behavior that is all too common among users of the street. Bicyclists yelling at car drivers and back when the various "modes" get into each other's spaces. Contrary to the saying, fences do NOT make good neighbors. The insistence of the rights that come with a green light, a lane or a crosswalk often create unnecessary tension, frustration, hostility, aggression and increase risk. Those measures and tools just deepen the idea that pedestrians and bicyclists, to name just two groups, don't belong anywhere except into their designated spaces.
Maryland Avenue-Liberty Street cycle track: Lots of sticks and lines

It is precisely this attitude that causes crashes. It allows drivers to zip with 50mph along a series of green lights  and mow down any pedestrian that dares to step a foot off the curb at the wrong moment. These "absolute" rules also cause frustration because they are rigid and don't align situationally. What we get is people running red lights as pedestrians, bicyclists and even drivers when there is a sense that the red light has no purpose, for example when the cross street is devoid of traffic.
Love is not a Subaru

There are incremental solutions to this problem such as traffic circles or four way stops, both yield surprisingly high and safe through-puts and require a certain amount of "negotiation", a reason why some people hate them. Downtown San Diego has replaced many signals with four way stop signs even on big streets slowing people down without causing congestion.

A step further is the concept of "naked streets" (don't Google it without adding the word design!), i.e. streets that have been cleared of all the clutter of regulatory signs and installations. In those shared surfaces the boundaries are fluid, "right-of-way" exists neither figuratively nor legally. Who goes first has to be negotiated through common sense and collaboration. It requires slow speeds and full attention. This may sound delusional considering what is happening on Baltimore's streets, but experiments around the world have shown that the concept works safely and efficiently even in high volume urban areas with the complexity of a multi leg intersection. Typically crash rates have not only gone down but also become much less severe once the rigid rules were removed.

Naked streets could become quite realistic with the automated vehicle that is designed to respond to its surroundings without human error. It is precisely the unacceptable current conditions on our streets that requires out-of the box-thinking that sees the street as part of the urban environment that has to do its part to create the high quality of life that is key to attracting and keeping residents in Baltimore City.
"Naked Street example Graz, Austria

Liz Cornish demanded that urban streets should be designed so they never tempt people to drive faster than 30mph, a speed where a pedestrian has a chance to survive, even after getting hit by a vehicle.

Clearly, streets designed to go 50mph will induce those speeds, no matter whether lower speed limits are posted. But even more important, only if streets are seen as spaces where community happens and where it is a pleasure to live alongside, will streets ever become "complete". Such a shift doesn't have to take forever.
Act Now! Implementing projects quickly and using low-cost materials helps inform public decision making. Cities across the U.S. have begun using a phased approach to major redesigns, where interim materials are used in the short term and later replaced by permanent materials once funding is available and the public has tested the design thoroughly. (NAACTO Design Principles)
Carving out space for people (NAACTO)
For those who wonder where the city would take the money for such a reconstruction of streets and point to the long delayed Maryland Avenue cycle track as a cautionary tale about the sluggishness in which streets would be transformed, there is tactical urbanism: The technique made popular by Jan Gehl Architects in Copenhagen and also by Janette Sadik Khan who painted Times Square blue and blocked the cars out overnight. How about blocking off the leg of Light Street next to what used to be McKeldin Plaza when Light City 2017 rolls around? A grand experiment that can be reverted should the sky really fall. After all, the fountain was demolished to allow just that move. Let's just do it! Tactical urbanism, i.e quick, temporary low cost installations allows real life testing and assessment and immediate relief. It spends the money on action instead of studies.

If Complete Streets 2.0 gets it right, the policy could save the City lots of money. Instead of just striving for sheer quantity (how many miles of bike-lanes?), a policy that is focused on systems and networks (transit, pedestrian, bicycles, greenways, arteries) and is tied to the major city goals such as growing and retaining residents, providing more equity and a healthier and more sustainable environment can easily pinpoint where the gaps are. Zooming in on gaps and points where systems fail allows setting priorities in a qualitative approach that is much more cost effective than the raw quantitative one of current policies.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA


  1. I walk on Key Highway and think to myself: "These drivers are insane! What is their problem? Why are they going so ongodly fast while changing lanes constantly to avoid buses/trucks without thinking twice. Then, I find myself driving a car knowingly trying to go as slow as I can, but struggle to because the "ungodly" speeds I see as a pedestrian are actually quite comfortable and natural. The only thing I can think to blame is the performance of modern vehicles. Its really incredible how different the experience is behind the wheel versus on the street.

    I'm still undecided on the value of autonomous vehicles, but in this regard I think the street could become a much nicer place for pedestrians without a human pushing the limits of vehicle performance behind the wheel.

  2. Excellent overview Klaus, particularly the close: "a policy that is focused on systems and networks (transit, pedestrian, bicycles, greenways, arteries) and is tied to the major city goals such as growing and retaining residents, providing more equity and a healthier and more sustainable environment can easily pinpoint where the gaps are. Zooming in on gaps and points where systems fail allows setting priorities in a qualitative approach that is much more cost effective than the raw quantitative one of current policies." My one concern with the draft legislation of Councilman Dorsey is his (for me histrionic) lead in focusing solely on equity (as the solution to structural racism) as the sole cause to be solved with Complete streets. I like your framing better and it is more likely to succeed, in my opinion.