Wednesday, August 13, 2014

What is a complete street?

One appealing goal in our region's transportation plan, "Connections 2040," is to create "complete streets." The Corridor Metropolitan Planning Organization devotes two pages to complete streets in "Connections 2040." The goal will be repeated in the city's comprehensive plan, Envision CR, which is still in the works (and which will be the subject of two open houses Wednesday 8/27, 11;30-1:30 at the library and 4:30-6:30 at the National Czech and Slovak Museum). But what makes streets "complete?"

The term "complete streets" has been popularized by the nonprofit Smart Growth America, which also sponsors the National Complete Streets Coalition. They begin by noting the widely-acknowledged fact that street development in America since World War II has focused on moving cars, and moving them as quickly as possible. In contrast, the defining principle of a "complete street" is one that is designed "with all users in mind – including bicyclists, public transportation vehicles and riders, and pedestrians of all ages and abilities [emphasis in original]." The corollary, then, is to allow individuals to choose their mode of getting around, rather than feel forced to travel by car because it's not safe to go by any other means of transit.

As such it is more of a principle than a cookie-cutter pattern. Much of new urbanism is directed at re-designing our communities so the places people want to go are within walkable/bikable distance and that public transportation is viable. Smart Growth America points out that, even with communities designed as they are now, the National Household Traffic Survey finds that nearly half of trips of less than a mile are taken by auto. The relatively modest step of reconfiguring streets could make walking or biking short trips a viable option. Reconfiguration could include crosswalks, sidewalks, provision for cyclists, bus stops, wheelchair accessibility, traffic roundabouts, and greenways. In rural areas they would probably focus on paving shoulders. Besides choices for individuals, Smart Growth America promises complete streets will "improve safety, better health, stronger economies, [and] reduce costs," as well as reduce traffic congestion.

Smart Growth America takes pains to point out that complete streets is an approach, or really part of an approach, to development. It is not "a design prescription," nor is it "a silver bullet" that will eliminate the need to address broader design issues. "Connections 2040" makes much the same point (see ch. 6, pp. 6-7). So each community, and indeed each neighborhood and street within that community, invites tactics that are appropriate to it as well as to the complete streets strategy. Any specific tactics also need to consider budgetary constraints, as well as reasonable expectations of future growth.

So, here are some streets of Cedar Rapids, currently suited only to those physically fit and bold-of-spirit, with some ideas how they might be made "complete:"

(1) A Avenue NE.

A Avenue, taken across Coe Rd (12th St), facing St. Luke's Hospital
A Avenue goes from Coe College, past St. Luke's Hospital and through the MedQuarter office district, behind the arena, and ending downtown by the Quaker Oats plant. There is an interstate highway access at 8th St, with exit from the interstate onto 7th St. Except for the block in the picture, there are four traffic lanes. There are sidewalks, but crossing multi-lane streets is awkward pedestrians. Biking is do-able, but scary, particularly near the interstate.

I'm torn between two options. One would push traffic to 1st Ave, narrow A to two lanes and add bike lanes. For pedestrians we'd add more street trees and give them a head start at the scarier intersections. The other option would be to narrow 1st Avenue to two lanes through the commercial district envisioned in the MedQuarter Plan, encourage bikes and pedestrians to choose that, while routing auto traffic at maybe 10th St around downtown and/or onto the interstate via A. (More radically, and at considerable expense, we could ditch the interstate access altogether. Traffic frequently gets backed up there during the day, with ripple effects onto surrounding streets. Might there be a better place to do this?)

(2) 10th Street SE.

This four lane street runs from A to 8th Avenue, from St. Luke's to Mercy Hospital. (After that it becomes a residential street, really a different street with the same name.) Once past the Physicians Clinic of Iowa complex it forms the border between the MedQuarter and the Wellington Heights neighborhood. It has a lot of the same issues as A Avenue. Walking--to medical offices, churches, and McKinley Middle School--would improve with fewer curb cuts, and moving new construction from behind parking lots up to the street. Biking, as well as getting across 10th Street, would improve by narrowing traffic to two lanes and adding bike lanes. The intersection at 8th Avenue currently has turn lanes with no stops, which move cars but deter everything else, so I'd get rid of those and make it a traditional intersection. Past 8th the residential street is one-way south for one block, for some reason. From 5th to A there are six traffic lights in six blocks. The lights at 4th and 5th are really long, which is problematic for cross traffic between Wellington Heights and MedQuarter. Shortening the lights would make the drive down 10th take longer; could roundabouts ease this?

(3) 32nd Street NE.

This long street runs from the other side of 1st Avenue to the interstate, where it becomes Glass Road and runs another 2 1/2 miles to Edgewood Road. While it is only two lanes wide, it has a remarkable run of 1.3 miles (from 1st Av to Oakland Rd) without any traffic controls. This means two bad things: Cars attempting to cross or turn onto 32nd have a difficult time, and drivers on 32nd feel comfortable driving a lot faster than the posted speed limit of 30 mph. Tailgating is routine, and biking to grocery store or trail problematic. There are no sidewalks between Oakland and Eastern, and the ones across Oakland by Hy-Vee Food Store and Family Video don't go anywhere. (My friend Niles Ross informs me that the sidewalks that do exist between Eastern and 1st aren't in very good condition.) I'm thinking of: more and smoother sidewalks; calming car traffic with 4-way stops at C Av, Eastern Av, and Prairie Dr; sharrow signs, since I don't think the street is wide enough for bike lanes; relaxed zoning in order to allow small commercial development along the street; and a bus line that runs back and forth along 32nd from 1st to Edgewood.

(4) Collins Rd.

This is Cedar Rapids's quintessential stroad, 2 miles o' classic sprawl from 1st Av to the interstate. There are five lanes of usually congested traffic, with lots of turning traffic and curb cuts. At each end it connects with a highway bypass that will eventually encircle the city. I actually rode my bike on Collins Road from C to Edgewood. My excuses are (a) it was early enough on Sunday morning that there wasn't much traffic, and (b) it was 25 years ago, and I was young and moronic. I'm thinking we leave this alone. Here I follow the logic of city planner Jeff Speck, in chapter 10 of Walkable City (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012). There are so many streets in Cedar Rapids that could be "completed" with relatively little effort and expense, to expend the energy needed to fix Collins Road is just nuts. I mean, you can grow citrus fruit commercially in Cedar Rapids, too, if people were able and willing to spend about $75 an orange. There are, nonetheless, sidewalks, complete with crosswalks, recently installed near the intersection of Collins and 1st. They don't go anywhere, and can't possibly be used much. Ditto the new sidewalk that runs all along 16th Av SW. Doing things wrong is usually worse than not doing them at all, because it comes with opportunity costs, and tars good efforts with its bad reputation. Who is spending our money on this... baloney? Please stop!!

Cedar Rapids has a way to go before it truly is a thriving, resilient community. Adoption of a complete streets strategy will go far to achieving that goal, particularly if combined with changes in land use.

FOR MORE INFORMATION: "Complete Streets: A to Z," Smart Growth America,

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