What is a “Complete Street”?

Originally, human settlements were limited in size by the distance we could walk, or ride a horse if we were wealthy enough to afford one.  Agricultural goods were brought in by the farmers  by ox drawn wagons  to feed the population of our first towns and cities. With the industrial revelation, new power sources brought us the railway as the way to bring in goods and people en mass and the streetcar and subways were developed that allowed our cities to grow larger, and people to work further away from their homes in the new factories and distribution centers. But still, our towns were mixed use and were pretty comfortable places for people to get around in, albeit a bit dirty and congested.

Large dense downtown areas developed around transport and market hubs, with banks, department stores and civic buildings. Because the demand to be near these hubs was high, land prices were high as well, and new building technologies like steel frames and elevators allowed our buildings to get taller and taller, multiplying the useful land area with each story built.

Even our largest cities had everything you needed for everyday life with in walking distance of your home. You might have caught a street car or a subway to get downtown for some serious shopping, but your doctor,  your pharmacist and your grocer were just around the block. The town was basically built for people first, and streets were lined with sidewalks. Daily life automatically insured you got some exercise everyday.

The auto changed all of that of course. For the first time in history, people could go great distances where ever and and when ever they wanted. Aided by new federal policies that encouraged single family homes with generous mortgage lending, and the construction of new highways for the car, developers responded to this new form of transport by buying up cheap land on the outskirts of town, and building housing developments.  Because cities were often dirty and polluted, those who could afford it moved out to these semi rural settlements and modern suburbia was born. Retail followed, and the modern shopping center was born along with it.

People praised these new towns as being the best places to raise your family, away from the dangers and dirt of the city street, and they were right. But along the way, something  good was lost.  There is always a price to pay. What was lost was a sense of community.

I learned a lot about this loss from a book I read by Andres Duany and his wife Elezabeth Plater-Zyberk called “Suburban Nation” ( http://www.amazon.com/Suburban-Nation-Sprawl-Decline-American/dp/0865476063). The authors are the same architects who started a movement toward smart growth with their famous town of Seaside.  In this book the authors, discuss the history of our cities, how and why suburbia developed and what was lost along the way.

Characterized by single use zoning, which was once hailed as the epitome of efficiency in urban design, our cities came to be designed for cars instead of people. Densities declined enormously as the distance between houses, shops and stores increases. Mass transit become unviable as densities declined and developers stopped including sidewalks. If you are a kid or an elderly person, or too poor to afford a car you are out of luck, and trapped. Access to stores and jobs  were lost to these people, as the jobs and stores left the walkable cities and moved to suburbia. Ironically, the car which increased our mobility and gave us freedom to live anywhere also meant that s we age we must loose our means to be independent and move about freely.  Kids are trapped in their dead end cul-de-saks, depended on others to get to school, the library, a friend’s house.

So what are complete streets? Complete streets is a way to get back some of what was lost. In the words of the National Complete Streets Coalition (http://www.completestreets.org/):

The streets of our cities and towns are an important part of the livability of our communities. They ought to be for everyone, whether young or old, motorist or bicyclist, walker or wheelchair user, bus rider or shopkeeper. But too many of our streets are designed only for speeding cars, or worse, creeping traffic jams. Now, in communities across the country, a movement is growing to complete the streets. States, cities and towns are asking their planners and engineers to build road networks that are safer, more livable, and welcoming to everyone.

Instituting a complete streets policy ensures that transportation planners and engineers consistently design and operate the entire roadway with all users in mind – including bicyclists, public transportation vehicles and riders, and pedestrians of all ages and abilities.

A “complete Street” is a street that is designed for all possible users, not just cars and trucks. Complete streets make it possible for everyone, old young and poor to safely get around. Complete streets, though not the entire solution to what ails us, are an important step toward fixing what is wrong with our cities today.

Our  own Regional Planning Commission of Greater Birmingham is currently working on an update of our regional transportation plan. This plan will include a recommended Complete Street Ordinance for adoption by the local municipalities and county governments. I was honored to be invited to participate in the development of the plan by serving on the Bicycle and Pedestrian committee. This committee was organized to get input from people involved in the cycling community regarding bike transportation routes, problems and solutions, and pedestrian issues. Other cities (and some entire states) around the country have already made compete streets their policy moving forward.

We need to do the same, for the benefit of all our citizens. Over time, we can take back our cities from the machines. The Complete Streets Ordinance that is being proposed by the planners will not be adopted unless people area aware and demand its adoption. Please educate yourself on this by visiting the complete streets website  (link above) and let your elected officials know that you think it is time our streets are once again built for people.