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Designing Complete Streets for towns and suburbs, not just for big cities

May 07, 2021

By Mike Rutkowski and Dan Hemme

3 steps to retrofitting any street in America to make it more complete for all users

With the Biden Administration announcing its proposed Infrastructure Plan, it’s apparent that increased attention—and funding—will be placed on safety for all users of our transportation network. The enduring effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have been seen in shifting travel patterns. Our cities have made efforts to address those shifts with temporary infrastructure accommodating increases in biking and walking. Basically, more Complete Streets.

Much of the attention on these shifts has focused on urban cores, with questions raised about the equitable considerations and community involvement in creating these temporary infrastructure pieces. But Complete Streets aren’t limited to the urban context.

While the last effect of the trend remains debated, COVID-19 has accelerated suburban growth across the United States. Suburbs are commonly known for their lower-density development, separated uses, automobile-oriented infrastructure, and wide roads. While this is a setup that allows for ample space and distancing, it often falls short when it comes to having a forward-looking street design. Changing this infrastructure is imperative as cities look to curb climate emissions, improve quality of living for all of its residents, and encourage healthier, more active living. But, how these roads have developed—with tight property lines, limited rights-of-way, and lack of safe bicycle and pedestrian facilities—can make these projects especially challenging, and even contentious. 

With careful planning, we can navigate these challenges and bring the benefits of Complete Streets to the suburbs. When working on a suburban Complete Streets project, consider the following three principles. 

Minuteman Lane in Washington, NC provides access to both residential neighborhoods and shopping, but only for those with cars.

The reimagined Minuteman Lane allows people to do their shopping by foot or by bike, increasing mobility options and equity.

1. Lean into public engagement and make it meaningful

Public involvement in the planning process is a must for Complete Streets work, but it is even more important when working on a contentious retrofit project. Defining the problem first is absolutely essential. There are only three reasons why we retrofit a problematic corridor:

  • Safety: "It’s a dangerous roadway.”
  • Lacks multimodal facilities: “Can’t get across the street.”
  • Economic vitality: “Prime for redevelopment”

Residents, workers, and commuters with established travel patterns don’t want to see their commute times change or congestion worsen. Business owners want to guarantee access to their businesses. Neighbors want to be able to access their nearby shops, restaurants, grocery stores, and community parks without having to drive. And no one wants to give up right-of-way. It’s a tough balance, especially when people use a corridor for different reasons.

The key to moments like these is to start early with engagement and to continue throughout the project. Data can only tell us so much about a corridor. So it’s imperative to listen to what people are telling us because perception is everything. Surveys and websites with comment forms are only a small piece of that puzzle—you have to present the community with the ability to craft project goals, shape the understanding of how a street serves its users, and participate in developing solutions and the ultimate recommendations of the study. Focus groups, informal coffee chats, and interactive web platforms can all help to facilitate this type of deeper participation.

For a particularly challenging stretch of road in Washington, North Carolina, our team was limited to virtual collaboration throughout the planning process. So, we made use of Zoom and MURAL—a digital collaboration platform—to allow members of the public to view, ask questions, and leave comments on roadway design as it was being designed. Routine virtual meeting sessions and a multiday charrette allowed even more community members the opportunity to view draft designs each day, meet with the team to discuss each proposal’s strengths and weaknesses, and return in subsequent days to see where and how concepts had changed. And despite the challenges to traditional engagement that have been wrought by the pandemic, the virtual environment actually increased interaction, both with the design and the project team itself, resulting in an increase of approximately 25% in stakeholder engagement. 

Accounting for what a road should be, not merely what it is, can ensure that the street serves the needs of its future community.

2. Keep it simple—don’t overdesign!

Oftentimes, the roadway you’re looking at has a full transcript of issues that may need to be addressed. Decades of disinvestment and automobile-oriented decision-making may have resulted in overdesigned corridors that are optimized for travel speeds and congestion, but virtually impassable for bicyclists and pedestrians. Driveways from unregulated development can create turning conflicts and high-crash locations. It can be a lot to process, and even more dangerous to the traveling public. 

In situations like this, the easy response may be to overdesign the road with wider lanes, huge center medians, and expansive shoulders. But in suburban corridors where the right-of-way is often already at its limits, including all these treatments very likely means taking property, impacting business owners, and blowing up a limited budget. Rather than overengineering the road, take a step back, consider where priorities lie, and start making trade-offs.

As we take a closer look at how a street works for different users, poor roadway design may actually mask underperforming features of the street. In Washington, no turn lanes forced drivers to turn from the left lane, effectively converting a four-lane road into a three-lane road. We repurposed the street from four lanes to two lanes divided, creating space for sidewalks, street trees, and a shared-use path where none previously existed. Keeping these projects within the existing curb lines and right-of-way makes projects simple and more affordable. And it avoids having to have the hard conversations about property takings.

Van Norden Street in Washington, NC. 

The proposed redesign at Van Norden Street allows bicyclists and pedestrians to cross 15th Street safely, connecting neighborhoods and providing access to destinations already afforded to cars.

3. Look to the future and balance tradeoffs

The other mistake that can be made in fixing a problematic road is thinking about the road only in the context of today’s problems. Reacting to the present circumstances is an understandable response. But a newly designed road will likely stay that way for many decades, during which time businesses will turn over, new development will crop up, and the needs and demands of travelers on that road will change. This is especially the case along suburban corridors, where sprawling residential and strip commercial developments, surface parking lots, and vacant land often change hands multiple times.

Planning for the unknown may sound like a challenge, particularly with new technologies such as autonomous vehicles and microtransit on the horizon. However, many of the impacts of future development can be understood today. Future land use plans help to forecast what this development will look like, and the impacts it will have on the community. Accounting for what a road should be, not merely what it is, can ensure that the street serves the needs of its future community.

Complete Streets, everywhere!

It feels like we are at a watershed moment in the way we are discussing infrastructure in the US. We’ve learned a lot about ourselves and how we use our streets through this pandemic, and we shouldn’t forget that as we move forward with new investments. The car-centric roads of the past should stay in the past—let Complete Streets be the future for every city, suburb, and town in America!

  • Mike Rutkowski
  • Dan Hemme

    Dan is a transportation planner focused on mobility and complete streets plans, bicycle and pedestrian studies, as well as long-range transportation plans for a variety of clients.

    Contact Dan
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