What is a “Complete Street?” Too many people would say it’s a street that can get you and your SUV from Point A, your suburban home, to Point B, the big-box store a few miles away, at 45 mph or more with no stoplights. But to the growing number of people interested in bicycling and walking, either for transportation or recreation, it’s a street that doesn’t favor one mode of travel over another but accommodates all and treats them as equals. This is now official federal transportation policy, and it needs to be the same at the state and local level.
The auto-centric world seems easy and convenient, but is fraught with problems. Driving everywhere, or being driven, isn’t healthy, and is a big reason for the obesity epidemic in this country. In Europe, where there’s much more walking and bicycling — or even New York City, where the percentage of trips by foot and bike is 19 percent, roughly two times the national average — you see far fewer fat people. All those car trips also pollute the air, contribute to global warming and increase our oil dependency.
The New York AARP is in favor of Complete Streets because, it says, the mobility they offer is vital for older residents to maintain an independent lifestyle. And, just as vital, the safety they offer: New York state now has the third highest number of fatalities among pedestrians over 65. When it comes to pedestrians, a Complete Street is one with continuous sidewalks that actually lead somewhere (not those short sidewalks to nowhere built as part of the latest strip development), slower traffic, properly marked crosswalks and appropriate times for crossing.
For bicyclists, a Complete Street is one with signs and paths or lanes. This doesn’t necessarily mean new construction. It can be as simple as re-striping an existing road or relocating a guardrail. Any time maintenance is done on a road, or a new one built, accommodations for bicyclists and pedestrians should be made.
This is starting to happen. Federal spending for bike/ped projects rose from $600 million in 2008 to $1.2 billion last year (although most of the increase, $400 million, was stimulus money). But this spending was still a small fraction, less than 3 percent, of all federal transportation spending. With the recovery in danger of stalling out and large numbers still unemployed, now would be a good time for a federally funded Complete Street Corps to undertake bicycle/pedestrian projects around the country. If the deficit is a concern, the effort could be funded through an increase in the gas tax or some sort of congestion pricing.
New York state currently has no Complete Streets policy (roughly 20 states do), although there are now matching bills pending in the Assembly and Senate. They would require the state Department of Transportation to consider bicyclists and pedestrians in the planning and development of state, county and local road projects, and other transportation projects eligible for federal and state funding. This legislation needs to be passed, as well as another law establishing a three-foot passing distance for cars approaching bicyclists, which 14 other states have now adopted.
We will always have roads; the difference is in how they are used and by whom. As federal Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said back in March, “the car is no longer king when it comes to policy.” It was a mistake to build our communities and lifestyle totally around the car, and Complete Streets is how we start undoing it.