COMPLETE STREETS AS AN ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT STRATEGY: The Green Beyond The Paint

We’ve all heard the argument: narrowing traffic lanes or removing parking will hurt local businesses.  And we’ve all read the research headlines that show the opposite is true:  widening sidewalks, adding trees, including bike lanes, expanding transit facilities, and making public space more multi-modal, people friendly, and environmentally rich increases the number of customers and the amounts they are willing to pay.  (WalkBoston has a wonderful tri-fold pamphlet called “Walking Is Good Business” that contains a treasure of statistics and citations, some of which I’ve used in this post.)  But we need to go beyond these generic arguments to focus attention on the three specific situations where Complete Streets provides significant support for economic development, and be able to articulate what those benefits may be.  The three are:

  • Suburban Business and Adjoining Residential Areas
  • Urban Neighborhoods
  • First Generation, Inner-ring Highways

However, taking advantage of these opportunities requires that we also understand that Complete Streets is not a stand-alone strategy of including some combination of design elements in our transportation plans.   Complete Streets works for three reasons:

  • added multi-modal facilities for users with all types of abilities using universal design techniques,
  • improved aesthetics for a more inviting user experience, changing the “look and feel” of a space to be more inviting to come to and then linger within, and
  • lower traffic speeds, not only through increased numbers of walkers and cyclists but also through the use of traffic calming techniques.

From a traffic engineering perspective, Complete Streets is simply inconceivable without at least some amount of Traffic Calming using road diets (reducing lane numbers and widths), tighter corners, bumps, chicanes, bulb-outs, intersection tables, and other self-enforcing structural features.  The point is that speed kills no matter if you are walking, cycling, or driving.  A recent  analysis in the British Medical Journal of 20 years of accident frequency on London roads using traffic calming to restrict speeds to 20 mph found an overall “41.9% reduction in road casualties….the percentage reduction was greatest in younger children …[with]no evidence of casualty migration to areas adjacent…Casualties of car occupants fell by half.”

In addition, Complete Streets is as much a community engagement and design process as a road layout result.  And it only works when complemented by appropriate parking, land use, environmental, resident stabilization, and other policies.

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Complete Streets Are Not Just About Road Design

Making our streets safer and better for walking and bicycling is good in itself.  But the real power of transportation is its impact on the quality of life in our neighborhoods.  That is why LivableStreets Alliance (on whose board I serve) says that we are trying to make urban areas better places to live, work, shop, play, raise families, and grow old…by creating a better balance among all modes and providing safe, convenient, and affordable options for people with all levels and types of abilities.

Similarly, Complete Streets is only one component of a community’s built environment improvement campaign using…

  • road usage tools (e.g. traffic calming, parking reform,  and “transportation demand management”);
  • land use reforms (e.g. zoning, open and public space preservation, and smart growth);
  • environmental protections (trees, water run-off systems, green spaces, and limits on engine idling);
  • private and public sector development (encouraging retail, cultural, and service activities);
  • public space aesthetics (public art, and more.

And to avoid turning into a gentrification attack on current residents, a truly complete Complete Streets effort has to also include efforts to retain affordable housing, both owned and rented, as well as anti-discrimination enforcement.

Even within the confines of traffic engineering and road design, doing Complete Streets properly requires a radical shift in practice.  Traditionally, road design starts with traffic projections of future car numbers and then figures out what is needed (mostly based on highway-derived research) to handle that volume with acceptable levels of service – meaning reducing car congestion.  That is still what happens in most road projects.  In most places that have adopted Complete Streets policies, the only new step is that engineers finish up by seeing what pedestrian and bicycling “accommodations” can be fit into the remaining space, occasionally even jiggering a traffic lane here or there to squeeze it in.

But truly implementing Complete Streets means that redesign starts “from the outside and goes inward” – a slogan stated more than practiced.  Outside-in should mean that walking, bicycling, and transit facilities are not accommodations but essentials.  So the first step in a Complete Streets design process should be going “beyond minimums” by figuring out what would be optimal (not merely adequate or acceptable) for pedestrians.  Then doing the same thing for bicyclists.  And for transit users.

And because current conditions are discouraging large numbers of potential walkers, cyclists, and bus/train users, future demand would not be based on current user numbers but by optimistic assessments of the “latent demand” waiting to be called into existence by the proposed changes in the street environment.

Only after all this was done would the planners turn their attention to cars, basing projections not on the traditional formulas that assume continued expansion of car use but on more realistic estimates that take into account the rising cost of fuel, the growing congestion on our roads, the changing cultural preferences of today’s youth, and the mode-share implications of other public policies such as reducing greenhouse gas emissions, improving air quality, lowering the amount of pollution in road water run-off, the public health need for increased physical activity, etc.  In other words, explicitly acknowledging that a whole range of public goals cannot be realized without a proactive effort to reduce the number of single occupancy vehicle trips.

In addition, when designing the car accommodations, planners would set “target speeds” and then build in self-enforcing structural components that make drivers feel uncomfortable going faster than that – using tools such as narrower traffic lanes, right angle corners, shorter sight-lines, pavement markings and bumps, etc.  They would stop building in a “margin of safety” for cars going too fast, which experience has shown only entices drivers to go at those higher speeds. They would not build in “room for growth” on the assumption that the number of cars will continue to increase or that the size of cars won’t shrink.

Finally, a Complete Streets approach to road design would go beyond the “opportunities for public input” that occurs at 25% design or even later.  Project leaders would meet with stakeholders before any plans were made, at the conceptual and even pre-conceptual stages.  Public meetings can be noise and unproductive, so project leaders would also have small discussions with advocates and community leaders.

As Winston Churchill said about democracy, it is “the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”  Doing Complete Streets right is a lot of work.  But the streets are better and the communities around those streets are stronger.

Three Areas of Opportunity:  Suburbia, Urban neighborhoods, and Old Highways.  

When the financial industry turned housing into a speculative market, and then inflated that market until the bubble popped, the suburbs got one of the bigger deflations.  Enormous over-building and reckless outward expansion has created huge tracts of “below water” properties that are no longer worth as much as their remaining mortgages.  Until the banks are forced to swallow the lost value, the housing market will remain stalled and the suburbs in trouble.

One possible path forward is for the suburbs to focus their remaining resources on their core – the “village center” that contains their local retail stores and the surrounding residential areas, as well as those residential areas nearest commuter rail stations or with some special amenities such as proximity to parks or schools.  As the suburbs consolidate into pockets of greater density, Complete Streets provides a way to not only maintain a suburban feel (think trees) but to also improve business, encourage retirees to stay and young families to come.  Merchants have found that there is a “made in the shade” bonus – customers are willing to pay up to 10% more for things sold on an attractive street and end up staying around longer which translates into more purchases.  Suburban politicians and planners are interested in Complete Streets’ tendency to maintain or increase property values (each “point” on the Walk Score increases lot value by up to $3,000), which protects the tax base, while helping solve costly water pollution run-off liability.  And homeowners get a $20,000 to $34,000 premium for residences in pedestrian-friendly communities.

In urban neighborhoods, just as the “broken window syndrome” creates a feeling that a neighborhood is unprotected from mayhem, a “broken street syndrome” creates an expectation that no one important will be paying attention.  Donald Appleyard’s research showed that the heavier the traffic the fewer friends people have on that block – partly because people had less desire to hang around outside.  Creating people-centered Complete Streets would mean cutting off some of the through traffic that creates pollution, noise, and danger.  It attracts more “eyes on the street” by encouraging people to be outside, to allow their children to play outside, to walk to the local stores.  Most important, the process of fighting for and creating a Complete Street is a chance for urban neighbors to get to know each other, to become organized and empowered – which is the foundation for up to 40% reductions in crime and greater economic activity.  Residents and local businesses like the idea of improving the neighborhood.  Local politicians and planners appreciate that using roads as the starting point for future development means that the cost is often shared with or entirely covered by state or federal money.

In the years just before and after World War II, as the automobile drove us into a car-centric  version of the future, cities clamored for highways to connect their downtowns with the expanding second-ring suburbs where the increasingly well-off middle class was beginning to move.  These first generation highways, like McGrath Highway running north from Boston, typically plowed through the old inner ring of working class suburbs, destroying hundreds of homes, breaking neighborhoods apart, and replacing city streets with wide concrete speedways.  But entropy rules and the functional life of many of these old roads is nearing an end – particularly their bridges and overpasses.  Many of them are already beginning to fall apart.

Ironically, but fortunately, in many locations the usefulness of the old highway has been reduced by the creation of a nearby Interstate (such as I-93 coming from the north into Boston), and the attraction of low rents and urban proximity have changed the surrounding demographics (e.g. the growing influx of young professionals into East Cambridge and East Somerville).

What to do?  It is possible to rebuild the old bridges and repair the old highways, which would please the often locally-powerful people who have a stake in the status quo.  But it is cheaper and quicker to replace the old highway with a ground-level “boulevard” – or, even better, a series of city streets – that emphasize reconnecting the adjoining neighborhoods rather than speeding commuters through the area.  And exactly because those inner-ring neighborhoods have been so unattractive for the past 50 years or more, they are relatively low cost areas that could quickly entice the next round of start-ups and entrepreneurial efforts if they are made more attractive.

(The difference between a boulevard and a city street is subtle but important.  The former is a wide, tree-lined, multi-modal street like Commonwealth Avenue.  While a huge improvement over a highway, the focus of its design remains the movement of cars and trucks through the area.  In contrast, a city street would still allow through traffic, but would prioritize the reknitting of adjacent neighborhoods and the development of local retail businesses.  It would have shorter blocks, more signalized pedestrian crossings and traffic lights, perhaps physically separated bike lanes, and narrower car lanes.)

Economic Development Can Be Democratic

Most economic development is based on the “trickle down” theory – helping business owners will end up helping everyone.  Pouring water on the top will create a flow of nourishing drops for everyone at the bottom.  It’s a bit like the “raise the ceiling” approach adopted by professional sports – the higher the salaries of the super stars, the easier it is for all players to demand more.  It works: major league athletes have become rich (if only for the few years that they can play).  Of course, the problem with this approach is that it’s based on passing the cost of watching a game on to the public.  The additional wealth is only shared within the narrow confines of the people on the inside of the sports business, with a disproportionate amount going to those at the top – owners, managers, stars.

Markets have many positive aspects.  But they inherently tend towards consolidation (leading to the dominance of almost all US industries by no more than 3 or 4 huge firms) and inequality (leading to the upward redistribution of wealth).  It is possible for Complete Streets programs to add to these anti-democratic patterns.  Fixing the roads without paying attention to the surrounding housing and commercial property markets is at best a naïve mistake.  The (perhaps) unintended result could be to make the area unaffordable to lower income people.  This is not a reason to avoid improving transportation – poor people deserve good roads and safe sidewalks as much as anyone else, if not more.  But it is a reason to remember that housing is a massive mess of market failures.  Advocates need to push for rent and construction subsidies, inclusionary zoning, linkage, rent controls, and other devices to maintain residential and small business stability.

But if done well, building Complete Streets can be seen as a type of “bottom up” strategy – providing something directly used by the general public helps “raise the foundation” by improving everyone’s quality of life.  (Not all infrastructure has this kind of “democratic” impact – using tax money collected from everyone to subsidize a new sports stadium or casino or even a road to connect a commercial property to the highway is really another form of trickle-down.)

Raising the foundation is what Social Security does – providing a (very) minimal level of support for the elderly so that they don’t have to keep competing for jobs (which lowers wages and opportunities for the succeeding generation) or draining family resources (which makes it easier for families to pay for opportunities for the youthful generation after that).  Raising the foundation is the impact of strong safety net programs like welfare (which raises the true minimum wage) or Canadian national health insurance (which helps low-wage workers remain able to work and small businesses reduce expenses).

It may be partly the potential redistributive aspect of Complete Streets, its democratizing aspect, that contributes to the difficulty of convincing people that it’s a worthwhile investment.  Spending public money on Complete Streets can seem quixotic when the currently dominant political movement says that it is better to let poor sick people die than to share anyone else’s personal wealth via taxes to pay for universal health insurance.

But the public welfare impact of Complete Streets is also the reason why it is often possible to get public support for the policy.

Related Previous Postings:

*COMPLETE STREETS: Design Elements, New Priorities, Means To An End

*DESIGNING A TRANSPORTATION REPORT CARD: Ideas for a State Bike & Pedestrian Facility Progress Report

*FROM SLOGANS TO STREET DESIGN: MassDOT Needs To Move

*IMPROVING INTERSECTION SAFETY; Defining Lanes; Bus Prioritization

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