Questioning Complete Streets: Having the Courage of Our Vision and Values

Having a vision of the kind of city you want is an essential foundation for purposeful and effective governance.  Some cities do a coherent overall process, such as Somerville’s SomerVision or Boston’s forthcoming Imagine Boston 2030.  Cambridge has constructed its vision piecemeal, through policies around a variety of quantitative and qualitative issues.   No matter the process, these days the resulting vision statements almost all aim for a combination of livability, stainability, prosperity, and diversity with the specifics addressing things like schools, housing, services, open space, and mobility.  For example, in terms of mobility, SomerVision (slogan: “An Exceptional Place to Live, Work, Play, and Raise a Family”) sets a goal of having “50% of New Trips via Transit, Bike, or Walking.”

The most powerful, but hardest to really accept, aspect of creating a vision involves making choices – a public a statement that the city’s residents prefers one type of future over another, one direction over the multitude of other possibilities.  Like growing up, having a vision implies accepting that you can’t have it all – that achieving your top priorities means you can’t do something else, and most importantly that equalizing things means that whatever was previously getting more than its fair share will have to get a little less.

But, as most adults know, having a vision – a goal — is only the starting point for creating a future.  Making it real requires the courage of your convictions, the strength to take actions that express those values, and a willingness to accept the consequences of choosing one thing over another.  Checking the facts as you go is also important.  Maturity and perhaps wisdom comes from basing your actions on both values and evidence.

Over the past decade, cities and town have made enormous progress and gained visible benefits from movement towards a more equitable vision of transportation modality:

– giving equal weight to the needs of walkers, bicyclists, and bus or trolley riders as to car drivers (Complete Streets, Safe Routes To School),

— slowing down traffic to improve driver and everyone else’s safety (Traffic Calming, Vision Zero), and

— changing to more market-driven parking pricing to increase availability and improve circulation to retail stores.

All these have contributed to the astonishing growth of bicycling, the reduction of injury rates, the revived vitality of local business districts, and perhaps even to the slowed increase in childhood obesity.  In New York City, overall traffic injuries dropped 20%, pedestrian injuries were down 22%, and there was a reduction of bike crashes with injuries of 18 percent even though the number of trips increased 108%.

Not surprisingly, however, there has been pushback.  Parking is a common triggering issue.  Neighbors fearful of increased on-street competition for space oppose making housing more affordable by reducing the amount of on-site parking spaces developers are required to build.  Drivers blame increased congestion at key intersections and major roads on the diversion of road capacity to bike lanes.  And, most touchy of all, critics claim that making roads less car-centric makes it harder for emergency vehicles to get through, endangering us all – a question made credible after the road-narrowing snow disasters of last winter. For example, a proposed Cambridge City Council Policy Order raises several of these issues — the “Whereas” sections cite concerns that traffic calming “in particular the narrowing of major arteries used to enter and exit Cambridge…has directly led to a sharp increase in congestion, bottlenecks and motor vehicle accidents; and….presents a safety hazard… [because it] does not permit fire trucks and other large emergency vehicles to gain access….”

In several towns, these complaints are being echoed by local politicians.  In some cases this is a sincere effort to clarify the impact of recent policy changes on road use. In some cases it may be just a grandstand pandering for votes from the diminishing number of car-centric commuters. But it seems most likely that the critics really believe that we’re on the wrong track and that the questioning and demands for data are really an effort to lay the groundwork for a broader re-examination of where transportation policy is going – an effort to find some problem with multi-modal design that can be used to discredit the entire idea.

Fortunately, these attacks will fail because they ignore both the growing clarity of municipal values and the factual evidence.



First: vision and values.  For several decades, if not longer, a growing number of communities have declared their commitment to diversity, local businesses, livability, environmental sustainability, and public health.  For several decades, the transportation translation of these values has emphasized transit, walking, and bicycling over car traffic – precisely because it helps us achieve all those goals while car traffic tends to move us further away, and also because we had spent the previous century giving unequal weight to the needs of car traffic.

Cambridge, my own fair city, has become a recognized national leader in Traffic Calming and Complete Streets designs that give equal weight to all modes.  We take handicapped/wheelchair access more seriously than many other places (although we still have a ways to go).   In order to equalize the safety and convenience of every travel mode, as a city we accept the reality that despite the usefulness – even the necessity – of cars for many purposes we give them lower priority than the needs of transit users (especially those who can’t afford or choose not to own cars), walkers (especially the elderly and the young), and bicyclists (especially those not bold and fit enough to risk competing with on-road traffic).

Even before former Boston Mayor Menino stated that “the car is no longer king” Cambridge decided that our roads will no longer be primarily designed to move as many cars as fast as possible. This does not mean that it will be unsafe to drive or park – just that it won’t be as convenient or treated as privileged as it used to be (or as it still is) in traditional car-oriented suburbs.

Recently, however, comments by some City Council members have seemed to question the road designs based on those values.  In response to some complaints about losing parking space the Council voted to keep the city’s planning department from implementing a modest Complete Streets plan on one key desire-line street and have publicly doubted the value of the state-of-the-art cycle-track being installed on another — seeming to blame construction-caused traffic slowdowns on the presence of bike facilities.  In the process, the Councillors have elevated the complaints of car owners who are upset at the reduced convenience of their mode of travel and the diminished status of their auto-based life style.  The anti-Complete Streets implication of the questions is not reduced by the fact that they are wrapped in more questions about safety – a claim that the shortest examination of facts would have shown to be utterly false.

Second: facts.  As is true in many other cities, the rate of car accidents have gone down in Cambridge since Traffic Calming began getting implemented – and particularly on those streets where Traffic Calming measures were done!   A lower percentage of city households own cars, precisely because the city has made it easier to take transit, walk, and bike – actually making it easier for those who still need motorized vehicles to get around and find parking places.  And making it easier for elderly pedestrians and the wheelchair bound to cross the street by putting bulb-outs at corners also keeps parked cars away from the corner – thereby making it easier for emergency vehicles to get through our crowded streets.

In addition, Cambridge is ahead of many other cities in having decided to focus road patterns on internal circulation — that the primary purpose of our main thoroughfares is to facility in-town trips rather than serve as a highway for those cutting through the city.  And the evidence for the positive results of this policy are visible in every child who arrives “ready to learn” after walking or cycling to school, every senior citizen who can get around without help, every low-income person who can get to work without the expense of their own car.


Of course, it is true that there is more congestion at key intersections.  Part of the problem is the enormous amount of construction occurring exactly on the major streets where congestion is worse – work being done in hopes of improving driving conditions.  But it’s more than that – key roads are simply packed.  Unfortunately for those who want to blame Traffic Calming or Complete Streets this is a national – in fact, international – phenomena.   Despite the reduced amount of per-person driving we’re doing, despite the lower percentage of people (especially young people) with driver licenses or car ownership (thank you, Zipcar!), our expanding population has meant that there are more cars on the road.  And because we are an increasingly urban population, and because real estate patterns are clustering higher numbers of jobs and shopping centers in particular locations, the roads and intersections leading to those hot spots are increasingly congested.  Everywhere.  Including in places that have never heard of Traffic Calming and Complete Streets. Even if we had never installed a single bike lane or widened a single sidewalk and intersection crossing, we’d have more traffic congestion than in the past.

The only way to reduce traffic congestion in the Boston metropolitan area would be a massive expansion of our regional MBTA trolley-bus-rail system, along with the creation of a regional network of low-traffic stress bike paths – a Greenway Network – and a concerted effort to improve our sidewalks.  This strategy is actually based on real evidence: the Boston Globe reports that “Despite the rapid expansion in and around [Cambridge’s] Kendall Square in the last ­decade — the neighborhood absorbed a 40 percent increase in commercial and institutional space, adding 4.6 million square feet of development — automobile traffic actually dropped on major streets, with vehicle counts falling as much as 14 percent.  Although more commuters are churning in and out of Kendall each day, many more than ever are going by T, bike, car pool, or foot.”  This has happened in large part because of transportation policies and programs that support people getting around without cars.

There is simply no way to reduce congestion by expanding or preserving car-dedicated road space.  As in baseball, the rule is that if you build it they will come – traffic expands (or reroutes) to fill the available space.  It also reduces (or reschedules) when capacity goes down – neither the Big Dig nor the closing of the Longfellow Bridge created the predicted gridlock.  Car drivers are not dumb – they adjust. And, if possible, they seek alternatives: our city’s future human and economic health depends on building facilities for non-car modes so that our growing population leaves their cars at home.  Already over one third of Cambridge residents don’t own a car and many more don’t use their car regularly.  Asking about ways to carry this approach even further would be useful.  Fishing for car-friendly facts that don’t exist is a waste of our time and tax money.

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