Friday, July 22, 2011

Complete Streets Revisioned

by Betsy Harvey, MCRP '12

Complete streets. Like many planning terms – “smart growth,” “sense of place,” “livable community,” to name a few – it is a vague term, conjuring up different images for each of us. What does it mean to have a complete street? Taking the bus out of Manhattan toward Amherst, Massachusetts – the epitome of a small New England town – it occurs to me that a complete street in New York must be different from a complete street in a town like Amherst. A bike taxi squeaks by our bus, just missing the parked car on the curb. You would never see one in Amherst, but in New York, if you want a truly complete street you had better plan for them. And for horse-drawn carriages.
Not only are the transportation needs different, but the dissimilar cultures affect what can be built on streets. New Yorkers are impatient drivers; Amherst drivers are not. What street changes will New Yorkers tolerate? As evidenced from the fierce reaction by some against the Bloomberg administration’s implementation of new bike and pedestrian facilities (which are really not drastic even if they are a huge step forward for New York), not much. In Amherst, however, you can get away with a lot more. A vocal bike culture already exists, and so it’s not as hard to build in Amherst, for example, the bike lanes that have been built with a fight in New York.

If the Federal Complete Streets Act passes, this will be one of the biggest hurdles it will face. How do you implement a policy this vague, that will mean many different things to different people? Can it be consistently implemented, so that when you bike or walk or take transit in different cities you can expect similar facilities? These are some problems, but the act offers great promise: that, when it comes to federally-funded streets, at least, all Americans will be treated equally.

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