A Conversation with a Graduate Student Regarding Transportation Planning and Complete Streets

By Dom Nozzi

November 22, 2012

A graduate student in transportation planning at the University of Florida contacted me with questions regarding Complete Streets on November 21, 2012.

She wanted to answer the research question that asked, “Would implementation of Complete Streets policies be feasible and beneficial in the Gainesville region?”

The following are her questions and my responses.
How would you define a complete street?

A Complete Street is safe, comfortable and convenient for travel by car, by walking, by bicycle, and by transit. The design of a Complete Street varies, however, based on the context (or location) of the street. In a town center, for example, a Complete Street tends to have car travel lanes, sidewalks, and bus stops/seating. In a suburban context, a Complete Street tends to have car travel lanes, in-street bike lanes, sidewalks, and bus cspull-out lanes. In other words, Complete Streets is not a one-size-fits-all concept.

Do you support complete streets in general (not specific to Gainesville region)?

Complete Streets should be the default design, based on context, for all new and modified streets in the US. Doing so promotes travel choice, fairness, equity, sustainability, public health, affordability, civic pride, economic health, and public safety. Only when special studies determine that a Complete Street is not justified should an incomplete street be built. Note that the reverse is the case for nearly all American communities for the past century. That is, special studies are needed to determine that a Complete Street is justified and should be built.

What can you tell me about Gainesville’s transportation policies?

I was the lead planner and author of Gainesville’s long-range transportation plan that was adopted as part of the City’s Year 2000 Comprehensive Plan (the “Transportation Mobility” Element of the Plan). I am nearly certain that nearly all of the policies in the Year 2000 plan, as well as Gainesville’s overall traffic engineering, MTPO, City Commission, and other transportation-related goals, objectives and policies remain essentially the same today as they were in 2000 and when I left in October 2007. Those policies – many (most?) of which I was not personally or professionally supportive of – sought to promote free-flowing car traffic, convenience and low cost for traveling and parking by car, implicitly calls for the allocation of nearly all public transportation revenue to car-supportive infrastructure, promotes dispersal of development (i.e., suburban sprawl), calls for a level of service for cars that is too high, and calls for land use densities that were low enough to be conducive to convenient and free-flowing car travel.

For decades, the City has adopted Comprehensive Plan goals, objectives and policies that promote bicycling, walking, and transit use. However, these bicycling, walking, and transit policies have not been effective in promoting transportation choice (i.e., meaningfully higher levels of bicycling, walking, and transit) because the policies promoting car travel that I noted earlier have resulted in a significant suppression in bicycling, walking, and transit travel (due to inconvenience, high cost, and danger that the previously noted policies create for bicycling, walking, and transit). An important flaw in Gainesville’s transportation plans is that car mobility continues to be emphasized, rather than transportation accessibility, and car mobility is a zero-sum game. That is, the more the City promotes car mobility (via wider and wider free-flowing streets and abundant/free car parking), the less conducive the city becomes for bicycling, walking, and transit. Unfortunately, Gainesville continues to believe that transportation is a win-win situation, and I firmly disagree with that view.

Does the city council have complete streets goals in its comprehensive plan?

Gainesville did not have goals, objectives or policies in its comprehensive plan that explicitly called for Complete Streets as of October 2007 when I left the city. However, the year 2000 Comprehensive Plan implicitly called for Complete Streets in a great many goals, objectives and policies. I am sure this is also the case in the more recently adopted Comprehensive Plan. This is not to say that the existing goals, objectives and policies are adequately calling for Complete Streets. It is certain that the existing goals, objectives and policies can be revised to more clearly direct the City to create Complete Streets in the future.

Do you think that Gainesville’s current policies would accommodate complete streets or would there need to be extensive revisions?

As I noted above, Gainesville – like nearly all cities – has transportation policies that at least implicitly promote Complete Streets. But like most cities, those policies could benefit from substantial re-wording to make them more effective in achieving Complete Streets. Examples: (1) The policies could call for a substantial shift in public revenue allocation so that significantly more public transportation dollars are allocated to bicycling, walking, and transit. And substantially less allocation of dollars to car travel promotion (including revisions to the Capital Improvements Program Element); (2) The policies could call for a seamless integration of the Complete Streets policies with those found in the design manuals, implementation policies, bicycling and transit, construction/rehab/resurfacing checklists, and procedures used, for example, by the City and County Public Works/Traffic Engineering Departments, the MTPO policies, the FDOT, the City and County Offices of Management and Budgeting, the City and County Fire Departments, and the City and County Housing Departments; (3) The policies could include Complete Streets “performance measures” so that the City would know – quantitatively – whether it was making progress in achieving more complete streets over time; (4) The policies could call for opportunistically adding complete streets elements to streets which are undergoing modifications for such things as stormwater or restriping; and (5) Revising the scoring and prioritizing of City transportation projects so that walking, bicycling and transit score higher.

How could we implement complete streets into those streets which have already been developed without accounting for all users?

There are a number of tactics, depending on the street. For example, space for sidewalks or bike lanes can be created by narrowing travel or turn lanes (when restriping, for example), or removing turn lanes. Transit facilities can usually be retrofitted without any need for additional street right-of-way. Many streets have an excessive number of turn or travel lanes, and new space can be found on such streets by removing such excessive lanes. The “road diet” on Gainesville’s Main Street is an example of a tactic that can be used on a great many streets in Gainesville.

How do you think that Gainesville’s complete streets could be funded?

The point we often make at the Complete Streets workshops we conduct throughout the nation is that more complete streets can be achieved without any increase in revenue to the community. Many complete streets designs can be achieved in a cost-free manner (a restriping project could include bike lanes, for example). A community could also re-allocate its transportation dollars so that a higher percentage of such dollars are allocated to bicycling, walking or transit. Funding for a single purpose could be used for multiple purposes (stormwater funding might also be used to install a sidewalk, for example). If these approaches are not sufficient, there are many federal, state and local funding programs that can be tapped for complete streets design.

Do you think that investing in complete streets now would save transportation related costs in the future?

Absolutely. When done right, more durable methods and materials are used for street modification projects. When complete streets elements are included in the initial construction of the street modification project, both this and the more durable methods and materials reduce the need for – and cost of — retrofitting. There is a growing consensus that due to demographic, energy and other inevitable changes, Gainesville will see a shrinking number of motorists and a growing number of bicyclists, pedestrians, and transit users. By taking that into account with a Complete Streets program now, Gainesville will save substantial infrastructure costs that would otherwise be needed in the future to accommodate this new composition of travelers. Because it is inevitable that larger percentages of Gainesville travelers will be bicyclists, pedestrians and transit users, it is much less costly to acquire needed materials and right-of-way for such travelers now, rather than in the future, when such costs will be much higher.

How do you think that complete streets, if developed properly, would change the Gainesville community?

If Gainesville successfully creates a comprehensive set of policies, procedures, complete streets infrastructure, and the nine essential elements I list below, Gainesville would see a substantial increase in bicycling, walking and transit use. It would become more healthy, would see medical expenses go down, would see its taxes increase less rapidly, would see local government expenses drop substantially, would see more civic pride, would enjoy more “social capital,” would see less suburban sprawl, would see a more revitalized town center, would have cleaner air and water, would have healthier wildlife ecosystems, would have more affordable housing, would have less crime, would have less travel injuries and deaths, would have healthier locally-owned retail, would have better high-quality job growth, would have reduced noise pollution, would have less visual blight, and would have more stable property values.

Do you feel that Complete Streets policies would be beneficial and/or feasible to the Gainesville community? Why or why not?

Yes, for the reasons I list in a number of other answers I provide above and below. The most important obstacle to achieving the beneficial aspects of Complete Streets policy, as I point out below, is achieving sufficient will to do so. Political, citizen and staff will.

Summary

 In sum, while I believe that Gainesville would need (and benefit from) a substantial revision in its long-range plan goals, objectives and policies, its design manuals, its departmental procedures, and its funding formulas to better promote Complete Streets, doing so will also require substantial changes in other areas if Gainesville is to successfully create a successful Complete Streets program, as well as substantially shifting a large number of car trips to walking, bicycling and transit.

First and foremost, I do not believe that Gainesville has the political will, the staff will, or the citizen will to create complete streets and an overall environment rich in transportation choice. Like nearly all cities, Gainesville has had goals, objectives and policies that are quite supportive of complete streets. But such overwhelming support, on paper, is little more than paying lip service to complete streets and transportation choice – unless other essential elements are achieved. The main obstacles that will remain, even if Gainesville adopts high-quality Complete Streets policies, include:

  • An almost complete lack in political, citizen or staff will to create complete streets and transportation choice.
  • An excessive provision of free (and underpriced) car parking throughout the Gainesville urban area.
  • Excessively wide streets throughout the Gainesville urban area. In general, streets wider than three lanes in the Traditional City town center and five lanes in suburban areas is excessive. Overly wide roads in Gainesville lead to even larger intersections, which are deadly to people walking and bicycling.
  • A gas tax which is too low.
  • An extremely dispersed, sprawling city geographic spread. A city that is over fifty five square miles in size (as well as the unincorporated urban area) creates distances that are far too excessive for regular travel by walking, bicycling or transit.
  • A lack of tolling (pricing) of roads in Gainesville.
  • A lack of a mixing of homes with offices, retail, civic, cultural, and job land uses.
  • A lack of sufficiently high residential densities in appropriate locations.
  • A lack of a parking cash-out program that provides financial (or other) incentives for commuting to work without a car.

Without achieving the nine items I mention above, even adopting the best Complete Streets policies will do very little to achieve Complete Streets or transportation choice in Gainesville. Furthermore, even if the City did create a citywide street infrastructure that provided complete streets comprehensively (all streets had sidewalks, were bike-friendly, and were transit-friendly), only a small shift in car travel to walking, bicycling or transit would occur because of the above nine items. As a friend and colleague has pointed out, meaningfully increasing the number of pedestrians, bicyclists or transit users is not about creating new bike lanes, sidewalks or transit facilities.

It is about taking away space, speed and subsidies that motorists now enjoy.

 

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Filed under Bicycling, Road Diet, Transportation, Urban Design, Walking

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