Thursday, March 26, 2009

Complete Streets

Complete Streets: latest scam to increase traffic congestion
By Randal O'Toole

Let’s face it: urban planners hate automobiles. They probably don’t hate their own car---many of them drive as much as anyone else. But they believe that Americans drive too much.

Their solution is to increase traffic congestion. But the question has always been, how do they sell that idea to a public that relies on cars for more than 80 percent of their travel? The answer is to come up with some fluffy phrase that sounds nice.

"Traffic calming" is one such term. Who could object to calm? Originally, traffic calming was applied to neighborhood streets. Then cities like Portland proposed to do "arterial traffic calming." This meant converting, say, a four-lane street into a two- or three-lane street with bike lanes and wider sidewalks.

Unfortunately for the planners, this did not prove to be too popular with auto drivers, who strongly objected to the increased congestion that resulted from it. So some planners started to use the term "boulevarding." But that was confusing because lots of streets were named “boulevard.”

Another term that has been used is "road diets." But that one didn’t take off either.

The latest term is "complete streets." As near as I can tell, it means exactly the same thing as arterial traffic calming, boulevarding, and road diets: converting either parking strips or traffic lanes to bike lanes and sidewalks.

The current goal is to get cities and states to pass complete streets laws and ordinances. If it is a state law, the local planners can blame it on the state when they take your lanes away. “Sorry, we have no choice: the legislature is making us do it.”

You have to wonder if the elected officials approving these laws really know what the term “complete streets” means. Would they approve them if they were called “gridlocked streets laws”?

“The state legislature passed a gridlocked streets law today, requiring every city in the state to gridlock their streets. ‘This new law will force anyone who dares to drive a pollutomobile to sit in traffic and watch as all three cyclists in their town ride by,’ said Senator Snort, who would probably die of a heart attack if he ever had to ride a bicycle. Governor Dunderhead was expected to sign the law after taking a limousine ride from the governor’s mansion to the capital.”

Even in supposedly bicycle-intensive Portland, no more than 3.5 percent of commuters cycle to work---supposedly the national record. Why should a high percentage of roads (effectively 25 percent of four lanes are cut to three) be dedicated to less than 3.5 percent of travelers? And why should cyclists---who pay negligible user fees for the roads they cycle on---expect someone else to pay for their transportation facilities?

As a cyclist, I certainly appreciate it when street and highway departments provide an adequate shoulder for me to ride on. The “before” photo on the complete streets home page looks fine ( But take a look at the “after” picture: when they add a bike lane, they also narrow the street at intersections by putting in curb extensions.

The idea of a bike lane is to prevent cyclists from being hit from behind. Yet this is a very unusual occurrence, representing only about 4 percent of auto-bike accidents. The majority of auto-cycling accidents take place at intersections. Narrowing the intersections makes such accidents far more likely.

Of course, planners don’t care about making streets safe. What they care about is image. If a cyclist gets hit by a car on a street that has been traffic calmed, it is the fault of the evil automobile. If an automobile gets hit by a light-rail train, it is the fault of the evil automobile. See? It’s all about image, and since planners have given the auto a bad image, they can blame it for everything bad that happens.

What should be done instead? How about removing the “traffic calming” obstructions that hinder bicycles as much if not more than cars; encouraging transit agencies to buy smaller and narrower buses that can co-exist with bicycles; and---parallel to especially busy streets---designating some side streets for bicycles, removing stop signs and other obstructions that slow down cycle commuters. Low-cost practices such as these can make cities more bicycle and pedestrian friendly without making them auto hostile---which is exactly why many planners won’t do them.

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