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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At 5:23 PM, Anonymous Zoltani said...

I agree that the bfore and after photos on the complete streets website is terrible. First, it puts the cyclist in the dreaded "door-zone", secondly it doesn't really change the street at all, it simply adds some eye-catching features so the planners can pat themselves on the back.

In my opinion complete streets means creating shared space for all users. Just see this example:

Of course the cyclists in this city will cry over many of the ideas presented in the video (such as buses and bikes sharing the same lane, the sidewalk being divided into ped and cyclist space, and the "wrong-way" bike lanes), but I think it is a move in the right direction.

At 10:40 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The assertion in this posting that cyclist pay negligible user fees of the roads they ride on is incorrect. They pay the same taxes as everyone else on the road. In fact, they are more likely to be local to the city of the roads they are using and thereby could conceivably be considered to proportionally pay more for those specific roads than the people in cars.

At 10:43 AM, OpenID yotung said...

Uh, I agree, it makes sense to have all users of the road pay registration fees. Though the assumption that drivers pay all the costs of road construction and maintenance and cyclists are freeloaders is incorrect, as gas taxes and registration fees come nowhere close to covering the cost of roadway budgets. The rest of it comes from other sources of revenue that everyone pays a share of, so cyclists, just like pedestrians and transit users, have a right to adequate and safe infrastructure. The amount is debatable, I suppose, but providing 1% of the transportation budget to cycling infrastructure just because only 1% of trips are made by bicycle currently does not makes sense. If you suddenly cut transit service in half such that it no longer served users well, then you would lose way more than half your riders, and you'd be left only with those people who had no other choice and die-hard transit-lovers. That is pretty much the situation cyclists are in right now, I feel. There is a miniscule budget that is insufficient to provide even a bare minimum of consideration for cyclists, and so only really committed cyclists make the choice to ride on roads that for most people feel truly unsafe.

If cyclists are registered, then cyclists need to get some respect and be provided with dedicated funding and dedicated road space.

The bang for the buck investing in cycling infrastructure is potentially very large. You have said that cycling is for primarily for children and not a serious mode of transport. Yet in the Netherlands, they have a national trip-share for cycling of about 27%. This is nationally, big cities, small towns, everything. Amsterdam has a trip share of 37%. The Netherlands achieves this by investing about 10% of their transportation budgets in cycling infrastructure. 10% to serve a quarter of all trips. Sounds pretty sensible to me.

Okay, sure, that's Europe. But so what. People are people. The only difference is cultural assumptions. Why should these not change over time? Why does an American have an inherent need to drive when people elsewhere don't? These northern European countries also have almost universal car ownership, (Germany, I mean, come on, they LOVE their cars), but they all manage to accommodate cars AND cycling as viable transportation alternatives.

At 11:10 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your framing is fucking ridiculous, Rob.


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