Completing Our Streets: The Transition to Safe and Inclusive Transportation Networksby Barbara McCann
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Across the country, communities are embracing a new and safer way to build streets for everyone—even as they struggle to change decades of rules, practice, and politics that prioritize cars. They have discovered that changing the design of a single street is not enough: they must upend the way transportation agencies operate. Completing Our Streets begins with the story of how the complete streets movement united bicycle riders, transportation practitioners and agencies, public health leaders, older Americans, and smart growth advocates to dramatically re-frame the discussion of transportation safety. Next, it explores why the transportation field has been so resistant to change—and how the movement has broken through to create a new multi-modal approach.
In Completing Our Streets, Barbara McCann, founder of the National Complete Streets Coalition, explains that the movement is not about street design. Instead, practitioners and activists have changed the way projects are built by focusing on three strategies: reframe the conversation; build a broad base of political support; and provide a clear path to a multi-modal process. McCann shares stories of practitioners in cities and towns from Charlotte, North Carolina to Colorado Springs, Colorado who have embraced these strategies to fundamentally change the way transportation projects are chosen, planned, and built.
The complete streets movement is based around a simple idea: streets should be safe for people of all ages and abilities, whether they are walking, driving, bicycling, or taking the bus. Completing Our Streets gives practitioners and activists the strategies, tools, and inspiration needed to translate this idea into real and lasting change in their communities.
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Completing Our Streets
The Transition to Safe and Inclusive Transportation Networks
By Barbara McCann
ISLAND PRESSCopyright © 2013 Barbara McCann
All rights reserved.
Why We Build Incomplete Streets
THE FUNDAMENTAL PHILOSOPHY behind the Complete Streets movement can seem painfully obvious: roads should be safe for everyone traveling along them. But the history, political standing, habits, and orientation of the transportation industry in the United States have made it extraordinarily difficult for any policy movement to shift the way transportation projects are planned and built.
The United States is still living with the reverberations of the engineering triumph of the interstate highway system—a network of forty-seven thousand miles of limited-access freeways that knit the country together in the 1950s and 1960s. Solving the design and safety challenges in creating this network set an orientation that persists to this day in US transportation planning, construction, and management.
That orientation is focused on solving problems by building roads that expanded the capacity for automobile travel. The interstate era did begin with a policy, the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956. But the policy was driven by a project-focused vision: build a freeway network. The policy simply lined up all the systems to do so.
One of the first ways it did this was to turn this massive project over to the experts at the state departments of transportation (DOTs), and ever since, state highway departments have wielded considerable influence in Washington, DC, as well as in their own state capitals and small towns. They gained credibility with the spectacular success of the interstates they were building—and with the commonly held view that road building is a technical pursuit, best left to engineers. When engineers talk about how to relieve congestion and improve safety, elected officials still defer to their judgment. Their political independence has also been assured by how much money they control. At the federal level and in most states, gas taxes are dedicated to transportation, so the agencies have been insulated from the annual budgetary push and pull in the state legislature. The steady funding stream has also meant state and local departments could make a big difference in elected officials' districts, by filling potholes and delivering favored road projects. Road construction companies sometimes enjoy cozy relationships with agency leaders and top politicians. State agencies also tend to exert outsized influence on the politically fractured Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPOs) that help decide how federal transportation dollars will be spent in urban areas.
Transportation industry leaders grew used to steady support from politicians for the clearly stated mission of tackling pavement maintenance, traffic congestion, and motorist safety. For decades, politicians' most predictable role was participation in the annual ritual affirming the release of the Texas Transportation Institute's congestion rankings, particularly its calculation of the billions of dollars purportedly lost by Americans sitting in traffic. The politicians usually made vows to keep building roads to solve the problem.
The Modal Divide
Another factor at work is the habit of building projects that are specific to a single method of travel. The transportation sector regards each mode as a separate entity, requiring separate programming, funding, and facilities. Administrative structures and funding are almost always divided by mode. The federal structure in place today is a case in point and influences the organization of the state and local agencies that receive its money. The US Department of Transportation is largely defined by the separate modal agencies that were brought under its umbrella in 1967, including the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and Federal Transit Administration. They receive separate funding allocations and have separate policies—and are even under the jurisdiction of separate Senate committees. The nonmotorized modes—bicycling and walking—have not been important enough to rate their own administration or funding stream, but they maintain a clearly separate identity. The FHWA houses a small Bicycle/Pedestrian Program, and designated bicycle/pedestrian coordinator positions are required in each state DOT.
Follow the money, and you'll find a long history of clearly separated federal funding streams for highways, transit, and other uses. Until recently, almost all federal surface transportation dollars came from the gas tax, with revenues growing right alongside the steady increase in the amount of driving. Highway proponents fought any "diversion" of these Highway Trust Fund revenues for uses that did not directly benefit motorists. And the "highway" money is structured in a way that ensures that investments focus on moving cars. In order to access federal dollars, every jurisdiction in the country must classify its roads by the "functional classification" system, which defines roads solely by the amount and type of traffic they carry and divides them into arterial (major) streets, collector streets, or local streets. This system sets up rigid expectations about how high a "Level of Service" should be provided on different road types—with high service defined as fast, free-flowing traffic. This requirement has proven a barrier to places that would like to more finely tune their road network to serve public transportation, nonmotorized users, and the residences and businesses alongside the road.
After gas tax revenues soared in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, Congress made a policy change and transit began receiving about 20 percent of these funds starting in the 1980s. Transit dollars pay for buses and rail infrastructure (and a little bit for operations). Cities and advocates began to push for an even more diverse transportation infrastructure, and the federal transportation law passed in 1991 brought a measure of reform; its name was, after all, the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (commonly known as ISTEA, pronounced "iced tea"). Projects that served other needs were allowed access to the ever-growing pie of Highway Trust Fund revenues, although on a modest scale. Among other changes, the authorization set aside funding for projects that could help improve air quality, as well as a small set-aside for "Transportation Enhancements," with about half of those funds spent on bicycle or pedestrian projects.
But while ISTEA made changes to transportation funding that allowed a more multimodal approach, it didn't require any change in the systems created to deliver new roads or to maintain old ones. Most states were able to add new programs without disturbing decades of tradition and practice that treated highways, public transit, and nonmotorized transportation as entirely separate programs. The bill was reauthorized twice more under the same basic recipe: a bigger pie, but with the same flavor. The short-term bill passed in 2012, called MAP-21, also did little to challenge the separation of modes.
The extent of this separation can be seen in the varied funding programs that are brought together to finance a single transportation project. A state-administered highway interchange can use one funding source and ignore the presence of people on foot. A city may need to cobble together several funding sources to build one multimodal boulevard. The separation also occurs at the state and local levels. A jurisdiction may use bond measures for capital projects to increase automobile capacity; sales taxes, to fund public transportation; and special state funding programs dedicated to bicycle or pedestrian facilities. In many communities, sidewalk construction and maintenance is paid for by the owner of the abutting property.
The system of "silos" for transportation funding makes some sense when the modes are airplanes or ships or when the facilities are freight rail or roads. But modal separation breaks down when it comes to bikes, feet, personal automobiles, and public transportation. People cannot be categorized neatly as cyclists, pedestrians, drivers, and transit users. Most people use more than one way to get around—even if the pedestrian portion of the trip is only a walk across a parking lot. In many cases, people switch from one mode to another midtrip, or use different modes in the course of a day. All four of these modes are part of a single network that allows people to meet daily personal transportation needs. Bicycling and walking serve as the "capillaries" of the transportation system, the small but essential connectors for trips that include driving or taking transit.
Transportation planning within modal silos has produced quite a number of spectacularly incomplete streets, particularly in suburban areas developed alongside the interstate system. Bicycle and pedestrian safety problems seem impossible to solve, because everyone assumes the solution is to find funding and space to build a separate multiuse path. The silos even extend to the type of pedestrian, as agencies trying to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act install "curb ramps to nowhere" with no immediate plans to connect them with sidewalks.
These divisions reflect a system driven by projects and not policy. One of my colleagues used to refer to the federal transportation bill as a "policy free zone," designed to distribute road money to the states and little more. Reformers have tried again and again to pass policies to expand the universe of issues considered in transportation planning, but the system has proved surprisingly resistant to change: all the money and all the systems are geared toward putting road projects on the ground.
The public health community provides a model that crystalizes the problem and provides a road map to change. The Policy-Systems-Environmental (PSE) change model is now promoted by public health practitioners, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as central to their fight against the obesity epidemic. Under this model, lasting change in eating and activity patterns do not come about through the traditional campaigns aimed at changing individual behavior. Instead, they come about by changing the policies that influence the systems that create the environments that influence whether people eat well and are active.
While the "PSE" theory posits that policies are the critical first phase in any change, transportation has had it upside down: the engine behind the industry starts with the environment, with road projects. The projects have driven the creation of systems for project delivery, and until recently, the policies have been no more than tweaks to help this project-driven system run better.
This is one primary reason why change has come so hard to the transportation sector: policies simply have not driven the process.
Systems Designed for Mono-Modalism
With a clear project-driven mission, the surface transportation industry spent decades creating the systems that would help them deliver smooth, uncongested roads—and keep the ever-growing volume of traffic moving. These systems have turned out to be a major barrier to creating a multimodal transportation network. Yet, since they are part of the inner workings of agencies, they have been largely out of the sight and reach of policy makers.
While these systems are numerous, a couple deserve elaboration. The most ubiquitous revolves around a tool used for measuring the success of transportation projects: automobile Level of Service (LOS). LOS calculates volume-to-capacity ratios for corridors and intersections and assigns a value-laden "A to F" score, with "A" meaning free-flowing traffic, and "F," a total backup. Many communities have made it a matter of policy or even statute to keep LOS from going below "C" or "D" at intersections, even at peak travel times. New transportation projects and new developments often have to predict and mitigate their impact on Level of Service. But by calculating only automobile delay at peak travel times, LOS has meant that commuter car trips are favored over every other potential use of a roadway. It is often the onlymethod used to rank and make decisions about projects—and it assumes that a community's primary goal is to minimize automobile delay. This gets in the way of providing more space for transit, allowing more compact development, or even letting people have enough time to walk across the street.
The most frequently cited system that stands in the way of complete streets is the heavy reliance on uniform road construction standards codified into design manuals. Under this traditional approach to transportation planning, the design manual is the be-all and end-all when it comes to making transportation decisions. The national design guide, issued by the Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO), is such a force that it simply goes by the (now somewhat ironic) name "The Green Book." Many states use its most conservative provisions as the basis for their own, formally adopted design standards. In many agencies, engineers follow the manuals scrupulously, using their state highway design manual and a suite of other manuals to look up specifications for every project.
Many an engineer worried about multimodal safety has pointed a finger at restrictive design standards. The engineers say their manuals won't allow the features needed to build roads that are safe for people on foot and bicycles, let alone do a better job of serving children, or older adults, or transit vehicles. And indeed, in many states, proponents of multimodal streets are constantly forced to seek "variances," or "design exceptions," to make space for transit patrons and people on foot or bicycle. This means they must exert a tremendous amount of effort for each project.
Systems inside the agencies are also built around a safety mission—but it, too, has had a narrow focus on preventing automobile crashes. Early safety studies were conducted in sparsely populated areas and concentrated on how to make the new, higher speeds of automobiles safer, mainly in the context of the new, controlled-access highways. They found that fewer crashes occurred on highways that were "forgiving" of driver error, so most guidance on safer streets recommended building roads with fewer things to crash into, with turns designed so they could be navigated at high speeds. As a result, the "design speed" of a roadway (for example, the highest safe speed to take a corner) would often be higher than the posted speed limit. And many jurisdictions have adopted policies that speed limits should be set according to the 85th percentile—the speed at which 85 percent of the drivers travel. These practices prioritized helping cars traveling at a high speed avoid crashes but did not address the effect of speed itself on anyone or anything they might crash into. And higher speeds lead to more serious injuries and fatalities. Pedestrians and bicyclists remain overrepresented in traffic fatalities, making up 15 percent of deaths in 2010 (injuries are not tracked on a national level).
If safety issues arise after a road is built to the standard specifications, a system of "warrants" guides many agencies in fixing them. This means they document crashes and use standardized thresholds for instituting safety measures when they become "warranted" by crash data. Planners and citizens committed to a vision for a multimodal future grind their teeth at agencies' insistence on counting crashes before so much as adding a crossing signal or redesigning a turn.
Even the academic institutions devoted to transportation research kept a narrow, project-oriented focus: for many years, research concentrated on seeking the best formula for hot-mix asphalt or creating quantitative models to predict and measure traffic volumes. For decades, traffic grew so steadily that the question was never whether it would grow but always where, and how much. Traffic models continued to assume that almost all trips would be by private automobile; data was not even collected on the number of people walking, riding bicycles, or taking transit. Little research explored how to manage travel demand by using a mix of modes or land use patterns. Despite the common wisdom of the popular phrase 'build it and they will come," studies confirming the phenomenon of "induced demand" remained outside of mainstream transportation thinking. This research challenges the effectiveness of relieving congestion with increased capacity, because it shows that new roads induce additional travel. Happily, transportation research has broadened considerably in the last fifteen years, but bringing new results to the attention of practitioners remains a slow process.
Excerpted from Completing Our Streets by Barbara McCann. Copyright © 2013 Barbara McCann. Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
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Meet the Author
Barbara McCann served as the founding Executive Director of the National Complete Streets Coalition, working with groups from AARP to the YMCA to develop and advance the adoption of policies to make streets safe for all users. More than 500 jurisdictions, including more than half the states, have now adopted Complete Streets policies. McCann co-created the Complete Streets Workshop program and speaks widely. In 2011 the NY/NJ Section of the Institute of Transportation Engineers recognized her with the 2011 Transportation Advancement Award, given annually to a non-engineer "for contributions in advancing transportation programs through outstanding leadership."
Barbara founded McCann Consulting in 2003 to work with government agencies, non-profits, and researchers, authoring numerous reports and articles on transportation, health, and land use. McCann is also a co-author of Sprawl Costs. Prior to establishing her own firm, McCann served as Director of Information and Research at Smart Growth America (SGA) where she authored the report Measuring the Health Effects of Sprawl, the first research report documenting the relationship between sprawl and obesity. She worked at CNN as a writer and producer for 13 years during her first career as a journalist.
She lives in Washington, DC with her husband Bob Bloomfield.
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