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A Bill to Make American Streets Safer Surfaces in the Senate

Has the moment finally arrived for a national complete streets law?

Guadalupe Street in Austin, Texas. Photo:

Guadalupe Street in Austin, Texas. Photo: City of Austin Public Works Department/Flickr

A bill creating incentives for transportation agencies to design safe streets for everyone — pedestrians and cyclists in addition to motorists — is back on the floor of Congress this week. Senators Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) and Mark Begich (D-Alaska) are sponsoring the Safe Streets Act of 2014, which would require all states to develop complete streets policies for federally funded roads within two years. A companion piece of legislation was introduced in the House of Representatives last year.

Exemptions would be allowed, with special approval, on limited access highways, in very rural areas, or if the agency could demonstrate the cost was “excessively disproportionate” to the anticipated bike or pedestrian traffic.

In the last 10 years, 47,000 pedestrians have been killed on American roadways, thanks in part to street designs that make walking dangerous. Two-thirds of pedestrian deaths occur on federally funded roads, according to Senators Schatz and Begich.

“Our legislation provides commonsense solutions to consider the needs of our seniors and children, encourage alternative forms of transportation, and make our roads and communities safer for everyone,” said Schatz.

Groups including the National Association of Realtors, Smart Growth America, and AARP cheered the bill’s introduction.

“Safe mobility options … are essential to the independence and well-being of mid-life and older Americans,” said Joyce Rogers, senior vice president of government affairs at AARP, in a press release. “Fully one-fifth of persons age 65 and above does not drive. Yet almost half of respondents to an AARP survey of persons age 50 and above said they cannot safely cross the main roads in their neighborhoods. “

Schatz and Begich are seeking additional sponsors. The full text of the bill is not yet online.

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CB 5 Votes Unanimously for DOT Study of Fifth and Sixth Avenue Redesign

Sixth Avenue in Midtown. Photo: Google Maps

After a unanimous vote by its transportation committee last month, Manhattan Community Board 5 voted unanimously last night for DOT to study a complete streets redesign of Fifth and Sixth Avenues to better accommodate pedestrians, cyclists, and transit riders on two of the busiest avenues in Midtown.

The resolution asks NYPD “to more stringently enforce automobile and bicycle laws” while also requesting a study from DOT “of the merits and feasibility of re-designs of Fifth and Sixth Avenues.” The resolution was amended at last night’s meeting to ask DOT to take the needs of food cart vendors into account with any design it may propose.

Ilona Kramer, chief of staff to Council Member Dan Garodnick, told the board last night that due to redistricting, starting next year Garodnick will represent a large portion of CB 5. Kramer said Garodnick, who has expressed support for a safety study of Fifth and Sixth Avenues, was aware that the board had a resolution about the issue on its agenda last night.

Transportation Alternatives volunteers had collected 10,000 petition signatures and 1,500 handwritten letters, which were delivered to the board last night. “Ten thousand signatures is not insignificant,” said Raju Mann, CB 5′s transportation committee chair, who spoke in favor of the resolution.

In addition, 59 businesses have signed on in support of a complete street redesign. Volunteer Janet Liff said the owner of a Jamba Juice told her: ”Complete streets? Pedestrians love those. And whatever’s good for pedestrians is good for business.”

Eight people spoke in favor of the resolution, and only one, who called for a ban on bicycles on Fifth Avenue at last month’s committee meeting, spoke against it. Attorney Steve Vaccaro, who attended last night’s meeting, praised CB 5′s “no drama, no hate” approach to the issue, which stands in stark contrast with some other community board meetings on street redesign requests.

A redesign of Fifth and Sixth Avenues would also include portions of Community Boards 2 and 4, which are likely to take up the issue in the new year.

Thanks to Steve Vaccaro and Albert Ahronheim for notes from last night’s meeting.

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CB 5 Closes in on Requesting Complete Streets Study for 5th and 6th Avenues

Fifth Avenue at 48th Street: Lots of space for cars; bike riders and walkers on the margins. Photo: Google Maps

Fifth Avenue at 48th Street: Lots of space for cars, with people walking and biking on the margins. Photo: Google Maps

The campaign for a more bike- and pedestrian-friendly design on crowded Fifth and Sixth Avenues has crossed its first major milestone, with Community Board 5′s transportation committee advancing a resolution asking DOT for a complete streets study.

The resolution, which passed the committee last Monday in a unanimous vote, is set to be taken up by the full board on December 12. “It’s just acknowledging that there’s a problem and that they need to be studied,” said Transportation Alternatives volunteer Janet Liff. “The proposal is really to take a look at the concept of a complete street, which includes pedestrian space, bulb outs, bike lanes, and express bus service.”

TA’s campaign for to make Fifth and Sixth Avenues safer is “emphasizing that pedestrians do come first,” Liff said. Committee chair Raju Mann also told Streetsblog that discussion of the resolution last month focused primarily on pedestrians.

Even with scarce accommodations for bicycling, Fifth and Sixth Avenues continue to rank among the busiest Manhattan avenues for cyclists. Over an 18-hour period in September 2012, DOT counted more than 5,000 people biking on the pair of avenues, exceeding every other northbound/southbound pair in Manhattan, though Eighth and Ninth Avenues, which have protected bike lanes, sometimes do see more bicycle traffic [PDF].

When activist group Right of Way painted guerrilla bike lanes on Sixth Avenue in September, DOT spokesperson Seth Solomonow said the agency would consider street design requests from the local community board. Monday’s vote puts CB 5 closer to making that request happen.

Short stretches of Fifth and Sixth Avenue are also part of Community Boards 2 and 4. Caroline Samponaro, TA’s senior director of campaigns and organizing, said approaching those boards would be a “next step” after securing support from CB 5. In addition to a coalition letter signed by block associations, commercial landlords, and small businesses, TA’s online petition for the complete streets study has garnered more than 10,000 signatures. “People are aware that on just two avenues in each direction there are these improvements,” she said. “They’re asking: ‘What about us?’”

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Discussion of Complete Streets for Fifth and Sixth Avenues Advances at CB 5

Sixth Avenue in Midtown: six lanes for motor vehicles, with pedestrians and cyclists squeezed into the margins. Photo: Google Maps

The sidewalks of Fifth and Sixth Avenues in Midtown are packed — sometimes overflowing — and the streets see some of the highest bike volumes in the city. While this should be one of the world’s premier walking districts, both avenues are designed primarily to move motor vehicles, and injury and fatality rates are high. Since last summer, Transportation Alternatives has led a campaign to improve conditions for walking and biking on Fifth and Sixth.

At the monthly meeting of the Manhattan Community Board 5 transportation committee this Monday, safety enhancements for these two avenues were on the agenda. TA organizer Miller Nuttle sends in this recap:

Community Board 5′s transportation committee discussed the merits of two potential resolutions: One calling on NYPD to step up enforcement of driving and bicycling infractions in their district, and one asking the DOT to study the feasibility of installing “Complete Street” improvements on Fifth and Sixth avenues.

There was near unanimous support among board members for a study of these two avenues, and the committee plans to vote on the resolution at their next meeting. Inspired by a similar proposal put forward by CB 5 two years ago, T.A. has worked with neighborhood residents to collect 10,093 petitions and 1,599 hand-written letters calling for street safety improvements on these avenues. Last night, those residents delivered those petitions to the board to demonstrate the widespread demand for safer, more efficient Fifth and Sixth avenues.
The next CB 5 transportation committee meeting is scheduled for November 25.
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500+ Complete Streets Policies in Place, But Not the Most Important One

Complete streets invite people out of their cars by giving room to people on foot and on bike. Image: BikeStyle

This week, complete streets advocates came together in Washington, DC, to celebrate the passage of the 500th complete streets policy. That happened in Memphis more than seven months ago, but perhaps the delay in marking the occasion was fortuitous: There are now at least 25 more policies to celebrate.

Each of these policies is really just the beginning of a process of making change in how streets are designed. Those policies need to be implemented, and the idea of accommodating all street users — cyclists, transit riders, pedestrians, people in wheelchairs, children — needs to become second nature to city planners and engineers. Still, the beginning of 525 processes signals a true shift away from road design that’s exclusively for automobiles.

Complete streets policies have passed in 29 states (including the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico), 45 metropolitan planning organizations, 39 counties and 412 cities. That’s pretty good for a movement that started off eight years ago with a goal of policies in five states and 25 communities. Back then, the rallying cry was for “routine accommodation” of multiple transportation modes. Most people can agree that “complete streets” rolls off the tongue a little better.

Kyle Wagenschutz, Memphis’ bike-ped coordinator, can testify to the power of designing streets for everyone, even people who aren’t in cars. Broad Avenue in Memphis underwent a transformation in 2010 that was supposed to be temporary — a pop-up neighborhood revitalization under the banner “A New Face for an Old Broad” — but the street calming, bike lanes, public street furniture and sidewalk vendors were too good to take down. Since then, 25 new businesses have opened there and Broad Avenue has become one of the city’s most vibrant commercial areas.

That happened before the complete streets policy passed. It helped prove to the city the power of street design that encourages people to get out of their cars and bring a street back to life.

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Meet Streetmix, the Website Where You Can Design Your Own Street

Streetmix lets users mix and match design elements to create the street of their dreams. Image: Streetmix

Last fall, Lou Huang was at a community meeting for the initiative to redesign Second Street in San Francisco. Planners handed out paper cutouts, allowing participants to mix and match to create their ideal street. Huang, an urban designer himself, thought the exercise would make for a great website. Now, after months of work beginning at a January hackathon with colleagues at Code for America, it is a great website.

The principle behind Streetmix is simple: it brings drag-and-drop functionality to a basic street design template. Users select a road width and add or remove everything from light rail to wayfinding signs, adjusting the size of each feature meet their specifications.

“It’s a little bit like a video game,” collaborator Marcin Wichary said. ”We were very inspired by SimCity.”

But Streetmix is more than just a fun way for amateur street designers to spend an afternoon. “What we want to focus on is, how can this enable meaningful conversations around streets?” Wichary said. “For many people it’s a kind of entry point.”

The first version of Streetmix went online in January, but the latest version, which has new features and a slicker design, launched less than two weeks ago. In that short time, advocates have used the website to illustrate possibilities for Dexter Avenue in Seattle and Route 35 on the Jersey Shore. Streetmix has profiled how people from Vancouver to Cleveland use the website. Residents of Sioux Center, Iowa, even used Streetmix illustrations in their campaign to stop the state DOT’s road widening plan in their town.

“It’s giving power back to the people, allowing them to vocalize what their streetscape priorities are,” Huang said.

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Passing a Law Is the Easy Part: The Challenge of Building Complete Streets

If Ontario Street in Cleveland, Ohio, is any indication, a complete streets policy is no guarantee you’ll get a safe place to ride a bike, or even a comfortable place to walk.

Now that Cleveland has a complete streets policy, the city is taking this eight lane road and ... drum roll ... adding sharrows. Image: Rust Wire

Ontario is one of those roads designed to simply funnel traffic to and from a highway — and in fact there’s not much to distinguish the street from a highway. It’s eight lanes wide and devoid of landscaping, or any obstacles to fast driving, really. The most tragic part is, it’s right in front of where the Indians play, Progressive Field, which was sold to taxpayers as a way to enliven the city.

This road just came up for resurfacing, and with the city’s complete streets policy, now two years old, it seemed like an ideal time to correct this mistake. Instead, Cleveland’s traffic engineering department punted, leaving the road basically as is but adding shared lane bike stencils, or sharrows. (Actual bike lanes would compromise the street’s ability to accommodate cars during rush hour, you see.)

And there you have it. A complete streets policy should be a fabulous thing that elevates safety, the economy, and social equity in cities, but it can also amount to nothing more than a few new rules that are easily ducked if officials don’t want to follow the spirit of the law.

Some 500 communities and states across the United States now have complete streets policies, so the good work of enacting these laws is well underway. Implementation is the next frontier.

And it’s not easy, especially in communities like Cleveland where these ideas still feel new. But some cities are doing a better job than others, says Stefanie Seskin at the National Complete Streets Coalition. Charlotte, for example, developed six key steps to implementation and appointed a committee to oversee the process. Seattle passed a special tax levy to help support safe streets improvements for active transportation. San Francisco, in its “Better Streets” guide, prioritizes pedestrian concerns.

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Bipartisan Bill Would Make Complete Streets the National Standard

Nearly 500 cities, states, and counties around the United States have enacted complete streets policies, according to Smart Growth America. Now a bipartisan team of lawmakers has introduced legislation to make it a matter of national policy that streets should be designed not only for driving, but for walking, biking, and transit as well.

Consideration of multiple modes would become a requirement for federal funds, under a new bill proposed this week. Image: Trailnet

Reps. Doris Matsui (D-CA) and David Joyce (R-OH) yesterday introduced the Safe Streets Act of 2013 [PDF], which would require states and regional planning agencies to develop complete streets policies for federally funded projects within two years.

“Too many of the roads in our country are designed solely with drivers in mind,” said Rep. Matsui in a press release. “The risks of such design are evident in the number of pedestrian and bicyclist deaths and injuries we see every year, and often discourage more people from considering other transportation methods.”

Co-sponsorship by Rep. Joyce, who replaced the famously bike- and transit-friendly Republican Congressman Steve LaTourette following his retirement early this year, seems like a promising sign that the new congressman will continue his predecessor’s legacy as a key GOP supporter of multi-modal transportation policy.

“I’m pleased to be part of the bipartisan effort to make our roadways safer, particularly for seniors and children,” Joyce said in a press release. “It’s important we take steps to improve safety in our communities and this bill is a step in the right direction.”

Smart Growth America applauded the introduction, saying it is “another sign that Congress is responding to the demands of the American public for travel options that are safe and convenient for all users of our transportation system.”

The bill was introduced with the support of a variety of advocacy groups, including the League of American Bicyclists, AARP, Transportation for America, Safe Routes to School, and the American Planning Association.

The law would exempt the type of roadways where pedestrians and cyclists are not allowed, such as freeways. It would also provide an exemption if compliance is “cost prohibitive” or if a project is in a rural area where “there is a clear lack of need for complete streets.”

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Upper West Side Residents Fed Up With CB 7 Inaction on Complete Streets

Last night, Manhattan Community Board 7′s transportation committee debated the merits of bringing protected bike lanes and pedestrian refuges to Columbus and Amsterdam Avenues between 59th and 110th Streets. This would be a big gain for the Upper West Side, which currently only has one mile of protected bike lane on Columbus Avenue. After years of debate and negotiation, residents are growing impatient with the committee’s indecisiveness on street redesigns that make walking and biking safer.

The existing Columbus Avenue bike lane runs from 77th to 97th streets. Photo: DOT

Supporters, who outnumbered opponents in last night’s audience, provided testimony that emphasized the safety benefits of the street redesigns. Resident Detta Ahl said that the protected bike lanes give her the confidence to ride her bike in the neighborhood. On the street, “I am in rough water, with sharks,” she said. “When I’m in the protected bike lane, I am in a pool, with a lane line, and a lifeguard.”

Willow Stelzer noted that pedestrians and drivers have benefited as well. “It’s not just about bicyclists,” she said. Since the refuge islands were installed on Columbus Avenue, she said, her mother feels safer crossing the street.

The committee chairs, Andrew Albert and Dan Zweig, faced tough criticism last night for the committee’s lack of movement on complete streets. “Leadership for the Upper West Side is lacking,” said Henry Rinehart. “We’re falling behind other neighborhoods.”

Mary Beth Kelly, whose husband was killed while riding his bike on the Hudson River Greenway at 38th Street, also expressed frustration with the slow pace. ”He’s been dead for six years and I’ve been showing up at these meetings,” she said. “You just want to sit and waste our time.”

“This committee has not been proactive to date about bike lanes,” said former board chair Mel Wymore, who currently sits on the transportation committee and is running for City Council. While noting that “community board members are volunteers,” Wymore said that “to request leadership from a community board is completely fair game.”

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DOT: New York City’s Complete Streets Are Built to Last

The New York City Department of Transportation is nurturing a culture of safer streets that it expects to outlast the administration of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, DOT policy director Jon Orcutt said at last Friday’s Regional Plan Association annual assembly.

Kent Avenue in Brooklyn, where DOT installed the city's first on-street, two-way protected bike lane in 2009. Photo: Ben Fried

Speaking at a panel on the politics of multi-modal streets, Orcutt described Bloomberg’s PlaNYC as a “mandate” not only to modernize city transportation policy, but to “reinvent the public realm.” Building on infrastructure improvements that came about prior to the era of Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan, including East River bridge bike paths and the west side Greenway, DOT’s physically separated bike paths and other more recent innovations have made cycling more accessible, Orcutt said, and have helped double the city-wide bike count over the last five years.

“One of the ideas here,” said Orcutt, “is you don’t have to be an endurance athlete or some kind of risk-taker to ride a bike around town.”

Fellow panelist and city traffic guru “Gridlock” Sam Schwartz recalled the now-infamous yarn of how Mayor Ed Koch ripped up protected bike lanes on Fifth and Sixth Avenues in 1980, following a spate of fatal cyclist-pedestrian collisions and a visit from President Jimmy Carter. As the story goes, Koch, Carter and Governor Hugh Carey were riding through Manhattan in Carter’s limo when Carey, in reference to the bike lanes, said to the president: “See how Ed is pissing away your money?” The lanes were removed a month after they were installed.

Schwartz cited the late 60s experiment that closed Central Park to cars from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., undone after Abe Beame’s wife got stuck in Manhattan traffic, and Rudy Giuliani’s Midtown pedestrian corrals, still in place today. To Schwartz, these are cautionary tales that point to the fluid nature of city transportation policy.

But Orcutt made a convincing case that the current effort has taken root. Last year’s media-fomented “bikelash” had the unintended effect of arousing public interest in bike lanes when many New Yorkers might otherwise have been indifferent, he said. When opinion polls consistently showed overwhelming support for bike infrastructure, said Orcutt, the negative stories disappeared. The anti-bike propaganda push, he said, “sowed the seeds of its own demise.”

As the city has added 200 miles of bike lanes, Orcutt said, communities are lining up to request public space improvements. With bike-share to launch this summer, some 10,000 sites were suggested for 600 stations. Pedestrian plazas are popular with business groups that understand the value of foot traffic, and more applications have been submitted than DOT can accommodate. “People are coming to us and asking for these things,” said Orcutt.

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