How far can you take complete streets?
By Peter Moskowitz
September 26, 2016
The corner of Eighth Avenue and West 14th Street in Manhattan might not seem like a good place to witness the future. From a street design perspective, however, you could do far worse.
The scene looks unremarkable: Eighth Avenue has a bike line, a few lanes of car traffic, a parking lane, and pedestrians running all over the place, dodging the moving vehicles. Fourteenth Street looks similar, sans bike lane. But this intersection represents a real departure from design as usual — one that could soon pick up a lot of steam.
Eighth Avenue was one of New York City’s original “complete streets.” Coined in 2003, this planning term refers to incorporating cars, pedestrians, cyclists, and public transit into city thoroughfares instead of prioritizing cars. Today, the concept’s influence can be seen in major legislation and design initiatives from Boston to Honolulu.
“Complete streets have been happening for centuries, but the term is more recent,” said Anthony Durante, a senior planner at Arup. “Pre-automobile, complete streets were just the way streets were used: by pedestrians, by horses and carriages. As the automobile became more prevalent complete streets became rarer. That’s been the convention for the latter two-thirds of the 20th century, certainly. But more recently this idea of reallocating street space to the benefit of all has caught on.”
Eighth Avenue’s redesign kicked off when New York’s Department of Transportation began taking a serious look at making Manhattan more bike-friendly in 2008. The transformation added a protected bike lane (one of the first in the United States) and a dedicated left-turn lane for cars, retaining the same number of traffic lanes by narrowing each one. The outcome: a 35% drop in overall injuries and a 14% reduction in average daytime travel times.
Proposals for 14th Street up the ante. Because of the impending L train shutdown, planners and politicians have begun to look at ways to make the artery faster for buses and safer for bikes, both of which can help subway-stranded commuters reach their destinations. If one proposal backed by Manhattan Borough president Gale Brewer goes through, cars could be banned from 14th Street altogether.
“That’s maybe the next step in the idea of complete streets,” said Kate Slevin, the director of government and community affairs at the Regional Plan Association. “There’s a crisis with the L train coming, but that crisis presents an opportunity.”
Perception versus fact
Of course, talk of taking cars off the roads frequently provokes passionate opposition. When New York decided to redesign Times Square by closing sections of Broadway to traffic and installing pedestrian plazas, protests broke out among business owners and motorists. After the fact, taxi drivers “told any reporter who would listen that [the redesign]… caused traffic jams, slower speeds, and fewer fares,” wrote Janette Sadik-Khan, the city’s former transportation commissioner, in her book Street Fight. However, the city’s studies of cabs’ own GPS data revealed that traffic actually moved faster after the redesign thanks to lengthened green lights and streamlined intersections.
Nibbling around the edges
This high-profile success story aside, most of New York’s complete streets haven’t removed car traffic. Mike Flynn, the director of active transportation at transit consultancy Sam Schwartz, calls the more common approach “nibbling around the edges”: doing what can be done without any downside to drivers. He and others say if complete streets are taken further, that downside will eventually occur.
“There are two elements to what’s possible: the physical space, and the political and cultural aspect — i.e., how much pushback you’re going to get,” Flynn said. “To further complete streets, you have to communicate to stakeholders what the opportunities and challenges are and secure buy-in and get a level of comfort. Tell people that maybe there will be more congestion during rush hour, but during off-peak hours there will be more than enough capacity. And in exchange for that you get other benefits: wider sidewalks, better bus service, bike lanes.”
How far can complete streets go?
Although it’s not easy, there’s room to incorporate more pedestrian-, transit-, and bike-friendly designs on virtually every street in New York — and other cities. In fact, many streets designed for cars are already being used as complete streets.
For example, the street design in Lower Manhattan’s financial district prioritizes cars, but because pedestrians outnumber them 10 to 1 in the area, walkers, bikers, and others end up taking over anyway. Still, formalizing that balance has tangible benefits even here: in one area where parking spaces were converted into public seating, adjacent restaurant businesses saw a 14% increase in business.
If cities want to take the idea of complete streets to the next level, said Margaret Newman, an associate principal in Arup’s integrated planning group, they’ll need to begin looking beyond individual streets and toward entire neighborhoods, separating out driving and pedestrian uses and redesigning huge swaths of the city at once.
“To really see impacts on traffic, impacts on everything, you couldn’t do this randomly on a few streets. It would have to be the entire system,” Newman said. “But as of now, everybody’s fighting for the same piece of real estate. I’m not exactly hopeful it will happen in the short term. People are getting interested in the idea, and people are beginning to understand the advantages, but nobody really has the political license to go out and just do it. But I think we will get there.”