December 2, 2011 in Complete Streets
TULSA – City officials have said the Fix Our Streets program is the most substantial investment Tulsa has made in its streets in decades.
And although it is generally more cost-effective to design a street right the first time as opposed to retrofitting it later, the Fix Our Streets program is still almost entirely car-focused with little attempt made to accommodate other road users.
As a result, Tulsa is missing an incredible opportunity to incorporate Complete Streets enhancements, like narrow lanes, bike lanes and sidewalks, to the transportation network in the most cost-effective way and at the appropriate time – which is now, as the streets are being refurbished. Once the streets are ‘fixed’, it is unlikely the city will reinvest in those streets for quite some time, perhaps decades.
Tulsa’s Transportation Advisory Board presented a report to the Tulsa City Council in October that recommends the council adopt a Complete Streets policy ensuring all new street and rehabilitation projects accommodate all road users: mass transit, bicyclists, pedestrians and motor vehicles.
With the massive turnover on the City Council – only two councilors are returning in 2012 – the Transportation Advisory Board plans to present Complete Streets again to the new council. The board hopes action will be taken on a Complete Streets policy when the new council takes office.
The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) is already on board with Complete Streets, recommending the adoption of policy statements that vow to incorporate bicycle and pedestrian facilities in all transportation projects unless exceptional circumstances exist.
Bicycle and pedestrian ways shall be established in new construction and reconstruction projects in all urbanized areas unless one or more of three conditions are met:
- bicyclists and pedestrians are prohibited by law from using the roadway. In this instance, a greater effort may be necessary to accommodate bicyclists and pedestrians elsewhere within the right of way or within the same transportation corridor.
- the cost of establishing bikeways or walkways would be excessively disproportionate to the need or probable use. Excessively disproportionate is defined as exceeding twenty percent of the cost of the larger transportation project.
- where sparsity of population or other factors indicate an absence of need. For example, the Portland Pedestrian Guide requires “all construction of new public streets” to include sidewalk improvements on both sides, unless the street is a cul-de-sac with four or fewer dwellings or the street has severe topographic or natural resource constraints.
What this means is, in urban areas like Tulsa, unless the city prohibits biking and walking on the road, the city needs to design the street so it is safe and appealing to pursue those activities on the right-of-way.
Currently, Tulsa’s policy is to add a sidewalk on at least one side of the road during street rehabilitation projects. That’s a good start, but asking pedestrians to cross the street twice to reach a destination on the same side of the block falls far short of the goals of a Complete Streets policy.
The best time to add bike lanes is when the paint meets the pavement. And bike lanes, while included in the PlaniTulsa comprehensive plan, are no where to be found on Fix Our Streets projects.
That could change if and when the Indian Nations Council of Governments (INCOG) receives funding for a regional Bicycle & Pedestrian Master Plan. INCOG is hoping to receive a grant from the Oklahoma Tobacco Settlement Endowment Trust (TSET) to fund the creation of the master plan, but there are no guarantees.
Even if funding comes through, the development of a Bicycle & Pedestrian Master Plan has taken other cities as many as two years to complete. In the meantime, the Fix Our Streets program is set to kick off a fourth phase of projects that continue repaving roads while leaving bicyclists, pedestrians and Complete Streets behind.
Complete Streets Are Necessary To Accommodate Existing Road Users
Tulsa needs a Complete Streets policy because it provides an effective mechanism for getting everyone involved in the design, construction and maintenance of our streets to develop cost-effective street projects that accommodate not just motorists, but everyone else who is already using the road today – bicyclists, pedestrians, and transit riders of all ages and abilities.
“The advantage of inserting a dialogue about all [road] users at the earliest stages of project development is that it provides the designers and engineers the best opportunity to create solutions at the best price,” says James Simpson, New Jersey Department of Transportation (NJDOT) Commissioner.
Norm Steinman, Planning and Design Division Manager for the City of Charlotte Department of Transportation (CDOT), agrees that getting Complete Streets concepts into the project at design time is critical.
When asked how cities like Tulsa without a Complete Streets policy can get Complete Streets included in road resurfacing programs like ‘Fix Our Streets’, Steinman said, “There isn’t a valid excuse for projects in the design phase to not include Complete Streets principles.”
“A resurfacing project will be around for eight to 10 years depending on the quality of the materials,” said Steinman, “If you don’t take advantage now, it will be another eight to 10 years before you get the opportunity.”
But Complete Streets Cost Too Much, Right?
Many planners and engineers are already working with scarce resources and wonder how they can add Complete Streets to budgets already stretched thin. And many taxpaying citizens are also concerned how to pay for it all.
Complete Streets don’t have to bust the budget, according to Barbara McCann, the woman who coined the term “Complete Streets” and is Executive Director of the National Complete Streets Coalition.
“Complete Streets are about making choices that can be achieved within the context of the current transportation budget,” says McCann.
Sometimes it is as simple as narrowing travel lanes or trying a different configuration in the current space of the roadway. Steinman’s experience has demonstrated that road diets, or road conversions as he likes to call them, can often be implemented on streets carrying fewer than 20,000 vehicles per day.
Narrower travel lanes require less land and pavement, and providing multi-modal options can reduce the need to widen some intersections and can actually improve traffic flow. It’s entirely possible to make many Complete Streets changes within the existing budget.
According to Steinman, the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT) tracked statewide construction costs from 2005 to 2010 and found the year-to-year variation in construction costs is greater than the incremental costs of adding sidewalks, bikelanes, or streetscaping.
When you consider that construction costs can vary as much as 15% from one year to the next, and sidewalks and bike lanes can make up a combined 8% of the cost of the project, Steinman says the “extra” costs of those enhancements are often negligible.
Incomplete streets could actually end up costing more than Complete Streets in the long run. According to the National Complete Streets Coalition, a teenager was killed in Cary, IL biking across the only bridge that provided access for crossing the Fox River. The bridge was built in the 1990s and lacked any accommodations for biking or walking. After the teenager’s family won a wrongful death lawsuit, the Illinois DOT spent nearly $1 million to retrofit the bridge with a sidepath.
The Public Wants Complete Streets
Steinman cites evidence that the public wants Complete Streets. In 2010, a statistically valid survey was performed in Charlotte that showed 80% believe streets should be designed to accommodate all users including motorists, pedestrians, bicyclists, and transit users.
The National Complete Streets Coalition reports that the Missouri public supports spending as much as 25% of transportation funding on biking and walking facilities, even if the total number of projects is reduced as a result.
Complete Streets Explained