Narrowed roads gain acceptance in Colo., elsewhere

When Colorado Springs decided to make streets friendly to users other than cars, county officials howled.


Published July 30, 2007 by USA Today
By John Ritter

When Colorado Springs decided to make streets friendly to users other than cars, county officials howled. They threatened to withhold $3 million in transportation money if the city narrowed a street in front of county office buildings to add sidewalks and bike lanes.

The city went ahead and redesigned Tejon Street's traffic pattern under its "complete streets" program. It's part of a national trend that has dozens of state and local governments considering the needs of pedestrians, bike riders, seniors, the disabled and mass transit when they plan new roads or reconfigure existing ones.


Nearly a year later, the Tejon Street changes — its new "road diet" — have held up and the controversy has died, says city transportation manager Craig Blewitt. "A lot of people asked, 'Why are we reducing the number of lanes when the city has a congestion problem?' " he says. "Once this was talked through and explained, opponents decided to support it."

Proponents such as Louisville Mayor Jerry Abramson say complete streets policies make a city more livable and give residents options besides driving. Seniors who don't drive can walk safely and get to bus stops. A goal is to "calm" traffic on less busy streets. The concept even does its small part in the fight against obesity and global warming, proponents say, because it encourages exercise and reduces greenhouse gas emissions with fewer vehicle trips.

America's demographics are driving the complete streets movement, Abramson says. "The society is getting older. We're jogging, walking, bicycling much more than ever before," he says.

Empty nesters leaving big suburban homes for downsized urban living want friendly, walkable streets, he says.

Critics such as David Hartgen, emeritus professor of transportation at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte, say pressure from interest groups such as senior advocates and bicycle organizations is forcing changes that can disrupt a road network beyond the stretches that have gotten a complete streets treatment.

"It's really just arrogance and selfishness on the part of usually very small groups of individuals," Hartgen says. "They exert political power to 'take back the street,' but the street is not theirs to take back."

Sooner better than later

Even skeptics such as the League of California Cities concede that it's smarter and cheaper to design sidewalks, bike paths and transit amenities at the start of a project than to add them later. "The argument that persuaded Illinois legislators (to pass a complete streets bill last month) is that it's cheaper to do it right the first time," says Barbara McCann, coordinator of the National Complete Streets Coalition.

In Illinois, safety was also a focus of the debate over the bill awaiting the governor's signature. After a 17-year-old boy was killed in 2000 riding his bike across the only bridge over the Fox River outside Cary, his family won a wrongful death lawsuit against the state. Public pressure forced the state to add bike and pedestrian access to the bridge.

Complete streets designs usually take account of road types. Bike lanes and sidewalks aren't appropriate on freeways, for instance.

When a city respects needs of the 50-plus residents in designing streets, "you absolutely make it livable for everybody else," says Elinor Ginzler, the AARP's livable communities director.

Complete streets make economic sense in Colorado, says Dan Grunig, executive director of the advocacy group Bicycle Colorado. A state study in 2000 found that 70% of the 700,000 visitors to mountain resorts who bicycled during their stays came from out of state and spent at least $141 million.

'A perfect storm of issues'

Cheri Harem, Chicago's acting transportation commissioner, says user-friendly streets are a priority of Mayor Richard Daley. "We decided to formalize the policy last year to make a stronger statement," Harem says. The public has bought into complete streets, she says, because the city won't modify a street without seeking community feedback.

Oregon's 1971 law requiring sidewalks and bike paths on most of the state's roads is considered the first major move toward complete streets. Over the years, creating bike access became popular in many parts of the country. But now state and local governments, like Chicago, are saying, in effect, let's consider all users every time we build or rebuild a road.

"There's an awakening because of a perfect storm of issues coming together," says Randy Neufeld, head of the Chicagoland Bicycle Federation. With growing concern over an obesity epidemic, cities see how streets, and the ability to be physically active on them, affects their health, he says.

Rising gasoline prices, the push to cut greenhouse gas emissions and aging baby boomers who're getting out of their cars are all factors advancing the complete streets movement, Neufeld says.

Mark Leno, the California assemblyman who sponsored a bill that passed one chamber, cites estimates that if every resident of a city of 100,000 replaced one car trip with one walking or biking trip once a month, emissions of carbon dioxide, a key greenhouse gas, would be cut by nearly 4,000 tons a year.

"So this tiny little consideration of accommodation of the roadway, this relatively simple act, has far-reaching implications," Leno says.