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Complete Streets Movement Gains Momentum in California

Josh Stephens on
May 1, 2015
Back in the early days of email, before Facebook and Buzzfeed, people used to send jokes around as chain messages. "Forwards" we sometimes called them. My favorite of these forwards was "Ways to Confuse Your Roommate" (here's a version of it). My favorite way: "Go to the gym. Use the multipurpose room. For just one purpose."

I've often thought about streets the same way. We usually use them for just one purpose, especially in California. And yet, no one is ever baffled. 

The complete streets movement is changing this attitude. As most planners know, complete streets have been gaining popularity for the past few years, as the infrastructural equivalent of smart growth. Inspired by the Dutch woonerf and, before that, by the simple reality of multi-use, pre-automobile streets, complete streets seek to accommodate a diverse array of transportation modes all in the same space. The movement contends that feet and cars can peacefully coexist, and that streets can be places that people inhabit rather than pass through. 

As with so many new urban interventions, converting existing streets into something more "complete" takes a lot longer than building them in the first place. Expanding sidewalks, installing traffic-calming structures, replanting, and repaving comprise a complex task. But that's easy compared to the planning and approvals process that any such project has to endure. 

We can chart the progress of complete streets in Southern California by the UCLA Lewis Center's Downtown Los Angeles Forum on Transportation, Land Use and the Environment, the eighth edition of which takes place May 14. The conference first focused on complete streets in 2011, back when the idea was fresh, exciting, and largely untested. This year's rendition, entitled "Complete Streets, Competing Priorities" comes at moment when complete streets are catching on and when cities are transitioning from pilot projects to more widespread adoption of the complete streets ethos. Complete streets have become so prominent that none other than U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx will be giving a keynote at the conference. 

CP&DR spoke with conference organizer Madeline Brozen, of UCLA's Luskin School of Public Affairs, and panelist Stephanie Seskin, deputy director of the National Complete Streets Coalition (a project of Smart Growth America, for which CP&DR publisher Bill Fulton formerly worked), about the state of complete streets in America and California today. Its advocates hope that it won't be too much longer until a single-purpose street is a source of confusion. 

How has the discussion in L.A. evolved since 2011?

Madeline Brozen: In 2011 we brought in people from outside regions. In 2012 we were trying to get a little more explicit about what this means for California. We had a couple different presentations from agencies in the Bay Area. The conversation was getting a little more advanced. We were hearing about more involvement from public health departments and there was more discussion about how this integrates with other planning efforts.

In 2013 we were starting to expand more into how Complete Streets has become more integrated into everyday planning. For example, we had someone from Seattle talked about one of their complete streets worksheets. We heard from one of our local champions, Pasadena, about travel times and networks. We were starting to hear an elevated discussions from municipalities in the area, but there was still a lot to learn. There weren't necessarily as many projects on the ground.

Two years later, there's huge leaps and bounds. One of the big legislative changes we're talking about was SB 743 and making sure we're not just talking about transportation impacts by vehicle impacts alone. We're also starting to hear how this isn't just planning for walking and biking....but really becoming more integrated into everyday transportation and mobility planning.

Where does the complete streets movement stand nationwide, and how does the L.A. area rank among other places?

Stephanie Seskin: I think the way that Madeline has gone through their previous forums…is kind of similar to what is happening at the national level over the last 8-10 years. The attitude has been, "here's a really great idea that we've seen implemented in very few places....but we know that it is beneficial. "

We've seen research come out from different sectors. We're building year over year. Now we have 700 jurisdictions with a complete streets policy. We're asking: How does this really work? What are people doing? How does this play into the larger conversation about how we manage our cities and create places to people to access the services they need and the goods they need and just to be around each other? We're talking about how you need to be innovative and try new things.

How prevalent are complete streets in these 700 jurisdictions? Are they pilot projects? Have any implemented complete streets all over the place?

Seskin: The idea is that it's not just one project but it is an overall approach that you use for the project development and delivery process, starting from the biggest picture of long-range transportation plans down to the intersection design in a specific neighborhood. I think a lot of cities have really grabbed on to this as the way they are moving forward. Any of the major cities that you can think of – New York, Boston, Seattle, Chicago, Austin, Charlotte -- they're all moving in this direction.

A lot of the midsize cities and smaller communities have adopted policies. In the most rural and small towns they probably haven't seen much happen yet just because they probably have a longer timeframe between projects. It really is a mix from places that have done a lot to places that are still waiting but ready.

The National Complete Streets Coalition recently released "Safer Streets, Stronger Economies." What does this report conclude?

Seskin"Safer Streets, Stronger Economies," is based on before-and-after data from about 37 projects from around the country. The number is limited because we struggled to find enough places that collected before and after data on even the most basic things like mode share, crashes…..oddly, those aren't collected all the time or in a consistent way that made them useful for a metaanalysis. We really need to have something more concrete about what we're looking for and they were happy to support this project. We don't expect everyone to measure everything. But we're putting out some tips and best practices will help spark more agencies to undertake this project evaluation.

What does a complete street look like circa 2015?

Seskin: I think the movement has struggled in thinking about complete streets as a standard that you apply. So you end up with 6-lane arterials that have a four-foot bike like and a sidewalk. While the elements are there, I would not say that that fulfills the complete streets mission. We really want to focus on making sure that we're not just accommodating transit users or bicycles or people who are walking but really try to create places where those modes are as safe, comfortable, and convenient as it is to drive.

In California, we have a lot of enormous arterial streets. Should planners worry about those streets, or should planers focus on smaller streets that they can really transform?

Seskin: I think you want to have a network approach. I don't think it's helpful to think about specific streets only as needing to be changed. Once you've looked at the network you can prioritize corridors for upgrades. In some places it does mean rethinking those arterials in a fairly dramatic way. It's a culture issue a lot of times, not just in California but everywhere.

It starts with the network and understanding that are relatively workable with small changes and then balancing those bit bigger arterials like Figueroa, for example.

If you're a planner in an agency and you want to get into complete streets, what's your best advice for them?

Seskin: The first is making friends with your local community groups, whether they're transportation-specific or not. These kinds of changes have to be coming from residents and they need to be communicated to the political leadership as well as the appointed leadership. You need to have that partnership.

I think it can be difficult being a young professional trying to do right and now getting much support from your superiors. Having the advocacy coming from outside can be very helpful.

I think the other piece with agencies is there's a lot of worrying, and understandably so. The way to make it happen is to be willing to just try things and be willing to do the before and after. A lot of times you can try it with just paint and inexpensive planters. Doing open Streets events helps get people thinking about what public space means and what access means.

Brozen: One of the things that I have started thinking about is to really attach people to the idea of neighborhoods and get them to think about how they use their neighborhoods and think about what they like about them: What do neighborhoods look like? What are people attracted to? Do you want to drive everywhere? Try to listen to that and see if you can approach transportation through other livability principles.
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