Complete Streets PART ONE: What they are and why we need them

MAY 23RD, 2010

Conversations about the architecture of Toronto’s streets tend to be terribly divisive. You’re either a cyclist or a driver. A transit user or a pedestrian. And don’t even think about trying to speak with the other side. No, no, in this town, we prefer to battle it out in the streets or during election campaigns. Or in the comment sections of blogs and media outlets.

Thankfully, the Toronto Coalition for Active Transportation (TCAT) is trying to change the tenor of this conversation.

Back in late-April, TCAT hosted its inaugural Complete Streets Forum. The conference expanded the mandate and scope of previous bike summits to draw in movers and shakers of every description. There were pavement pounders, there were gung-ho cyclists, there were dyed-in-the-wool Metropass holders, and there were car commuters. There were even folks who do all four. In spite of their differences, participants in this year’s conference share the belief that streets are our most sacred public space and that we can make them work better.

But what does better look like?

TCAT and other community partners are advancing the idea of complete streets. The term, coined by Barbara McCann, Executive Director of the Washington, D.C.-based Complete Streets Coalition, refers to streets which “provide safe access for all road users, including pedestrians, cyclists, public transit users and motorists and are comfortable for people with disabilities, children, families, and the elderly.” Adaptable to the particularities of a given place, complete streets are safe and accessible for a variety of users.

“Streets give a lot of information to drivers,” explains McCann. “We need the road to communicate with us about safety and the presence of other users on the road way.” By shifting the balance of facilities to improve accessibility, complete streets offer a profound opportunity to change the way that we relate to the city and get around. Just look at College Street – with connected bike lanes, wide sidewalks, regular streetcars and several lanes of traffic, it supports the diversity of Toronto travelers.

Most notably, New York City has developed and begun to implement complete streets across Manhattan. Janette Sadik-Kahn, comminsionoer of transportation in NYC, discussed her city’s approach to complete streets the last time she was in Toronto. You can listen to her speech on episode 005 of Spacing Radio.

Complete streets are compelling in part because re-allocation of street facilities is demonstrably win-win-win: improving economic, traffic congestion and health outcomes.

Critics frequently cite economic concerns associated with the re-allocation of street space away from motorized vehicles. They argue that a lack of parking space will drive customers away from local business and make deliveries impossible. Taking a lane away from car traffic will increase congestion and negatively impact trade.

Eva Ligeti, Executive Director of the Clean Air Partnership, challenged the correlation often made between motor vehicle traffic and economic prosperity. Citing a 2009 study of transportation choices and economic outcomes in the Annex neighbourhood — check out Spacing’s lively discussion when the report was released — Ligeti claims that cyclists and pedestrians visit local businesses more frequently and spend more money than their car-bound counterparts. Re-dedicating space to cyclists and pedestrians won’t dry up business; it might even improve it.

As the Greater Toronto Area and Hamilton enter a period of sustained growth, figuring out how to move people at the lowest public and social costs is a top priority. McCann argues that complete streets are an inexpensive way to increase road capacity, offering Portland, Oregon as an example.

“In Portland, the entire cycling network cost $60 million to build: the same amount as one mile of greenfield roadway. Between 1991 and 2008, the Hawthorne Bridge saw a 20 percent increase in passenger volume, but only a one percent increase in motor vehicle traffic. The bulk of new traffic was traveling by bike or on foot. Improvements to cycling and pedestrian facilities made this increased capacity possible.”

Another key benefit of complete streets is their role in improving health outcomes in the city. Toronto’s Medical Officer of Health, David McKeown was clear: “We are not a healthy city. Fifty percent of adults in Toronto are not active enough to maintain or improve their health. We are in the midst of an epidemic of Type II diabetes and the outlook for the future is not any better – 10 to 25 percent of Toronto teens are obese. These problems are particularly prevalent in low-income neighbourhoods.”

But McKeown sees possibility in our streets: “The shape of our communities is one of the most important determinants of our health.” Nearly 17 percent of trips taken in this city are within walking distance (less than 2 km), 40 percent within biking distance (less than 5km). By making our streets more accessible, we can tap into the latent health benefits of daily physical activity.

Meanwhile, complete streets help to improve air quality, reduce traffic injuries and noise and support the development of social networks and corresponding improvements in mental health. These positive impacts are so strong, McKeown argues, that they help to mitigate the negative effects of poverty on health. Not bad for some concrete and a little paint.

If the benefits of complete streets are not clear enough, the costs of inaction are. “We are paying the costs of incomplete streets in other budget areas,” says McKeown. “A 30 percent decrease in vehicle pollution would save 190 lives and $900 million annually.”

With over 130 Complete Streets policies enacted in the US, there is a growing body of evidence to support the complete streets concept here in Canada. While enthusiastic, McCann cautioned the conference that “complete streets are not a silver bullet to the perfect city. These policies work because they zero in on the transportation sector. Complete streets policies do not directly address other aspects of the built environment, such as land use.”

Yet with streets comprising 25 to 30% of the land area in our cities, the potential for marked impacts is large.

“As a major component of the public realm, streets ought to behave in the public interest,” said Dan Leeming of The Planning Partnership. Complete streets are one way to codify the public interest into the urban landscape.

I’ll be following up this call to action with a discussion of how we go about building complete streets.


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