Complete Streets PART TWO: How to build them

If we want Toronto’s streets to be complete how do we build them?

The take home message from TCAT’s Complete Streets Forum was that inclusive discussions build ideas and social capital in a way that exclusive tactics simply can’t. We build complete streets with public support, political leadership and effective implementation of provincial and municipal policies. We build complete streets with both fundamental and incremental approaches to change.

Building public support for complete streets is the first and most important step. “The street is a major component of the public realm,” argued Antonio Gomez-Palacio of the Office for Urbanism. “When built properly, the street becomes the destination for the community.” Celebrating these possibilities for our streets shifts the conversation away from conflict and deficiencies towards a shared vision of what is possible.

To aid in this effort, Barbara McCann, Executive Director of the Complete Streets Coalition, suggested that community organizers use local photographs to inspire citizens as to how their streets could better meet their needs. “Local examples allow us to see the city in a new way, to relate everyday experiences to policy decisions. By reaching people from all walks of life, we create a powerful constituency for change.” McCann has built a strong coalition south of the border, including advocates from the Association of Retired Persons, the American Heart Association and the Association of People with Disabilities.

Complete streets already have political allies in southern Ontario. Toronto Mayor David Miller counts himself as one of them. “We actually can make the changes we want in this city if we believe in it,” said Miller during his opening address. Miller highlighted the connections between complete streets and Transit City – citing bike lanes along the Eglinton LRT corridor as an example of multi-modal transportation planning. While the effort to complete Toronto’s streets will outlast his term as Mayor, Miller encouraged participants to advance the complete streets concept through the City’s Public Realm Office.

At the municipal level, McCann encouraged decision makers to engage their communities about their vision for the streets. She emphasized the importance of addressing the needs of all users, embracing the particularities of our neighbourhoods and formalizing the process for policy exemptions. “Effective complete streets policies restructure the procedures, policies and programs to which our streets are subject,” says McCann. “They rewrite design manuals and standards, offer training opportunities to municipal staff and create new performance measures to evaluate success.”

At the regional level, key public servants are tuned into the need for complete streets planning. Leslie Woo, Vice President of Policy and Planning at Metrolinx, is among them. “A culture of active transportation is essential to public transit success,” said Woo. “All transit users are pedestrians first. We need to capitalize on the 80% of residents in the GTAH who live within walking or biking distance of a rapid transit route by making our stations mobility hubs. With the right infrastructure choices we can help to create seamless transitions between modes and jurisdictions in the region.” Woo identified specific strategies, like pedestrian corridors across busy streets and bicycle parking, being employed at the Kipling and Cooksville GO Stations.

The province is thinking about complete streets too. Jamie Austin of the Ontario Growth Secretariat (Ministry of Energy and Infrastructure) proudly showcased the complete streets-friendly elements of the Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe. Mandated population and employment density targets, he argues, will help to build “dynamic, complete and connected communities”. The vision for complete streets in complete communities is there but the Growth Plan lacks the teeth to guarantee this kind of development across the region. All the while, Woo pointed out, “we continue to confront the challenges of a lost generation of investment.”

We are left with two mutually reinforcing approaches to completing our streets. The first is a fundamental shift in the way that we live and move. The second is an incremental course of action.

“We’ve been hitting the bullseye of the wrong target,” said Geoff Noxon of Noxon Associates. “Carefully considered decisions have led us to where we are today. We believed that sprawling cities filled with cars meant prosperity. We believed that children were safer away from the streets. Many are still aiming at the wrong target.” Noxon advocates for “biting off more than we can chew rather than nibbling around the edges”. That means redefining the problem from one of increasing road capacity to diversifying the range of choice for getting around. Equally, it requires us to identify new ways to define and measure success.

Yet with an enormous existing car-centric infrastructure, change is bound to be slow. Buy-in may not come as quickly as we hope, the funding for re-allocation may not be available right away. These roadblocks shouldn’t stop us from moving forward, according to Fiona Chapman, Manager of Pedestrian Projects for the City of Toronto. “We need to start somewhere. Getting projects on the ground creates powerful examples of change that citizens can interact with. Pilot projects let politicians off the hook. We can say, ‘This is a one off. Let’s just try it.’ There’s a different level of political investment in a pilot project and they allow us to understand how we’ve been effective and what we can do better next time.”

Andrew Wiley-Schwartz of the New York City Department of Transportation agrees. A pilot project his office initiated to close traffic on Broadway through Times Square yielded much needed public space, a 15 percent improvement in travel times and a 63 percent reduction in pedestrian injuries. “With some paint, tables, chairs and umbrellas, we were able to generate all kinds of dividends that delivered in a matter of months.” The city will now use routine resurfacing projects as an opportunity to make these pilot projects permanent. In the mean time, the city’s street design manual has changed to embed the complete streets ethos in future redevelopment initiatives.

Bit by bit, cities like New York can change the streetscape, demonstrating to politicians and the public alike that there is another way to build. Projects beget success, success begets further opportunities for change. Before you know it, you’ve got a network of streets that are accessible to the complete range of urban travelers.

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