Sunday, April 14, 2013

Complete Streets guidelines: Designing streets for people

by Michelle Stenzel

“When we say ‘complete streets,’ we mean designing streets for people...for all users and all modes.”  

That’s how Chicago Department of Transportation Commissioner Gabe Klein summarizes the concept in the new “Complete Streets Chicago - Design Guidelines” that were released last week. It’s a pretty simple idea: We need to make sure that a street is safe, efficient and comfortable for all people, whether they’re on foot, on bikes, in buses or trains. 
A view down Michigan Avenue at Randolph Street. (Photo: Bike Walk Lincoln Park)
This way of thinking has been discussed to an extent in Chicago for a number of years, but this new 134-page document spells out the details, and more importantly, lays out how the transportation department is going to define a complete street, and the process of managing projects to get the end result that’s desired.
You should take a look at the guidelines yourself and read the Streetsblog Chicago coverage of it as well, but I’ll highlight some of the items that stood out when I read it. 
The cover of Chicago's Complete Streets Chicago Design Guidelines. (Image courtesy of CDOT)
The guidelines include a somewhat astonishing graphic and accompanying text that sets forth that there will be a hierarchy of accommodating modes of transportation in this order: Pedestrians first, then transit users, then bicyclists and then private automobiles.

The new Complete Streets guidelines set forth the modal hierarchy, which begins with pedestrians and ends with private motor vehicles. (Image courtesy of CDOT)
Why is this astonishing? Until now, there was a bent toward talking about accommodating all modes equally, usually in the context of explaining why automobiles should still be allotted an enormous amount of roadway space. This is radically different, saying in effect, “Pedestrians are first and foremost. Cars are last.” It’s a little like the parents of four kids admitting that they do in fact have a favorite child, a next favored one, and so on. 

As a pedestrian, I’m elated at this new statement of priorities. As a bicyclist, I want to whine a little that I should actually be second-favored, but OK, I understand the transit thing. And looking at the puny car on the right of the graphic just makes me happy. (And I feel compelled here to say that I do own a car and drive in Chicago, although I won't claim I'm an "avid driver".) 

A graph depicts Vehicle Miles Traveled in Chicago, based on
statistics from the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning.
There’s a graph indicating that Chicagoans are driving less than ever before. I had read a lot of articles about how Americans are driving less but had never seen stats specifically on Chicago. 

According to the graph, the vehicle miles traveled in the city peaked in 1998 at about 8.5 billion but by 2011 had fallen to 7.2 billion miles, which is about a 15% drop. And it’s continuing its steady decrease. In the mean time, CTA ridership is up, bicycling commuting is up, and there are more options available to people other than a private car trip.  This evidence of lowered driving rates strengthens the argument that the era of building our streets with private cars as the number one priority is over. 

There are a number of pages in the new guidelines that categorize streets by types, like residential, commercial, mixed use, and so forth. There are two new types that I’m looking forward to seeing. The first is “Bicycle Priority Streets” on which riding a bike will be prioritized ahead of other modes, with the hierarchy switched to Bicyclist-Pedestrian-Transit-Automobile. 
One lane on Wells Street is now "bicycle priority" with clear signs and markings reflecting the designation. (Photo: Bike Walk Lincoln Park)

The other type is “Transit Priority Streets”, which is self-explanatory. The fact that CDOT chose the abbreviation “BRT” for that type reflects that they’re figuring on bus rapid transit for those streets, but I think they should think longer-term to when we can create transit-priority streets that are better served with other modes, like a streetcar, as is being done in cities all across the country. But setting forth that certain streets will be designated as "transit priority" is certainly a good first step.

There are techy details that are kind of boring to read of you’re not a street designer, but they’re  important items that really do affect the user experience. For instance, if I’m reading the charts correctly, the new standard width for automobile travel lanes is now 9 or 10 feet, with 11 feet being the absolute maximum. Currently, I think most lanes for autos are 11 or 12 feet wide. These overly-wide lanes encourage drivers to drive fast, and are detrimental to people riding bikes, walking on the sidewalk or trying to cross to road. Making narrower lanes a new standard will help calm our streets through good design, instead of trying to rely on speed limit signs, which no one notices or follows anyway.

Overly wide motor vehicle travel lanes on Clybourn allow drivers to speed, drift and dominate the street, to the detriment of all other users. (Photo: Bike Walk Lincoln Park)
Regarding intersections, the guidelines have numerous directives: Make them as small as possible; minimize the crossing distances; locate crossings along “desire lines,” meaning put crosswalks where people want to cross. On that last point, the guidelines specifically say that crosswalks should be located “according to the walking network, not the driving network.” This is important: There are examples all over Lincoln Park -- and the entire city-- where people regularly cross streets because it’s a natural place to do so, but they are given no assistance to make the crossing safe and pleasant. (We recently identified this during our evaluation of Halsted at 1900 North, where there’s a bus stop and a playground, but no crosswalk.)

There is a discussion in the document of the subject of allowing right turns on red, pointing out that it is a privilege, not a right, and acknowledging that it comes at a cost to others. Allowing RTOR encourages drivers to block the crosswalk for pedestrians as they look to the left. The guidelines state that restricting RTOR should be considered within all Children Safety Zones (within 1/8 mile from schools and parks) at all times, as well as from 6:00 am to midnight in the central business district and close to transit stops, libraries, and senior centers. I really hope that restrictions are widely instituted and enforced, as it seems to be a relatively easy fix that will make a real difference to people walking. 
A driver partially blocks the crosswalk as she looks to the left, hoping to make a right turn on red at Clark and LaSalle. (Photo: Bike Walk Lincoln Park)
There are some great quotes in the Complete Streets document. On bicyclists, there is explicit acknowledgement that not all people on bikes are Tour-de-France types in Lycra: 
Their skill level varies greatly, resulting in a wide range of speeds and behaviors. Also, bicycling is a social activity, and people often ride side-by-side or in groups. Bicycles can efficiently deliver goods and serve as a critical link in the city’s freight network.
That language helps make the case that a narrow bike lane created by painting a single line to the left of a row of parked cars just doesn’t cut it. For purposes of feeling safer from moving motor vehicles, for social purposes, and to accommodate cargo bikes and pedicabs, we need to provide people on bikes with more room. 

Another quote I love references motor vehicle traffic: 
The transportation profession is coming to understand that more roads, more lanes, and longer signal cycles only induce more traffic.
As is often said, increasing the number of lanes to solve a traffic problem is like loosening your belt to solve obesity. It might feel good in the short term, but it does nothing to address the core issue, and in fact accommodates a worsening of the problem.

This quote is pretty ground-breaking: 
Even when pedestrians are not the dominant roadway user, vibrant street design must provide for people walking, shopping, strolling or simply sitting.
Yes! When there’s discussion about a street, some opponents of complete streets concepts may mention how there are many more cars passing than pedestrians, but it often comes to a chicken-and-egg argument: If you don’t give people a chance to walk comfortably, stroll, window-shop, and sit while enjoying an ice cream cone, why would you expect them to come to enjoy the area at all? (See my post on the sorry current state of the Clybourn shopping area for this.) We’ve tried auto-oriented streets for 50 years and they’re not working out that well in encouraging vibrancy, so let’s try something else now.

We need room for people to simply stroll. (Photo: Bike Walk Lincoln Park)
And finally, there’s this bombshell dropped, in the most understated way possible. The guidelines first explain that for a long time, transportation planners have used Level of Service to measure the success of a street, and LOS is pretty much completely rated on how many motor vehicles can travel through the street in the fastest amount of time. The higher the volume of motor vehicles, the better the grade given to a street under this system, and there was virtually no consideration for pedestrians, bicyclists or transit. 

Here’s the understated bombshell from the guidelines: 
It may be in the best interest of CDOT to move away from the Level of Service paradigm.
Given how entrenched the LOS measurement has been for so long, this is really bold and awesome, although I’d suggest tweaking it to say that it's in the best interest of the citizens of Chicago to move away from that outdated measuring tool.

Solely using volume of private motor vehicles is of course a completely ridiculous way of determining how well a street serves its citizens in an urban environment, when a greater number of people on many city streets are found on foot, bikes and in buses or trains. The new Complete Streets guidelines says that pedestrian Level of Service will be most important from now on, and the motor vehicle LOS will be least important. I’m not kidding; it’s on page 110. Can we get an ALLELUIA here? 
Pedestrians will be first in the hierarchy of street planning from now on. Where will horseback riders figure in?
(Photo: Bike Walk Lincoln Park)
So, there’s much to celebrate here and much to look forward to. I have no doubt that there is a real commitment to these ideals from Mayor Emanuel and CDOT leadership, but I worry because we’re already halfway through this mayoral term. Street design projects require long-term planning, and there’s a lot to tackle to start right-sizing our streets. I know there will be serious, focused energy devoted to adhering to all the standards outlined, and I look forward to seeing great examples of new Complete Streets soon.  Your thoughts are welcomed below!

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  1. Thanks for this informative read! I cycle mostly on the southside. This sounds great and is a very exciting vision for the city. I hope they think about repaving the bike lanes on the southside. It seems to me that they just painted a line on the ground and said, "Bike Lane!" But they didn't do anything to the potholes, drainage ditches and other problems all along the route.

  2. Thanks for reading and for the comment! Yes, there have been issues of new lanes being installed over less-than-ideal road surfaces. I brought that up at the March Mayor's Bicycle Advisory Council meeting (covered on Streetsblog Chicago here: ) and the CDOT people have said they'll try to avoid it. I think a lot of recent infrastructure was put in in a hurry, and I hope past deficiences will be addressed. You can help by e-mailing specific complaints to cdotbikes at cityofchicago dot org as well as reporting them to 311 and your alderman. --MS

  3. Good post! I share your enthusiasm about the plan, and I can't wait to see how these changes play out (I feel we may be waiting a long time before we see any meaningful change).

    1. Thanks, Scott. Hopefully we won't be waiting too long. --MS