In Atlanta recently, a government board you may have never heard of made a decision that will impact all Georgians. Members of the State Transportation Board, a 13–member panel that oversees the Georgia Department of Transportation, voted unanimously to adopt a “Complete Streets” policy.
The policy requires transportation planners to consider everyone, not just those driving cars, when designing or modifying roadways. A PowerPoint slide presented at the board meeting by GDOT’s Chief Engineer Gerald Ross describes the method and motive of Complete Streets:
“Supporting the advancement of accessibility for pedestrian, bicycle, and transit modes of transportation ... with the goal of reducing congestion, improving mobility, and enhancing quality of life for all users.”
Brent Buice, executive director of Georgia Bikes, wrote on the advocacy organization’s blog that, “The adoption of this policy is an important first step to seeing real improvements for bicycle and pedestrian safety in Georgia.”
It also represents a significant broadening of focus for GDOT, which many charge has too often treated roads like pipes: conduits for moving as many cars as possible, as quickly as possible. When street or roadway became clogged with too many cars, the solution was to widen it.
Having lived on a street that routinely flooded before the first phase of the Casey Canal Drainage Improvement Project replaced narrow 1920s vintage storm sewer pipes with box culverts, I can confirm bigger pipes move more water more quickly. But taking a plumber’s approach to transportation planning can have disastrous effects on safety and quality of life, and is often self–defeating.
During construction of the drainage project, the street in front of my house was a noisy excavation site and the only way I could reach my home was through the backyard. But once the project was completed, the sidewalks replaced and the street repaved, I rarely thought about those underground culverts again. I certainly never worry about the drainage improvements costing me my life.
On the other hand, designing roads to maximize motor vehicle speed and carrying capacity, makes them inhospitable and often deadly to pedestrians, cyclists and even to people who are simply waiting to catch the bus. When streets are widened or corners of intersections rounded off to allow motorists to make right turns at higher speeds, they are often described in transportation engineer speak as “improvements,” but are exactly the opposite for people who walk, ride bikes or live nearby.
Roads intended solely to convey masses of cars have negative effects all along their routes. Neighborhoods are torn in two or destroyed altogether.
The great folly in these attempts to move more cars by widening roads is that they often exacerbate the problems they were intended to solve. The bigger drainage pipes under my street haven’t caused more rain, but widened roads can induce traffic by attracting more drivers.
I hesitate to use the oft repeated and now thoroughly clich movie line, but it is so relevant I cannot resist. “If you build it, they will come,” certainly applies to road widening. Extra lanes are quickly filled by extra cars, as if by magic.
The good news is this magic also applies to bike lanes and sidewalks. That’s why GDOT’s Ross appropriately listed congestion reduction among benefits of Complete Streets. Roadways that safely accommodate all users, invite people to leave their cars at home (some will even get rid of their cars) and go on foot or by bike, thus reducing congestion.
In this way, improved access for pedestrians, cyclists and transit riders does not come at the expense of motorists.
What’s more, Complete Streets offer improved safety for all, including drivers and passengers.
With each year, more of us will need Complete Streets. Aging drivers who will surrender their car keys and an increasing number of young people who aren’t interested in getting behind the wheel in the first place will be ill-served by bigger, faster roads.
Finally, it’s important to note that the Complete Streets policy only applies to roadways under GDOT control. While there are many in Savannah, including urban thoroughfares such as Victory Drive, what’s needed are Complete Streets policies at the local government level.