Complete Streets Q&A with a Michael Baker Engineer, Planner and Landscape Architect

March 28, 2017

Michael Baker experts Craig Churchward, Jaimie Sloboden and Fred Jones discuss the value and benefits of complete street projects and explore how to become an advocate for complete streets and gain community and agency buy-in.

Q: What are complete streets and how are they different than streetscape-based projects?

Jaimie: From a transportation perspective, complete streets are places where an even greater emphasis is placed on the other modes of transportation (pedestrian, bike and transit), compared to motorized vehicles. The functionality of making the system work together is key, the streetscape elements must augment and enhance the functionality of the design of lanes, sidewalks and bicycle facilities.

Craig: From an urban design perspective, complete streets become much more than a transportation corridor. A complete street is a place for human interaction and social intercourse, much like the early streetscapes in Fresno, Denver, Minneapolis and Charlottesville, designed by the late landscape architect Lawrence Halprin. They were intended to revitalize downtowns by enhancing the experience of pedestrians; particularly shoppers.

The design of a complete street originates with a totally different premise—essentially it is based on a vision for the community as a whole and must include an understanding of how land use, transportation and urban design work together to affect a community’s quality of life.  

Fred:  As a concept, streetscape refers more to the design and aesthetic quality of the street and its lasting visual impact, which contributes to a community’s overall sense of place. Streetscaping, however, should be viewed as single tool within the context of street redesign.

Complete streets, on the other hand, represent a paradigm shift that extends beyond beautification; but rather emphasizes greater mobility choice, balancing the interests of all road users with an “outside in” design approach governed first and foremost by placemaking and urban design.

Q: Why have a landscape architect, engineer and planner work together on complete street projects?

Jaimie: As a traffic engineer it’s easy to get bogged down in the details of traffic design for regular vehicle traffic (cars). By approaching traffic design with a focus on the mobility of cars, traffic engineers may end up devoting too many lanes to motor vehicles, leaving little to no room to accommodate other modes of transportation.

Input from planners and landscape architects is integral to balancing the needs of a variety of commuters as part of a complete street design. Traffic forecasts can be scrutinized in a more meaningful and comprehensive manner that’s inclusive of more types of commuters.

Craig: A complete street must start with a holistic community vision—what is this corridor supposed to provide the community it is to serve? What, to use classic engineering terms, is the Purpose and Need of the street?  The answer must look beyond the traditional response of transportation professionals who usually limit the Purpose and Need of a project to improvements in mobility, access and safety.  A complete streets approach requires a more robust Purpose and Need—one that addresses a community’s social, economic and environmental goals.  These important goals are defined by the community and can be achieved through changes in land use, transportation and community design.  Consequently, planners, engineers and landscape architects must work together to discover the best solution for achieving this expanded version of a street’s Purpose and Need. 

Fred: Better integration of the policy, design and engineering professions is mandatory if we are to collectively address the urgent safety and mobility needs of our roadways. Here in Florida, our failing pedestrian and bicycle safety record has led to a public health crisis. Traditionally, the profession has worked in silos, each offering solutions that don’t generally account for the synergies between urban form, density, land use and mobility outcomes. Viewing roadways as “traffic sewers” only serves to perpetuate this problem by prioritizing vehicular capacity and level of service over equity, economic development and environmental considerations.

Q: Is there a one size fits all solution for complete streets?

Jaimie: Absolutely not, the fun and challenge of a complete street project is understanding the needs of the community around the corridor, the mix of business and residential, demographics, access to transit, surrounding bicycle networks, available right-of-way, and the desire or ability to acquire right-of-way are some of the factors that drive a different outcome to a project.  As engineers, we need to be more in tune with these factors and learn to be flexible when developing solutions.  The goal is to develop a wide range of ideas to find the best fit. 

Craig: I agree, Jaimie, but surprisingly the process of designing a complete street is similar and repeatable.  This is where the multidimensional experience of Michael Baker’s interdisciplinary team is advantageous.  We are not simply multi-disciplined; we are truly interdisciplinary—we work together simultaneously to create an integrated solution. The key is to expand the traditional Purpose and Need of a transportation project, into a set of transportation, social, economic and environmental goals and objectives for the corridor and to predicate all design decisions on achieving those goals and objectives.    

Fred: Could not agree more Craig and Jaimie! Often the perception is that the end result is a sidewalk or bike lane on every street, but it’s really about ensuring that pedestrian, transit and bicycle accommodations are central to the entire project lifecycle, not merely viewed as a set of amenities.

Q: Our community is really interested in complete streets, but our state department of transportation has been less supportive. How can we better work with them?

Jaimie: Agencies such as a state DOT have processes, procedures and guidelines in place to streamline the planning and construction of projects.  It is easier to stick with the guideline or standard than to deviate and ask for an exception to the standard.  For instance, the 12-foot travel lane has become a sacred number in the industry.  AASHTO, FHWA, ITE and NACTO have developed flexible design criteria and justification for when these exceptions can be used.  This information can be used to support changing the minds of agency staff on a project. Fortunately, many states are adopting complete street policies that are mainstreaming variations to the traditional standards. For example, Florida’s DOT is making a wholesale change to their design manuals and plan preparation manual to promote a complete street policy.

Craig: Many agencies need to be convinced that it is in their interest to approach a street project comprehensively. Sometimes the reluctant party is the state but just as often the roles are reversed with the state agency promoting complete streets and the local agency unsure of the benefits.  It’ important to understand the benefits of getting agencies on board with the comprehensive approach required by complete street design.  This is a paradigm shift for many agencies, regardless of whether they are a state or local government.

Fred: Education and engagement is key. This also means sticking to a personalized message or storytelling approach that resonates with the community and stakeholders in order to get collective buy-in. In Jacksonville, Florida the goal of getting off of the “Dangerous by Design” list of metro areas with the worst pedestrian danger index became the complete streets calling card. Agencies need to make sure that the process is data-driven and that the benefits are tangible and measurable over time—whether its safety (i.e., reduced severability of accidents), economic (i.e., increase real estate investment) or sustainability-related (i.e., reduced emissions and runoff).

Q: Why the paradigm shift? What are the real benefits of executing complete street projects?

Jaimie: I believe that the strong emphasis on the suburban auto-centric way of living has left us feeling that we’re missing something.  The health of our country is alarmingly poor due to inactivity. Our safety when we do walk or bike is compromised because the design of the facility catered to motor vehicles and not for people. There are places we like to visit that are highly walkable, with shade trees and store fronts that have high activity that many people find desirable.  While not every area or corridor is going to be like the old Main Street, we certainly can move towards a better balance.

Craig: Surprisingly, reduced cost can be the biggest benefit of a complete streets approach!  Right-sizing solutions, coordinating work and leveraging funding from multiple sources, and consequently reducing design, construction, maintenance and operational expenses have almost always reduced costs on projects we have worked on.  Other benefits, such as improved commercial activity leading directly to more employment, more viable businesses, a better and wider range of services and businesses for the community to use, and increased tax revenue that may reduce pressure on property taxes.  But it goes beyond money; improved air and water quality, greater walkability, and improved health are just some of the benefits noted by researchers.  Still, from a designer’s perspective (and the agency paying for the design), the most important benefit is the reduction or even elimination of re-work.  This not only helps reduce design costs, it accelerates the time it takes to open the improved facility.

Fred: While there are numerous measurable benefits, one of the primary reasons for the shift is the increasingly recognizable value of walkability. Complete streets can fundamentally improve walkability. Walkable neighborhoods have demonstrably higher home values than drivable suburban typologies. Based on current data from WalkScore and the CEO’s for Cities report, in most metro areas, for each additional point on the 100-point WalkScore scale, home values generally increase from $500-$3,000 in value. In Washington, D.C. for example, walkable commercial cores yield 75 percent higher office rents typically than their suburban counterparts. Millennials and Baby Boomers have played a huge role in driving this demand, as well.    

Q: What is it about complete streets that’s so controversial? How do you win community support?

Jaimie: Change can be controversial and people are generally uncomfortable with change.  In the highway engineering community, we have been conditioned to provide a certain level of service and high mobility design for the automobile.  Unraveling this approach and mentality will take some work.  It will be important to continue to educate people on the benefits of a complete streets approach.

Craig: The perception of cost makes complete streets projects controversial.  Or actually, the reality of costs when the term complete streets has been misapplied to projects that simply try to spend their way to achieving community support.  Complete streets isn’t about adding ribbons and bows until the package looks good—it is about doing the right amount of work in the right location at the right time. Other terms are Practical Design or Context Sensitive Solutions. Although the emphasis may be slightly different depending on the term, the outcomes achieved are essentially identical. The key is to define the needs and goals of the community upfront — and not just the transportation needs and goals.  What are the social, economic and environmental needs and goals of the community?  How can transportation projects facilitate achieving those goals?  In reverse, how can achieving goals of other programs and projects the community is pursuing assist in creating the transportation system that the community desires? 

Fred: Any time you introduce a paradigm shift, there will be resistance. Often, complete street efforts face opposition from both professionals in the traffic engineering community and the public. Most of this resistance stems from the perspective that the new design will result in a loss of road capacity and vehicle throughput and consequently lead to more congestion. An open and honest assessment of tradeoffs generally results in greater acceptance or at least informed consent, especially when the conversation about the street is reframed as a place designed for community versus capacity. If you begin with the simple question of do you want your place to be an area to “come through” vs. one to “come to”, most prefer the latter.

Q: Funding and implementation approaches?

Jaimie: Implementing a complete streets solution, especially where it’s a new concept, could take the form of low cost pilot projects or smaller scale projects to obtain proof of concept. Gaining momentum on the concept is important, especially if there are concerns or opposition to change.  Certainly if the funding is available and the desire is there to go for everything, then go for it!

Craig: It’s critical to find partners who have a stake in solving the problems or in achieving the goals established early during a project’s scoping process.  Leverage achieving these more integrated goals with funding from the agencies and organizations that would benefit by a complete streets solution is usually fairly easy to accomplish.  Other funding mechanisms—bonding, TIF, assessments, value-added taxation—can be considered but need to be tailored to local conditions and traditions. 

Fred: There are a number of funding options, including non-traditional forms such as MPO SU or CMAQ funds that can be flexed for complete street projects. Additionally, transit agencies that are in the process of implementing high capacity, bus rapid transit or even rail-based projects can leverage FTA funding for bicycle and pedestrian improvements up to a half mile. From an implementation standpoint, it is strongly advisable to suggest pilot approaches to demonstrate the improvements in a low cost fashion (via restriping, for example) over a short duration. Pilots are a cost-effective way to showcase a project which more often than not ends up becoming a permanent solution. 

Q: Craig, you recently authored the forthcoming AASHTO guidance, Creating Complete Roadway Corridors, and the FHWA’s new Visual Impact Assessment process.  Can these be applied to complete streets?  Likewise, Jaimie and Fred, you recently coauthored a piece for TRB documenting the Complete Streets Initiative for the Jacksonville Transit Authority, what do you intend to explore with this?

Fred and Jaimie: We co-authored this publication to share the JTA story about a transit agency driving complete streets locally and the unique process involved given the limited funding. One of the major elements that we intend to explore is better defining the “first mile/last mile” experience, planning and design.  The linear aspect of a complete street down the transit corridor needs to be in harmony with the transit stop.  The paths and means for people to get to stop requires consideration of the pedestrian, the type of development and the surrounding street support system.

Craig: The new AASHTO guidance applies the concepts of complete streets to a wider range of street types and landscape settings.  The guide examines four different types of roadways—streets, roads, highways and freeways—in four different landscape settings—urban, suburban, rural and remote—generating sixteen prototypical roadway types.  The elements that compose a roadway, from the geometrics of travel lanes, to the design of bridges, to the character of soils in the right-of-way, are discussed for each roadway type.  The AASHTO guide, when it’s released later this year, will provide direction for transportation planners and designers on incorporating 24 of these design elements and outline how best to apply the ideas we’ve been talking about to more types of projects in varied locations than the streets or road projects in urban or suburban settings that we’ve been discussing.

The new FHWA Visual Impact Assessment (VIA) process can be used now to help an agency be more holistic in their approach to roadway planning and design.  Intended to be part of a project’s NEPA documentation, VIA can be used to establish a more robust Purpose and Need.  It is especially useful at identifying the resources that a community values and how they want to see them maintained or enhanced by the proposed project.  I like to think it accelerates the NEPA process by generating community acceptance and deflecting the need to re-work solutions.