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The Way Forward: Complete Streets


So far in this blog series I’ve gone over a number of problems with road infrastructure in the US.  Today I’d like to look at some of the solutions that are emerging as the way forward.  “Complete streets” is a title that encompasses a range of components including facilities for pedestrians, cyclists, and transit with the overarching theme of moving people, not just moving cars.

Lawyers Road in Fairfax County, before Road Diet (L) and after (R).

Lawyers Road in Fairfax County: before Road Diet (L), and after (R)

One method of creating complete streets is called the Road Diet.  This generally seems to be used when starting with a four-lane road with no turn lane and no shoulders.  The Road Diet typically reduces the travel lanes down to two, one in each direction, but importantly adds a center turn lane.  The remaining space left over from the fourth travel lane is turned into shoulders or bike lanes.  In the DC/NOVA area there are tons of four-lane roads like this.  Despite having been maximized for car traffic, they can be aggravating to drive on because a single left-turning car can shut down the left lane for a minute or more, waiting for a gap in oncoming traffic.  The queue of cars behind the left-turner then starts to peel off into the right lane, bogging it down as well.  The Road Diet’s added turn lane means that the travel lane is always flowing smoothly.  Cycling is dramatically improved as well, for both cyclists and drivers.  Rather than sharing a narrow right lane with cars, cyclists can pedal safely along the newly created shoulder or bike lane.  In another local road diet project pedestrian islands were added midway across a crosswalk to make crossings easier and safer for foot traffic.

The Road Diet on Lawyers Road, pictured above, was constructed in 2009, meaning that traffic planners have had time to review the results in detail.  VDOT found an 80% reduction in crashes and reduced speeding without increasing travel times.  Possibly the most encouraging result of all is VDOT’s assessment of public approval: from “mixed” before to 74% approval one year after.

An artist's rendition of a living street.

An artist’s rendition of a living street conversion

A step beyond a complete street is a “living street“.  In this model cars are still allowed but are generally restricted to walking speed while pedestrians and cyclists are given priority.  Curbs and striping are absent and the road becomes a social space rather than just a transportation corridor.  Traffic calming measures such as chicanes or bollards are incorporated to avoid leaving a direct path for cars, encouraging low speed driving.  Living streets seem to fall somewhere between a regular street and a pedestrian plaza and are best suited for residential streets or dense shopping areas where through traffic is absent.

One of the best examples of this model is the Dutch Woonerf.  The Dutch observed up to a 40% decline in accidents on streets converted to woonerfs despite encouraging children to use the entire road space for playing.  Woonerfs are becoming increasingly popular throughout Europe, which is perhaps not surprising, but they’re also beginning to take root across the Atlantic.  Toronto will soon be building two such streets.  There are already a handful (warning: PDF) in the US and there is even consideration right here in Alexandria, VA of converting two blocks of busy Union Street into a woonerf!

a sign indicating the entrance to a woonerf

a czech sign indicating the entrance to a woonerf

The number of communities across the US with complete streets policies was nearing 500 (warning: PDF) as of last year and continues to grow.  Despite the occasional false start, complete streets and living streets represent a growing trend that improves public spaces for everyone.

Transportation Series Index
Part 1: Freedom of Movement
Part 2: Coded in Law
Part 3: The Urban/Rural Divide
Part 4: The Source of Value
Part 5: Copenhagen
Part 6: E-bikes in America
Part 7: A Two-Day Trip?
Part 8: The Way Forward: Complete Streets
Part 9: Of Race and Socioeconomics
Part 10: The Power of Attitudes


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