Ideas Worth Stealing: Fast, inexpensive street changes that get big results

    File image of Cooper Michael

    File image of Cooper Michael

    Just do it.

    With apologies to Nike, the sneaker company’s slogan has been reappropriated by city transportation officials, who have been grappling with the traffic and safety ramifications from the revival of urban cores. With limited budgets and streets increasingly crowded by cars, bicycles and pedestrians, how can cities develop and implement Complete Street policies?

    This was one of the questions discussed during a panel discussion at the Keystone Crossroads conference, Urban Ideas Worth Stealing. The panelists advice: Just do it.

    In Reading, the city managed to write and adopt an award-winning Complete Streets policy — the first to receive a perfect 100 score from Smart Growth America — in just a few months. Craig Peiffer, Reading’s zoning administrator, told a full room how he pulled it off: leaning on Smart Growth America for technical advice, getting the outgoing mayor to adopt the policy via executive order — rather than engage in a lengthy debate with city council — and leveraging a $10,000 grant to cover a day-long workshop that got local stakeholders to back the staff-written plan.

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    With the Complete Streets plan already in place and starting to be implemented, the stage is favorably set for passing a new comprehensive city plan through Reading’s City Council, which can incorporate the safer street policies.

    Compare that to how Philadelphia passed its own Complete Streets policy: the Complete Streets Handbook only became enforceable nine months after City Council passed its Complete Streets Bill, which came three years after Mayor Michael Nutter issued his Complete Streets executive order. Mayor Jim Kenney promised to appoint a new Complete Streets commissioner to oversee implementation and enforcement of these rules, but the position remains unfilled months after taking office.

    Philadelphia’s former Deputy Mayor for Transportation, Rina Cutler, had some of her own fast-moving guidance to offer, though. Pilot projects were the “it” in Cutler’s “Just do it” advice. Instead of trying to get local stakeholders to all sign off on hypothetical projects based on lengthy descriptions and illustrative renderings, just do a pilot, Cutler urged. Make a proposed bike lane tangible using cheap, temporary paint, to demonstrate how it would work. Cutler showed slides of parklets — tiny, temporary installations that replace a parking space or two — to illustrate her point. Describing a parklet was almost pointless; now that they’ve been done in some neighborhoods, their popularity has grown across the city.

    Cutler also pointed to a messy intersection in West Philadelphia, noting how they have improved the pedestrian experience simply by painting crosswalks and placing planters, using operational interventions rather than engaging in a lengthy and expensive construction project to rehabilitate pedestrians triangles.

    Cutler, now a Senior Director of Major Stations, Planning and Development at Amtrak, noted some of her earlier battles against bureaucracy, describing how US Department of Transportation officials initially balked at the idea of painting bike lanes on the South Street Bridge green to increase their visibility. Pilot programs help convert skeptics who either cannot or will not imagine how various traffic safety improvements would work.

    Improved safety alone can be reason enough to implement effective Complete Streets strategies — preventing death and reducing injuries have become as important in the street planning process as estimated traffic flows and commute times. But streets that are better designed for cyclists and pedestrians can also inspire economic development, as the three panelists noted.

    Toby Fauver, deputy secretary for multimodal transportation at PennDOT, recalled examples of improved pedestrian experiences near transit stations leading to a surfeit of new retail opening soon after. PennDOT has grown more flexible in recent years, said Fauver, noting that he worked on a parking project with community churches near a regional train station. Instead of building a new parking lot for the station at an estimated cost of $20 million, they improved the churches’ parking lots and allowed commuters to park there during the work week, when train ridership peaks and church attendance ebbs. That project only cost $3 million.

    Working with churches is something new at PennDOT. Outside of PennDOT’s District 6, which covers Southeast Pennsylvania (including Philadelphia), the agency has been criticized for outmoded thinking on urban street design issues. And even in the relatively well-regarded District 6, PennDOT has caught it’s fair share of flack. But, Fauver argued, thinking at the state agency was changing, as projects like the church parking lots showed. Some hesitated to try something new but, in the end, even the slow moving state bureaucracy found itself saying: Just do it.

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