Perhaps you have heard the term “Complete Streets” or “Livable Streets”. Maybe you even know what makes a street complete or livable. And chances are good that you live and/or work in a community that has adopted a complete streets policy.
But you are probably wondering why your streets still look more like the top image rather than the next two.
So what’s the deal? Why do we repave or even reconstruct old streets only to have them look just like they did before? Why are we building new streets that just look like fresher versions of the car-only roads we built before our livable streets policies? Our sidewalks are still narrow (or non-existent), cars are still king, and bike lanes are rarely built when we repave.
The reason for this conundrum is simple: Our local governments need to adopt complete street design standards to compliment their adopted street classifications.
In 2011 KCMO adopted the latest version of Major Street Plan that defines different types of streets based on their context and intent. While this lays the groundwork for street standards for the various kinds of streets, it stops short of providing any sort of design guidance. As a result when streets get repaved, streetscapes are improved, and new streets get built the complete streets elements, if included at all, are inconsistently applied despite the fact KCMO has adopted a Livable Streets resolution.
Other cities have developed street design standards in order to remedy the disconnect between complete streets policy and what happens in practice. Take a look at Boston’s beautiful Complete Streets Guidelines (Extra Credit: download the actual document here). A quick look through it and you will see why that city has been so quick to implement their complete streets policy.
Design standards like this work so well for two primary reasons. The first is that the city is bound to uphold them because they are adopted as official policy. When Boston has to perform serious maintenance on a street they must build it back in a way that satisfies these standards.
The second reason it works so well is that they more clearly define how complete streets ought to look, feel, and function in practice. The standards make it very clear as to how streets should be designed in order to implement the spirit and intention of a complete streets policy.
If our local governments are serious about their Livable Streets policies, they must adopt legally binding clear design guidelines that add the detail to the policy. Will these guidelines immediately turn our communities into walkable paradise? Of course not. But until we add teeth to our livable streets policies we will continue to see the same old streets we’ve always had.