Can you make a great place better? The East End is a truly great place. So, every time a change of some sort is contemplated, we have to ask ourselves if the result of that change will in some way detract from the special character of our area. That potential is always there. On the other hand, the opportunity to make a great place even better does not come along that often. The Southampton Transportation Commission recently proposed that the Town Board adopt a “complete streets” policy. This is one of those rare opportunities to make a great place even greater.
Complete streets are streets that are designed for safe travel by all users, not just automobiles. This includes pedestrians, bicyclists, people with disabilities, mass transit vehicles (buses), emergency vehicles and anything else that moves along or across the street. A complete streets policy simply says that the local (or state) government endorses the idea of including a review of all proposed new or reconstructed roads to ensure that they include appropriate features to make them usable by all likely users.I’ve been concerned with transportation land use and public space design issues for several years now. I’ve served as Sag Harbor Village’s representative to the East End Transportation Council, and subsequently as a member of Southampton’s Transportation Commission. As a member of the Sag Harbor CAC I was deeply involved in the effort to create a Gateway to Sag Harbor on the Bridgehampton-Sag Harbor Turnpike that eventually led to a study of the area by the Town’s Department of Land Management and subsequently to the rezoning of several parcels in the gateway area. Last year I was privileged to attend a three-day training program called “Streets as Places” offered by the Project for Public Spaces, a non-profit organization located in New York City, whose focus is on creating and preserving great livable communities.
This work has led me to understand that transportation policy cannot be addressed in a vacuum. It is integrally linked to many other areas of government concern including, health, aging, education, public safety, land use, planning and more. So, when setting out to design a plan to address transportation issues, it is imperative that the designers of the plan give those other areas of concern due consideration. By design, the idea of complete streets addresses multiple areas of concern; an effectively designed complete streets policy will have an impact far beyond the realm of transportation.
Complete Streets are streets for everyone.1 They are designed and operated to enable safe access for all users. Pedestrians, bicyclists, motorists and transit riders of all ages and abilities are able to safely move along and across a complete street. Complete Streets make it easy to cross the street, walk to shops, and bicycle to work. They allow buses to run on time and make it safe for people to walk to and from bus stops. When people are given more convenient, attractive, and safe travel choices they are more likely to not rely solely on automobiles. They can replace congestion-clogged trips in their cars with bus rides or heart-healthy walks or bicycle trips.
On the other hand, incomplete streets – those designed with only cars in mind – limit transportation choices by making walking, bicycling, and taking public transportation inconvenient, unattractive, and, too often, dangerous. Unfortunately, right now most of the streets in Southampton Town are, in one way or another, incomplete. So the opportunity for improvement is great.
There is no singular design prescription for complete streets; each one is unique and responds to its community context. A complete street may include: sidewalks, bike lanes (or wide paved shoulders), special bus lanes, comfortable and accessible public transportation stops, frequent and safe crossing opportunities, median islands, accessible pedestrian signals, curb extensions, narrower travel lanes, roundabouts, and more. A complete street in a rural area will look quite different from a complete street in an urban area, but both are designed to balance safety and convenience for everyone using the road.
Implementing a complete streets policy in Southampton can be a win for the community in many ways:
It makes economic sense. A balanced transportation system that includes complete streets can bolster economic growth by providing accessible and efficient connections between residences, schools, parks, public transportation, offices, and retail destinations. Integrating sidewalks, bike lanes, transit amenities, and safe crossings into the initial design of a project spares the expense of retrofits later. Safer roads also lower police and emergency services costs.
It improves safety by reducing crashes through infrastructure improvements. One study found that designing for pedestrian travel by installing raised medians and redesigning intersections and sidewalks reduced pedestrian risk by 28%.
It encourages more walking and bicycling. Public health experts are encouraging walking and bicycling as a response to the obesity epidemic, and complete streets can help. One study found that 43% of people with safe places to walk within 10 minutes of home met recommended activity levels, while just 27% of those without safe places to walk were active enough. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently named adoption of complete streets policies as a recommended strategy to prevent obesity.
It can help ease transportation woes. Streets that provide travel choices can give people the option to avoid traffic jams by offering them other transportation options, and increase the overall capacity of the transportation network. Several smaller cities have adopted complete streets policies as one strategy to increase the overall capacity of their transportation network and reduce congestion.
It helps children. Streets that provide room for bicycling and walking help children get physical activity and gain independence. More children walk to school where there are sidewalks, and children who have and use safe walking and bicycling routes have a more positive view of their neighborhood. Safe Routes to School programs benefit from complete streets policies that help turn all routes into safe routes.
It’s good for air quality. Fewer car trips translate directly into lower carbon dioxide emissions.
Finally, complete streets foster strong communities. Complete Streets play an important role in livable communities, where all people – regardless of age, ability or mode of transportation – feel safe and welcome on the roadways. A safe walking and bicycling environment is an essential part of creating friendly, walkable communities.
Road congestion and safety are two of the biggest quality-of-life issues confronting Southampton Town. By adopting a complete streets policy, Southampton will have indeed found a way to make a great place even greater.
1 Thanks to the National Coalition for Complete Streets for most of the information, and some of the text in this post.