Complete Streets: An Interview With Austin’s Director of Transportation Rob Spillar

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Image courtesy of The City of Austin

Earlier this summer, Austin City Council adopted a Complete Streets policy, which ties into the Imagine Austin Comprehensive Plan. Complete Streets isn’t a policy exclusive to Austin; across the country 600 regional and local jurisdictions, 27 states have adopted Complete Streets policies to design streets with all users in mind, not just cars. That includes pedestrians of all ages and abilities, transit riders and vehicles, and cyclists. To learn more about what the Complete Streets policy will mean for Austin’s streets, we sat down with the city’s Director of Transportation Rob Spillar.

Q: Rob, now that the Complete Streets policy has been adopted by City Council, what changes can Austin residents expect to begin seeing?

A: Well, it’s a high-level policy so translating it into built projects will take time. But residents can expect to hear a shift in the dialogue and a consistent message from all City of Austin departments. We’ve always talked about quality of life and what well-planned infrastructure can do to improve that. The Complete Streets policy defines more details – like the importance of connected travel networks and of making our streets “beautiful, interesting and comfortable places for people.” Austinites can expect to see the City following the policy’s eight principles on a project by project basis.

The policy applies to private development, as well, so we will be asking large private projects to fully incorporate the principles. The policy stresses the importance of having that conversation early in the development review process.

For the City’s own capital improvement projects, one change coming out of the policy is that we will fully integrate Complete Street goals and principles from the earliest stages. For example, a bike facility won’t be an “add on” – it will just be standard practice. We are going to mine every opportunity to create a more walkable, bikeable, transit-friendly city that works for drivers too.

Q: What are some specific actions or changes that will take place soon as a result of Complete Streets? For example, will bike and pedestrian or transit infrastructure become an even higher priority (at least in some places) with Complete Streets?

A: Complete Streets aren’t really a new goal for Austin – this policy builds on everything the city has already been doing, and raises the bar even higher. One change is that in addition to mobility goals, it integrates “green infrastructure” goals and urban design goals. We’ve never had a single policy that puts it all together. Of course, working through the details of implementation will take time.

Within the Transportation Department we have actually just this year formed our Active Transportation Division, to allow us to integrate more fully all travel modes into our transportation planning. The Bicycle Program transferred to us from the Public Works Department, and a new Pedestrian Program at Austin Transportation will be developed. Public Works will continue to be our valued partner in getting sidewalks and bicycle facilities built and maintained. Infrastructure for all types of mobility has become an increasing Austin priority, and that will only intensify, as we work on complete streets that give people more “safe, comfortable, and convenient” options for how to get around Austin.

Q: What will streets begin to look like in the future and how is it different? What is the timeline, and what comes next?

A: To be a Complete Street – one that is truly “safe, comfortable, and convenient” for people of all ages and abilities, travelling by all modes – our busy, major roads typically need separate protected facilities for people biking and people walking. One big shift is a new emphasis on protected bike lanes that physically buffer cyclists from traffic. On a neighborhood street, we may just need street designs that slow drivers to safer speeds. One of our first action items is training staff across departments at the City of Austin in the coming months to ensure we are all working towards the same goals.

Austinites can look to major corridor plans and projects to see complete streets emerge. The transportation planning project starting now for South Lamar is one to watch. On Burnet Road, we will be starting construction on about $15 million in improvements, the first phase of implementing a plan to make that a more high-functioning and complete street.
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Rob Spillar, P.E. Director Austin Transportation Department

Rob accepted the challenge of helping Austin form a transportation department in 2009 and since then Austin’s role in transportation has been transformed from responsive to a regional leader and proactive force for all levels of our region’s transportation system.

To read the policy, and learn more, visit http://austintexas.gov/department/complete-streets

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