Complete Streets Series: An Interview With Austin’s Director of Public Works Howard Lazarus

In our last newsletter we interviewed Austin’s Director of Transportation, Rob Spillar, about Complete Streets. For this edition, we sat down with Director of Public Works Howard Lazarus to learn more about what the Complete Streets policy will mean for the department with the responsibility for maintaining, constructing, and managing use of the City’s Right of Way.

Screen shot 2014-08-04 at 1.19.18 PMEarlier 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 and 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.

Q: Now that Complete Streets has been adopted as a policy, what happens next from a Public Works standpoint?

A: Public Works has always strived to deliver infrastructure improvement projects and maintenance efforts in a way that is comprehensive and collaborative.  Because of our role coordinating work among the various City agencies in the right of way, our street and sidewalk projects have ensured that the underground utilities, surface improvements, and amenities are performed in a way that addresses mobility, utilities services, and everyday quality of life. However, absent an approved Complete Streets policy there have been times where addressing community needs and resolving conflicts in a cohesive manner has been a real challenge for us. The Complete Streets policy provides a rallying point for all of us with interest in the right of way to formalize what we have been doing well in practice for many years.

Q: How will Complete Streets change what Public Works is already doing in terms of bike & pedestrian routes?

A: Public Works prioritizes work based upon a number of factors: critical infrastructure condition, accessibility linkages, legal requirements, established policy, community desires, efficiency of work, and geographic equity being the most prominent. To a certain extent in the past, this has led to significant periods of time elapsing between trail, bicycle, and sidewalk segments being connected. Over the past few years, however, we have placed greater emphasis on providing complete routes from origin to destination. A good example is our partnership with Cap Metro in pairing ADA-compliant bus stops with accessible routes that penetrate into the neighborhoods, and from the point of transit delivery in the urban core to destinations. We’ve also integrated infrastructure improvements for bicycles and pedestrians with our Child Safety Program to provide safer routes to and from school for our children. Bicycle and pedestrian facilities are now viewed more as an integral component in mobility planning, and less and less as “amenities” to be added in if funding allows.

Q: What will be some tangible differences to streets that Austinites can expect to see down the road (no pun intended) now that Complete Streets is in effect?

A: We have already incorporated the Complete Streets mentality into our Capital Improvement Program (CIP) projects. When a street is rehabilitated or reconstructed, we typically address sidewalk issues, street furnishings, plantings, and bicycle facilities. The primary change will be in our approach to maintenance of our existing infrastructure. Along with improved pavement conditions, Austinites will see their Public Works Department addressing curb and gutter and sidewalk repairs more comprehensively along with providing a fresh road sealant. We will look at trees and plantings in a more sustainable manner. While this means we may be in your neighborhood a bit longer on the front end, we will leave behind a Complete Streets solution that will result in improved connectivity and enhanced and enduring quality of life.

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