Complete Streets: The Next Level

For many years, most of Austin’s major streets were designed and built for cars first, with other users (like bikes, buses, and pedestrians) often squeezed in during subsequent retrofits. You can tell just by comparing the amount of space allocated – measure those five traffic lanes against a 5-foot sidewalk! But last year, the City of Austin adopted a policy that gives us an opportunity to rethink those priorities, and thus rethink the allocations of street space.Screen shot 2015-06-15 at 4.15.04 PM

The City’s Complete Streets policy aims to design city streets that serve all users – people traveling as pedestrians and by bicycle, transit riders, motorists and others. According to Rob Spillar, Director of the Austin Transportation Department, it is a “single policy that puts it all together,” from urban design to green infrastructure to multimodal travel options. The City has already made strides towards integrating this into public projects and new private developments.

But the reality is that right-of-way is limited, and there are trade-offs inherent in the design of every street. Sometimes different modes complement each other more than compete – like biking to catch a bus – but even those can clash over limited space. Imagine when a bus pulls over into a bike lane to pick up passengers. This is a situation that requires everyone to be paying close attention – cyclists, bus drivers and car drivers.

There are some design solutions that can address these conflicts, like “floating bus stops.” No, these aren’t on a magic carpet flying above the street – they’re bus stops separated from the sidewalk by a bike lane. This allows the bus to pull right up without blocking bicycle traffic. Austin is experimenting with this type of solution on Guadalupe Street through campus – but the trick is that pedestrians crossing the bike lane still need to pay attention, too!

Another common “mode clash” can occur every time a bus stops in a traffic lane – drivers complain about getting stuck, and may try to dash around into the other lane. How can we address this? One way is providing a space for buses to pull off at each stop, although it presents trouble when that bus tries to merge back into traffic, especially during rush hour. Another solution is transit-only lanes, like Austin has downtown on Guadalupe and Lavaca. Obviously, this decision requires a balance we have to make. Who gets the lane – a single driver, or a bus with 20 passengers? What is the best use of the space?

If we want Austin’s streets to truly work for everyone, we need to answer these questions. In some places, auto transportation may need to be priority. In urban settings, the priority may need to shift to space-saving modes like walking, biking, and mass transit.

As Complete Streets enters its second year, the City is reviewing street design and Complete Streets projects, and will be taking on the seven challenges outlined in the U.S. Transportation Department’s Mayors’ Challenge. Those include developing new infrastructure, and data collection to see how people move around different parts of Austin.

Other cities have made their priorities clear. In Chicago, the hierarchy is clearly laid out: pedestrian first, then transit, bicycle, and automobile. How do you think Austin should prioritize Complete Streets designs when the inevitable space conflicts arise?

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Images via CityLab and City of Chicago

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