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Complete Streets: How they Will Change the Way You Drive

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On: Fri, Aug 15, 2014 at 10:14AM | By: Bill Wilson

Complete Streets: How they Will Change the Way You Drive

Road development in the US has followed the same basic pattern since the end of World War II:  Add more lanes, make them wider, and increase the speed limits. It’s a good strategy, given the pace of development over the past 50 years. The nation’s expansion during that time has been explosive, even when allowing for the occasional recession.

Like all things, of course, economic growth has its dark side. This has become more apparent over the last 20 years, as some problems become ever more serious. These issues include:
• Urban sprawl resulting from lack of city planning.
• The disappearance of local communities in favor of strip malls and chain outlets
• Pollution and other environmental threats to public health.

One way to stem these effects is to rethink how neighborhoods are designed and built, including the roads that link them together. That is what the “complete streets” movement is all about. It stresses principles like these:
Encouraging alternative forms of transportation like walking and bicycle riding by adding routes for those who use them.
• Narrowing existing vehicle lanes.
• Lowering speed limits accordingly, to reduce fuel use and the severity of accidents.
• Promoting the development of parks, community centers, and local businesses, reducing the distance Americans must travel to take advantage of these types of facilities.

In short, the complete streets initiative wants to encourage people to drive less, exercise more, and stay closer to home when possible.

The largest and most influential group working for these changes is the National Complete Streets Coalition. Founded in 2003, it’s an umbrella organization that brings together diverse groups with common interests, including powerful associations such as the following:
• The National Association of Realtors.
• The Institute of Transportation Engineers.
• The American Society of Landscape Architects.
• The Association of Pedestrian and Bicycle Professionals.
• The National Association of City Transportation Officials.

So far the coalition has influenced policy makers in five states and 25 local jurisdictions. It draws much of its support from the huge number of Americans who ride bikes on a regular basis, both for recreation and as a primary means of transportation. It has focused its efforts on urban and suburban areas, places where the changes it proposes are easiest to accomplish and likely to do the most good.

Not everyone is thrilled with the complete streets movement or the ways it seeks to influence government policies. Libertarian groups, for example, criticize the movement as an example of Socialist-style central planning. Others fear that the initiative could lead to congested streets, more wrecks, and loss of freedoms. Writers for the right-leaning Cato Institute have expressed many of these concerns.

Advocates of the complete streets movement respond by citing studies that they say debunk worries about congestion and other practical concerns. And they point out that public planners have a long history of taking steps to encourage certain behaviors. These include buying homes, starting businesses, and saving for retirement. With worries about uncontrolled development and global climate rising, it’s likely that the move to complete streets will continue to enjoy growing support for the foreseeable future.

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