Friday, June 12, 2009

WAMPOpalooza: Complete Streets webinar

Image found here.

Yesterday's WAMPO events, the webinar at the City Council chambers and the open house at the Water Center, created in me a strange combination of frustration with the status quo and hope for the future. (Do keep in mind as you read this that I am by nature optimistic.)

For the reader's sake, I'll discuss the webinar here and, in its own post, the open house.

Though there were about 30-40 people in attendance, most of them were city-planner types. To my knowledge, Janet Miller was the only city council member in attendance, though in conversation afterward I was pleased to hear that District 1 representative Lavonta Williams has also been an advocate for mass/alternate transportation (just as she wrote me--us--that she was). It was also my pleasure to meet Jane Byrnes, who, as I've mentioned before, is the the Bicycle and Pedestrian Representative on the Metropolitan Transportation Plan Project Advisory Committee (MTP-PAC). There were a couple of us "civilians" there, too, and they and I chatted and exchanged e-mail addresses. I'm not by nature a networker, but I seem to be headed that way.

The webinar itself was quite informative even for people like me who have a nodding acquaintance with Complete Streets. The moderator for yesterday's meeting was Gabe Rousseau, the program manager for the Bicycle and Pedestrian Program of the U.S. Department of Transportation; the two presenters were Barbara McCann, Executive Director of the National Complete Streets Coalition; and Michael Ronkin, a former planner with the Oregon Department of Transportation who now consults with municipalities on Complete Streets planning. In his opening remarks, Rousseau (who himself bike-commutes to work) confirmed what I have noted here in the past: that the current administration is keenly interested in promoting (and funding) public and alternate transportation. Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood (who even has a blog) has in several speeches promoted these other modes and has held up Portland, Oregon, as a model of city planning. Personal observation: when President Obama nominated LaHood for the position, many commentators noted that he had not shown much interest in transportation issues during his career as a senator. Maybe it's just that I've become more attuned to these issues than I'd been in the past, but I can't think of a more engaged secretary of transportation than this one has been. Of course, this may be because the President is engaged on these issues as well . . . still, all accounts are that LaHood has so far shown genuine enthusiasm for his work.

[UPDATE: In today's USA Today is an interview with LaHood in which he says some more of the right things. Have a look.]

I'll refer you to the Complete Streets link above if you'd like a fuller explanation of the concept; alternately, though, take a drive down Mt. Vernon between Broadway and Greenway to have a look at one version of a Complete Street. Here, I'll just share some surprising information that, if presented as part of advocates' arguments in favor of cycling/pedestrian infrastructure, could turn some district representatives' heads. McCann noted that one of Complete Streets' coalition partners--and one of its most vocal supporters--is the American Association of Retired Persons. In a poll of its members, AARP learned that 47% of its members have to cross a street they feel is unsafe to cross; 54% feel their neighborhood is inhospitable to walking or cycling; and 56% strongly support Complete Streets policies. In case it's not obvious why this is important: 1) AARP's support complicates the stereotypical image of cycling and pedestrian infrastructure as for the young and middle-aged and/or primarily for recreational purposes by arguing that complete streets are safer streets (about which more later); 2) Older people vote. They are more involved in local governance than younger people; moreover, these folks want to be out and about, but they--as anybody would--want to feel safer as they go about their business. I'll just add here that in my own riding about town, older people constitute a high percentage (less than half, to be sure, but not too far south of that) of the folks I see on bicycles--on the street as well as on the paths. So, AARP's support is not by any means out of left field.

A question I'd had before yesterday concerned street capacity on re-designed streets. In theory, as I said at the conclusion of this post, "a street designed to accommodate pedestrians, bikers and buses as well as cars actually maximizes that street's traffic capacity: more people can use the same space than if it were designed strictly for automobiles." But I had no evidence--not even Mt. Vernon--that this was true: Aside from the bike lanes and wider sidewalks set farther away from the curb, the stretch of Mt. Vernon from Greenway to Broadway is unchanged--it's still a two-lane, two-way street. Besides, it's not anyone's idea of a busy street. But Ronkin in his presentation mentioned the example of a street in Orlando, Florida, that was once a busy (about 20,000 cars/day) 4-lane undivided street that was converted into a 3-lane street (center left-turn lane) with bike/bus lanes on each side; on that street, not only did accidents decrease by over 40% and injuries by 87%, its traffic load actually increased by about 1,000 cars/day. I could hear the planners sitting behind me oooh and aaah a little when they heard this. The point of this: if done right, Complete Streets kills two urban-planning birds with one conceptual stone--it both increases a street's capacity and makes it safer.

Over 80 political entities--a half-dozen states, many cities, and a few counties--have adopted some sort of official language making Complete Streets the principle that guides project design and funding. Moreover, in Washington the Complete Streets Act of 2009, submitted in both the House and the Senate, is in search of co-sponsors (hint, hint). Given the current legislative climate, language advocating Complete Streets principles is fairly certain to find its way into federal legislation. To be blunt about this, if Wichita (and the State of Kansas) want federal money for transportation (duh!), we'll be seeing Complete Streets principles applied to some near-future construction. But not to all; not all transportation construction is eligible for federal money and so does not have to conform to those design guidelines. Hence the frustration a couple of us felt at the make-up of our webinar audience. Planners can propose and plan out the wazoo, but it's ultimately elected officials who will decide what projects get funded and, for that matter, those projects' guiding principles. The fact that Janet Miller knew everyone in the room either as her constituent (me) or as already active in these issues or as city staff is a little disheartening.

Those of us citizens who stayed and chatted for a while, though, came from all parts of the city, and each of us have heard the same thing from more than one person: "I'd bike to work/the store if only . . . ," that blank more often than not filled in with comments about missing or inadequate or impractical infrastructure. I strongly suspect that if you've read this far, you also have heard these same remarks from others (or have thought them yourself). Two council people that I know of (and Mayor Brewer, judging from his remarks concerning downtown revitalization) are supportive of these matters; but they are only three people on a seven-person council, and in any event they are usually going to vote in accordance with the sentiments of those constituents they hear from the most. All that said, it was also clear from this conversation that some councilpeople are, shall we say, more responsive to their constituents than others are. The point: however cathartic it is to complain to friends or on blogs about the present state of things, these things will not change until/unless enough of us speak up often enough and long enough on their behalf to people with their hands on the pursestrings.

Fair warning: that last sentiment will also be the predominant message of my post on the WAMPO open house, here.


Anonymous said...

Good observations, this is why elections are so important. Also, don't get disheartened. The webinar was in the middle of the workday. Maybe more folks would have attended at a different time.

John B. said...

Thanks for commenting, Anon. And your point about the mid-week meeting time is well-taken: I do not have a 9-5 schedule this summer, so I confess to forgetting on occasion that the rest of the world is not similarly blessed.