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  • HDT Team

What is a Complete Street

After doing some research on the topic of biking in MN, something came to my attention that I had to write about. This concerns the “Complete Street” movement. But first a succinct (but thorough) definition: Complete Streets is a program designed to make our transportation grid as accessible as possible to all forms of travel; looking at the needs of cars, bikes, autos, baby strollers, skateboarders, unicycles, and pedestrians.

The ultimate goal is to make getting from one place to another as safe as possible with as many choices as possible. Currently, when you look at a road there is one mode of transportation that is considered and valued above all others, and that of course is car traffic. City planners are focused on getting traffic through from point A to point B as quickly as possible.


NE Brainerd

Let’s take a look at this street. (Nice pic, Chuck Marohn. Thanks!) Here you see a wide avenue in northeast Brainerd. It’s wide (for the area) and can easily support four lanes (two for traffic, two for auto parking) of autos. But, one glaring omission would be any designated route for bikes. Since it’s a residential area, there is limited traffic and any danger from car traffic is minimized simply because of the residential nature of the area. However, this street offers one choice, or at least it is structured for one choice, (cars, baby!) If I were riding my bike down this street, I would have to brave one (of four) car lanes.

Now, if we look at this picture, we can see a little more busy street. However, can you see the difference in the street layout? Where there were zero lines to differentiate between car and bike traffic in the last picture, this street has clearly marked lanes for bicycle and car use. There are curb cuts on the sidewalks for pedestrian use and if you look in the distance you can see a roundabout. It also has narrow lanes which keeps traffic moving in a safe (*read slow) manner. These details make the difference and clearly define this street as “complete”. It offers more choices for the residents.


A “Complete Street”

So, here’s my observation. It can be very difficult to actually define what a complete street needs; too difficult, I think, to maximize each dollar needed for renovation. With so many ways to create and maintain a street, how, in other words, can we define the ultimate goal for each street?

Is creating as many choices as possible for the residents the final goal? I think that, ultimately, city planners have an obligation to create neighborhoods that meet as many residents needs as possible. But, at what cost? I had a chance to talk with a Complete Streets representative last year at the Living Green Expo and he offered up this theory: Every street in the state has to meet the needs of its residents. But, that does not necessarily mean that every street must have bike lanes, defined curbs, sidewalks for pedestrians, or other flair. A rural county road serves its purpose as a means for getting cars through and is in a sense “complete” in that they offer a need for the majority of the users. If 95% of the users for this county road choose to use their vehicles there is little need for alternative choices.

This is where my confusion comes in. If a road is designed for the one choice, how can we be sure that other choices are needed? Now, I’m all about offering up every alternative to the gas chugging beasts to other low emission (high fun!) modes of transportation. But there is only so much available tax revenue we can use on transportation. So, how do we decide what a street needs to be defined as a “complete street”?


A Dual Mode Street

I love this picture. First off, it shows how beautifully simple a street can be. But more importantly, it shows that a compromise can be made in terms of modality. On the right side, you can see your basic county road that offers service to all motorized vehicles. Yet, on the left side, snuggled safely on the other side of a boulevard, you can see a bike/walking trail.

Up here in central MN, we have the Paul Bunyan trail, which has the same basic layout as you see in this picture. A recommissioned railroad trail was paved over and now runs parallel to Highway 371 for about half of its 112 mile length. Now, it took loads of money and backing to get this trail in the condition it is now (wonderful!). And before the trail was made, there was very little bike traffic along the highway. But! Now that the trail is in place and offers that alternative to car, Highway 371 is bustling with bike traffic. The small towns (trail towns, they’re called) along the trail are using this increase in choice as a way to supplement their vitality. Repair shops, restaurants, recreation areas, and lots more attractions are making the choice to bike an attractive one.

Now this is just a single case study, but I think the conclusion holds true. If you build choices into your streets, these choices will be used. Or as my ghostly voice says, “Build it and they will come.” So, it comes down to what you want to include in your community. Do you want increased bike usage? Do you want to limit car fumes or traffic related injuries? Do you want a healthier community? These are things that you must consider when designing a complete street. Because once these streets have attractive choices, people who crave these attractions will come and use them.


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