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BLOG(Rachelle Niemela): Complete Streets – Sudbury vs Chicago

Blog posts reflect the views of their authors.

Chicago has just released the 2013 Edition of its Complete Streets Design Guidelines. It is one of hundreds of U.S. cities and states, and a few Canadian cities, who have endorsed and implemented the concept of Complete Streets. And it is definitely the type of document that Sudbury needs to develop to guide its approach to road design.

In 2011, City Council passed a motion that ”…Infrastructure Services consult both the Sustainable Mobility Plan and the Bicycling Master Plan when preparing the capital budget and when preparing tenders for every capital road project.” In 2007, it passed a resolution to “make Greater Sudbury the most pedestrian-friendly city in Ontario by 2015″.

Yet there has been no formal process put into place which specifically spells out how this motion and resolution will be implemented.

We’ve done some good things like establishing trails along Junction Creek and in other areas of the city; putting some isolated (and non-connected) pedestrian- and cyclist-friendly infrastructure in place; and establishing a Sustainable Mobility Advisory Panel to make sustainable mobility recommendations to the City. But we sorely lack the policy and corresponding implementation guidelines and plans to mandate a holistic approach to road design – a design which incorporates all modes of sustainable transportation. That is what is needed to put the priority on pedestrians and cyclists, and to shift away from making automobiles our number one priority while designing and maintaining our transportation infrastructure.

We need to implement a Complete Streets approach in Sudbury. Step one is to formally adopt Complete Streets as a policy in the Official Plan. And step two is to implement guidelines, implementation plans, and budget to ensure Complete Streets principles guide all capital road projects in Sudbury.

What is a complete street? From Complete Streets for Canada ( “A Complete Street is designed for all ages, abilities, and modes of travel. On Complete Streets, safe and comfortable access for pedestrians, bicycles, transit users and the mobility-impaired is not an afterthought, but an integral planning feature.”

In its Executive Summary, the Chicago document describes its policy, which was implemented in 2006:

“The safety and convenience of all users of the transportation system including pedestrians,
bicyclists, transit users, freight, and motor vehicle drivers shall be accommodated and
balanced in all types of transportation and development projects and through all phases
of a project so that even the most vulnerable – children, elderly, and persons with disabilities
– can travel safely within the public right-of-way.”

The policy initially spawned two bicycle plans, and Chicago now has a long-range Streets for Cycling 2020 plan, and a new Chicago Pedestrian Plan.

Chicago uses what it calls modal hierarchies to guide the decision-making process around design guidance for creating complete streets projects. Their default model is Pedestrian > Transit > Bicycle > Automobile. All transportation projects and programs, from scoping to maintenance, favour, by default, pedestrians first, then transit riders, cyclists, and automobiles.

A different hierarchy can be assigned to a specific project, but only after a compliance committee reviews requests for exceptions. This is a far cry from how Sudbury has in the past looked at road construction or reconstruction, where automobiles have been the king, and it’s been easy to eliminate pedestrian and cycling enhancements because of additional cost.

The intent in Chicago is to change the mindset of all of those who are involved in designing and maintaining roads and streets: “When we say “complete streets”, we mean designing streets for people”.

We need to entrench the concepts of Complete Streets into our Official Plan, get away from standard, rigid engineering standards, and start thinking about the people of the City – all of them, whether they walk, take transit, cycle or drive.

A case in point is the recent review of parking on Elm Street, where several criteria were used to evaluate the success of the project, which affected not only drivers, but pedestrians and cyclists too. While it’s commendable that the study included some safety concerns in regards to pedestrians, other rationales were the fact that drivers were (illegally) stopping on the railway tracks, public comments and complaints (not overwhelmingly against parking), traffic volumes, speed and delay studies, intersection capacity, occupancy rates of the parking spaces, winter road maintenance issues, and parking enforcement issues. Where’s the focus on pedestrians? And cyclists?

A study on speed delay was one criteria used in recommending ending parking on the street. Those statistics were cited as a way to measure the effect of on-street parking. For example, eastbound traffic delays were an average total of 36 seconds, which the report translated into a total annual cost of $23.92 for the “average” Sudbury driver who travels through the downtown. What about the average cyclist? Or pedestrian? All of whom were affected as well. Are the safety and effectiveness of our streets really only measured by how much it costs a driver to get from point A to point B?

The lack of safe sustainable mobility infrastructure impacts businesses and our general economy as well. Last year, one of our major road projects was the Brady Street reconstruction. Sidewalks weren’t included in some sections. Cycling was definitely not part of the project. We’ve heard stories of visitors to the City who stayed at the Howard Johnson hotel on Brady, thinking that its proximity to the downtown would allow them to park their cars and easily walk to the city core. On a map, the hotel appears to be within 5-10 walking minutes of restaurants and shopping. But there is no way to walk from the hotel to the city core – using the Riverside pedestrian tunnel requires taking your life in your hands to cross four lanes of high-speed traffic. You are in the same situation if you are a cyclist – it’s extremely daunting to try to turn left from the hotel to travel towards the city core. These visitors stated they wouldn’t be staying there again.

Other pedestrians have complained that walking on Brady Street towards Douglas Street is dangerous and that there are no sidewalks on one side of the road in that section. And that snowbanks have made it impossible to walk on the side of the road when the sidewalk ends. One story from a pedestrian is that she called a cab to get from one side of the street to another, as she feared for her safety in crossing the street to get from the sidewalk to a business across the street, where there was no sidewalk.

Why did the City not take the opportunity in its reconstruction to put pedestrians and cyclists first? Because in Sudbury, our first priority is the automobile.

There were some good projects in 2012 that created some cycling infrastructure, like paved shoulders on resurfaced arterial roads that connect our communities, the implementation of a short section of sharrows on Regent Street, and the extension of the bike lanes on Bancroft Drive. But these projects were implemented in isolation, and in most cases, without connections to other cycling infrastructure.

Sudbury currently lacks the vision that is required to change our approach to dealing with road construction. The 2013 construction season is right around the corner, and the City has not announced any plans to create additional cycling infrastructure on existing roads. We have the Elgin Greenway Project (which is still unfunded), and a few subdivisions where the developer is paying to implement cycling and pedestrian infrastructure (like the Silver Hills subdivision).

But the 2013 capital road projects slated for this year haven’t identified any enhancements for sustainable mobility. Including the only big arterial project, at the Lasalle/Notre Dame intersection, which is costing close to $2.6 million dollars, and which doesn’t include cycling infrastructure.

Chicago’s document talks to community engagement, and how their design trees are “intended to help engage the community through the process of street selection and design.” Their processes don’t look at automobile volumes and speeds as the primary motivator for the design of roads. Rather, they look at the buildings and roadway topology as the beginning of the process. The topology of the street – for example whether it’s a residential area, or whether it’s a transit corridor – guides what the street will look like.

Categories of roadways like residential, mixed use, commercial centers, industrial, institutional, and downtown roads all have guidelines for the space used for the three major categories of users: the pedestrian realm, including frontage, pedestrian zones and furniture zones; the interstitial areas including curb, parking and bikeway zones; and the vehicle realm, including travel lanes for buses, automobiles, trucks, and bicycles.

Another radical input to the process is ecological design, both above and below grade – meaning that the goal is to minimize the paved area. This includes intersections, where the goal is to minimize excessive pavement and impermeable surfaces. Interestingly, Chicago has a Sustainable Urban Infrastructure Guidelines and Policies document.

An interesting quote in their guideline is “…streets used to be different than they are today. Modern ‘improvements’ were not universally embraced when they were first put in place…in the 1920s and 1930s pedestrians had to be trained to cross at intersections and wait at traffic signals.”

Prior to our embracing cars as king, the streets belonged to the pedestrians and cyclists. All Sudburians are pedestrians during their day. Some of us choose to enhance our mobility by using bicycles, or transit, or cars. But in the end, we are pedestrians first. Walking and cycling are healthy activities and good for our environment and our health. Driving is not.

Sudbury has high incidences of high blood pressure and obesity, for which we need to spend millions of dollars to treat. We need to shift focus and spend on preventative solutions, rather than trying to treat the symptoms of skewed lifestyles.

Our Mayor and Councillors need to be visionaries that embrace initiatives that will make our population healthier and happier, our air cleaner, and our neighbourhoods conducive to encouraging people to walk and cycle more. And to start reducing vehicular traffic in the City, which will incur over $26 million dollars in capital road expenditures in 2013, and which causes pollution, congestion and gridlock for all road users.

We need to switch our priorities and focus on making our streets safer for pedestrians and cyclists by building infrastructure that encourages these activities, by cutting down our travelling speeds, by designing roads that reduce crashes and injuries, and by implementing targets to increase pedestrian, transit, and cycling shares of trips.

Chicago’s document refers to the Three Tenets of Streets Design, namely vehicle speed, minimizing exposure risk, and being able to predict what others will do. “Streets with consistent speed profiles, intersections with predictable signal operations, and lowspeed streets where drivers make eye contact with each other, cyclists and pedestrians are generally safer streets.”

We’ll make our streets safer and our population healthier by implementing a Complete Streets Policy which will ensure that all modes of transportation are evaluated and funded when we design and repair our roads infrastructure.

Please consider sending a letter or email to your Councillor or to the Mayor, asking them to ensure that Complete Streets is adopted as a policy in our Official Plan, and that corresponding implementation guidelines are developed in time to guide the 2014 budget capital road project decisions. Public input sessions on the 2014 budget are slated to start in mid-June; please also consider making a presentation or a written submission.

For more information on Chicago’s implementation, read their policy: Complete Streets Chicago

Rachelle Niemela is a Sudbury-based environmental activist. This piece was originally published on the site of the Sudbury Cyclists Union.

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The Sudbury working-group of The Media Co-op was formed to create independent media in the North, to speak to our issues and outlooks on our communities as well as the world around us. Independent media provides an avenue for people who are wishing to gain critical perspective on the issues that matter most to us, and to give a voice to those people and stories that you won't find in the mainstream media.

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