ince the beginning of the last century, as horses gave way to automobiles, engineers focused on making roads that could accommodate larger and larger numbers of vehicles that were heavier and faster-moving than ever before.
In the process, says Commissioner Andrew Flynn, “the designs of our car-centric communities, which were meant to facilitate the movement of people, have disconnected us from our neighbors and upended neighborhoods.
“In the last 70 years, all of the decisions about roads and infrastructure have been car-centric,” said Flynn, “and rightly so. Those were not mistakes.”
But focusing primarily on a smooth flow of automobile traffic carries a price—it can decrease the safety of using streets for anything other than driving, and can increase our already heavy carbon footprint.
According to a 2017 Federal Highway Administration report, people were driving 8.1 percent more than in 2011, but driver-pedestrian fatalities increased 35.4 percent over the same period.
In Mt. Lebanon, the number of accidents where pedestrians were struck by vehicles remained relatively unchanged over that period, with a peak of 15 incidents in 2012 and a low of 10 in 2015. The last pedestrian fatality caused by a vehicle here happened in 2010. One backhanded benefit of the pandemic: vehicle-pedestrian incidents in Mt. Lebanon have dropped to single digits in each of the last two years.
Although Mt. Lebanon has taken strides to reduce its carbon footprint, one of the commission’s priorities in 2022 is to develop a climate action plan to take further action.
In 2004 Smart Growth America, a nonprofit urban development organization, launched its Complete Streets program. Complete Streets aims to reexamine the way we plan our transportation infrastructure, to better place safety over speed, to better accommodate other modes of transportation and to better integrate transportation planning with land use.
“We need to focus on community, instead of just moving people from place to place,” said Flynn. “This is as much about understanding infrastructure as it is about connecting people with the core services they need. Infrastructure is bad because we’ve coasted, nationally, for decades.”
The good news is, Mt. Lebanon already incorporates a lot of the Complete Streets philosophy. Complete streets allow for multiple modes of transportation, but must always include walking and biking. Features of a complete street include bike lanes, curb ramps, planters, signage, street furniture, green infrastructure, high visibility crosswalks, shorter crossing distances, audible signals and safe walking routes. Implementing a Complete Streets policy would be one more way to codify the best practices the municipality already employs.
Complete streets will look different in every community. A complete street in Pittsburgh, which adopted a Complete Streets policy in 2016, will not be the same as a complete street in a rural community, and neither of them will look like a complete Mt. Lebanon street, but all three will provide safety and convenience for everyone.
As Mt. Lebanon prepares a new comprehensive plan—a planning guide for the next 10 years—Flynn would like to see the municipality adopt a Complete Streets plan, with policies in place that allow the staff the flexibility to bring streets more in line with the complete streets idea.
“We need to tie this in with the comprehensive plan, and look at land use,” he said. If we just focus on the streets, what are we trying to accomplish?”
A complete streets policy involves more than just roadwork. It incorporates elements of planning and zoning.
“I’d like to take it one step further,” said Flynn. “I’d like to take a look at how all of our right of way space is being used. Eighty percent of our shared assets are in the public right of way.”
An example: “Everyone should have the opportunity to walk to the grocery store. We’d love to walk to Trader Joe’s or Fresh Market, but that’s not possible. So maybe that means bringing the grocery store closer to homes.”
Flynn acknowledges that the changes will not happen overnight.
“A typical road lasts for 40 years. Every time we tear up a street, we should think about taking a step. Do we underground the power lines? Do we de-asphalt? We have the power to reimagine the future of our community to develop a local transportation system better than what we have today.”
Smarter streets mean safer streets. Studies cited by the U.S. Department of Transportation show that Complete Street policies reduce motor vehicle related crashes and risk to pedestrians and cyclists when well-designed bicycle specific infrastructure is included in the plan. By providing safer places to walk and bike, another study found, 43 percent of people who benefitted from a safe walking and biking area were significantly more likely to meet current recommendations for regular physical activity than those who did not have a safe place.
It’s just common-sense planning,” said Flynn.
10 Elements of a Complete Streets Policy
Vision and Intent:
An equitable vision of how and why the community wants to complete its street, as part of a connected network that allows at least four modes of transportation, but must always include biking and walking.
Benefits all users equitably.
Applies to all new, reconstruction, maintenance and ongoing projects.
Clear, Accountable Exceptions:
Sets a clear procedure that requires high-level approval and public notice prior to exceptions being granted.
Requires interagency coordination between government departments and partner agencies.
Directs the use of the latest and best design criteria and sets a time frame for their implementation.
Land Use and Context Sensitivity:
Considers the surrounding community’s current and expected land use and transportation needs.
Establishes performance standards that are specific, equitable and available to the public.
Project Selection Criteria:
Provides specific criteria to encourage funding prioritization for Complete Streets implementation.
Includes specific next steps for implementation of the policy.