Are complete streets a completed deal in Portland?

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The headline was set in at least 72 point type. It screamed: “Forest Avenue set to become one-way street…to flow outbound only … to promote public transportation, cut emissions.”

Sadly, it was published April 1. No such radical measure is planned for Portland. Yet.

Still, a quiet revolution in transportation thinking is starting to be applied to the city’s streets. The first effects of these policies—known variously in the U.S. as Complete Streets, shared streets, or SAFE policies—feel rather evolutionary: A narrowed street here, bicycle markings on minor and major streets, sidewalks widened and connected there, farther on a traffic island with shrubs and a tree.

It’s a revolution that, had it not been for the nearly century of auto-centric planning for streets, would simply be called common sense. In the late 60s and early 70s auto-first-and-foremost thinking—combined with the fervor for “urban renewal”—reached a highwater mark here in the city with Victor Gruen’s plan for a circumferential highway around our fair peninsula.

Nationally, Gruen had been so successful developing the idea of shopping malls in suburbia that he was handed the job of downtown urban planning, which he saw solely as smoother car-flow. (That both of these grand concepts are now moribund hopefully helps squelch the larger notion that big, new ideas build better cities.)

Now, we are trying to undo the damage done by these downtown killers. This year, with luck and advocacy, we will see:

•The narrowing of Spring Street, widened as part of Gruen’s scheme;

•Movement toward the narrowing of Franklin Arterial, another Gruen gem, to earn its new/old name, Franklin Street;

•The reconfiguring of Anderson Street in East Bayside and West Commercial Street along the waterfront to better accommodate pedestrians and cyclists.

Farther out, making State and High streets two-way and reshaping Congress Square to be pedestrian friendly will also advance the Complete Streets agenda.

The simple essence of Complete Streets policies is that all potential users of public ways—that is, all of us: child with hula hoop, skier on crutches, oldster with walker, on foot or bike, in car, or on bus—get at least equal consideration when the street is built or revised.

Traffic calming measures—designed to prompt motorists to proceed at

safe speeds—go only partway toward fully shared streets. If fully implemented, Complete Streets connect streets and sidewalks into full networks, provide bus shelters and bike lanes, plant trees, and convert parking stalls to parklets.

That’s the crux of the matter: Will the city of Portland, the State of Maine and the federal government—all of which have or are developing shared street policies—fully implement them?

The Portland City Council adopted a Complete Streets policy in 2012 that was voted one of the 10 best in the country. A working committee is now drafting design guidelines, revised ordinance language, and technical standards to implement the policy. But the city’s bicycle/pedestrian coordinator, Bruce Hymn, is already advocating for changes in current street redesigns, along East Anderson Street for example, to comply with the intentions of Complete Streets.

Since the early 1990s, the federal government has provided significant funds for bike/ped use on some projects. Its rules (23 U.S. Code § 217) apportion federal money for bicycle use and walkways on federal lands, adjacent to U.S. highways, and on bridges being (re)built with federal help. In all these cases, it says cyclists and pedestrians “shall be given due consideration’’ and facilities for them “shall be considered, where appropriate.

Meanwhile, here in Maine, the Department of Transportation has been required by law for more than 20 years to give “preference to … other transportation modes before increasing highway capacity through road building activities.” That’s because the Sensible Transportation Policy was passed in 1991 to stop the widening of the Turnpike. But, despite that progressive, well written law, if funding is any gauge, the Department is still auto-dominated.

Now, however, prompted by the legislature, MDOT is drafting its own Complete Streets policy. When adopted later this month, it will say that all users will be ensured “safe and efficient access to the transportation system.”

An early draft was good in saying that “Addressing the needs of bicyclists, pedestrians and transit users early in the … planning process … is critical….” But it was regressive in saying, “Safe and efficient mobility for motor vehicles is an important element of this policy” and “this policy is not intended to put the needs of pedestrians and bicyclists ahead of the needs of the motor vehicle users.

In fact, fully shared streets should favor the pedestrian. Why?

•Everyone is a pedestrian, but one person in three does not drive—young, old, poor, disabled, green.

•Cars maim and kill pedestrians, but pedestrians do not damage or total cars. If averages hold, today, and every day this year and next, a pedestrian will be struck by a car here in Maine.

•Pedestrians are the lifeblood of vibrant cities. To see how cities are enlivened by tilting even slightly towards walkers and cyclists, visit New York City with its new car-free areas along Broadway, its bike lanes along 9th Avenue, its rental bike scheme, its High Line.

So the state’s transportation policy should reasonably state the opposite: “This policy is not intended to place the needs of motorists ahead of the safety and other needs of cyclists and pedestrians.” In fact, a redraft now states, neutrally, “System preservation projects should not decrease the safety for any road users.

It also says that any project that excludes cycling and walking accommodations must explain why.

The real issue is not language, but implementation. In the greater Portland area this year 500 miles of roads will be repaved and restriped. The restriping will remain unchanged—favoring cars as usual—unless the community in which the road is located requests a change to favor multiple user groups. So advocating that the City Council or Selectmen or local Public Works Department change road markings will be needed to effect desired changes.

And, in the Franklin Street project, the state DOT required an agreement with the City that no outcome would lower the current level of service for cars. “That was and is a troubling position,” commented Tony Donovan, president of the Maine Rail Transit Coalition, in favoring a Complete Streets policy. “We need to first consider [the level of service] for pedestrians in crosswalks, sidewalks, shoulders, connection to transit, places and trail access.”

Here! Here!

Peter Monro of Keep Portland Livable is on the city of Portland’s Complete Streets Working Committee.

 

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