Phoenix Complete Streets Policy

There is a scene in the Hollywood classic film, Spaceballs, where the main antagonist, Dark Helmet, is searching for our hero’s amongst the desert sand from a hovering vehicle. He declares it’s time to move on because the subjects of his search are nowhere in sight. Helmet’s number two, Colonel Sanders, orders the driver of their vehicle to prepare to move out. This causes Helmet a bit of frustration, upon which he exclaims “What are you preparing? You’re always preparing. Just go!” This is a problem because Helmet is standing in the vehicle, so when the driver accelerates he gets thrown to his seat violently. Government is like Colonel Sanders: always preparing.

Phoenix has drafted a Complete Streets Policy in an effort to move the city toward a more bicycle, pedestrian, and transit-friendly future. It is important to remember that this draft amounts to little more than a memo to guide future directives and decisions. It’s not a technical manual or planning document so there are very clearly important items missing from this document that will be needed to move from preparation to implementation. Many of us are much like Dark Helmet, we’re sick of preparing. But without the preparation, we’ll end up getting thrown onto our butts as one of the many unintended consequences from a lack of preparation.

The first three paragraphs of this document are the standard buzzword-laden vision, intent, and policy parts of most planning documents. It reads like the LinkedIn profile of a job-searcher where they jam as many keywords in so as to show up on as many searches as possible. Basically it doesn’t tell us anything; it just lets us know that they want us to know they’re interested in the things we’re interested in.

The What

The Complete Streets guide will have a positive effect on the street network and connectivity of the city. Paragraph D is something completely different from what we’ve experienced in the region over the past thirty years: “The City shall require large new developments and redevelopment projects to provide interconnected street networks with small blocks.” This will be a drastic departure from the cul-de-sac subdivisions we have become accustomed to seeing built and will, in theory, prevent the 2-mile walk to an elementary school three hundred yards away that is common in new development.

The document will apply to “every transportation improvement and project phase as an opportunity to create safer, more accessible streets for all users.” I read this to say that any re-surfacing, any new construction, any major utility work will result in a complete streets analysis to determine if an opportunity for improvement to bike/ped/transit is available. It doesn’t mean every street will go on a diet every time it’s re-surfaced, but if an opportunity is there to improve multi-modal access, the city will be guided to take action. It will apply to every department of the city and apply to the City Manager, Street Transportation, Planning and Development, Fire and Police, among others.

Exceptions

The City protects itself by identifying exceptions to the rule that a complete street design will be applied in all instances. Some of them make sense, such as to restrict pedestrian movement on interstate freeways or vehicular movement in pedestrian malls. In this case, the document directs a greater effort to be made to accommodate the excluded user elsewhere in the vicinity, such as at crossings or a parallel route. I would like to see better wording in Paragraph C. Paragraph C allows the Director of Street Transportation and Director of Planning and Development to jointly issue a documented exception if complete streets principles is unnecessary or unduly cost prohibitive in proportion to the need or probably use. It is important to remember that this would apply to both the use of motor vehicles as well as bike/ped infrastructure. The unfortunate part is traffic models that are typically used to determine future use can essentially spit out whatever information you want it to. Maricopa Association of Governments, the entity primarily responsible for modeling projected transportation growth, has historically used a traditional suburban traffic model to determine the need for infrastructure such as the Loop 303, primary arterial traffic volumes (which provide guidance to municipalities on how wide to build streets), and doesn’t take into account pedestrian or bicycle traffic. What this means is the models that were previously used to determine what kind of road to build always predicted a massive need for automobile throughput while bike/ped rights would need to be argued primarily anecdotally. MAG has recently published a Special Events Study that measures the rate in which people take transit, drive, or take non-motorized transportation to events based on location and type. It’s a step in the right direction, but I’m not sure that requiring the Director of Planning and Development to sign off on an exception will be enough of a safeguard against a “volume-first” engineer from arguing that there wouldn’t be enough bike/ped volume to justify removing or modifying motor vehicle lanes.

Paragraph D appears to be directed toward restricting motor vehicles. Road projects that might otherwise pass the standard EIS would now be required to give greater consideration to neighboring land uses, wetland, or waterways.

The Culture

The Complete Streets designs will be incorporated into all city operations, and provide well-designed pedestrian and bicycle accommodations along all streets. The goal is to permeate all things within the city so the designs that the Streets Department prescribes are compatible with what the Planning Department is doing, which is in concert with the Parks Department, and so on. This is key as appropriate planning from a land-use perspective will be required to reduce the need for automobile travel and increase the likelihood of non-motorized travel on newly complete streets. Continuing on with Euclidean zoning principles will only result in further perpetuating the automobile culture if daily trips to the grocery store are two miles and a 7-lane arterial street away.

The Goals

On the draft copy, specific numbers for things like boarding’s at a bus stop haven’t been declared. There are legitimate and attainable goals such as a 40% year-over-year increase in the percent of children using active transportation to get to school, 100% of bus stops with x number of boarding’s will have May-September shade from 2 to 7 PM, and a year-over-year decrease in bike/ped fatalities both city-wide and project-specific.

The How

Complete Streets Principles will be incorporated into all relevant departments and into all existing plans, manuals, regulations, and programs such as the Phoenix General Plan, Capital Improvement Plan, and the soon-to-be-a-reality Pedestrian and Bicycle Master Plans. The streets department in particular will be required to amend their design standards and even replace the existing Street Classification and Design Guidelines with a new Complete Streets Manual. There will be a comprehensive inventory of existing infrastructure so as to prioritize projects to eliminate gaps in the networks and support land use patterns and public demand. Funding and staffing will be actively managed to achieve the most desirable results.

Conclusion

The City of Phoenix has taken huge steps forward in creating a more bicycle and pedestrian friendly city. In 2011 and 2012 the city’s bicycle budget was a mere $50,000 which is, quite frankly, pathetic for a city of its size. Fortunately, 2013 saw a drastic move in the right direction allocating $1.5 million for bicycle funding. The size of the hole we have to dig out of is much, much bigger than $1.5 million per year will be able to fill, but the truth is throwing $50 million per year at the deficiencies we have will only do so much. Instead, investing in smart programs that will lead to a culture change like the Phoenix Bike Share and an inter-departmental Complete Streets Policy will have far-reaching effects to redistribute the priority of our public spaces from cars to people.

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