National streets initiative has Birmingham support
A national movement to re-design streets to make them safer for bikers and pedestrians is getting a local push from Conservation Alabama and the Jefferson County Health Action Partnership.
In February, Midfield became the latest area city to pass a resolution endorsing "Complete Streets," an approach to road-building that takes into consideration all modes of transportation, not just cars.
The city of Birmingham has adopted a similar resolution and Adam Snyder, Conservation Alabama's executive director, said he'd also talked to officials in Tarrant and Bessemer about the concept.
It's a push that dovetails with efforts led by the Jefferson County Health Department to drive down rates of smoking and obesity, and the related proposal to create a countywide network of bike and pedestrian trails, the Red Rock Ridge & Valley Trail System.
Snyder said the resolution simply encourages cities to consider an array of measures from sidewalks and bike lanes to roundabouts and dedicated bus lanes when pursuing road repair or building projects.
"Passing the resolution doesn't obligate them to do anything, but it is a first step to getting cities aware of what they can do to complete their streets," Snyder said.
According to the most recent Dangerous by Design report from the advocacy group Transportation for America, the Birmingham-Hoover metro area ranked as the 16th most dangerous major metro area for pedestrians, with 136 pedestrians killed on local roadways between 2000 and 2009. More than 47,700 pedestrians were killed in the United States during those years.
The electronic version of the report, available on the group's website at t4america.org, includes a searchable map of pedestrian fatalities.
According to the report, there is a predictable correlation: the cities that are the most dangerous for walking also are the cities that have the smallest percentage of people walking to work.
In cities where a greater percentage of the population walks to work, walkers are less likely to be struck and killed.
Since the end of World War II, when cars became more widely available, transportation planners have tended to focus on making roads move more cars and move them faster.
Lanes were added and got wider. Streets were straightened so they could handle faster speeds. Accommodations for walkers and bikers often were an afterthought, if they were considered at all.
But more recently, a growing movement of transportation officials have encouraged more attention to walkers and bikers. Some of the measures designed to improve conditions for bikers and walkers actually resulted in streets that are safer and smoother flowing for cars.
"We can build streets that are safer for motorists and for bicyclists and pedestrians. It is a win-win for everybody," Snyder said.
Under the Obama administration, the U.S. Department of Transportation is requiring that all federal projects that build new roads or improve existing ones to take walkers and bikers into consideration.
The Complete Streets movement is not without its critics, and that includes some of Alabama's top transportation officials. State DOT officials actively opposed a state law pushed last session in the Alabama Legislature by the AARP that would have created a state-level complete streets requirement. And Alabama DOT Director John Cooper complained to Congress that the federal requirement to consider alternative modes of transportation was onerous and unneeded.
Critics also complain that money used for sidewalks and bike accommodations diverts limited money needed for roads and road repair.
Darrell Howard, a planner with the Regional Planning Commission of Greater Birmingham said his agency has been encouraging communities to consider complete streets for years and just last week held another round of training on the subject. Howard said fears that the approach will create additional cost or lead to unnecessary sidewalks are overblown.
"There is still a lot of resistance and some misunderstanding," he said.
A street with light traffic and where traffic isn't racing doesn't need sidewalks or bike lanes, Howard said.
Some major arterial roads with high speeds and heavy traffic are never going to be a comfortable climate for bicyclists, he added.
The complete streets tool kit isn't just sidewalks and bike lanes. A slightly wider paved shoulder might improve conditions for cars, bikers and pedestrians.
Roundabouts, crosswalks, signs, streets signals and dedicated lanes for buses all are things cities can consider.
Transportation officials just have to demonstrate they've thought through whether or which accommodations for walkers and bikers are appropriate on a project, Howard said.
"U.S. DOT is flexible on the waivers," he said. "It doesn't have to be a big burden. But there is a cultural resistance to it. They spend a lot of time saying we can't do it at all, ever."
Howard said projects often are easiest to pull off at the city level. Federally-funded projects flowing through the Alabama Department of Transportation have to meet a high level of design and scrutiny. Locally funded projects can be more nimble.
Snyder said the more local projects pursued, the more ALDOT will understand the popularity and possibilities in the approach.
"It would be great to have the state and the DOT on board," he said. "But there are a lot of streets at the city level."