Where the Sidewalk (and Money) Ends, or: It Won't Be Easy Implemeting Complete Streets

At the end of last week we glanced at those surveys conducted during those citywide Complete Streets workshops put on by City Hall beginning last fall, input from which will go toward the manual Sustainable Development's hoping to put together before year's end. Some of which, incidentally, will be covered during today's meeting of the council's Transportation and Environment Committee, during the presentation titled Mayor's Grow South Initiative and Transportation and Environment Committee Goals. But Peer Chacko, second-in-command at Sustainable Development, cautions: Looking at those "common threads" contained within this charts and surveys -- everyone wants, for instance, and more trees and better and wider sidewalks and fewer utility poles -- isn't the way to go.

Says he, the exercises, held all over town, were about "finding more unique preferences from one corridor to the next. We're trying to get a pulse of where the preferences are. In some places, people want everything, and we know we'll have to have some kind of dialogue on where the give is. You can't have everything. But there are others where you can see clear priorities -- where people aren't hot on bike lanes but are big on sidewalks and safety and where lighting's a big deal."

In coming weeks the city will convene even more committees to study the results and decide where to experiment 'round the city with long-term "demonstrations" showing, say, how narrowing lanes on Ross might impact traffic or how widening sidewalks somewhere else might improve a certain neighborhood's walkability and reduce crime and grow businesses. Below you'll find a brief Q&A with Chacko about what comes next and why -- and how a city yet again facing a budget shortfall with a necessities-only bond package hopes to pay for it.

What do you see when you look at the Big Picture assembled by these workshops?

We're not looking at it from that standpoint. We're looking at where to guide our approach in these 14 specific instances. And the less sexy aspect of this is we're trying to put together the Complete Streets manual, and we've come up with a typology of street types. Each of these fall into these street types, and we're using that in our manual to create general guidance that will be applicable to those types of streets.

For instance, you can take a six-lane arterial street and see they don't want reduced lanes, but they do want wider sidewalks. So then, how do we take the right of way we have and come up with concepts to fit that type of street? We'll look at short-term and long-term fixes. The long-term will involve moving curb lines, and that comes with significant money. And im the other instances, on a tighter budget we can see some amount of change in the short term. But it'll take bond money in all 14 instances. And as you've noticed, just striping bike lanes costs a ton of money.

In the case of all 14 projects we're talking about money we don't have but we're looking for and trying to define a range of possibilities. Maybe we focus near-term improvements in some part of the corridor. We're trying to come up with conceptual design ideas and rough budgets. And now we can come back to our stakeholder groups in each corridor to get feedback, but we'll have to have conversations with the council as the bond program approaches about funding Complete Streets. It'll be a challenge. The council is all over the the place on the bond program.

How do you convince them to spend money on Complete Streets then when everyone seems to have their own very specific list of wants and needs, many of which may relate to streets but not a wholesale redo of corridors in some other council member's part of town?

We will have a specific conversation on the bond needs inventory as it relates to streets and how does Complete Streets fit into that. We'll have some conversations with council about: We have these 15 projects, and these aren't the only ones you can call Complete Streets. We're talking about Greenville, MLK, doing more work on Bishop Avenue -- each council member has their own project their interested in. And we have to say it'll cost X amount to do this, and we need to talk about how we'll fund and proceed with implementing Complete Streets in the next few years.

OK, then --so how, when there's no money and even less consensus, do you implement Complete Streets?

Most likely it'll be a scenario of the picking a handful of projects. Or maybe they want to allocate a more general amount to enhance the streets approved in the bond program so they could get some Complete Streets elements.

But when you talk about incorporating some elements, aren't we then getting back to the broader wants and concerns mentioned across those surveys? Can't you say: "Well, everyone wants this, so we should do that."

It does make me want to go back and look at that. But that's not what we're focused on right now. We know the people looking at this were interested in that particular street and not a generic approach to the city as a whole. But I would be interested to see if it tells us anything as a whole. On a generic level I can't imagine there'd be many surprises. By in large people want their streets to be better, and most people aren't happy with the approach. And across the board there's a lot of interest in pedestrian improvements. But just as people are interested in seeing enhancements for pedestrians and bicycles, there's also a reluctance to giving up their cars and that convenience.

It's about the sharing of space. In many instances we'll look at shared bike lanes. In many instances we'll look at trying to be creative in how we can reduce lanes even though we don't change the number of lanes. Maybe we can gain feet or inches on either side. And in many instances we'll take on the challenge of getting rid of lanes. But I am anticipating those'll be tough. There'll be a lot of division. People will say, "We don't want to give up automobile convenience for a bike lane when there will be two, three people using their bikes." Then people will say, "Well, no one will bike unless we make those changes now."

The website promises more to come in March. Such as?

It's toward the end of March we are shooting toward. We have a technical committee of folks that includes technical people from the city and other agencies and developers to start wrestling with a lot of the technical aspects: How will we approach the design on these streets? And during the same time frame we'll pull together focus groups. We have stakeholders from each of the 14 areas. We've had one round of meetings already, and they helped us get the word out about the workshops. They're people who represent the organizations and businesses along those corridors, and we'll get them together and give the a preview of the conceptual designs.

And then from that point on we'll start finalizing them so they can be put out on the web as well as gear up for an open house where we'll give everyone an opportunity to look at those concepts and comment. And we'll pick a couple of locations where we can do a couple of demonstrations. We'll try to pick ones that lend themselves to demonstrations, ideally ones where we can keep the demonstration in place for a reasonable amount of time.

Which is?

Two weeks to a month. So you can test those over time. We want to make sure if we're moving a lane how many people get upset about being late to work. We want to examine safety concerns. And we want to reach out and do media to draw people's attention so they'll come from all over the city to see reverse-angle parking or whatever we do. That's what we have in the cards. We're going to do a preview of the conceptual designs with the focus groups.

Do you know where you want to roll out some of these demonstrations?

Not yet. There are, I would say, some of the 14 streets clearly lend themselves to this more than others. They'll be more in the central part of the city as opposed to from the edge of the city. But aside from that we haven't figured that out yet. We can only afford to do two, so it'll be tough.

My favorites would be places that already have some mixed use , like Knox-Henderson, places in downtown, the Davis Corridor would also make a good candidate. We might also want to explore something in South Dallas like Grand Avenue. Those, my gut says, would be worth picking. But we want to do something substantial, something that would create significant change. If we're merely putting in a shared bike facility, I don't think a test run would be doable.

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