Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Complete Streets - What Are They? Who's Going to Use Them? How Should They Be Implemented?

Something I do in my work is to look at the concept of Complete Streets and how it might be implemented into the context of Oklahoma City. Complete Streets is the concept of making roads that are equitable for all modes of transportation; cars, bikes, pedestrians, public transit, freight, etc. In addition to this, Complete Streets strives towards appropriate place-making such that street upgrades are not a blanket solution for all areas of a city, but are tailor-made to enhance the character and usage of a place. Complete Streets policies have been authored, adopted, and implemented all around the country, and Oklahoma City is working towards this goal as well.

Philosophically, I’m a big fan of Complete Streets as a method of improving the lives of everyone in the city. However, I do worry that adding bike lanes and sidewalks (I can’t believe we have to add SIDEWALKS in so many places) will not be enough to make the investment something that impacts the majority of Oklahoma City citizens’ lives. We have to create a culture that appreciates walkability, bicycling as a means of transportation rather than solely exercise, and areas that are vibrant, small-scale places with character.

 Local planners, such as Blair Humphreys have been planning the future of one street in particular, Western Avenue. It’s no wonder that it’s a popular street for upgrading as it stretches further to the north and south of the city than nearly any other street. Western could become the non-automobile transportation spine that provides access to east-west streets throughout the city. Western changes character in many different areas, so there is no single silver bullet change that could be implemented to be effective the entire length of the road: In downtown there are four car-traffic lanes, intermittent sidewalks, no bike lanes, and spotty land use ranging from commercial to gas stations (Figures 1 & 2); around N. 45th Street you see a totally different character, with 2 car lanes, 2 better-defined sidewalks, (still no bike lanes), and a diverse mix of retail, commercial, and residential (Figures 3 & 4); further north you enter suburbia, and Western is stripped to two lanes of car-traffic and nothing else (Figures 5&6).

Figure 1 - Downtown Section View

Figure 2 - Downtown Plan View

Figure 3 - Urban (non-Downtown) Section View

Figure 4 Urban (non-Downtown) Plan View

Figure 5 Sub-Urban Section View

Figure 6 Sub-Urban Plan View

I’m working on Complete Streets examples at work to improve these areas, including different scenarios based upon the amount of money that would be invested in the projects. For now, take a look at the drawings below that were created on This is the same section of Western in the Downtown area as the previous pictures, but with the spacing reorganized to provide multi-modal usage. The 4-lane street has been diminished to a 3-lane street with a center turning lane; bike lanes have been added to both sides; a sidewalk has been added to the eastern side of the street; and none of this would require tearing up pavement. The initial width of the street is maintained, but the lines on the street have been re-painted. Obviously, paint costs money, but approaching streets in this fashion could help make the implementation of Complete Streets in Oklahoma City affordable, and would be a good selling point for those worried about the cost of upgrading.



Adding the center turn-lane would actually make traffic more efficient as no travel lanes are blocked when someone wants to turn left, and the ADT of Western does not require so many lanes, particularly in the downtown area. This design already functions in other areas of Oklahoma City, the downtown and elsewhere, and is being promoted by the Complete Streets Coalition that came to speak with City and County officials and staff last week.

Lastly, to come back to the concept of creating a culture around alternative modes of transportation, I think that it the most effective way to implement Complete Streets would be to begin in districts that already see a lot of people: your Plaza Districts, Paseo Arts District, Stockyard City, etc. In addition, upgrading the streets between these districts to make a network of Complete Streets would create a network of bike lanes and sidewalks so that people could bike to and from the different districts. From there constructing sub-networks that connect to different sites around the city would create an organic system of complete streets that becomes easier and easier to fill in.

The City has allocated a good amount of money to the initiative of improving the transportation infrastructure of the city, and it is imperative that it serve everyone: from those who are currently underserved by the system, to those who have the choice of driving – we need a total buy-in from the community to make this a successful endeavor.


  1. Really interesting! I've never heard of the Complete Streets concept but it makes a lot of sense. I'm sure it must have factored into the planning in Minneapolis. Minneapolis is supposed to be one of the most bike-friendly cities, but to be honest, I am still very intimidated by many streets that DO have bike lanes, as so many drivers still have a lack of awareness and respect for bikers. Even existing bike lanes just don't seem wide or safe enough sometimes. One of the most exciting things I've seen is the conversion of a former railway corridor to a divided two-way "highway" for pedestrians and bikes (the Minneapolis Greenway). Protected paths like that are the "in a perfect world" scenario, I think.

    1. I've heard a lot of good things about Minneapolis, but I understand where you're coming from being intimidated. It's going to take time before American cities catch up to European ones (if ever) in terms of feeling safe using a bike as a means for transportation.

      I wouldn't say that greenways are "in a perfect world"; even Athens has one! From my perspective it seems like greenways are almost preferable to putting bike lanes on roads in a lot of places, but I bet it works better in Minneapolis since there are bike routes that lead to and from the greenway.

      I really want to come with Beth to see Minneapolis some time :-).

  2. Bike lanes are great, but on so many roads, traffic is so thick & moves so fast that it is still terribly intimidating to ride on them for inexperienced, elderly, & very young cyclists. I used to ride my bike around Athens a lot up until 2 years ago when I came down with episodic vertigo and now I don't feel safe riding on anything but empty side streets, sidewalks, and dedicated bike paths. A too-quick glance over my shoulder could be enough to send me into a wobble & falling over into traffic. I feel like many Complete Streets policies should focus more on fully separate bike lanes that are buffered from traffic by a row of parked cars or raised strips w/ plantings. I also believe communities would have much more success properly accommodating cyclists by working with property owners along a business corridor to gain right-of-ways for bike paths behind buildings or along the edges of parking lots rather than diving into an always contentious fight to reduce traffic lanes to accommodate bike lanes.

    1. That's a great point; separating bike lanes from the street can do wonders for making people more confident riding bikes in a city. It could do a lot for building the necessary culture and making drivers more aware that cyclists are out there. That could help bikers to be more confident, and drivers more courteous, on roads that don't have the room to fit separated bike lanes.