Considering the Future of Complete Streets

At their Tuesday, June 9 work session, the Mayor and Commission will begin the process of defining implementation strategies for ACC’s existing Complete Streets Policy. These implementation strategies will affect every corner of the county for years to come. We encourage you to attend the work session and to familiarize yourself with Complete Streets concepts.

More importantly, please write to the Mayor and Commissioners to let them know you support creative, flexible design and underlying priorities that do not give preeminence to motor vehicles.

The following letter outlines questions we believe Commissioners should raise at Tuesday’s work session.  Please use any portion of this letter in your comments to the Mayor & Commissioners. And by all means, please share this far and wide.


BikeAthens and Complete Streets: Prince Avenue are pleased to see a Complete Streets Policy report updating the community on past and future projects. We hope this type of analysis occurs annually.  The specific projects referenced in the materials include designs championed by other Georgia cities that we are excited to see come to Athens (i.e., buffered bike lanes).  While we are, for the most part, satisfied with the projects discussed, we have some questions about the larger impact and direction of ACC’s Complete Streets Policy. Before we get to our those questions, we’ll note that a stronger, more impactful policy would apply Complete Streets principles to all projects, big or small. As the Complete Streets Coalition highlights:

“Under [the Complete Streets] approach, even small projects can be an opportunity to make meaningful improvements. In repaving projects, for example, an edge stripe can be shifted to create more room for cyclists. In routine work on traffic lights, the timing can be changed to better accommodate pedestrians walking at a slower speed. A strong Complete Streets policy will integrate Complete Streets planning into all types of projects, including new construction, reconstruction, rehabilitation, repair, and maintenance.”

As currently written, the ACC Complete Streets Policy is restricted to new road construction or major rehabilitation. This limits the number of potential complete streets projects, and gives staff discretion to apply the Policy during resurfacing and re-striping. Amending the Policy so it applies to all projects would create a more reliable, transparent mechanism for identifying and adding meaningful enhancements to our transportation network. It would facilitate the Policy’s key objective: the creation of a “comprehensive, integrated, and connected transportation network.”


Question: Why were the 20,000 ADT limit and 10-year Level of Service projections (LOS is a measure of motor vehicle travel delay) selected by staff as the appropriate “Road Diet” criteria?

Current research indicates 20K ADT on the corridor is not the upper limit for a successful street reconfiguration.  Since 2005, more research and experience have demonstrated the efficacy of lane reconfigurations at much higher traffic counts.  Furthermore, LOS measures one metric—travel delay, for one user group—motor vehicles.  As such, it is incompatible with the goals of Complete Streets.

This from the FHWA:

• “The ADT provides a good first approximation on whether or not to consider a Road Diet conversion.” (Emphasis ours)

• “A 2011 Kentucky study showed Road Diets could work up to an ADT of 23,000 vehicles per day (vpd).35

• “Knapp, Giese, and Lee have documented Road Diets with ADTs ranging from 8,500 to 24,000 vpd.37

• “Road Diet projects have been completed on roadways with relatively high traffic volumes in urban areas or near larger cities with satisfactory results.”

The goal of reconfiguring traffic lanes is to increase safety and efficiency of the street.  Most often, there is no effect on traffic volume, and little to no effect on travel time.

A list of Complete Streets Projects

A majority of streets saw ADTs increase after the lane reconfiguration

The above chart (PDF) shows 6 projects with “before” ADTs above 20K for the corridor; and 8 projects with “after” ADTs above 20K.   The goal of a so-called “road diet” is to increase traffic among all modes! (We’ll note that “road diet” is a poor metaphor because the reconfiguration adds value to the street—more lanes equal more users.) Road reconfigurations are designed to more efficiently allocate under-utilized pavement among all street users.

Moreover, published studies of complete streets reconfigurations rarely refer to LOS, and they do not reference 10-year LOS projections.  Indeed, the ACC T & PW follow-up report (PDF) on the original Baxter St. reconfiguration does not refer to LOS, and it does not refer to a 10-year traffic projection.  Ten years after the Mayor and Commission last considered the “Road Diet” policy, it is time to incorporate it into the Complete Streets Policy and update the “road diet” criteria to better reflect current research.

Question: Because LOS is simply a measure of motor vehicle delay, is it an appropriate measure for Complete Streets? 

LOS focuses solely on motor vehicle travel time; therefore, its use in determining appropriate multi-modal treatments is at odds with Complete Streets goals and objectives.  The North American City Transportation Officials (NACTO) agree: “LOS is one of many tools that may be employed to assess traffic conditions in cities, but it should never be the only tool used” (emphasis ours). An “A” LOS is one where there are minimal delays for cars and trucks—no stopping at lights, no stopping for people crossing the street, no slowing for people on bikes.  It is mono-modal and rewards rapid vehicular movement. Increasingly, as jurisdictions adopt Complete Streets policies, they are also adopting new metrics to better quantify how streets provide safe, convenient service to all users.  Again NACTO:

• “Chicago’s Complete Streets Manual (2013) moves away from the LOS paradigm. The manual recommends using no minimum vehicle LOS and prioritizes pedestrian LOS, requiring no pedestrian delays in excess of 60 seconds.2

• “San Francisco adopted its Transportation Sustainability Program in 2002. This policy mandates the gradual elimination of LOS.”

There is a host of research devoted to creating new multi-modal service metrics. See here, here, here, here (link to PDF), here, here, here (PDF), here, and here (link to pdf).

Question: Will Transportation and Public Works be developing Complete Streets Performance Measures, akin to those currently in use for motor vehicles?

The ACC Complete Streets Policy’s goals are desirable, with a strong statement of intent.  However, we currently have no method of monitoring the progress of implementation or providing feedback on performance measures.  The FY ’16 budget for Transportation and Public Works incorporates Performance Measures (PDF), but they focus on motor vehicles: “# of Miles of Roadway striping, # of signs Replaced, # of traffic signal Upgrades.” (p. C-107)  It would be easy to include goals for # miles of sidewalk created, # of miles of bike lane striped, # of low-stress intersections created, # of pedestrian signal improvements, # crosswalks enhanced. Complete Streets Performance Measures would allow the community to engage in the visioning of ACC and track policy implementation.

Question: Is the cost of utility relocation a Complete Streets cost?

This is the second time in the last few years the cost utility relocation has been raised only after approval of a Complete Streets project (College Station Bridge Replacement). The strict criteria for allowing street reconfigurations, combined with the the costs of road widening and utility relocation, raises doubts about the ability of the Complete Streets Policy as currently written to have any meaningful impact.  Road diets are only recommended on low ADT roads (and roads with little projected growth, which means they are probably not where any one wants to be). Yet, in the absence of a complete street conversion, the only solution to create extra space for people walking, people riding bikes, and people riding the bus, is to widen the road.  In those cases, the cost of the road widening or the utility relocation will put the project in danger of exceeding the 20% cost cap.  The result is a patch-work of projects that provide no connectivity, especially failing connect people to the most popular locations. Creative, flexible design and underlying priorities that do not give preeminence to motor vehicle LOS can and should reduce road widening pre-requisites for complete street improvements.

The answers to these questions will guide the future of Complete Streets in Athens and determine if we follow the example of other Georgia cities in accommodating all modes of transportation, or continue to limit transportation choices and allow motor vehicles to clog our main streets.

-BikeAthens and Complete Streets: Prince Avenue