On Repeat: Why Chase St. Underscores the Need for an Improved Complete Streets Policy

The 3-Year Chase St saga reaches a disappointing conclusion. After temporarily re-striping Chase St with a new configuration, ACC is moving to return Chase St to its original 4-lane layout.  Athens-Clarke will remove the the would-be bike lanes.

In 2015, we first highlighted how ACC’s imperfect Complete Streets Policy (it is missing half of the Complete Streets essentials) created the absurd situation of ignoring Safe Routes to School while using a car-only traffic analysis to justify bike lanes.  The situation has not improved.  Chase St. continues to reinforce the need for an improved Complete Streets Policy.

The latest decision to reevaluate Chase St marks the 3rd such attempt in three years.  The latest Traffic Impact Analysis (TIA) once again fails to mention people walking, biking, or using the bus. Literally. The words “people” “person” “pedestrian” “bicycle” or “bus” do not appear in the TIA. “Bike lanes” are only referenced to note bike lanes were planned and will be removed. The TIA examines only the impact on motor vehicles (and tries to guess what traffic conditions will look like in 2037). The traffic impact analysis does not attempt to see how the street works as a whole. This is a powerful reminder of the limitations of ACC’s Complete Streets Policy.  It is a reminder: while bike lanes on Chase would have been nice, Chase St. was NOT a bike project.

We have 4 additional takeaways:

  1. Chase was NOT a bike project. The lane reconfiguration was done under the “Road Diet” Policy. ACC’s road diet policy does not evaluate the street’s suitability or need for bike lanes. It only looks at the impact of the configuration on motor vehicle traffic, motor vehicle crashes, and available space (distance from curb-to-curb). When so-called Road Diets “fail,” people blame the bikes lanes. Again: these are NOT bike projects.  They expressly ignore people on bike. There is no multi-modal balancing, looking to see how changes would impact all users. Hawthorne, Dougherty, and Chase are NOT bike projects.  These are car safety projects first. Incidental improvement for other people is an occasional by-product.
  2. We must use a Complete Streets framework to evaluate and measure how streets work for all users. ACC uses Level of Service almost exclusively (L.O.S. is the traffic-engineer standard for measuring motor vehicle delay on a simple grading scale. There can be variation inside the same grade). Level of Service is a poor analytical tool and quickly becoming an anachronism. It looks exclusively at motor vehicle delay. It does not consider other users. Furthermore, L.O.S. is unreliable. Whether 4-lanes or 3-lanes, ACC’s traffic analysis says the L.O.S. will not change. In other words L.O.S. says there is no difference between the two configurations.  If, as the city says, there is unacceptable delay, L.O.S. failed to suss it out.  It is clearly not precise enough to use as basis for such important decisions.  ACC should replace L.O.S with a more reliable, modern, best-practice Complete Streets metric.
  3. A strengthened  Complete Streets Policy would reduce the numbers of re-paving bloopers.  First, it was Baxter St.  Then Dougherty. Now Chase.  When traffic impacts analyses view everything through one tiny lens people feel ignored, rightly complain, and designs change.  A Complete Streets Policy requiring ACC evaluate impacts on ALL traffic would create a more inclusive, holistic and community-centered project.  It would reduce the likelihood of evaluations, revaluations; stripes added, striped removed. Churning confusion.
  4. Athens cannot and will not become a more bike / walk / transit-friendly community—a more people-friendly community—with policies that only look to improve motor vehicle traffic speeds. More than new Bike-Walk Plan routes, we need the Mayor & Commission to adopt and implement improved policies recommended by the Bike-Walk Plan. Traffic Impact Analyses must look at ALL traffic and ALL users.

Three years ago we started talking about Chase to see if there was an inexpensive way to use a repaving opportunity to make it easier for kids to walk and bike to school.  Three years later so little has changed, we will re-run our comments from May 3,2016.

Ultimately, this dilemma reveals the limitations of the existing ACC Complete Streets Policy. Complete Streets aim to make our streets safer for all users.  If a street becomes safe for people on bike by making it more dangerous for people in cars, it is an incomplete street.  If a street can only stay safe for people in cars by shifting all the risk to people on foot and on bike, it is an incomplete street. Putting the safety of one group against the safety of another is not a solution. Simply suggesting people avoid the corridor altogether is not a solution.  Nor is is making the street so intimidating, people on bike simply avoid it (of course, some do not have a choice but ride everywhere). We can do better.

Complete Streets

ACC Complete Streets Checklist (PDF)

As ACC’s Complete Streets Resolution states: “ WHEREAS, Athens-Clarke County’s Complete Streets guiding principle is to design, operate and maintain Athens-Clarke County’s streets to promote safe and convenient access and travel of all users.”  (p. 5 emphasis ours. Note: the policy available online does not incorporate changes made in the adopted Commission Defined Option.) Or as similarly affirmed by the National Complete Streets Coalition: “Everyone, regardless of age, ability, income, race, or ethnicity, ought to have safe, comfortable, and convenient access to community destinations and public places–whether walking, driving, bicycling, or taking public transportation.”  The debate about Chase St. has fallen far from this ideal. If we had a stronger Complete Streets Policy, perhaps we could have created a stronger community vision, focusing on connecting Chase while remaining sensitive to the different community contexts.  If the Complete Streets Policy contained a more nuanced implementation plan, perhaps we would not find ourselves playing a zero-sum game even as the street remains incomplete.

In the end, we are left with a process that forces neighbors to ask the Commission to protect their safety by making the street more dangerous for others. This cannot be how we move toward promoting safe and convenient travel of all users.  Therefore, regardless of the final decision on the configuration of Chase, we hold to our vision of vibrant, walkable streets across all of Athens-Clarke County, and we renew our request to strengthen the Complete Streets Policy to ensure Chase Street, indeed all our streets, are safe for ALL users.