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

UPDATE: Commissioner Melissa Link will likely introduce a Commission Defined-Option to address drivers’ concerns about the re-design of Chase St. between Boulevard and Rowe.  We appreciate her work on the issue; here is our take on the year-long effort to improve Chase Street for all modes of travel.

After a year of review, ACC recently released plans for new designs for Chase Street.  Near Chase Elementary, the designs included a crosswalk to serve students walking to school from the east; further down the street, the plans removed the center turn lane between Boulevard and Rowe. Staff presented this design after their professional analysis revealed the reconfiguration would introduce minimal delay, while creating space for bike improvements.  The previously suggested 4-lane to 5-lane conversion (2 travel lanes /  center turn lane / 2 bike lanes) between Rowe and Newton Bridge remained unchanged from the last round of public comment.  Not surprisingly, BikeAthens supports increasing the number of bike lanes in town and on Chase St.  Arterials without bike infrastructure carry a higher crash risk, and contradicts ACC’s mission of “facilitating a positive environment for individuals to obtain a high quality of life […] by providing innovating, high quality services and responsible stewardship of the community’s resources.”  In the next few years, new developments, like the Southern Mills, will bring even more people to the Chase St. area—people that will be expecting transportation choices.

At the April 19th Mayor and Commission Agenda Setting meeting, two residents of N. Chase Street worried about removing the center turn lane because of concerns the removal may make it more dangerous to enter and exit their driveways.  Now, we will not discount their experience, just as they would not discount ours.  So we have a terrible situation: people who bike on Chase risk being hit by fast moving traffic; people who live on the street think removing a shared center turn lane will place them at greater risk for a car collision as they enter and exit their driveways.  How can the Commission balance such scales?  Who must bear the brunt of the Commission’s final decision?

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.