Urban hubs across the country have proudly proclaimed their allegiance to “Complete Streets,” supposed metaphorical honey for young, affluent millennials as they flock to downtowns nationwide. In contrast to traditional streets and roadways, which are predominantly designed for the safe and efficient movement of cars and trucks, a “Complete Street” is a roadway that has been designed to accommodate travel for everyone who would use it, including people traveling by car, on foot, by bike, on buses and trains, etc.
Over the last 10 years there has been a heightened awareness of complete streets in urban planning circles and in-town business networks, but – like many young couples who reach that pivotal point in life – it’s time for these innovations to migrate to the suburbs as well.
Over the last 50 years, an incredible number of people have made their homes in the suburbs. Many of them go for a greater sense of community and a slower pace of life. Other prized qualities of suburban living include good schools and safe neighborhoods, parks and recreation, historic districts, and civic spaces. All of these existing amenities can be enhanced by creating roadways that make walking and biking to them possible, but commonly these kinds of streets don’t exist in all suburban areas.
A 2013 survey indicated that when deciding where to live1 , finding somewhere with sidewalks and places to take walks was the second most important criteria for movers. Even though people consider this an important criterion when choosing a home, many don’t live in areas with these conveniences. In a separate 2013 survey, 4 out of 10 respondents said that their neighborhood was not very walkable or not walkable at all2. That latter survey also found that 8 out of 10 respondents wanted streets that make walking safer, even if it meant driving slower.
Complete streets would greatly benefit residents of suburban areas, providing enhancements and alternatives to safety, lifestyle and commute. Connections for pedestrians and cyclists from neighborhoods to public spaces could provide residents an alternative to driving when walking might be preferable. In many cases, a family might prefer to take a stroll from their home to a local festival or performance as opposed to loading kids into the car, sitting in traffic, and struggling to find a parking spot. Navigating neighborhoods and surrounding areas by foot also allows residents to build familiarity and a sense of community with one another. Neighbors who recognize each other are more likely to feel comfortable offering and asking for help – whether that means a cup of flour, a babysitter for date night, or some help with the lawn. Growing concern for personal health has also begun to motivate people to walk or bike, and people would typically prefer to do so in their own neighborhoods rather than driving to parks or gyms. Unfortunately, many people who would like to engage in outdoor activities – whether for health or for leisure – are trapped by a lack of sidewalks in their neighborhoods or on adjacent roads.
Though complete street enhancements would be beneficial in certain suburban areas, the differences between urban and suburban spaces should be realized and respected when introducing these changes to streets and connecting roadways. In some congested downtowns, narrowing a vehicular lane to add a bike lane would be sufficient. However, in many suburban areas, this type of treatment isn’t useful or appropriate. Vehicles move more slowly and are more conscientious of vulnerable roadway users on congested, narrow streets than they do on wide, high-speed highways. Therefore, a cyclist in a bike lane on the side of a major suburban road probably wouldn’t feel much safer than they would in the middle of traffic.
When choosing where to put sidewalks, trails, bike lanes, or other places for people to walk and ride, thought should be given to where people would actually use them. A neighborhood built on the side of a highway, 10 miles from any local amenities, might be well served by sidewalks within the neighborhood, but a sidewalk along that highway probably wouldn’t see a lot of foot traffic. Investments in sidewalks and bike facilities are best situated around places people want to go and the roads that connect those places to their homes.
Optimization and efficiency have brought added value to many aspects of modern living including the home, workspace and technology. As communities attempt to integrate additional modes of transportation, they must balance them with the need for pedestrian safety and the need to make the most efficient infrastructure investments possible.
When placed appropriately, sidewalks, trails and bicycle facilities in suburban communities can bring added value to the lives of their residents.