Complete Streets – Spanish Style  – families bike riding, kids playing, elders sitting and talking, bike share, strollers and yes – car

I recently returned from two weeks in Spain.  Aside from providing a great family getaway, our travels provided daily examples of how great cities can work if properly designed and managed.  One takeaway was the sophistication and elegance of the European model of ‘complete streets’.  While we continue to make small strides and snail like progress – each year getting a few more inches of pavement for walkways or landscape– the places I saw seamlessly and fully integrated complete streets into their everyday urban fabric.

These are not simply roads that widened the sidewalks or some painted bike lanes from previously ‘too wide’ travel lanes.  What I saw were incredibly complex ‘mobility ecoystems’ that seamlessly layered and integrated cycletrax, shared streets, loading areas, gathering areas, seating areas and yes, travel lanes.  What was so beautiful about these was no one mode dominated the form and character of the travel way.  They clearly were designed and considered as a tapestry that looks from building face to building face – not just the Right-of-Way.  They resulted in carefully crafted pieces of urban design and that were beautiful as a complete composition, and yet singularly functional for each mode they were meant to accommodate.

And this was not just looking at a static street section.  At the height of morning and evening traffic I felt like I was watching a ballet  - lights changed and cars stopped, bikes and peds moved forward.  Lights changed again and pedestrians – including a plethora of strollers and wheelchairs – all moved freely and without the usual complications we see in so many U.S. cities.  Lights changed again and cars moved smoothly – not dominating the street, but politely waiting and taking their turn in the most civilized of manners.

Pedestrians and cars moved freely and with mutual respect in all the streets I saw.

Pedestrians and cars moved freely and with mutual respect in all the streets I saw.

What was really stunning was the number of people who were sitting on benches facing the street!  Or people playing with their kids in shared streets!  Or bikes and families riding freely, while the service vehicles and double hinged busses worked their way through the corridors.

The other thing that struck me was how narrow the sections were for ALL elements in the streetscape.  For years it seems the battles I’m engaged in is always a zero sum game – ‘travel lane loses width so sidewalks and bike lanes can get wider’.  Or travel lanes have to be bigger so sidewalks lose.  But the places I saw seemed to easily subscribe to the adage that less is more.  2 meter bike lanes were common – and that was going in both directions.  The typical cross section for real pedestrian streets was both elegant, human scaled and functional.  It was 15 meters building face to building face with a 4 meter travel lane, a 2 meter parking lane on one side and 2 meter bike lane on other. Sidewalks were 4 and 3 meters.  Cafes spilled out where they could, bike share stations borrowed a few parking spaces, and truck loading and unloading used parking when it was needed.

Cycle trax were often two way and only 2 m wide.

Cycle trax were often two way and only 2 m wide.

A great example of flexible street edge space – sometimes parking, sometimes loading, sometimes café and sometimes bike share.  Thinking about an adaptable framework, vs dedicated ‘either or’ lanes really made these streets complete.

A great example of flexible street edge space – sometimes parking, sometimes loading, sometimes café and sometimes bike share. Thinking about an adaptable framework, vs dedicated ‘either or’ lanes really made these streets complete.

As I stood there in awe watching an intersection function with grace – I was struck with one simple idea.  So here is my call to action: Let’s not spend another dollar writing policies for complete streets.  Let’s stop sinking dollars into studies and manuals for transportation officials that just don’t understand what can be achieved, and really don’t want to listen.

Instead, let’s start running flights to great cities in Europe where these same engineers and politicians can witness first hand the same thing I did – this stuff works.  It creates great city fabric and functions better for everyone.  It reduces construction costs and, if built properly, improves adjoining real estate values. We don’t need more text, we need epiphanies from those who plan, design, approve and fund our streets.  And I believe this will be best done if they see it first hand, rather than debate about it in abstract for another two or three decades.  So let’s take those few dollars we have and start running training tours and opportunities for those who control the standards to experience what ‘could be’.

And maybe, at the end of the tour, as they sit at a sidewalk café enjoying a nice glass of wine, they too will come to understand how important the lowly street really is – not simply for moving cars – but for creating great cities for people.  

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