Wednesday, February 10, 2010

"Complete Streets" in New York

Anyone who has tried to walk, run, bike, roller blade, take a bus, or use any form of transportation besides a good old gas guzzler knows that cars are king throughout 99.9% of our great country. Most roads are designed for high speeds, offer no sidewalks, crosswalks, or bike lanes, and frequently do not have protected bus stops. Ironic for a nation that many people claim is "free" and "mobile" - only if you have the ability to drive and finance your own vehicle.

The "complete streets" movement is just one factor of sustainable urban design, but it is a crucial one because it can be enacted incrementally, and it offers remediation for both urban and suburban streets. Essentially, the goal of a complete street is to accommodate multiple forms of transportation in the same cross-section. The elements can adjust by location, and might include sidewalks (narrower or wider), bike lanes, dedicated bus lanes, bus bulbs, planting strips, on-street parking, and more.

Complete streets are, of course, visible all over Europe, especially in places like Paris and London and many of the German cities. There, street sections are not necessarily narrower, but there is less wide-open space for cars and more dedicated areas for parking, walking and biking. One particular element is "bulbing" or "necking down" - streets get narrower at intersections or at crosswalks to discourage speeding. Here in the States, streets tend to be of uniform wide width, and can feel like oceans of pavement for pedestrians trying to cross on foot.

Luckily, there is a National Complete Streets Coalition, which provides tons of information on complete streets legislation and projects. New York City recently released a stunning design manual for complete streets. This 250+ page tome offers dozens of alternatives and lots of images to show off the results. This photo I took shows an example of a completed street, Bleecker Street at Perry Street in Greenwich Village:
To me, this is almost picture-perfect urbanism. The variegated buildings, the street with dedicated bike lane (in bright green, all across NYC) and parking lane, the picturesque street trees, the busy stores and shops, the pedestrians... it exudes a feeling of good urban life.


  1. When you say that Bleecker Street is "completed" do you mean that it was completed using the Complete Streets Manual, or that is a model that the manual should be using?

    Question: How do you reconcile the streets that "Complete Streets" recommend, which include marked bike lanes, pedestrian cross walks, planting strips, sidewalks, hard curbs, bulb outs, with a Street in Poundbury which is available to the same number of uses in a city that doesn't use signage or painting on streets?

  2. I am not exactly sure when the bike lane was added to Bleecker Street, but I would bet it was during the formative years of the streets manual. The bike lane in the photo is one of the typologies for bike lanes shown in the street manual. Bleecker is part of the growing bike network in NYC (go to to see them all).

    I think Poundbury type streets are a special case because the entire fabric of the town is built around them, i.e., the houses are close to the road and the entire scale is much smaller than many cities. I have a hard time envisioning a city with existing asphalt roads transitioning to "tabula rasa" type streets where there is no structure to traffic, especially here in the US. It's especially interesting to think about Poundbury in relation to most other UK cities, where the streets are extremely structured (raised crosswalks, numerous pavement markings, medians, frequent narrowing and widening to control traffic, etc.)

    I think the "complete streets" method is the middle ground between our current expanses of asphalt and Poundbury. Perhaps in a place like NYC which is implementing complete streets over time, some of those completed streets could eventually become test cases for the one-pavement, no signage idea.