Completing our streets

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St. Albert’s streets are made for cars.

That’s a problem for senior and St. Albert resident Myrna O’Neil, who is not a car and walks about five kilometres a day around town.

“I do just about all my shopping – I’ve even carried shovels and brooms home – by walking, because it gives me a destination.”

A volkssporting enthusiast, O’Neil said she walks because vision problems make it tough for her to drive.

She regularly encounters cracked or uneven sidewalks that can send her stumbling and crosswalks where the cars just don’t care to stop.

“I carried next-of-kin information with me every time I went for the mail,” she said, as up until recently her trip to the mailbox involved a dangerous crosswalk near Akins Drive and Alpine Boulevard.

Cranky’s Bike Shop owner Andrew Phelps also has a tough time cycling on this city’s streets.

“If I could avoid the roads entirely, I would,” he said, but the city doesn’t have the trails to make that possible.

There are no bike paths that go north-south in the city, which means you have to contend with cars on streets like Boudreau or St. Albert Trail to reach many places. If you ride on the sidewalk, you put fast bikes in the same space as slow pedestrians and endanger both.

“That’s kind of having people walk on the road in a school zone and saying that’s safe,” Phelps said.

There’s something missing from St. Albert’s streets, and that something is people. If you’re not in a car, getting anywhere in town is at best inconvenient and at worst dangerous.

Planners across North America are looking to a new concept called complete streets to bring people back to roads. St. Albert transportation manager Dean Schick is developing that concept in this community.

Streets for the people

“A complete street is a roadway that’s designed to balance the needs of multiple users,” he said, including kids, seniors, drivers, cyclists, bus riders, and pedestrians.

An incomplete street is more or less what you find in most cities today, said Nancy Smith Lea, director of the Toronto Centre for Active Transportation.

“The sidewalks might be narrow, there’s probably no bike lane, there’s probably no transit shelters,” and it just feels unsafe for cyclists and pedestrians.

That’s St. Albert Trail in a nutshell, with its narrow, cracked, or missing sidewalks, and roaring traffic. Campbell and Riel industrial parks also have incomplete streets – if you want to go for a walk on your lunch-break there (as many employees do), you have to dodge cars and trucks since there are few sidewalks along the narrow streets.

Complete street policies are an attempt to get away from the car-orientated approach to street design North Americans have had for the last few decades, Smith Lea said. Instead of planning for just cars, you plan for all users.

St. Anne Promenade is St. Albert’s newest street and reflects many complete street ideas, said Schick.

Originally, this street had a crumbling sidewalk and plenty of traffic speeding past St. Albert Place, which made for an unpleasant walk. That was a problem, as the city had lots of pedestrians here due to the library, downtown festivals and the farmers’ market.

The new street gives pedestrians more priority. There are now wide sidewalks to either side to accommodate lots of walkers, and a roundabout and lower speed limit to reduce the risks of collisions. There’s also on-street parking so people can drive here, leave their cars and walk to downtown activities.

Schick points out that the promenade has dedicated spaces for pedestrians, parking, and moving traffic. Complete street policies encourage designers to divide streets into zones by function, with different guidelines for each.

“An arterial in downtown should look and feel a bit different than St. Albert Trail because the needs of the actual users will be a lot different,” Schick said. Likewise, a residential street by a school might have wider sidewalks than one that wasn’t because you expect more active transportation at the school.

A complete street policy will offer developers a toolbox of road standards they can adapt to meet different contexts, Schick said.

Calgary’s complete street policy has 13 street templates, for example, ranging from the expressway-like “skeletal” road to the more Perron Street-like “activity centre” street. Significantly, these templates don’t try to serve all users equally; each is designed to favour some over others. Skeletal roads favour cars and heavy trucks over pedestrians as they’re all about speed. Activity centre roads favour cyclists and walkers, as they’re destinations meant to encourage people to linger.

Complete streets involve trade-offs, Schick said.

“Within this right of way, you need to choose how you’re going to accommodate everyone.”

Complete benefits

The complete street movement is primarily about safety, Smith Lea said.

“There’s thousands of people in Canada killed every year because of cars,” she said, and that’s because our current streets are all about moving many cars quickly. Complete streets use bike lanes, bulb-outs, crosswalks and other engineering tricks to ensure safer interactions between cars and people.

Take Hwy. 7 East in the Region of York near Toronto, for example. From 2010 to 2015, local governments spent $308 million to rebuild this six-lane road along complete street lines, adding a dedicated bus lane, bike lanes, and tree-sheltered sidewalks, along with narrower roadways with a 20 km/h lower speed limit, Smith Lea writes in Complete Street Transformations. These changes resulted in a 64 per cent drop in collisions and a 61 per cent rise in pedestrian traffic.

Complete streets are more equitable, as they offer ways for non-drivers to get around, Smith Lea said. They can also relieve congestion (as people take up less road than cars), reduce air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, and fight obesity by encouraging active transportation.

And they can save cities money.

Complete streets might cost more up front. The City of Calgary reports that complete streets cost about 10 per cent more than conventional ones due to features like bike lanes and wider sidewalks. Yet the operating costs are lower for complete streets, Smith Lea said.

“It’s cheaper to maintain sidewalks and bike lanes than it is to maintain streets that are just for cars.”

There are other savings as well. Smart Growth America reports that when Reno, Nevada, turned part of the four-lane Wells Avenue into a two-lane street with bike lanes and wider sidewalks, it cut collision rates 45 per cent – enough to save $5.8 million in health-care cost in one year, which was more than the project’s $4.5 million cost. Other communities have seen more jobs, higher property values and millions in new investment by making their streets more pedestrian-friendly.

Road to the future

We can’t rebuild all our streets overnight, Smith Lea said. Complete street policies make it so that when we do renovate or build roads, we can change them for the better.

Schick said St. Albert would first see complete street principles in action in newly developed areas such as the north end of St. Albert Trail.

Complete street principles are also showing up in street renovations such as the new sidewalks along the Trail and traffic calming measures in Akinsdale.

O’Neil saw such measures pop up a few weeks ago along her walk to her mailbox in the form of flashing lights and bulb-outs at that aforementioned Akins and Alpine crosswalk.

“Now I don’t mind going for my mail,” she said, and she can leave her next-of-kin documents at home.

It’s better for the community when people are outside doing stuff rather than just sitting in their cars, Phelps said, when asked why we should seek complete streets.

“Making a safer environment for people to want to get out of their cars is the first step to actually making any of that happen.”

Schick said staffers are collecting comments on what St. Albert’s complete streets policy should look like and have a draft ready early next year.

Visit stalbert.ca/cosa/participation/complete-streets/ for more on complete streets.

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About Author

Kevin Ma

Kevin Ma joined the St. Albert Gazette in 2006. He writes about Sturgeon County, education, the environment, agriculture, science and aboriginal affairs. He also contributes features, photographs and video.