Complete Streets: seeking better sidewalks and bicycle paths

A meeting of Brookline’s Complete Streets Study Committee on Monday, May 11, started at 7:10 pm in the first-floor north meeting room at Town Hall. All the current members except Thomas Vitolo were on hand for the first full review of a policy statement.

Background: The somewhat vague phrase “complete streets” was adopted in 2005 by an eponymous coalition–mostly planners and architects–promoting facilities for pedestrians, bicyclists and public transit riders as effective as those for motorists. The national coalition since found some institutional housing inside a group called Smart Growth America based in Washington, DC.

Smart Growth America does not disclose its form of organization, finances or commercial sources of support. It offers consulting services for “policy development,” for “coalition building” and for organizing “specific populations: older adults, children, low-income, people with disabilities.” In Massachusetts, it lists as apparently dues-paying members the Conservation Law Foundation, Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance and Metropolitan Area Planning Council but not any individuals, businesses or trade groups.

Legislation:For the 2013 and 2014 sessions of the General Court, state Sen. Harriette L. Chandler of Worcester, a member of rules, ethics and housing committees recently named majority leader, sponsored S.68, “An act relative to active streets and healthy communities.” It sought to create a “complete streets program” in Massachusetts. Then-Rep. Jason M. Lewis of Winchester sponsored H.3091, a companion bill.

The Massachusetts Public Health Association took a lead role in promoting the bills. Health research had shown for years that people who regularly walk or bicycle enjoy significant health benefits. It was joined by the Metropolitan Area Planning Council and by advocacy groups representing bicyclists and pedestrians.

Sen. Chandler’s bill defined “complete streets” to mean “streets that provide accommodations for users of all transportation modes, including but not limited to walking, cycling, public transportation, automobiles and freight.” S.68 died in the Ways and Means Committee, but Sen. Chandler prevailed on March 6, 2014, with a floor amendment to the transportation finance bill, then S.2023.

The S.2023 bill was carried into H.4046 and enacted April 18 as C. 79 of the Acts of 2014. That created Chapter 90I of the General Laws, “Complete streets program.” Its definitions are the same as those in Sen. Chandler’s original bill. The April 18, 2014, law provided $5.5 million in earmarked funds and $50 million in competitive grant funds.

Progress: On May 8, 2014, Mayor Curtatone and the Somerville Board of Aldermen enacted the first municipal Complete Streets program in the state. Other communities–including Framingham, Hudson and Newburyport–had adopted executive policies earlier. Since 2011, the Massachusetts Municipal Association has offered a model policy for such uses to its member communities, which include Brookline.

At least 20 Massachusetts communities have now enacted Complete Streets programs, following Somerville’s lead, and many others have adopted executive policies. A policy need not be complex. For example, last September the Transportation Commission for the City of Waltham adopted a policy consisting of only 207 words that fits on half a sheet of paper.

Brookline activity: In Brookline, a Complete Streets effort has been led by Scott Englander, a mechanical and energy engineer and a member of the Transportation Board. The approach he developed was to set up a committee to consider and propose a Complete Streets policy to a future town meeting. Implementation of the policy would be carried out mainly by the Transportation Board and Department.

The Board of Selectmen approved a charge to a new Complete Streets Study Committee on September 30, 2014, and appointed members of the committee on December 17. Board member Neil Wishinsky became liaison to the committee, and he and Mr. Englander serve as co-chairs.

In a few places, the committee has been called a “task force,” but unlike a typical task force it includes no members of town staff, and it has duties that continue beyond developing a policy. Those include confirming a baseline inventory of pedestrian and bicycle facilities, developing procedures for town projects involving streets and reviewing town standards for private development.

Policy proposal: At the Monday meeting, members reviewed a draft apparently prepared by Mr. Englander along with at least committee members Mitch Heineman and John Bowman. Several other members were said to have made changes through comments. The draft had been conveyed to the Board of Selectmen on March 31. Paper copies were available at the Monday meeting, but the document has not yet appeared on the municipal Web site.

In contrast to the 207-word Waltham policy, the Brookline draft was, as of Monday, five pages of single-spaced fine print, probably around 3,000 words. Committee members went through its six sections, one by one. The flavor might be suggested by one of the nine proposed “design guidance” elements from Section 4 (as numbered on May 11).

“B. Pedestrian requirements must be fully considered in the design of intersections, including taking into consideration the following concerns: crossings and pedestrian curb-cut ramp locations, minimizing curb radius at corners (or equivalent design to slow turning vehicles at intersections), walking speed, pedestrian flow capacity, crossing wait times, vehicle speeds, traffic control and yielding.”

Along with several other ideas, Waltham includes that idea in a short sentence: “All project proposals [must] make the existing street network safer and better for all motorists, transit users, bicyclists and pedestrians, regardless of age or abilities.”

The strongest dispute heard at the meeting concerned whether Brookline’s policy should include more specifics for implementation. Committee member Linda Olson Pehlke said it should. “If we don’t lay out a vision of how it can be implemented,” she said, there’s “no motivation to put it into practice.” Member Seth Rubin said, while he wanted “to have some stronger statements…the more specific stuff you put in, the more targets [there are for town meeting members] to shoot down.”

Mr. Wishinsky, representing the Board of Selectmen, observed, “My political thinking is to stay away from parking.” As to the many directives and prescriptions in the draft, he said that the “document needs to recognize some realities…each one of those things is quite an involved task.” The committee is to send comments to Mr. Englander and meet again in a week.

– Beacon staff, Brookline, MA, May 12, 2015


Technical assistance for communities putting prevention to work, National Complete Streets Coalition, 2014

Advance health equity through transportation policy, Massachusetts Public Health Association, 2014

Fact sheet: An act relative to active streets and healthy communities, Massachusetts Public Health Association, 2013

Acts of 2014, C. 79, An act financing improvements to the Commonwealth’s transportation systems: in S. 2A $50,000,000 for grants under the C. 90I complete streets program

First Complete Streets ordinance in Massachusetts, City of Somerville, May 19, 2014

Complete Streets Policy, City of Waltham Transportation Commission, September 18, 2014

One thought on “Complete Streets: seeking better sidewalks and bicycle paths

  1. John L Bowman

    One correction: The policy draft was prepared by a small group of committee members led by Scott Englander, and neither John Bowman nor Mitch Heineman was in that group. Bowman and Heineman, in consultation with Englander, had previously drafted a vision statement for the policy, which was subsequently edited by the entire committee, presented to the Board of Selectmen and served as background for the policy draft.

    – Editor’s note: The Beacon stands corrected.

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