Guest blogger Bill Ostrem: The American streets renaissance

bend_roundaboutIn a February 6 post Tracy Davis referred to a short essay by the Project for Public Spaces titled “A Revolution in Transportation Planning.” It’s an excellent piece that discusses the history of transportation planning in the United States – how planners and leaders focused almost solely  on the automobile for most of the twentieth century, often to the detriment of our cities and neighborhoods and our own health, and how they have recently begun to consider all modes of transportation, including transit, walking, and biking. (continued)

Increasingly, our society is looking at streets as public spaces (it’s the public “right of way,” after all) – spaces that must provide access for all users, whether they are in a car, on foot, in a wheelchair, on a bike, or riding a bus or train. We are beginning to create what some would call “complete streets.”

As I see it, this change is significant enough to be called a “renaissance” of the American street. In this post I’d like to briefly describe some of the groups and organizations working on this renaissance, including those in Minnesota, as well as some of the resources for learning more about it. In doing so I draw on my experience as a pedestrian and bike advocate in Northfield, where I’ve served as chair of the city’s Task Force on Nonmotorized Transportation for the last year and a half.

There are a large number of groups working on complete streets issues at the national level, more than I could possibly go into here. However, there are a few I’d like to point out as important players. One leader in the field is Complete the Streets. It’s a coalition that’s working with communities across the country to realize complete streets. They define a complete street this way:

COMPLETE STREETS are designed and operated to enable safe access for all users. Pedestrians, bicyclists, motorists and [transit] riders of all ages and abilities are able to safely move along and across a complete street.

Complete the Streets is working with Blue Cross Blue Shield of Minnesota to help communities in our state craft complete streets policies. In fact, Hennepin County recently passed a complete streets policy, and Rochester is working on some as well. (Northfield, I would argue, has the beginnings of complete streets policies through its recent planning documents.) The coalition supporting Complete the Streets includes a broad variety of organizations such as AARP, the American Planning Association, the American Society of Landscape Architects, and the Institute of Transportation Engineers. Some others of note are the Thunderhead Alliance for Biking and Walking ( “the national coalition of state and local bicycle and pedestrian advocacy organizations”); the League of American Bicyclists; Smart Growth America; and Active Living by Design, which was founded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

I’ve already mentioned the Project for Public Spaces (PPS), which is headquartered in New York City. That city is ground zero for the transportation revolution, and the changes made there will reverberate throughout the county. The New York City Streets Renaissance coalition includes PPS; Transportation Alternatives, a nationally recognized advocacy group; and The Open Planning Project. The latter has spawned the influential Streetsblog and Streetfilms.org.

I’ve found Streetfilms to be an especially wonderful resource. If you visit only one of the web sites I mention,  make it that one. They produce videos on street and urban planning topics, often interviewing leading experts in the field. Their work expands people’s minds about what is possible for our streets. We can’t easily visit all the leading places in the streets renaissance movement, but we can visit them virtually. See, for example, their films on the Paris bikesharing system, separated bike lanes, Portland, Oregon, and Colombia’s Ciclovia.

So those are some of the national groups. In Minnesota we have Transit for Livable Communities, which is currently managing Bike Walk Twin Cities, a project for which it has received over $20 million dollars in federal funding as part of the Nonmotorized Transportation Pilot Program. Fresh Energy, another nonprofit organization, is taking a leading role on energy issues and has made transportation policy a priority. Twin Cities Streets for People is probably the leading web resource in the state on these issues and is host to groups such as the Bike Edina Task Force. Twin Cities Streets for People was started by Community Design Group of Minneapolis and will soon become a separate nonprofit.

Blue Cross Blue Shield of Minnesota is using money from the tobacco settlement to spark changes in complete streets policies through its Prevention Minnesota arm. Our own city engineer and planner will be attending one of their complete streets workshops this month in Dakota County. And the Bicycle Alliance of Minnesota, a state bicycle advocacy organization, is just getting started under the capable leadership of Dorian Grilley, who formerly served as executive director of the Parks and Trails Council of Minnesota.

I hope that gives you some idea of the broad nature of the American streets renaissance and its larger context. Have I left anything important out? And what will it mean for Northfield? I believe it will mean safer streets, healthier citizens, and a more connected and vital community. We can take a first step toward that vision by beginning to implement the bikeways and walkways that are part of the city’s Park System Master Plan, particularly the relatively inexpensive on-street bike lanes and bike routes. As far as I know, none of these facilities are in our capital improvement plan today, and I hope that will change in in the near future.

8 thoughts on “Guest blogger Bill Ostrem: The American streets renaissance”

  1. nice job Bill. the Streetfilms website really highlights how much can be done. I like the Summer Streets idea that NY pulled off. I also liked the low cost ideas used in NY to make the streets safer and move the traffic more efficiently while actually improving the business climate.

  2. Thanks for your great work and informative article, Bill. I’m doing similar work in Edina as Chair of the Bike Edina Task Force. I also think that the Twin Cities Streets for People is a fantastic resource.

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