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Originally published December 10, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified December 10, 2007 at 10:13 AM

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Neal Peirce / Syndicated columnist

A national fight for saner streets

The cause has simmered for years — and we've all felt some of it: frustration with fast traffic that turns streets through our neighborhoods...

WASHINGTON — The cause has simmered for years — and we've all felt some of it: frustration with fast traffic that turns streets through our neighborhoods into corridors of fear. There is a resentment about narrow, rough or nonexistent sidewalks, a reluctance to have children walking to school cross high-speed roadways. Bicyclists take their lives in their hands when venturing onto major roads.

Now, finally, there's an organized nationwide movement to fight the good fight for saner streets. It's a coalition mounting a nationwide campaign for city and town roadways that include safe, quality space for pedestrians and cyclists and public-transit users, accommodating their wishes just as seriously as those of car and truck drivers.

It's called, fittingly, the Complete the Streets movement (www.completestreets.org). Its members cover an amazing gambit — from America Bikes and AARP, Smart Growth America and the American Society of Landscape Architects to Paralyzed Veterans of America. The Institute of Transportation Engineers is even on board, amazing for a profession long known as the "throughput crowd" for its pushing of maximum numbers of vehicles at maximum feasible speed through cities and villages alike.

Complete streets "are about a right of way for everyone out there traveling, walking or biking," says Barbara McCann, the movement coordinator. All users of all ages and abilities, she asserts, need to be able to move safely along and across a complete street. And, McCann adds, "safety is a huge reason."

As well it should be: Every 113 minutes across the United States, a motorized vehicle hits and kills a pedestrian or cyclist. Every eight minutes, one is injured, sometimes paralyzed. Most of Europe, by contrast, has worked for years at expanding walkways and bikeways, making intersections safer and erecting physical barriers to fast city and town traffic. On a per-mile basis, a German pedestrian has only a third as much chance of being a traffic fatality as his American counterpart; a German cyclist only half.

People tightly wed to the single-passenger-car concept are least likely to accept the complete-streets idea. But 90 percent of us, according to a survey by the National Association of Realtors, believe that new communities should be designed so we can walk more and drive less, and that public transportation should be improved and accessible.

States and cities are getting the message. Illinois this fall passed a complete-streets law requiring the state's transportation department to include bicycling and walking facilities in all its urban-area projects. Five other states (Massachusetts, Florida, Maryland, Oregon, Rhode Island) now have some form of complete-streets law on the books. More than 50 metro regions, counties or cities — Charlotte to Johnson County, Kan., Salt Lake City to Seattle — have passed similar statutes.

Chicago, for example, is moving to narrower traffic lanes, median "refuges" and curb extensions for pedestrians, as well as converting four-lane roadways into three lanes with marked bike lanes.

But for "a really dramatic increase in cycling in cities," says Tim Blumenthal, executive director of Bikes Belong, "painting stripes won't make enough people feel safe." Paris is creating and protecting new bike lanes with vertical, 1.5-foot separation posts. On New York's 9th Avenue, one of four lanes of traffic has been removed and parked cars moved out several feet from the sidewalk, creating a safe cycle-only corridor.

Project for Public Spaces has some of the right advice for cities: "Stop planning for speed." And "think of transportation as public space" — roads, transit terminals, sidewalks, reconfigured to create pleasant environments, a true sense of place.

Finally, there's health. The American Public Health Association is seeking to connect obesity with the increasingly dire climate-change challenge. Trading miles behind the wheel for increased walking, cycling and public transit can trim pounds and cut greenhouse gases simultaneously.

"This may present the greatest public-health opportunity that we've had in a century," says the University of Wisconsin's Jonathan Patz, president of the International Association for Ecology and Health.

He may be right. But we're not likely to get there until we make our streets and public realm safer and more appealing — the essence of the complete-streets message.

Neal Peirce's column appears alternate Mondays on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is nrp@citistates.com

2007, Washington Post Writers Group

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