Throughout the United States, transportation infrastructure is dominated by automobile-oriented streets. They connect our neighborhoods and our communities, our urban centers and our rural peripheries, our regions and our states. They facilitate not only commerce and economic development but also the free movement of people across the country, and whether good or bad, road infrastructure has become an indelible part of the American experience.
From the advent of the mass-produced automobile in the early twentieth century, streets, roads, and freeways have radically transformed both the mode and concept of transportation. More than ever, Americans rely on personal vehicles and the roads on which they travel to commute to work and move around their physical environments. According to data from the American Community Survey, across North Carolina over 81% of workers commuted alone by personal vehicle in 2017, representing share growth of two percentage points since 2007.
While local governments across the state continue to invest in public transportation and advocate for more multi-modal means of travel, the use of personal automobiles continues to increase. One potential reason this trend continues is that while advocates push for reform, planners and policy makers conceptualize infrastructure improvements from the perspective of the automobile.
Transportation models, which influence final policy and funding decisions, are framed around commute trip demand, while roads and highways are designed and built for the sole purpose of alleviating traffic and reducing commute times. With an annual budget of $4.8 billon, the North Carolina Department of Transportation, for example, allocates over $2.3 billon (or 48.5% of its entire budget) to new construction, the vast majority of which is used for new road development and road expansions.
Unfortunately for many communities, this cycle of building road infrastructure for ever-growing demand perpetuates the proliferation of automobile commuting. Without planning policy directed to alternative means of transportation, individuals are forced to commute by car, as the physical environments and available infrastructure give no alternative.
To overcome this cycle, transportation advocates have organized around the concept of Complete Streets, which are designed to promote equitable access across users and methods of transportation. Importantly, Complete Streets respond to a wide web of community demands, rather than merely commute time and congestion. They encourage urban designers and community planners to think beyond traditional models, to perceive the street experience from the perspective of all of its users.
In practice, Complete Street policies typically incorporate bike lanes, sidewalks, and transit stops. Though these characteristics are likely prized to a higher degree in more urbanized areas, shifting the purpose of street infrastructure away from automobile dominance is potentially beneficial in rural areas, as well, opening the way for alternative means of transportation.
Incorporated into the NC DOT’s general policy in 2009, Complete Street planning has been included in a limited number of projects across the state. Notable among these is the widening of U.S. 421 in Boone. Though originally designed purely to ease automobile congestion, the NC DOT was at least partial successful in integrating Complete Street designs. With the help of the local government and transportation planning commission, the widening project evolved to include bike lanes, high-visibility pedestrian crosswalks, and pedestrian-oriented lighting.
In a separate project, the DOT in partnership with the Town completely transformed the main thoroughfare in downtown Kernersville, reorienting Main Street to elevate the pedestrian experience. The project included street furniture, way-finding, landscaping, and pedestrian-oriented lighting that not only sought equity in street experiences but also encouraged vibrancy and community and economic development in the town’s downtown.
At the local level, Complete Street policies have been implemented across the state, from Asheville, to Greensboro, to Raleigh. Smaller municipalities like Chapel Hill and Huntersville have committed to Complete Street policies as well, encouraging municipal planners and policy makers to consider streets as active public space, which should be accessible to a diversity of users.
For Community and Economic Development stakeholders, the outcomes of these policies are powerfully important. As with the Kernersville example, streetscape improvements that consider user equity have the potential to encourage commercial activity while anchoring a sense of place. More broadly, strongly incorporating Complete Street policies into transportation modeling has the potential to end the cycle of auto dependence. However, for this to really occur, conceptual incorporation must occur at all levels of the transportation planning process and across broader geographies than single, limited projects would allow.
Matthew Hutton is a dual Master’s degree candidate in the Master of Public Administration and the Master of City & Regional Planning programs at UNC-Chapel Hill. He is also a Community Revitalization Fellow with the Development Finance Initiative.