Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Complete Communities--preprint from FLITE Magazine

Much has been said in the recent past about complete streets.  I want to extend this concept to discuss a "complete community".  A complete street attempts to provide an adequate facility to serve all available modes that may use that street.  Similarly, a complete community will attempt to provide an adequate land use mix and connectivity for its residents so that most, if not all, of the day to day needs of the people in that community can be met within as short a travel distance as possible with viable mode options for the trips.  This will optimize mode split, reduce trip lengths, reduce congestion and set the stage for a successful transit system. 
Most communities that are a part of a larger region cannot reasonably expect to serve all of the employment needs of its residents.  These are regional uses.  However, they can attempt to meet many of their residents’ other needs through land use mix, connectivity and proximity.  The goal of a complete community is to make all available mode choices viable options to their residents both from a physical standpoint and a utility standpoint.  After all, a bicycle path provides little mobility benefit if it doesn’t connect to anything useful. 
A crucial component of a complete community is that connectivity is provided at a resolution that is appropriate to the mode—pedestrian connections located at a pedestrian scale, bicycle connections at a bicycle scale and so on.    Complete streets are as widely available as the context dictates.  Neighborhood shopping and support services are common and clustered at approximately one mile intervals. 
There may be much to be gained from this strategy from a congestion standpoint, at least within the local network.  To determine how much of an area’s traffic a community has direct control over, an analysis was made of the National Highway Travel Survey data during a typical Tuesday-Thursday PM peak hour.  Of the trips that occurred during that time frame, only 35% were completely outside a community’s local control.  These were trips that were either directly work related (26.5%), vacation related (1.3%)  or associated with visiting family or friends (7.1%).  It could be argued that some shopping trips are regional and therefore not within a local community’s control, but shopping only accounts for another 23% of the PM peak hour trips, and at least half of those trips could be satisfied locally.  Another 14% could be supported locally with the addition of support facilities within the community like public meeting spaces for business, community gathering places for family events like weddings and social gatherings, or more extensive bike and pedestrian systems to reduce the need for pickups and drop-offs, particularly for older children.  Therefore roughly 1/3 of the trips are within the community’s control through land use decisions.  Any trip within the community is likely to be shorter than a trip outside of that community, which reduces VMT and congestion.  If services can be matched to residential uses within a mile, then bicycle becomes a truly viable option over time.
A Complete Community strategy should be structured as incremental changes over several years.  Euclidian zoning and vehicular orientation have been patterns throughout most of America for many decades.  To begin, communities should work toward improving pedestrian and bicycle connections, especially around schools.  Parents and students should be encouraged to use these modes through school education, PTA’s and through community events.  A parent who can learn to trust their child to bike to school can learn to trust them to go to the local market on the corner for an immediate shopping need, and will eventually go themselves.  Furthermore, as children grow up accustomed to the freedom that a bicycle can bring them, they will continue to enjoy that freedom and exercise as they grow.  Communities that have few pedestrian and bicycle connections due to subdivision walls will begin to consider and ultimately request additional pedestrian connections.  Communities can respond wholeheartedly with incentives like property tax waivers for the dedication of pedestrian easements in appropriate places along with the construction of bicycle paths in those locations. 
While communities begin to encourage walking and biking, they should begin to review their residential zoning ordinances to encourage mixed use and address “orphan parcels.”  These parcels are 1 to 5 acre parcels, within Euclidian residential zones that are too small for a residential use.  These parcels often occur at transportation nodes like intersections, which makes them better suited to mixed land uses.  These parcels can be rezoned with a mixed use category and targeted for providing neighborhood scale goods and services, possibly with first floor commercial/services and second floor residences.  This converts “throw-away” land into a valuable commodity.  Communities should explore the potential of telecommuting service centers in these locations as well as an economic development initiative.  These centers can help incubate small business startups by providing business meeting space, printing capabilities and/or shipping services. 
Ultimately, as residents become more comfortable walking and biking, they can begin to extend those trips through local transit services.  Transit service has traditionally been provided to those who are transit dependent.  As communities become more connected, transit should be considered in areas where bicycling and walking have firmly taken hold as a part of the local culture as well. 
This paper has only scratched the surface of the policies that could be incrementally implemented to create a Complete Community.  ITE has had extensive discussions regarding community capture, but this concept goes beyond merely tailoring land uses to match trip ends.  Matching trip ends helps, but it is the physical details of the connections and the social details of the culture that truly make community capture viable.  The communities with the highest internal capture in the ITE Trip Generation Handbook are the communities for which there was no significant need to travel outside that community.  It is the transportation community that holds the key to the implementation of this strategy.  The dependence on vehicular travel has been supported by the transportation community for many decades and will continue to be a strong component of our overall mobility.  We have the opportunity to encourage a more robust system that creates better connections between people within a community and more efficient resource utilization through multiple generations.  This strategy begins with our children because they will be the ones that will benefit from this approach for many decades and for their sake we have a choice to move in a different direction.