What is a Complete Bridge? Well, if you are familiar with transportation issues, you have probably heard of the phrase “Complete Street.” A Complete Bridge takes this concept of a Complete Street and applies the same standards of safe accessibility for non-motorized transportation.
Complete Streets policies are an excellent way to ensure that our streetscapes reflect our social values, by giving designers a mandate for roadway user inclusion but not tying their hands with any mandated geometries. It is also a satisfying vindication of basic rights for anyone who gets honked at or has snow plowed into their path just because they use the public right-of-way without an accelerator pedal.
People should be able to use a street safely whether they decide to walk, ride a bike, or drive a car. After all, we call it a “public right-of-way” instead of “private automobile right-of-way” for good reason. This concept is the essence of public owned space in a democracy. Our streets are “city property” as a legal convenience, but in reality they are public space – everyone has a right to safely access it using whatever travel modes we can accommodate.
When a Complete Streets bill came to a vote in the Indianapolis City Council, it was a slam dunk. A policy can’t get more popular than unanimous. Our representatives agreed with public opinion that designing a road for automotive users should never be done at the expense of vulnerable road users like bicyclists and pedestrians.
But that policy has a loophole – if the costs are considered excessive then the policy could be ignored. This is often an issue when it comes to bridges, because they are such expensive pieces of infrastructure. While a complete street can usually be designed for a similar price, a Complete Bridge will always be much more expensive than one carrying a single type of traffic.
But bridges are where safe access is needed more than anywhere else, because there aren’t side streets or scenic alternatives.
I find it interesting that even though we recognize our need for Complete Streets in spite of higher costs, we fail to apply the same principles for new bridges. It seems like current practice for bridge planning is plan a bridge with forecasted traffic conditions of 25 years into the future but plan for ped/bike access with data from 25 years ago. This is a false economy, because we already know that active transportation is growing by huge amounts every year, and bad bridge plans could restrict this growth and its beneficial consequences.
But we can choose to build better bridges. If we did, what would a Complete Bridge look like?
Our awareness of these issues will force us to redefine what makes a revolutionary bridge, just as the Brooklyn Bridge or Golden Gate did for their eras. But what about the smaller bridges – the ones that don’t demand special treatment or receive special funding? These are bridges that people cross over every day without much notice, but it is the ones that carry people to local jobs and kids to local schools that might deserve our closest attention.
Portland is currently building a bridge that might be a good model for planning a bridge of this type, with their Sellwood Bridge project. They are addressing each of the issues listed above in appropriate ways for their community.
The public engagement process is critical, but often overlooked for small bridges. The new bridge features a pretty good public website too. Bridges are important in ways that streets aren’t, as they represent the physical location of a mental transition. Communities rally around bridges and they can become powerful symbols. Engaging the public early and often means that people begin to care about the bridge and understand the importance of tax money spent on its construction and maintenance.
Portland’s strategy was to create a festival celebrating the bridge closing and the start of new bridge construction. This 1-time expense helps the local community learn to accept and take ownership of the bridge building process.
The Sellwood Bridge project is notable because it used the principles of Complete Streets during the planning stage, and also because it planned ahead for the growth of alternative modes. At the same time, it did not expand the number of automotive lanes because increasing traffic would have negative effects on the local communities that this bridge was meant to serve. Finally, the planning agency worked hard to engage stakeholders and communicate the reasons for these decisions.
Here in Indianapolis, the citizens are making progress in their quest for Complete Streets. But we shouldn’t forget that Complete Streets need Complete Bridges.