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Planning complete streets—block by block

When there’s a variety of context and crossover issues in a project, taking extra time to measure impacts is essential

Which streets are more pedestrian-friendly? Our Block by Block Assessment Tool map can tell you.

By Scott Lane, Senior Transportation Planner (Raleigh, North Carolina) with special input from Mike Rutkowski, (Raleigh, North Carolina)

The center of Rochester, Minnesota, is a combination of traditional and historic neighborhoods and the home of the world-famous Mayo Clinic.

As one of the healthcare giant’s four major campuses, thousands of people come to Mayo Clinic’s in Rochester daily for diagnosis and treatment of medical issues. These visitors want accessibility and variety in their transportation options. Mayo Clinic’s employees, and the surrounding retail, office, and health-related service providers want access to these transportation choices too. But here’s the conundrum: these diverse participants in the urban fabric also want to be in a beautiful, walkable, and transit-friendly environment. To solve the challenge, the city embarked on a Complete Street Study. The goal is to solve the challenge of merging various transportation modes into the core area of Rochester in a functional, beautiful way. Many consulting firms are involved in the project, and we are leading the Street Typology and Complete Streets tasks efforts, which means coordination and compromise is key.

Related item: Transportation Blogs

Early in the project, we realized we needed real-time communication with the distributed team. We weren’t sure if the other consultants had a baseline of information to start thinking about the assessment of core transit, parking, or biking/walkways. Without this information, we could potentially create a figurate “Tower of Babel” situation where team members were communicating in different languages, severely constraining creativity and productivity of the group. The solution we chose was developed collaboratively by our planning, engineering, and GIS (geographic information specialists) staff to create the categories of data we would need/want for our downtown street analysis.

We created a large “Toolbox” spreadsheet (Block by Block Assessment Tool) that contains pages representing all the information of a given block (measurements of street features from centerline to building face) and the two intersections that define the limits of that block. Each block also had information specified for each side of the street. We collected information like the street name, aerial photo, and street-view photos to provide instant recognition of the street conditions. We also collected 22 pieces of information on each block face and 10 more items for each intersection. This information was categorized into three “zones”—the Auto Zone, Pedestrian Zone, and Building Zone. The information was pulled from several sources, but much of it was gleaned from a visual inspection of each block, block face, and intersection.

Related item: Complete Streets & Active Transportation

Some of this information draws on the latest thinking on how buildings and streets interrelate to create memorable and functional pedestrian environments, and some information allows for a quantitative assessment using existing quality/level-of-service metrics. The goal was to help create a common database that each consulting team member could use to assess an array of transit, pedestrian, and bicycling options—all of which compete for space with on-street parking, streetscaping, drainage, traffic demands, and different land use contexts.  

A sample database/worksheet that shows the Auto Zone, Pedestrian Zone, and Building Zone in one block.

Once we collected all the data, we wanted to make sure we could map it. Why bother? Here’s an example: If someone on the team needed to know the number of bike facilities in downtown Rochester, we wanted to be able to provide that map from our data.

Since this information is in GIS, we can create customized “heat” maps to evaluate a range of solutions to address sometimes conflicting needs (like which streets were pedestrian-friendly before and which needed to improve security, mobility-challenges for pedestrians, and on-street parking). Although the data collection was painstaking in the beginning, the work paid off handsomely in terms of its robustness and degree of flexibility to explore cross-cutting issues that involve traditional capacity, aesthetics, economics, and safety.

Also by Scott: Show me the money: Why complete streets make economic sense

Also by Mike: Creating great streets—for all users

I’ve done this kind of data analysis in the past but nowhere near this level. Our team assessed 288 individual city blocks as part of the Rochester project. In a typical corridor, we would assess from five to 10 blocks. The biggest challenge? The time commitment (four days), and ensuring the people collecting the data are doing so consistently. But in the end, the time spent was well worth the effort.

After putting forth the effort, I can easily recommend other clients embark upon this level of data analysis if it’s for a downtown core that has many stakeholders (like traffic engineers, bike pedestrian planners, and transit operators) and features cross-cutting issues and context variables. Characterizing the entire transportation network, not just from an engineering standpoint, allows you to look at economics, aesthetics, and levels of maintenance so the process becomes a holistic treatment. Our experience in Rochester and on other projects helps the Stantec team understand a corridor’s various components and anticipate the data and analysis needs downstream to optimize both efficiency and productivity.

In the end, the planning process is first an assessment of existing conditions. The second part is providing recommendations to address identified needs. When we collect data on this scale, we don’t have to wait until construction is over to figure out if the project was a success or not. We can analyze the coded data to predict how to design in a manner that will be successful, according to our pre-identified scale. Although we can’t predict outcomes, we can enhance the probability of solving our client’s problems—and that is how we define success at Stantec!  

Related item: Roadways: Getting you where you want

Scott has more than 24 years of planning and policy development experience including directing metropolitan planning organizations and serving as a senior project manager in the private sector. He’s seen just about everything when it comes to transportation planning and policy matters at municipal, regional, and national scales.

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