Guest Blog by Christopher Tyler Burks
MPA Candidate and Project Coordinator at UAB
Dr. Ray L. Watts, president of the University of Alabama at Birmingham – Alabama’s largest single employer with an annual economic impact exceeding $7.15 billion in the state – says the initiative is important for both UAB and Birmingham.
“UAB is proud to support the Complete Streets Initiative,” Watts said. “It promotes an inclusive and sustainable future that very much benefits Birmingham and UAB in a cyclical relationship. As we all benefit from the economic, public health and safety gains, we will grow together.”
As champions of health and leaders in economic development, we at UAB are taking responsibility for our built environment and how it impacts our lives by developing Complete Streets on our campus and supporting the City’s Complete Streets ordinance to develop a multimodal network that connects citizens to businesses, services, and amenities in Birmingham.
Complete Street Example: 10th Ave S Streetscape, crossing at 14th St S.
Creating a Multimodal City Network
Complete Streets are an inclusive approach to the design of our transportation infrastructure. Complete Streets are safe and comfortable for everyone, whether you’re walking, riding the bus, using a wheelchair, cycling, or driving. In short, Complete Streets are accessible by all modes of transportation and by people of all abilities. The development of Complete Streets result in a multimodal network of sidewalks, bike lanes, transit corridors, vehicular right-of-way, and the facilities to support them all. Research has shown that Complete Streets and the multimodal network they create will improve our quality of life by making us safer, healthier, greener, and wealthier.
Complete Street Example: 10th Ave S Streetscape, crossing at 13th St S.
Pedestrian safety is of paramount concern to UAB. Students, staff, and faculty crisscross our campus at all times of day and night. It’s our responsibility to provide a safe environment for them.
Complete Streets provide the critical first/last mile in a multimodal network. Before we can connect with a vehicle, bike, or transit, we all must use the sidewalk. Yet some sidewalks are in disrepair, and other streets lack sidewalks altogether. This sidewalk deficit endangers pedestrians who are forced to skirt by traffic.
Complete Streets not only provide sidewalks, they enhance those sidewalks with pedestrian facilities that improve our safety. Big piano key crosswalks are core example. These white stripes are bold reminders to drivers that they share the right-of-way at intersections. At large intersections, a refuge island can be installed in the median to provide safety for pedestrians who could not cross in the time provided. Curb extensions, sometimes called bumpouts, further enhance pedestrian safety in two ways. First, the curb extension bumps out into the road, shortening the crosswalk for pedestrians. Second, the curb extension calms traffic since cars must slow down significantly to turn at ninety degrees around the curb.
Crosswalks, refuge islands, and curb extensions are only three examples of how Complete Streets can improve safety on our campus.
Our built environment is killing us. That was the conclusion of Urban Sprawl and Public Health: Designing, Planning, and Building for Healthy Communities, the book that put Complete Streets on the Public Health agenda. The authors describe how American public policy and urban design has ignored the walkability of communities in favor of adding lanes for evermore cars.
The authors demonstrate how diabetes and obesity have increased as we’ve shifted away from walkable lifestyles to ever-longer suburban and exurban commutes. Our air quality has suffered alongside this transition. American smog now comes principally from tailpipes, not factories.
Speaking of clean air, an all-star Complete Street is one lined with leafy, deciduous trees. Complete Streets already reduce carbon emissions by reducing the need for single occupancy vehicles (SOVs); yet street trees reduce carbon emissions further by absorbing vehicular exhaust.
Street trees also contribute to cleaner water by absorbing excess rainwater which prevents pollution from storm water surge. Special Complete Street designs such as bioswales and rainwater gardens reinforce this sustainable process with cost-effective green infrastructure.
Complete Streets raise property values and encourage investment. Consider Charlotte, North Carolina, a comparable city to Birmingham. An increase in Charlotte’s Walk Score from the metropolitan average of 54 (somewhat walkable) to 71 (very walkable) correlates with an increase in average house price from $280,000 to $314,000 (Cortright 2009). Complete Streets not only raise value, but also protect it. During the Great Recession, “Housing prices on the fringe tended to drop at twice the metropolitan average while walkable urban housing tended to maintain its value” (Leinberger 2011).
Local spending increases in walkable communities. The choice to live in a walkable community generates considerable savings for a household. When driving is not a necessity, savings from walkability are more likely to circulate locally. By design, however, driving is often necessary for daily activities. That necessity—automobile dependency—ensures that our money is going elsewhere. Nearly 85 percent of money spent on cars and gas leaves the local economy (Intelligent Cities Initiative). This is a huge missed opportunity. The typical working family, with an income less than $50,000, pays more for transportation than for housing (Lipman 2006). Complete Streets reduce this financial burden and allow more money to circulate locally.
Demography Is Destiny
Millennials and aging Baby Boomers agree: They want to live in walkable neighborhoods (Speck 2013). If you can see destiny within demography, then you can see that walkable cities with Complete Streets have an economic advantage due to these two generational trends. First, young people, especially entrepreneurs and creatives, demand urban living. Since the late nineties, the share of automobile miles driven by Americans in their twenties has dropped from 20.8 percent to 13.7 percent (Neff 2010). The number of nineteen-year-olds who have opted out of earning driver’s licenses has almost tripled since the late seventies, from 8 percent to 23 percent (Neff 2010). This shift is called “The Great Car Reset” by Richard Florida:
“Younger people today… no longer see the car as a necessary expense or a source of personal freedom. In fact, it is increasingly just the opposite: not owning a car and not owning a house are seen by more and more as a path to greater flexibility, choice, and personal autonomy” (2010).
Millennials represent the biggest population bubble in fifty years, and 77 percent of them plan to live in America’s urban cores (Doherty & Leinberger 2010). Retaining our young talent is as crucial as attracting new and international talent. Sixty-four percent of college-educated millennials chose first where they want to live, and then look for a job there (The Segmentation Company 2006). These millennials are looking for the livability that Complete Streets provide.
Second, as baby boomers retire, they desire to downsize into walkable communities in urban cores. These empty nesters want walkability:
“At approximately 77 million Americans, they are fully one-quarter of the population. With the leading edge of the boomers now approaching sixty-five years old, the group is finding that their suburban houses are too big. Their child-rearing days are ending, and all those empty rooms have to be heated, cooled, and cleaned, and the unused backyard maintained. Suburban houses can be socially isolating, especially as aging eyes and slower reflexes make driving everywhere less comfortable. Freedom for many in this generation means living in walkable, accessible communities with convenient transit linkages and good public services like libraries, cultural activities, and health care” (Doherty & Leinberger 2010).
Since 2009, an average of 1.5 million Americans has turned sixty-five every year, quadruple the rate of a decade ago. This rate will not begin to plateau until 2020, and we will not see it return to pre-boomer levels until 2033 (Leinberger 2009). With the convergence of Millennial and Baby Boomer desire for walkability, Complete Streets are in high demand.
The Vital Role of Public Institutions & Coalitions
Complete Streets are long-term investments in our safety, health, sustainability, and wealth. UAB, as a public institution, believes we must lead with long-term thinking and skin in the game. That is why we’ve undertaken the process of upgrading our streets to improve urban mobility on our campus. That’s also why we’re so excited to develop a Complete Streets network that connects and unites our city.
We’re honored to be a part of the coalition for Complete Streets Birmingham, and we have great appreciation for the diligent work of the City’s Planning, Engineering, and Permits Department, United Way of Central Alabama, American Association of Retired Persons, Lakeshore Foundation, and many others. This network of advocacy has made Complete Streets possible in Birmingham. Our achievement here is a symbol of the great things we can accomplish when public institutions, civic organizations, and businesses work together for the common good.
Cortright, Joe. (2009). “Walking the walk: How walkability raises home values in U.S. cities.” CEOs for Cities White Paper.
Doherty, Patrick C., and Christopher B. Leinberger. (2010). “The next real estate boom.” The Washington Monthly.
Florida, Richard. (2010). “The great car reset.” theatlantic.com.
Frumkin, Howard, Lawrence Frank, and Richard Jackson. (2004). Urban sprawl and public health: Designing, planning, and building for healthy communities. Washington, D.C.: Island Press.
Garrett-Peltier, Heidi. (2010). “Estimating the employment impacts of pedestrian, bicycle, and road infrastructure. Case Study: Baltimore.” Political Economy Research Institute, University of Massachusetts, Amherst.
Intelligent Cities Initiative poster, National Building Museum, Washington D.C.
Leinberger, Christopher B. (2009). The option of urbanism: Investing in a new American Dream. Washing, D.C.: Island Press.
Lipman, Barbara J. (2006). “A heavy load: The combined housing and transportation costs of working families.” Center for Housing Policy.
Neff, Jack. (2010). “Is digital revolution driving decline in U.S. car culture?” Advertising Age.
Speck, Jeff. (2013). Walkable city: How downtown can save America, one step at a time." New York: North Point Press.
The Segmentation Company. (2006). “Attracting college-educated, young adults to cities.” Prepared for CEOs for Cities.