• Sat September 19 2009
  • Posted Sep 19, 2009
Des Moines, IA In the past century, American cities have designed and built streets to accommodate automobiles, with little consideration for other forms of transportation. The city of Des Moines has adopted a new streets policy that would reverse that trend. The fact that this is getting some negative reaction is no reason to abandon it. Des Moines joined a growing movement of adopting "complete streets" policies, saying that city streets to some extent must accommodate more than just cars. Today more people get around by public-transit buses, shuttles, bicycles, wheelchairs, electric carts and on foot, which means city streets must make travel safe and convenient for all of them. Complete streets may be equipped with dedicated lanes for bicycles. In the case of new construction, they may include adjacent bike/pedestrian trails. Some busy thoroughfares may have neither, but an effort will be made to assure that all streets accommodate pedestrians with such things as wide sidewalks adequately separated from the street, crossing signals, clearly marked crosswalks and pedestrian "refuge" islands. Bus stops must be properly placed, with space provided for benches or shelters. The new Martin Luther King Parkway project, for example, includes paved trails for bikes and pedestrians, which will be repeated on the Southeast Connector that will extend across the Des Moines River and eventually connect to Highway 65. Other approaches will include simply painting new stripes on existing streets to create bike lanes, and in some cases reducing four lanes to two divided by a left- turn lane to slow traffic and reduce accidents. The latter approach on Ingersoll Avenue west of downtown Des Moines has drawn criticism from those who say the change will create conflict between bikes and cars. In fact, that conflict exists now. At least with the new lane configuration, clearly marked with lane stripes and bicycle symbols, drivers will expect to encounter bikes. Business owners also worry that the lane reduction will hurt them because drivers will shift over to the four-lane Grand Avenue. But that makes no sense: If people are in a hurry to get from Point A to Point B, they're not likely to pull over to do some shopping. On the other hand, if they're not in a hurry, slower-moving traffic just might pull into a parking stall and check out nearby shops. Besides, the speed limit on Ingersoll will not be reduced; the change means only that it's more likely to be obeyed. Some of these objections are to change itself. But in a sense, this change takes the city back to what it looked like in the days when streets and sidewalks were crowded with pedestrians, kids on bikes and electric "curbliner" trolley buses. Typical residential neighborhoods with grassy medians and sidewalks separated from the street are examples of "complete streets." "It's a new name," said Gary Fox, the city's traffic engineer. "But we've had them for a long time." Interest is growing in making cities more accessible to transportation other than cars. That was confirmed in a recent survey by the Des Moines Metropolitan Planning Organization, which revealed substantial support for bike- and pedestrian-friendly streets in the metro area. Des Moines deserves credit for acting to make that happen, and critics should see how it works before making up their minds.

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