The term “complete street,” interpreted too literally, is overenthusiastic.
A fully complete street, by Charleston’s definition, is one that accommodates “all modes of transportation in a public thoroughfare that is part of a well-connected transportation network.”
There’s space for drivers, bicyclists, pedestrians and transit riders, and the road design is safe and comfortable for each of those different uses.
Many streets can’t reasonably meet all of those needs at once. A road wide enough to check every single “complete street” box might actually end up exacerbating the safety and convenience problems that needed solving in the first place. It would be awfully expensive as well.
So planners, engineers and public officials have to make sensible trade-offs on a case-by-case basis. The problem is that in South Carolina, those decisions aren’t at all balanced.
That’s the unsurprising finding of a recent report by The Post and Courier’s Conner Mitchell, who chronicled the many barriers to safer, more effective infrastructure for people getting around South Carolina without a car.
The state Department of Transportation has long made cars the overwhelming priority on state roads, and will allow accommodations for other road users only if and when they don’t even modestly interfere with car traffic or car-related road funding.
Many of our streets aren’t just “incomplete.” They’re single-use.
Not surprisingly, cars are by far the most common mode for getting around South Carolina cities. As a consequence, car traffic is a ubiquitous public nuisance. Fatal car crashes claim hundreds of lives per year. And pedestrians and bicyclists are killed by the dozens — at one of the highest rates in the country.
This isn’t a “chicken or egg” issue.
South Carolina had functioning towns and cities long before cars were invented. But in a little over a century we have purposefully designed and redesigned our cities to accommodate one mode of transportation at the expense of all others, and at the cost of countless human lives.
But the solution isn’t necessarily to build full-blown “complete streets.” We’re so far away from complete streets in most cases that it’s unrealistic to imagine that goal would even be achievable on a statewide scale.
We can start, however, by laying down a few ground rules and best practices — which was the intent of a worthwhile “complete streets” bill that stalled in the state Legislature this year — and then implementing sensible improvements when the state’s roads come up for routine maintenance.
For starters, DOT will have to curb its obsession with speed, which it refers to with the euphemism “level of service.” Roads get a letter grade based on the free flow of traffic at peak hours, which is a wasteful and dangerous metric.
At a minimum, safety should be a higher priority than the speed of traffic flow, and the two are almost always at odds with each other in complex urban and suburban environments.
Safety, interpreted fairly, also means better pedestrian, bicycle and transit accommodations. As a bonus, safer and more convenient sidewalks, bike paths and bus facilities are likely to ease traffic in the long term in many cases, not make it worse.
To that end, DOT should cede greater decision-making authority to county and city officials, who are more likely to have a nuanced understanding of the specific needs of their constituents. Charleston is among a handful of cities and counties in South Carolina that has long had its own “complete streets” policy, for example.
Adopting a complete streets mindset doesn’t mean blinging out all 41,500 miles of state-owned roads with top-of-the-line bus, bicycle and pedestrian amenities.
It just means recognizing the deadly consequences of prioritizing fast-moving cars above all else, and taking reasonable steps to build a safer, more effective transportation network.