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Complete Streets: Sharing the Road

Hopkins aims for streets that everyone can use.

Conjure up an image of the perfect local street.

That perfect street almost certainly has smoothly flowing traffic. Perhaps it also has generous sidewalks, space for cyclists and accessible public transportation. Maybe it even has green space, shops and other quality-of-life features. The perfect street—you might say—is complete.

Across the country, communities are moving toward so-called “complete streets.” Hopkins is getting in on that movement for itself with upcoming road projects and a comprehensive sidewalk plan. The city is already the third most-walkable community in Minnesota, behind only Minneapolis and St. Paul, according to Walk Score. But complete streets is about more than just pedestrians. It’s about building streets that everyone can use.

“'Complete Streets means that our streets are planned to be safe and accessible for pedestrians, transit riders, bicyclists and drivers. It is for all users, regardless of age or ability,” said Ethan Fawley—the transportation policy Director at Fresh Energy and member of the Minnesota Complete Streets Coalition, one of the largest complete streets advocates in Minnesota. 

Evolving priorities

For most of the past several decades, planners have designed streets to move vehicles on their way as swiftly as possible—wherever those streets happened to be. Pedestrian and other uses were often an afterthought. Hopkins’ own Blake Road is a good example. Despite the homes and apartments that dominate its east side, residents until recently had to rely on a mud path created over time by people trekking back and forth.

The National Complete Streets Coalition formed in 2005 to persuade planners to take other uses into account. Complete streets became state policy May 15, 2010, when Gov. Tim Pawlenty signed into law a transportation policy bill with complete-streets provisions.  After a year, 17 Minnesota communities—including St. Louis Park, North St. Paul, New Hope and Duluth—have integrated complete streets into their development.

New designs

Roadwork is clearly part of transforming a thoroughfare into a complete street. Workers may building medians or extend curbs at pedestrian crossings to minimize the distance that walkers must cross. Curb extensions also form visual chokepoints that discourage drivers from speeding. Off-road changes can also have psychological effects that make drivers slow down. More trees, for example, can make a road appear narrower.

Changes to Golden Valley's Douglas Drive show just how different complete streets can be from the previous philosophy emphasizing maximum traffic-carrying capacity. Workers transformed that street from a four-lane road into a three-lane road with a middle turn lane.

“The city realized that four lanes was too much for the amount of traffic that actually uses the road, and they have been happy since the slight transformation,” Fawley said.

Blake Road is one area that’s been a particular focus in Hopkins' complete streets discussions. Even with the addition of a sidewalk, it could use “a little more thoughtfulness in terms of how the pedestrian uses the environment,” said Andrea Long, a Humphrey School research assistant for regional sustainability planning who studied Blake Road planning. Infrastructure and design elements could be better integrated to help people, businesses and cars share the road.

Changes aren’t always expensive. Hopkins City Engineer , who’s guiding the sidewalk discussion, noted that simply painting bike lanes on Oakridge Road and southern Blake Road would create safe paths for cyclists headed to the regional trails. These small alterations can be the difference between a complete street built for multiple uses and an incomplete street without so much as a crosswalk. 

It’s relative

But not every street will have masses of walkers, cyclists and bus riders. Complete streets is more about considering a street’s context than any particular traffic-calming feature. Bradford considers Fifth Street South—from 11th Avenue to the Minnetonka border—to be one of Hopkins’ complete streets. It has a number of bus stops and good sidewalks to get people to nearby businesses. But the area is industrial, so you won’t find the type of glossy, mixed-use development that planners envision for complete streets in the downtown. Similarly, residential areas lacking vehicle traffic may be “complete” even without sidewalks.

Sharing the road

While complete streets aim to harmoniously integrate a variety of uses, actually building complete streets isn’t always so harmonious. Planners must balance varied, often competing, interests. Motorists require parking, for example, but parking takes away space for sidewalks, bike lanes and outside eating or shopping areas.

Sidewalks can be one of the biggest sources of conflict. Residents value connected sidewalk networks. But adjacent homeowners dislike walkers passing near their homes and the perceived loss of yard space—although the city actually owns the easement where sidewalks are built.

The city also has limited resources that tough budget times have made even more limited. In discussing this year’s sidewalk project, Councilman Rick Brausen when Hopkins is already considered so walkable.

On top of this, the city is saddled with a 100-year-old street grid that isn’t always conducive to a modern complete-streets vision.

The sidewalk plan aims to resolve these tensions in a comprehensive fashion so that officials can refer back to the document when challenges arise with each subsequent project.

Planners see opportunity much more than frustration—particularly when the complete streets philosophy is coupled with the incoming Southwest Transitway light-rail line. Constant wear and tear, population growth and changing city dynamics may keep city streets from ever being 100 percent perfect. But perhaps with time, Hopkins can still make them a little more complete.

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This story is part of a three-part package:

  • to see some features engineers use to transform roads into complete streets.
  • to see a map detailing what planners envision for Hopkins streets.

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