Experts Talk: The Role of Pilot Projects in Complete Streets Designs with Gregory Adelberg
Experts Talk is an interview series with technical leaders from across our transportation program.
Complete Streets Projects Help Communities Thrive, and Pilot Projects Play a Key Role
The role that streets play in society has rapidly evolved in recent years. In some aspects, streets are returning to their earliest roots, supporting not only transportation needs but also economic, social, recreation and public health needs of our communities. This changing role has required many communities and agencies to adapt their thinking and their tools.
Fortunately, there’s already an approach that embraces these principles and optimizes the usage of public rights of way: The Complete Streets approach. Complete Streets is a design philosophy that aims to promote equity and balance among sometimes competing objectives or interests. Complete Streets are designed to support the development of more livable communities by improving access and mobility for people of all ages and abilities. In doing so they help provide a wider range of transportation options while improving the equity, safety, public health and economy of the local community. What they look like depends on the context and values of the community. A complete street in a rural community will often look different from a complete street in an urban area, but both share the common design goals to ensure the safety and comfort for all users.
As communities look for more opportunities to use their public spaces in different ways, pilot projects can help to quickly test ideas, engage stakeholders and transform spaces to meet their needs. In this Experts Talk interview, Gregory Adelberg shares how pilot projects can help communities achieve their goals and enhance overall livability. He offers insights on how to implement a successful project and where potential pitfalls lie.
Gregory Adelberg helps lead the Complete Streets and Urban Design groups in our Denver office. Greg plans, designs and implements placemaking and mobility solutions for public agencies across North America. With experience in both the public and private sectors, he takes a people-centered approach to planning and design. His portfolio of work focuses on the development of equitable, comfortable, and place-based solutions for a wide variety of projects, ranging from street design to public realm plans. Recent projects include Santa Fe Streetscape Design in Denver, Rapid Response Bus Lanes in Boston and the East and East Central Neighborhood Plans: Bikeway and Vision Zero Next Step Designs in Denver.
Pilot Projects in Complete Streets Designs
Q. Why do agencies consider Complete Streets pilot projects in their communities?
A. Pilot projects serve as powerful community-building tools, putting the community at the heart of the design process by allowing for more meaningful engagement. The ability to interact with the proposed changes and experience the physical transformation and its benefits provides for a greater understanding of the project and often more community support prior to permanently installing. Their inherent flexibility helps stimulate the transformation of spaces while moving toward a community’s long-term vision.
Many communities have used them to effectively dip their toe in the water to test how transportation management ideas reflect community values and show how the public right of way can be reimagined. These endeavors, often low-risk and high-reward, provide a living lab of sorts, exploring new mobility options on a temporary basis.
Streets make up more than 80% of all public space in many cities. They are the heart of our public space network and are among the most critical urban infrastructure. Pilot projects can allow communities, often with limited resources, to respond and adapt to the constant demands and changes through low-cost rapid installations.
Q. COVID-19 has sparked a renewed interest in rethinking the role of streets. How have communities used pilot projects to respond to current needs?
A. Flexibility and the ability to quickly adapt to new public safety requirements have become key as communities rethink the role of streets in supporting personal well-being and the economy. Pilot projects are playing an important role as communities seek to rapidly transform streets to meet public needs, through efforts such as relocating bus stops, adjusting transit access points and increasing separation between pedestrians.
We are working with the City of Boston on their Healthy Streets initiative, for example, on a program designed to make quick changes to Boston’s streets to support a healthy reopening and equitable COVID-19 recovery. Using simple paint and post treatments, our design creates dramatic changes along a key transit corridor that has continued to maintain pre-pandemic ridership levels. Reliable transit access, a new connected bike route and pedestrian safety improvements will help strengthen multimodal options and reliability along the corridor while also supporting the local businesses community.
Streets are multifaceted, serving various uses throughout a given day, week or month. Twenty-first century streets should deliver a host of benefits to varying users, including universal access, diversity and inclusiveness, health and wellness, safety, reduced noise and air pollution and stronger local businesses.
Q. What are some best practices for ensuring that Complete Street pilot projects are accessible to everyone in a community?
A. One crucial step is to engage a diverse group of stakeholders during project development to ensure the design meets the needs of a broad cross section of its community. Listening to community members and stakeholders about their needs and desires is essential to ensuring accessibility. In Denver, for instance, we are finalizing work with the City and County of Denver on pilot streetscape improvements for Santa Fe Drive , a street that runs through the heart of Denver’s oldest art district, in a neighborhood rich in culture and creativity.
Working hand-in-hand with our ADA experts, we explored various interim design treatments to ensure users of all ages and abilities are able to fully access the new spaces. During many of our design charrettes with stakeholders and the community, our team heard loud and clear that providing additional room for people to walk and linger was integral to any interim redesign option. For example, mimicking the extension of the sidewalk in key locations with a raised decking system was vital in order to showcase the longer-term vision. Our preferred design addresses all users' needs, allowing for complete mobility at both the roadway and sidewalk level including access to new public seating.
Q. How should pilot projects be developed to ensure a process and outcome that includes all stakeholders?
A. Each community is different, and so the needs and requirements of a project must be tailored to local needs. Leaders should take particular care to engage people who have been traditionally underserved and underrepresented to make sure they are engaged at every step. Providing a range of engagement platforms is paramount and may include holding meetings at varying times of day and reaching out individually to those who have difficulty attending.
On our Santa Fe Streetscape project, we tapped into the community to help guide the design process. We worked closely with area residents, businesses, the city, community groups and local artists to develop a truly community-led design. We hosted three pop-up events in art galleries during The First Friday Art Walks and held several design charrettes with stakeholders and the Santa Fe Business Improvement District to better understand their values and priorities in both the near and long-term.
We also showcased the preliminary design in August 2019 during the largest First Friday Art Walk of the year to engage and empower the community, test out early concepts and gain a better understanding of the specific corridor needs prior to final design and installation. The trial installation allowed us to see how people interacted with the design, providing us a greater understanding of our treatments that led to several modifications that otherwise may not have occurred.
Q. What makes a Complete Streets pilot project successful?
A. Establishing partnerships often contributes greatly to the overall success of projects. We have worked on many projects that have started with a local Business Improvement Districts or advocacy organizations. These groups have been instrumental in initiating the conversation and increasing awareness or need for action. Ongoing, inclusive and diverse conversations with these partners and community members contribute greatly to creating projects that please a broad swath of the community.
In one recent project along the West Colfax Corridor in Denver we served on a panel of experts made up of City and County of Denver, Colorado Department of Transportation and mobility advocacy organizations to help identify the corridor challenges and potential solutions. From those first conversations, the local BID funded the development and implementation of a conceptual design and pilot implementation. This investment and successful outcome of the pilot led to development of final design plans that were facilitated through a contract with the City and County of Denver.
Q. What role will pilot projects have in the future reprogramming of our streets?
A. Pilot projects are a means to an end: providing the physical changes necessary to improve lives of community residents. The evolution of pilots and supporting design reference materials has broadened community awareness of the role that streets play in society and the opportunities to enhance them.
While this incremental approach has its role and place, interim or temporary designs cannot replace both the immediate and long-lasting benefits that are produced with the full reconstruction of a street. Pilot projects serve as one step in the evolution of the redesign of a street and, given their low cost, will continue to serve as the go-to for communities seeking to rapidly respond to ever-changing societal needs and test new concepts with limited initial investment.
Inspiration & Advice
Q. How did you become interested in Complete Streets?
A. I often joke that if I didn't have to earn a living, I would spend the bulk of my days simply traveling and walking around exploring neighborhoods. My passion for urban life and all its culturally rich offerings and excitement started at an early age. I went to high school in a Chicago neighborhood rich in culture and diversity. My friends and I would often hop on the ‘L’ trains and go explore Chicago’s distinct neighborhoods. Fast forward to later in life, I moved back to the city after college and started working on Complete Streets projects for the Chicago Transit Authority, Chicago Department of Transportation and other agencies in the Chicago metropolitan area just when the field really started to gain traction. It was and still is a great feeling knowing that I was involved in the wave of change right as it really started to take shape.
Q. What advice do you have for someone just starting to work in the field?
A. Soak up as much information as you can from as many people and places as possible, and never be afraid to push boundaries. For me, it all comes back to the desire, and really the need, to travel and explore the world. Seeing how other communities approach life and the design of their respective cities and public spaces not only inspires but provides continually new insights and perspectives that feed my work and designs. Explore and learn to see and understand the various components that make a space successful.
Each Experts Talk interview illuminates a different aspect of transportation infrastructure planning, design and delivery. Check back regularly for new insights from the specialized experts and thought leaders behind our award-winning, full service consulting practice.