Joe Urban | Sam Newberg, Urbanist

Complete Streets and Complete Neighborhoods

Dateline: 3:45 pm December 7, 2009 Filed under:

My neighborhood is facing a small crisis, unfortunately pitting complete streets against complete neighborhoods. The city of Minneapolis has secured matching federal funds to complete the RiverLake Greenway, a proposed bike boulevard project.

The RiverLake Greenway bike boulevard runs through my neighborhood. While I fully support the route of the greenway, and support efforts of the city to increase biking, unfortunately, the bike route has one major potential problem. Where it passes in front of a small row of local stores, the plan calls for the removal of a lane of parking along one side of the commercial street in front of these businesses.

My primary concern is from the retail point of view, where the parking loss is potentially significant. Using Google Earth, I estimate the building is 5,000 square feet. Depending on how many parking spaces you determine to be primary for this commercial node, the parking ratio is somewhere between 5 and 8 spaces per thousand square feet. Removing those on-street parking spaces reduces the ratio to somewhere between 3 and 5 per thousand. A common parking ratio business owners tend to like is 5 per thousand or better. You can deal with less, certainly, and especially in an urban environment, but it is this loss of roughly 33% of the primary parking stalls that concerns me.

Sure, the parking is on-street, and legally public not private. Those four business have no legal right to this parking. But, the four businesses operating at this commercial node chose this location under the assumption that they would have the current parking count, not 33% less. Their revenue depends on it. In other words, now they have enough parking; in the future, they will not.

A complete street is meaningless without a complete neighborhood around it.

I applaud my city’s effort to encourage more biking and other alternative forms of transportation. My neighborhood, Standish-Ericsson paid Dero Bike Racks to install bike racks in front of businesses. But the reality is, today all businesses in my ‘hood rely heavily on customers arriving by car. We’re all about reducing that dependence on cars, but we’re not dense enough to do so.

We can go around and around about people’s behavior and how far they are willing to walk from their car to the front door of a business, but the fact remains that cars park on, and therefore rely on, parking on both sides of the street in front of this business node. Even Google Earth shows three cars parked on the side of the street that will lose parking, and just two on the other.

It is hard enough for local proprietors to stay in business in an urban environment, but I don’t think we should make it more difficult for them. Sure the city will get a bike boulevard that may well gain national attention in bicycling circles, but at what cost?

This need not be a bike versus business issue. We can do both. But alas, the streets manual (this happens to be a country road) dicates that the street has too much traffic for sharrows and it is too narrow for a driving lane, bike lane and parking lane in each direction. One thing has to go, and unfortunately it cannot be cars.

Let me propose the ideal solution. It is quite simple. The county relaxes their rules to allow for either narrower lanes, or for a sharrow (a shared biking and driving lane), thereby maintaining all on-street parking at this business node and encouraging biking. Put up signs reminding car drivers that this is not a speedway. Simple, right? A stroke of the pen. More like wave of the wand.

I realize this solution is not yet feasible, and the Minneapolis City Council is likely to approve the final design for this project next week, including the removal of parking on one side of the street at this commerical node. But I have hope that the ideal can be pursued. Hennepin County has adopted a Complete Streets policy, and there is coalition working at the state level in Minnesota – link to Minnesota Complete Streets here.

It is certainly not easy, and there is no right answer. We need complete streets that complement complete neighborhoods, and we need both to make our cities more livable.

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