Complete Streets designed around people, not cars

NEW ULM – Last week the New Ulm City Council approved a Complete Streets Policy that could affect how the city and its residents think about streets.

The policy was suggested to the council by Heart of New Ulm (HONU) and the Coalition for Active, Safe and Healthy Streets (CASHS). It is advocated by a national coalition.

“For many years, our communities have been designed around how you get cars around and not people,” HONU Project Manager Cindy Winters said. “A lot of communities or neighborhoods across the country do not have access to sidewalks, they may have incomplete sidewalk networks, they do not provide individuals with safe opportunities to get across their community without getting in the car.”

That is exactly what a complete streets policy is designed to do. Complete streets is supposed to take all street users into account. Those users include pedestrians, bikers, people with disabilities, public transit and private vehicles, according to the complete streets web site.

For example, in New Ulm when a street is being repaired or improved, the policy would take into account who uses it, how much it is used and where it is located to determine possible transit opportunities, said Winters.

“It is designing your community for the people that live in the community and not for the cars that go through the community,” Winters said.

One example of alternative designs could be structures such as curb extensions, or places where the curb bulges out at intersections, said Winters. They slow vehicles, allow for better pedestrian sight lines and decrease how much time pedestrians spend in the road when crossing the street, she added. She pointed out that Minnesota Street is a good example of this kind of structure.

Going hand in hand with this concept is increasing safety for everybody and allowing for resident input in street design.

“It is also about the residents of the community, giving them more of a voice in how their community is designed as it relates back to their streets,” Winters said.

Part of the policy is instituting channels for residents to communicate their desires for their streets more easily and earlier in the design process.

While it is not hammered out, City Engineer Steve Koehler expects that there will be some form of feedback for the Safety Commission to hear from residents while it is designing capital improvement plans. In contrast, now for the most part the commission hears input after the designs have already been laid.

Overall, New Ulm residents may not see too large of a change in streets with this new policy, because the city has been working toward this type of street network for a while.

“Currently most of the things that are in the Complete Streets Policy are actually within the comprehensive plan, so we have been considering most of these things,” Koehler said. “The City Council and mayors for the past 30 years have been working on sidewalks and things of that nature. Probably the newest element would be other forms of transportation, such as biking.”

That does not mean that there are not advantages for the city in adopting the policy. In fact, there are two primary ones, according to Koehler.

The first is that it could make getting grant money from the state easier, said Koehler. The state has a complete streets policy and has been encouraging communities to enact their own. The state considers if communities have a complete street policy when divvying out grant funds.

The other advantage is the policy consolidates a lot of the policies related to street design and safety into one place. Before, a lot of those ideas were scattered throughout the comprehensive plan, Koehler said.