If having a functional, attractive and safe network of commercial and residential streets helps drive a city’s economic development and lures corporate relocations and new citizens, Nashville better get busy.
In the recent past, the city has blown opportunities to improve its streets, been hamstrung by horrendous and longstanding infrastructure problems, and lacked a visionary who recognized that Nashville’s street network is among the worst of the top 50 U.S. cities.
To address the issue, District 7 Metro Councilman Erik Cole is considering legislation that would help guide various Metro government entities in their efforts to both retrofit and create from scratch “complete streets,” or streets that accommodate drivers, bicyclists, public transportation vehicles and pedestrians of all ages and abilities.
“For Nashville to thrive economically, we must deliver a quality of life that meets or exceeds [that of] similar cities,” Cole said. “Complete streets [are] an integral part of that progress for Nashville. It puts walking, biking, transit and other modes on the same footing as vehicular traffic.”
Cole, who serves on Mayor Karl Dean’s Bicycle & Pedestrian Advisory Committee, said he is reviewing various complete-streets policies to come up with one that would fit Nashville.
Orderly and visually appealing street networks, Cole said, help spur development, businesses, connectivity and healthier lifestyles that include walking, biking and jogging. Cities with such street networks tend to be more appealing than those without.
“You can’t attract retail and jobs that a city needs with dysfunctional streets,” said Michael Ronkin, a consultant for the Washington, D.C.-based National Complete Streets Coalition.
A full-scale complete-streets program looks at everything from inventive strategies for acquiring rights-of-way for sidewalks, to high-tech hardware and technology for pedestrian crosswalks, to new forms of curbing and striping, to how the elderly can walk or wheelchair from Point A to B. Many so-called second-tier cities — including Nashville peer cities such as Charlotte, N.C., and Sacramento, Calif. — have instituted comprehensive complete-streets programs.
Ronkin said prior to unveiling its complete-streets program, Sacramento — which, like Nashville, is a progressive and growing state capital — was struggling to keep government employees and white-collar workers living within the urban core, while also wrestling to lure back those who left.
Gingerly stepping to the crosswalk
Although the complete-streets mentality was applied effectively in some specific cases involving retrofits — Belmont Boulevard and downtown’s Deaderick Street improvement project are strong examples — Metro Public Works’ complete-streets strategy lacks punch due to several factors.
“It’s a step in the right direction,” Cole said. “However, as a city, we could go further. We need to be able to build a strong case to actually fund a complete-streets program. And we need the policy to be broadly proclaimed and supported.”
Earlier this year, the state transportation department repaved and restriped the segment of Hillsboro Road between Interstate 440 on the north and Woodmont Boulevard on the south. That effort, though successful in more effectively moving motorists, did not include extensive sidewalks or basic curbing; the latter omission would be highly unlikely for similar high-profile streets within the urban cores of most other U.S. cities.
Thomas F. O’Connell, president of Walk/Bike Nashville and chairman of the Metro Transit Authority Board of Directors, said car-dependent Green Hills has seen various failed opportunities.
“Look at the corridor with Vanderbilt, Belmont, Lipscomb and Green Hills,” O’Connell said. “I guarantee if you had connected bicycle and pedestrian access, you would see the area with heavy multi-modal use. This is about Nashville getting connected.”
For years, Metro Public Works was so lacking in vision, it would, for example, often repave curb-lacking residential secondary streets (like those in The Nations, Inglewood and Sylvan Park) and not even apply white edge stripes, a minimum must-have according to most industry professionals.
Also, no Nashville mayor has ever ranked the issue of a strong street network among his top five issues (though many folks give Dean a respectable grade regarding the topic).
Lastly, among the current 40 council members, there likely are no more than seven who are as interested in Nashville’s built environment — everything from planning to architecture to streetscapes — as they are interested in, for example, education, public safety or budgets.
In short, the concept of complete streets has long received incomplete attention from Nashville leaders.
“There are lots of cities facing the same situation,” said Chicago-based Randy Neufeld, strategic manager for the National Complete Streets Coalition.
Leslie A. Meehan, senior transportation planner with the Nashville Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, said the benefits — both safety and economics — of retrofitting existing streets “far outweigh” the initial financial investment.
“Residents and businesses alike prefer to live and/or locate themselves on complete streets, bringing revenues into a community through taxes and sales,” Meehan said. “Complete streets are safer and more efficient, moving a greater number of people through a variety of modes more efficiently than if the same number of people were traveling by a single-occupant vehicle. This improved efficiency will help us to realize huge savings in time and resources that would otherwise be tied up in congestion.”
Patrick Willard, director of advocacy for AARP Tennessee, co-chairs the Mayor’s Livable Community Task Force. He said Nashville trails some peer cities in the complete-streets movement, a major concern given that many of his constituents do not drive.
“I don’t know that we have one yet,” Willard said when asked if Metro government has a “complete-streets visionary.” “It could take someone in the business community.”
Of note, Dean’s $250 million capital spending budget includes more than $30 million for sidewalks, bikeways, road paving and bridge improvements. In addition, Dean has two mayoral team members devoted to alternative modes of transit and sustainable growth issues.