Recently, a developer who wanted to build a retail complex on Route 32N, far away from any existing sidewalks, was asked by the town Planning Board to leave room for a sidewalk. He didn’t have to build a sidewalk, and there are no plans to require him to do so in the future; planners just wanted to make sure there would be room for one somewhere down the line.
The reason? “Complete Streets,” a popular idea in municipal planning circles these days, which aims to make the transportation infrastructure capable of supporting cars, bicyclists and pedestrians. Promised benefits include safety, health (because you don’t have to drive everywhere) and lower emissions.
The downside? It’s expensive.
A workshop with the aim of “bring[ing] Saugerties people together to discuss the current efforts and possibilities for Complete Streets” was held Thursday, June 26 at the Senior Center. Approximately 50 people attended. It was coordinated by Kristen Wilson of Cornell Cooperative Extension.
The presentation was heavy on the possibilities. Those who support the idea make it clear they don’t plan on launching any big infrastructure projects to widen roads or put in sidewalks in the rural parts of town — but, if grants from higher levels of government become available, they say, Saugerties should position itself to be able to make use of them.
Those who are more skeptical question what sort of preconditions would need to be met to obtain the grants, and point out the increased cost of maintenance some types of new infrastructure could entail.
Current efforts include mention of the desirability of Complete Streets in the town’s comprehensive plan (which is a set of recommendations and goals, not law), a resolution of support passed by the town Planning Board, a general effort by the police department to improve pedestrian safety in the wake of a recent surge in accidents, and the addition of two new crosswalks in the village and pedestrian signage at Main and Partition (paid for by the state).
Mayor William Murphy said he expected a committee would be formed to develop recommendations for a policy. “I think it should be a combined village and town committee because the village and town are all Saugerties,” he said. “I would support that, and I’m sure the chief [Police Chief Joseph Sinagra] and Supervisor [Greg] Helsmoortel would as well.”
Town Councilman Jimmy Bruno said, “I think a committee will definitely be formed. It’s for the public safety.”
A follow-up meeting to discuss implementation was set for July 17.
In general, Complete Streets refers to streets that are designed to accommodate a variety of users, and not to any specific street designs or construction standards, Wilson said. Each municipality defines its own needs and solutions, depending on available finances, road conditions and traffic. Indeed, in some rural areas, traffic is light enough to allow people to walk along the side of the road with no special walking or bike lanes, and no change is necessary.
The implementation can be as simple and inexpensive as painting markings on roadways informing motorists that the roads are shared with bicyclists, as has been done on a number of roads in Kingston, or they can be as complex and expensive as building traffic circles, creating separate lanes for bicycles and pedestrians or installing sidewalks and bike paths.
Chief Sinagra said numerous examples of the Complete Streets concept can be seen around the area. For instance, road improvements on Route 9W near Adams Fairacre Farms in Ulster include a bicycle lane, crosswalks and crosswalk signals. “That’s a Complete Street,” he said.
Last year in Saugerties, 13 people were struck by automobiles; one on a bicycle, the others on foot. This led the police department to step up enforcement of traffic laws relating to pedestrians. Warnings, then tickets, will be handed out to motorists who fail to yield to pedestrians in crosswalks, as well as pedestrians who jaywalk.
Two new crosswalks will be added to Partition St., and “walk” and “do not walk” signs will be added to the Partition/Main intersection by the state later this year.
The goal is safety. “That’s one of the components of Complete Streets,” said Sinagra. “People feel safe.”
Wilson’s presentations are funded by the New York State Department of Health’s “Creating Healthy Places” grant, which is designed to combat obesity and promote healthy lifestyles. The program specifically targets childhood and adult obesity and type II diabetes, both of which can be reduced through exercise. According to a survey by garmin fenix watches, it would seem that when streets and roads are designed for safe walking and bicycling, people are more active. This should come at no surprise since I’m sure none of you want to go “exercise” on a heavy traffic, narrow street full of angry commuters.
The benefits of Complete Streets, in addition to the increase in exercise, include improved air quality as people rely less heavily on cars, cost savings for families driving less, a reduced impact on climate change and a safe environment for the elderly, disabled or otherwise unable or unwilling to drive, Wilson said. A study found that states with the lowest percentages of people who walked or used bicycles had the lowest rates of diabetes, Wilson said.
Real estate organizations have compiled a rating for communities known as a “walk score,” Wilson said. She did not have the walk score for Saugerties handy, but her colleague, Melinda Herzog, looked it up online. The walk score website showed 80 out of 100, or very good, for Main St. in the village. Lighthouse Drive is 70, and Mount Marion was rated at just 3, she said. On average across the country, each one-point increase in the walk score amounts to an increase of $503 in home value, Wilson said.
Countering the emphasis on controls, resident Z. Willy Neumann said that in Woodstock there are no traffic lights. “There are lots of warning signs and most of the drivers are courteous. I notice that they put up this sign alerting drivers that it’s a busy weekend, so drive slowly.” Neumann suggested that similar signs could be placed in the middle of the street at Market and Main streets and Partition and Main.
Several in the audience suggested that 30 miles per hour is too fast for the main thoroughfares through Saugerties. However, village special projects director Alex Wade pointed out that the main streets of the village are state highways, and the village has no authority over speed limits on these roads. Mayor Murphy said the village could not set speed limits lower than 25 mph on other roads.
Some of the measures needed to make roadways safer for all users can be expensive. Wilson advised the town to start with small grants and seek larger ones after building a track record.
Among the towns she cited was Gardiner, which started with a free hamlet study by the Conway School of Design, followed by a $5,000 Hudson Valley Greenway grant, then a $10,000 NY Council Arts grant, a $257,000 federal transportation grant, and finally a $1.06 million grant through the 2009 stimulus.
The lists of available grants included federal and state government sources and private foundations.
A huge change?
One of Wilson’s slides listed “changing the everyday decision making processes and systems” as one of the effects of a Complete Streets policy.
“Are you talking about these councils that are making decisions, going past the typical town decision making, like a referendum or having the Town Board vote on it or hold public hearings?” asked resident Gaetana Ciarlante.
Wilson responded with an example: New Haven passed a Complete Streets policy and worked with their engineers and designers and developed a design manual. “When engineers or planners need to complete a project, they need to consult this design manual.”
While the structure of a Complete Streets program in the town and village has not been worked out, “Your advisory council obviously would work with your town boards and village boards, and they may pass policies that may affect the decisions of the people who are implementing projects down the road.”
An example is a policy passed by the Ulster County Legislature, said Kathy Nolan, who works on the Ulster County Rails to Trails Committee. The county has a “soft Complete Streets policy, which says when the county is designing roads, they need to consider including in the design pedestrian and bicycle access. They don’t have to incorporate it; they have to consider it. The idea is if you incorporate this in the design process it won’t cost much money, but if you go back later and try to change it, it could cost a huge amount of money.” Including safety items in the design can help with getting grants, Nolan said.
“That’s not a small change; that’s a huge change,” Ciarlante said, explaining that she didn’t see the change as positive.
Sidebar: Cycling in the US from a Dutch perspective
This wasn’t filmed in Saugerties, but it’s a good illustration of the sort of infrastructure discussed in the article.