Complete streets is an approach to road planning and design that considers and balances the needs of all transportation users.
Richfield, Minnesota, located south of Minneapolis, began a Complete Streets redesign in 2013. So how did it turn out? A retrospective study has found that while construction impacts remain on the minds of business owners and residents, Richfield’s program has improved community life and traffic times citywide. Safety and multimodal use are expected to improve.
Richfield’s “Sweet Streets” initiative was a citywide approach to multimodal transportation. Richfield made a novel commitment to put pedestrian needs before those of motor vehicle users and gather extensive community input throughout reconstruction of several major roadways across the city. Center medians offer pedestrians refuge during crossings. On major roadways, trees buffer sidewalks from traffic. Poetry by local writers is etched into sidewalk concrete. Crosswalk lighting illuminates pedestrians fully rather than simply silhouetting them.
What Was Our Goal?
In this Local Road Research Board project, researchers sought to assess the performance of Richfield’s Sweet Streets by evaluating the economic and noneconomic impact of the policy and facilities on the community in terms of quality of life and commerce.
“This study is an important step toward understanding Complete Streets designs and how they should be conducted. Impacts are felt not just on rebuilt streets, but by people living nearby,” said Jerry Zhao, professor, University of Minnesota Humphrey School of Public Affairs.
What Did We Do?
Researchers attempted to identify health benefits that could be associated with Richfield street redesigns, reaching out to major health care providers, the state department of health and other public health sources. Privacy protections limited efforts to collect public data, forcing researchers to change their approach from health outcomes to alternative transportation activity.
Investigators reviewed local reports, news articles, project documentation, historical images and records on Richfield streets, as well as quantitative data from Hennepin County and the U.S. Census Bureau. The team investigated housing prices on or near reconstructed corridors.
Team members interviewed 30 business owners and managers of 25 businesses adjacent to reconstructed roadways and surveyed hundreds of local citizens. Researchers developed and presented findings in terms of four categories of experience for the Richfield community.
What Did We Learn?
Over the course of the study (from September 2018 through April 2020), Richfield was building or had recently finished multiple street projects. Local business owners and residents had little opportunity to experience the impact of redesign; construction-based transportation delays and concerns were still fresh in the minds of those interviewed and surveyed.
User experience and livability. Residents and business owners were still adjusting to changes, and residents expressed confusion about the use of roundabouts and their efficacy. Research uncovered no significant impact of Sweet Streets on home sales or prices on or near rebuilt transportation sites.
Economic vitality. Businesses indicated lower commercial revenues during construction and limited impact on immediate business volume after reconstruction, expressing uncertainty about future impact. Nevertheless, business owners reported that streets were more attractive; customers would be “pleasantly surprised” with the updated look of roadways; and developers may appreciate the changes and land values, triggering new private investment.
“We intend a citywide, community benefit. Our process starts with the pedestrian and looks at features that a pedestrian would want in crossings or walking along,” said Jack Broz, transportation engineer, City of Richfield.
Individual and community health. Of the 318 Richfield residents who completed the survey, 84% lived near or on reconstructed roads. New facilities showed little impact on commuting or recreational cycling, though many respondents indicated an interest in future use. Extensive bicycle paths and trails had only just opened at the time of the surveys, with a first summer of use eventually impeded by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Transportation and safety. Users recognized safety improvements from changes like slower traffic; marked pedestrian crossings, some with flashing lights; and sidewalk improvements. New safety concerns arose for users, such as pedestrian access and bicyclist safety where residential sidewalks have been eliminated in favor of bicycle lanes alongside parking spots, and visibility and crossing safety at roundabouts. Safety concerns appeared greater for families with children than for other groups.
Data suggested Sweet Streets projects affect even residents and businesses near but not adjacent to reconstructed roadways. Transportation times may have fallen citywide, though not apparently on specific, rebuilt roadways.
Despite safety data from Richfield sites showing otherwise, the community continues to perceive roundabouts as unsafe for pedestrians. Robust communication of safety study results may be valuable for informing public perception.
Measures of traffic improvements citywide pleased Richfield transportation officials, whose interest was on citywide impact rather than simply on specific corridors.
Researchers recommended conducting an analysis of impacts in 2022 or later, and suggested low-cost approaches to further research as well as more expensive research approaches. Results will be disseminated through the LRRB website and presentations.