Reading’s (In)Complete Streets, A Then & Now & Maybe Someday
Why Complete Streets Policy is Both Crucial and Irrelevant To Making Our City Better For People On Bikes (And Everyone Else)
TABLE OF CONTENTS:
I was at the Reading Bike Hub when former Mayor Spencer signed the Complete Streets Executive Order on August 11, 2015. It was one of the best days of my life and I took the photo attached. We celebrated and rode around our city, occupying our streets, our optimism radiating like heat from the blacktop. Things were about to change.
First: The term “complete streets” refers to the general concept that streets are for everyone. Complete Streets is an official framework for policy and implementation of the general concept of complete streets, “The National Complete Streets Coalition, a program of Smart Growth America, seeks to fundamentally transform the look, feel, and function of the roads and streets in our communities, by changing the way most roads are planned, designed, and constructed. Complete Streets policies direct transportation planners and engineers to consistently design with all users in mind.”
I started researching this piece with the clear hope to break down an intimidating and confusing civic subject at the most basic level: how do some pieces of our local infrastructure processes intersect and work? And, with the less clear hope to put together some reasonable path forward to an adopted, implemented Complete Streets policy in Reading, PA, with the goal of making our streets better for everyone, including but not limited to, people on bikes, people walking and people with varying physical needs.
I came away with a deeper, truer understanding of some of the city’s dysfunction at a basic operational level which makes Complete Streets policy somehow simultaneously irrelevant, and, increases the importance for this policy foundation. And, I came away with an understanding of how to move forward if not with Complete Streets the proper noun, then, with complete streets the adjective, leveraging some of our city’s assets for a better built environment for all.
WHAT THE HELL IS RATS?
Reading Area Transportation Study (RATS) is the designated MPO – Metropolitan Planning Organization – for Berks County. Berks County Planning Commission staff also serve as the staff of RATS, though the two entities have separate Boards of Directors. Representatives of PennDOT, the County, the City of Reading and Municipalities make up the members of RATS. RATS is split into two committees: Technical and Coordinating. The Coordinating Committee focuses on policy and is the official transportation policy board for Berks County. (While the representatives on the Technical Committee, “deal with the nitty gritty of operational details, the necessary components to projects, the Coordinating Committee considers from project priority and policy standpoints,” City Councilor Donna Reed explained.)
She helped me understand the role she, as the City Council representative, plays in RATS,
“I've served as either the primary or alternate city representative to RATS for most of my years on Council. The city engineer -- in our case, the director of public works, Ralph Johnson -- sits on the Technical Committee while I sit on the Coordinating Committee...As City Council serves as the fiduciary stewards and policy makers for the city and transportation is critical to Reading residents' quality of life here and throughout the county, I believe it's critical the city has a voice and vote which is accomplished through representation.” (More on the roles of city engineers later.)
Mike Golembiewski, a Transportation Modeler with the Berks County Planning Commission since 1988 (and Berks County native, Wilson graduate, and long-time person-on-bike/commuter) explained RATS to me one afternoon outside of the County building. I could tell Mike was used to patiently explaining what he does to non-experts, that he was able to put aside his expert ego in order to help me, and therefore community members, to understand his and the County’s work, and I really appreciate that. His primary role is performing air quality modeling. He uses the travel demand forecasting model, along with an air quality model from the EPA, that tells you if a proposed project causes air quality to meet or exceed EPA standards. In a long career, Mike’s had many wins, but he lists a couple as his favorite: when BARTA (South Central Transit Authority) put bike racks on their buses, following recommendations from the County, and an ongoing positive working relationship with Abilities in Motion.
Mike facilitates the Bicycle and Pedestrian Transportation Plan, whose volunteer advisory committee began meeting last summer. Berks County Planning Commission staff is putting the plan together in conjunction with the committee. The plan will make recommendations for improving infrastructure for people on bikes, people walking, people using a walker or wheelchair, people walking to their parked motorized vehicles... which will then be adopted by the County’s MPO (remember, that’s RATS).
“Non-motorized transportation is necessary and vital. There’s a desire and need to get around without needing to use a car...and everyone has to use the sidewalk at some point,” Mike said.
What I hadn’t known, and what Mike stressed to me, is that RATS is a policy advisory board, meaning, that they do not have enforcement power. They are not the ones who issue RFPs (requests for proposals) for projects, nor the ones completing construction projects. They put together policies - suggestions - that others may or may not implement and that become part of the Long Range Transportation Plan for the County. (Who are the others that may or may not implement these suggestions? PennDOT, municipalities, and non-profit organization, like, for example, the Schuylkill River Greenway Association.)
I understand it like this: policy is the foundation on which implementation happens. Policy might not be implemented –but—something is very unlikely to be implemented if it’s not in the policy.
Councilor Reed explained it like this, “...Regarding bike and pedestrian rights-of-way, once they are identified to be a part of street work, they are incorporated into an approved plan that will be followed likely by a contractor hired (via RFP) for the street paving…”
Mike and his team work within multiple limitations in addition to their advisory-only status, “The problem is you’re trying to shoehorn 21st Century ideals and infrastructure into an 18th Century city.” Besides insufficient funding, he very politely listed “motorized vehicle driver attitudes” as another challenge. (You’re telling me!) Adding an additional layer of complexity, when I asked Mike what someone would do, hypothetically, if they wanted to advocate for whatever form of walk or bike infrastructure to be implemented, he said, “It depends on who owns the road.” Most of the roads in the country are actually state or municipality owned, with the County only owning a few miles. He gave me a few examples of this criss-cross of ownership: Franklin Street is US 422 Eastbound but Penn and Courts streets are the City.
The Commission staff struggle to count what Mike calls the “invisible commuters,” saying, “The people who would most benefit from services are the hardest ones to count.” I looked for myself at the self-selecting survey results gathered and organized by the Commission staff about walk-bike topics, and they do NOT represent the City demographics, as a basic statistical fact; participants were much wealthier and more educated than the overall population. Not one was returned in Spanish.
THE HUNT FOR SOME DATA
One time, a friend and I were sitting outside downtown and we, just for fun, counted the number of people riding by on North 6th St. Within our two hour meeting, over a dozen men rode by. Surely, I thought, there is data about this segment of our population that might supplement the inaccurate survey results Mike’s office got back.
Turns out, there is not. I asked staff of the County, the City, the Greater Reading Chamber Alliance...everyone returned my inquiries, but as far as I understand, nobody has captured data specifically on Reading’s people-on-bikes/commuters. (For some of these sections, I'll be referring mainly to only two segments of those benefiting from complete streets: people on bikes and people walking. Like I said before, complete streets also considers people using wheelchairs or canes, people pushing strollers, people crossing the street to go to the parking garage, etc.)
So why does this lack of data matter?
According to the Berks Vital Signs report, “Access to a vehicle can have a major impact on a person’s ability to work, conduct daily errands such as grocery shopping and get involved in civic life. In 2011-15, 9% of households in Berks County lacked access to a vehicle*, down 2 percentage points since 2000. This was slightly lower than Pennsylvania and similar to the nation.” (I have to point out that State Law does consider an adult riding a bicycle as a legal road vehicle, and, although I disagree with the assumed implication that people need a motorized vehicle to thrive, I happen to agree that it does apply specifically across a County with limited public transit and bike infrastructure.) But here's my real take away: reliable transportation means better communities.
So, there is consensus that reliable, safe transportation is crucial to support our community members to participate civically, socially and economically. But, if you don’t have data about a population, it’s really hard to serve them (remember: this report covered the County, not the City proper, and didn't delve into why or how people do or do not walk or ride to commute, and the Commission/Committee's walk-bike self-selected survey results were not representative of the City demographics). I can’t write a grant, expecting to be successful in acquiring resources, and say that I “just know all these people-on-bikes/commuters exist in my city because I see them out here every day on my own commute and I see firsthand there’s some real unmet needs.” We need data in order to access resources to support this population.
So, though we do need that local data, until we get it, we do also know that some local demographic trends are mirrored nationally and can look to national reports about this topic in order to better understand our own city. According to Smart Growth America and National Complete Streets Coalition “Best Complete Streets Initiatives of 2017” report,
“People of color and Hispanic origin as well as people from low-income households bicycle with increasing regularity across the United States... The demand for transportation choices—like public transit, ride share, and bike shares—continues to grow... However, more pedestrians and cyclists, especially people of color, older adults, and low-income people, are being killed at alarming rates...Similarly, fatality rates for Hispanic and black bicyclists are 23 to 30 percent higher than for white bicyclists.”
We can’t let racism and classism keep us from having another important conversation, one that’s not racist, but considers the views and effects of racism and one that seriously considers our city’s demographics. It’s racism to assume that someone who is black or brown is poor. It’s ignorant to ignore that many of our residents are low income; that many of our residents are black or brown; that people who are black or brown have different experiences riding and walking than people who aren't (experiential differences due to gender deserves a whole other article); and that many of our residents ride or walk around absolutely because of economic reasons. Not all! But some. If we agree with the Berks Vital Signs report, then we agree that even if someone is riding their bike to work because it’s what’s economically feasible for them (or, yes, even if they have a DUI, for example) that we must still support reliable, safe transportation options in order to support our citizens engaging economically, socially and civically, all for a better city. Are we thinking about the experiences of those groups who are riding and walking with "increasing regularity?" If we let the conversation be, as I've seen it be, that white, “educated,” recreational people-on-bikes are the only ones who deserve bike infrastructure and support, because we’re scared to talk about that sometimes people are poor, and, that many of our residents have higher rates of fatality while walking or riding because of their skin color, then we are simply participating in racism and classicism through silence and we won’t ever create a better city for everyone.
Nationally, we accept that complete streets are important and can revitalize our economies and neighborhoods! Nationally, getting around cities as a non-motorist can be dangerous, for everyone. Nationally, black and brown people, and people from low-income households, are walking and riding to get around in growing numbers, and, being killed disproportionately for it.
WAIT! DIDN’T WE GET THAT COMPLETE STREETS AWARD?
For those of you who have ever ridden your bike around the city, or tried to navigate via wheelchair, or simply tried to cross the street to get to the motorized vehicle parking garage, you might feel confused about how in the hell Reading won a Complete Streets award. According to the Director of National Complete Streets Coalition (I pulled this quote from Berks County Community Foundation’s web page), “Reading totally got it. They understood how policy can shape the feel of a community and took it to heart. The fact that their policy scored a perfect 100 is proof of that.” So what gives?
TLDR: First, Reading’s policy wasn’t adopted and therefore able to be implemented locally. Second, the Smart Growth of America’s Complete Street’s ranking system didn’t necessarily focus as heavily on implementation at the time we participated.
The long and short of it, according to my understanding, is that Reading’s Complete Streets Policy was put together in large part by a couple of really smart individuals in the city who knew, really knew public policy. And, yes, Reading’s policy was amazing. The best in the country, actually, in 2015. But policy is policy, and implemented policy is a whole other chapter. And, the Complete Streets policy was an Executive Order, not adopted by City Council, and therefore not integrated into city operations.
I won’t delve into the specific critiques of the policy itself, although I do know from speaking to an urban planning professional, who asked to stay off the record, that there are critiques. The gist I understood is that the policy is perfect...a little too perfect. As in, lovely but not based on earth, or, the city streets.
But, assuming that even some of can be helpful, because I think that’s true, the fact that this is sitting in a binder somewhere gathering dust is a shame, partly because a lot of resources went into this creating it, and, as I came away from my conversation about RATS with Mike believing, you do need policy as a foundation from which to move forward. Pictures or it didn’t happen; policy or it can’t happen.
I reached out to the Berks County Community Foundation, because The Hawley and Myrtle Quier Fund of Berks County Community Foundation “provided a grant of $10,000 to the City of Reading to support a Complete Streets policy workshop,” and asked what they thought about the policy’s lack of implementation or thoughts about moving forward. Jason Brudereck, their Director of Communication, said,
“Berks County Community Foundation supports research-based approaches to community issues. The city of Reading’s achievement with the first-ever perfect score in the nation for a Complete Streets policy was remarkable, and we’re extremely proud to have funded that effort. It is one of many such efforts that we have supported, such as walking and cycling trails, and ‘walking’ school buses. Grants to cycling groups and other transportation-focused organizations have helped make transit in our communities safer. We applaud any efforts to safely improve a variety of transportation options in Berks County.”
Since Reading’s designation, Smart Growth America has actually changed how they consider and rank applicants in order to address this issue, “No longer will it be sufficient to pass a Complete Street policy without a plan for implementation.” Now, they also consider, “...greater emphasis on binding legislation,” according to their 2017 Report.
THIS COULD BE WHAT “BRINGS BACK READING”
Over burgers and beers at Canal Street Pub, Craig Peiffer (who graciously drove to Reading from some distance to meet me) let me pick his brain for a few hours, after we caught up. Craig’s the former City of Reading Department of Community Development, Division of Planning and Zoning and passionate about Reading and the idea of complete streets,
“I was riding on the streets that weren’t safe to ride on, seeing youth who didn’t have some of the opportunities I had. I wanted to bring awareness of that to the person who drives here, can’t wait to get out of here that this is a community too. Same as if I drove into Wyomissing, I’d be expected to be aware that a kid might chase a ball into the street.”
Craig’s professional passion is historic preservation and urban planning and from that perspective he sees Reading, PA as pretty amazing. He believes that our city can be the model for other cities working to adapt their city infrastructure to be people-based (The idea of people-based cities can hardly even be called a trend anymore, and it’s a priority of people like Lyft’s founder and President.),
“Reading should be the model. Now, I feel like we’re 10 years behind. We should be more progressive and willing to experiment. Reading in its heyday was unafraid of challenges and we grew and evolved based on what we needed and wanted....That spirit of experimentation never left the city, its just been shoved into the shadows. Everyone discusses what will bring back Reading. I think Complete Streets could be it,” Craig said.
Ms. Reed agreed, answering my email with a remark of a similar feeling,
“A city like Reading should boast lots of bike riders and insure their safety. Last fall I was in Reutlingen, Germany, our sister city, and the use of bikes to get around the city is substantial, taking lots of cars off the street and improving the air quality there which has improved greatly as a result. Those efforts took infrastructure investment but clearly has paid off, including from economic development perspectives and the viability of the historic downtown [italics mine].” This article doesn’t argue the economic benefits of making cities more people-based and walk-bike friendly, partly because this article is too long already, and partly because it’s a widely-accepted idea by now. I recommend books like Bikenomics: How Bicycling Can Save The Economy by my fangirl fave Ellie Blue if you’re interested in this topic.
Craig represented the city on NPR’s Keystone Crossroads panel about Reading’s Complete Streets policy. (He’s also another frequent, passionate person-on-bike and was a member of the Reading 120’s Core Organizing Group, the small group of people who really made the Reading 120 operate.) He gave me some insight into untangling all this, specifically: what bridges the gap between the recommendations at the County level and implementation in the City of Reading?
First, he pointed out that with something like Complete Streets, most people might not understand how it affects them, much less what it even means – there needs to be someone internally with the City who is an advocate, someone who will budget and earmark and push and educate the non-experts for policy’s implementation. Outside groups can advocate, too, like constituents, City Council and Commissioners.
OR MAYBE NOT?
So, I left my dinner with Craig feeling like I had a clearer understanding plan forward until one day I grabbed lunch at Ave Maria and met with someone off-the-record; they didn’t share anything that’s not already public, open knowledge, but they did really help me connect the dots in context: Reading doesn’t have a traffic engineer. It doesn’t have a lot of basic staff positions filled. And it doesn’t have the budget to meet basic operations needs. I can’t decide if that makes Complete Streets a pipe dream or even more crucial.
I confirmed the lack of a traffic engineer with Councilor Reed, who graciously answered many of my questions, “Ralph Johnson and Tim Krall hold engineering degrees and work with infrastructure, traffic, and streets issues. Ralph, of course, is the Public Works Director, and Tim's title is Utilities Engineer with Public Works and he's highly involved with streets issues.” Based on the research and conversations I’ve had (and perhaps from having worked with engineers who really, really like to designate the difference between different types of engineering spheres) I'd say that’s not good enough. Reading needs someone who specializes in traffic engineering, in walk-bike-ability, too.
So, all this time I had been thinking that if I could just help get Complete Streets passed by Council, we’d be solid. Bike markings and signage and bike lanes and educated police offers and educated people on bikes and motorists and ….But not so fast. There’s just no money; there’s a dysfunction of basic civic operations; and infrastructure for an unknown segment of a generally poor population (I say that only to point out that wealthier population segments are often the ones with the time/ability/connections to advocate for their own interests, or, the ones who are listened to) that's not even counted in the most basic way, that there’s no data on, just isn’t a top priority right now, or maybe even for a long time.
The good news is that this doesn’t mean Reading can’t get some bike infrastructure: cities get federal funding for these sorts of things, especially if they integrate other green or sustainable infrastructure, like bike lanes that includes storm water drainage; the 18th WONDER was actually was founded by ReDesign Reading CDC with the focus to improve storm water management in the 18th ward of Reading. The good news is that this doesn’t mean non-governmental groups can’t fill in some gaps: since I began this piece, local npo BAMBA has stepped up and inserted some bike/street signs around the city. The good news is that, maybe most surprising to me, Reading might have some unexpected assets in its walk-bike friendliness that I hadn’t even considered that might just be a path forward.
SO NOW WHAT? SOME SEMBLANCE OF A PATH FORWARD AND THE RECOMMENDATIONS I CAME AWAY WITH
Both Craig and Donna pointed to the importance of a future administration educating themselves on and adopting Complete Streets,
“My advice would be to encourage either this administration or the next to review it and see what is workable, both physically and fiscally. As we move out of Act 47, the timing is likely correct for this. A new administration would be smart to adopt those plans which have merit -- and not just scrap things,” Donna said.
In her thoughtful email response, Ms. Reed pointed out that some of Reading’s characteristics, like narrow lanes, prevent implementing bike lanes as in other cities. She’s right but it’s not the whole story. (And she’s also not alone in this framework of thinking, even among people in professional local leadership who discuss these sorts of things. This is another reason why having transportation and walk-bike experts is so important, because it's not always a simple or obvious topic.) Bike infrastructure does not necessarily equal bike lanes. That’s great news. Infrastructure can look like road markings and sensible trail connectors and signage and speed bumps especially for places with lower mph, like much of the city’s stop & go areas are. (Besides not always being necessary, bike lanes have even been demonstrated to be dangerous to riders, if not done correctly. For example, placing bike lanes next to areas with high rates of people getting in and out of parked cars puts people on bikes in the dooring zone. Opening your car door into a person on a bike is illegal, and so is passing with less than four feet, but it still happens. ) Fortunately, professional transportation planning experts familiar with this topic will have this expertise. They’ll understand that in a world of limited resources, you don’t necessarily need a bike lane in a lower speed area that already has a huge shoulder (I’m looking at you half block of bike lane on Kenhorst Boulevard). Unfortunately, like I’ve said, Reading doesn’t quite have that box formally checked.
So, what are the recommendations that I’ve curated from others through research and interviews?
Most of what I can say is about functional government and solving poverty hasn’t already been said, though, perhaps not in this context. Reading can look at the Best Complete Streets Initiatives report by Smart Growth America and National Complete Streets Coalition of other cities that have successfully implemented Complete Streets policies on the ground, and cherry pick what might work here, in our context.
Reading needs a traffic engineer. Reading needs a traffic engineer/s familiar with green and modern infrastructure planning.
Reading needs a fully functioning Public Works Department; it's not enough that the head of Public Works is designated to the RATS technical committee (remember, RATS is advisory-only!) if there's not staff within the city to actually implement the advisement.
Reading needs to know how many of its residents get around on bike or walking as part of not only their recreational lives, but also for their commutes.
Perhaps the bright spot, and most realistic infrastructure implementation advice I came away with, is this: to focus on improving the ‘weak points,’ in our organic bike network – an organic bike network which already exists because of Reading’s built environment! While it’s true that we may not have the space in many areas for more traditional or recognizable bike infrastructure, it’s also true that we do have a setup that offers other benefits, like many roads with low traffic, short blocks, and low speeds. In fact, this organic bike network is already recorded and organized in an *unofficial* bike map put together by a local resident and committed person-on-bike and open and free for anyone to use. Please use and share it. (For example, this map points out to me that if I moved my regular commute over just one block, I’d find myself on a less-trafficked road for part of the commute, and, without adding too much time to my commute or without relying on the trail, only sections of which I feel safe using, and only in certain conditions.) The City can focus on connecting the decent routes that already exist and that are already categorized and that can make the most of smaller, cheaper - and perhaps more palatable to Berks Countians - infrastructure improvements, like inserting a new speed bump or sign rather than inserting bike lanes, changing traffic flows or taking away parking spots.
So, what can you, yes you specifically, do if you care about this topic? Educate yourself and your elected officials at each level about the importance of Complete Streets and complete streets. Ask your local candidates how they plan to integrate the Complete Streets Policy into their plans. Show up at City Council meetings. Vote in local elections. Volunteer with or donate to the groups doing walk-bike related work; I've named a few here. Take transportation surveys that come out from the county, city or other entities. Share the unofficial city bike map with a friend. Increase your riding confidence and find solidarity by joining any of the local group rides. And, always, keep on walking, riding, wheeling, and participating in your community. If you don’t, who will?