If you've ever walked down a Billings street with no sidewalks and noticed how close you were to elbowing vehicle traffic, consider what that would be like for children. Imagine walking along the edge of that street with a stroller or while using a wheelchair.
If you can see a problem in those scenarios, you can appreciate why a diverse group of local individuals and organizations is supporting a city "complete streets" policy.
The concept of complete streets is that sidewalks, curb cuts, crosswalks, bike paths, bike lanes and other pedestrian/bike-friendly features should be part of our streets when there's new construction or reconstruction.
Unfortunately, not all of our public transportation policymakers see the value of routine planning for bikes and pedestrians.
However, the council previously has supported planning for pedestrian and bike use in street projects. We ask them to affirm that support Monday when another document, a proposed "complete streets" policy, is presented for council approval.
As noted in a previous Gazette opinion, proponents of complete streets planning for our city include the Big Sky Economic Development Authority, Billings Chamber of Commerce, Billings Traffic Control Board, RiverStone Board of Health and the city-county Bicycle Pedestrian Advisory Committee.
In a letter to the council, Dennis Cook, president of the Yellowstone County Board of Planning wrote: "The Yellowstone County Board of Planning supports the creation of an environment in which the community can easily utilize different modes of transportation and supports the City Council's adoption of a Complete Streets Policy to accomplish this goal dependent upon funding."
The policy being presented to the council is the product of a local committee that includes health care professionals as well as local businesses and bicyclists. They are united in efforts to promote health and safety — two keys to maintaining and improving the quality of life that draws families, employers, visitors and customers to our community.
When Gazette reporter Ed Kemmick asked a Montana Department of Transportation administrator why the department opposed complete streets, the reply was concern about "inflexible and predetermined design goals."
We invite MDOT and all interested citizens to read the proposed Billings city Complete Streets Policy for themselves and judge whether it is "inflexible" or "predetermined."
"A complete street can vary considerably in context from rural to urban applications and the needs of users," the proposal says.
The last section of the 3½-page document is "exceptions," which says, "Exceptions to this policy may be considered."
This is a locally generated proposal for a guiding policy that would be consistent with what the council has set as goals. In 2009, the Billings Urban Area Long-Range Transportation Plan stated that "the city will develop a complete streets policy which will design and operate to enable safe access for all users including pedestrians, bicyclists, motorists and transit riders of all ages and abilities to safely move along and across a complete street."
In 2010, one of the council's strategic priorities called for "development of a comprehensive, multimodal transportation system" with "complete streets" as a priority.
The strategic advantage of planning for multiple transportation modes is evident in recent projects:
- On Shiloh Road, runners and bicyclists can now cruise on trails running from Rimrock Road to Zoo Drive while motorists travel a four-lane arterial.
- Along the Aronson Avenue extension, a trail connects cyclists and walkers to Alkali Creek. But that connection won't be complete until the city finishes the last 500 yards (scheduled for completion this fall) of the Alkali Creek trail so nonmotorized travelers no longer have to brave the driving lane.
Complete streets is an inclusive policy that makes sense for our growing city of 100,000.