What does the term "public rights of way" really mean? To many, this is a place where vehicles are allowed to travel freely, having only to adhere to the rules of the road. But we physically access almost all land uses and facilities in our living environments through right of ways. However, if roads are dominated by vehicles making the street difficult, unsafe or uncomfortable to access by anything other than a vehicle, then haven’t we lost the public portion of right of ways? The public, through any means it desires, has the right to utilize streets to move about our built environment. In addition to physical access, our street network is responsible for providing visual access to most of our built environment.
What does the term "complete streets" really mean? To most, it means taking a much broader look at how we allocate space along our public streets. Streets are a stage for public life and dialogue. They are the transition zones needed to get us from completely public spaces to private spaces. They are the places we go to see, be seen, to interact, and to move about in several possible ways. The narrow strips outside of the roadway travel surface are the areas of opportunity that can accommodate urban forestry, streetscapes, street furnishings, lighting, wayfinding signage, transit facilities, bike parking, storm-water runoff and public art. The basic health, safety and welfare that government agencies are to provide for its citizens are often tied directly to the health of its streets and the flexibility of the street environment to meet its neighborhood specific needs. Landscape architects are instrumental in making all of these systems work together in an innovative, sustainable and efficient manner.
Many of our local and regional agencies have adopted policies to address the way they look at streets. But have they changed any of their priorities for different users of the street and implemented projects that qualify as a complete street? Specific legislation in California has mandated a change in planning, designing and engineering for our roadways. But the broader discussion should be more than just following the law. It should be about understanding the right thing to do with one of our most important public resources. We should be doing it for public safety; to inspire positive built environments; to reduce air, noise and water impacts and conserve energy; to improve our social dialogue; to motivate us to be healthier in our physical activity; and to protect the land uses that the doctrine of public right of ways was originally developed to support.
Some of the most relevant state legislation regarding our public right of ways includes:
AB 32: Global Warming Solutions Act calls for the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and codifies the 2020 emissions reduction goal.
SB 375: Redesigning Communities to Reduce Greenhouse Gases requires a reduction in vehicle miles traveled through land use and planning incentives.
AB 1358: The Complete Streets Act requires a city or county, upon revision of the circulation element of their general plan, to identify how the jurisdiction will provide for the routine accommodation of all users of the roadway, including motorists, pedestrians, bicyclists, individuals with disabilities, seniors, and users of public transportation.
AB 1581: Bicycle and Motorcycle Traffic Signal Actuation requires the installation and maintenance of a traffic-actuated signal to detect lawful bicycle or motorcycle traffic on the roadway upon the first placement or replacement of a traffic-actuated signal, to the extent feasible and in conformance with professional engineering practices.
AB-1371: Vehicles: Bicycles: Passing Distance/Three Feet for Safety Act or the "3 Foot Passing Law," requires drivers to provide at least three feet of clearance when overtaking cyclists.
SB743: CEQA Reform Bill -- For decades, vehicular congestion has been interpreted as an environmental impact and has often stymied bicycle and pedestrian projects. SB743 could completely remove LOS as a measure of vehicular traffic congestion that must be used to analyze environmental impacts under the California Environmental Quality Act.
Caltrans’ Deputy Directive 64-R1 is a policy statement affecting Caltrans mobility planning and projects requiring the agency to "provide for the needs of travelers of all ages and abilities in all planning, programming, design, construction, operations, and maintenance activities and products on the State highway system.